With only two weeks to go until kickoff, anticipation for the 2014 World Cup is higher than ever before. Some of the best athletes on the planet will be taking their talents to Brazil for the biggest and most widely viewed sporting event around the world. Brazil hasn’t hosted the tournament since 1950, despite having won five times and having arguably the richest footballing culture in the world. The games will take place over a month-long period in June and July, and what a spectacle they will be. Matches will be played in 12 locations across the country, from the pristine beaches of Rio de Janeiro to the rugged jungle of the Amazon rainforest in Manaus. It all leads up to the final in Rio at the famous Maracana Stadium, a stadium that hosted almost 200,000 people for Brazil’s heartbreaking final defeat to Uruguay in 1950.
Now that the partaking nations have started releasing their squads for the competition, here are four teams who I could see lifting the trophy on July 13th in Rio.
It only seems fair to start with the current kings of international soccer. The Spanish won the 2010 World Cup in between winning the 2008 and 2012 European Championships, making them the first country ever to win three major tournaments in a row.
To win a second World Cup title, Manager Vicente Del Bosque and company will have to emerge out of a challenging Group B that includes Australia, Chile, and 2010 runner-up Holland. Barcelona man Andres Iniesta will once again be the focal point of the Spanish attack. Iniesta scored the winning goal in extra-time against the Dutch four years ago in the final. All year the talk of the Spanish squad has been the introduction of Atletico Madrid’s talismanic striker Diego Costa. Costa was born in Brazil, but qualifies to play for Spain through earned citizenship. But even after the battle between Brazil and Spain for his services, it now looks like Costa won’t be able to play in Brazil due to a hamstring injury he re-aggrevated in Atletico’s title clinching match against Barcelona last weekend. Instead Spain will have to depend on Chelsea’s much-maligned striker Fernando Torres. But to Torres’ credit his form has been much more impressive for his country than for his club.
Spain is a popular pick to fan out in the early rounds this year because of their aging group of core players like Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Pique, and Sergio Ramos. The pressure will be especially heavy on Pique and Ramos, as they were part of a defense that leaked three goals to Brazil in the Confederations Cup last summer. Ramos is coming off a great season for Real Madrid, he scored a dramatic equalizing goal in the UEFA Champions League final just the other day. But even if things don’t go well for Spain and they bow out early, we shouldn’t feel bad for them. They’ve won so much recently and Pique gets to go home to Shakira every night. I’d still have them as a safe bet to make it at least to the quarterfinals.
The Argentines are two-time World Cup Champions but things have not gone their way in recent tournaments. In 2006 and in 2010 they lost in the quarterfinals, disappointing results for teams that claimed to have the best player on Earth in Lionel Messi. 2010 saw Argentina get smashed by Germany 4-0 under the not-so-disciplined (understatement of the century) managerial style of the iconic Diego Maradona.
Expectations are high once again this year as Maradona is no more than a cheerleader and Messi has his best supporting class in years. Argentina should be better defensively under new manager Alejandro Sabella, but much of that will depend on the performance of Messi’s teammate at Barcelona, Pablo Mascherano. Mascherano will be tasked with anchoring their defense and keeping the Argentines protected at the back, something he couldn’t do four years ago. The incredibly talented Sergio Aguero, fresh off his second Premier League title with Manchester City, will be partnered with Messi and Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain in what is arguably the scariest attacking force at this summer’s World Cup. Aguero scored one of the most important goals of the past few years for Manchester City, and he’ll be looking to be just as clutch for Argentina. Angel Di Maria is coming off the best season of his career at Real Madrid and should be at the top of his creative abilities in the midfield.
An added boost for Argentina is their proximity to Brazil. The Argentinian fans will travel in droves, especially to their matches being played in Southern Brazil. Fan representation and an easy group (Nigeria, Iran, Bosnia) will give Argentine’s hope that this could be the year for their first World Cup Championship since Maradona’s famous “Hand of God” performance in 1986. This writer feels comfortable picking Argentina as a potential finalist this summer.
England’s legendary striker Gary Lineker once said: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Lineker said that after England lost on penalties to West Germany at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The Germans were eventually crowned champions, defeating Argentina in the final to win their third World Cup. Since the reunification of Germany later that year, the Germans have done a lot of winning, but they haven’t won it all.
This years German squad hopes to build on back-to-back third place finishes in the past two tournaments, including a particularly heartbreaking 2006 semi-final loss to Italy on their own soil in Dortmund. The Germans have been drawn in Group G with Portugal, Ghana and the United States in what is arguably the “Group of Death” of this years tournament. But Die Adler (or The Eagles, as they are known in Deutchland) are still the rightful favorites to top the group and advance to the knockout stage.
Germany have arguably the deepest squad in the entire field. They are captained by tenacious defender Phillip Lahm, one of seven Bayern Munich players on Germany’s 30-man roster. Lahm’s teammates Manuel Neuer, Mario Gotze, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, and Bastian Schweinsteiger will all be around or in the German starting 11 for their first game against Portugal. Arsenal’s £42.5 million man Mesut Özil will be Germany’s main playmaker in Brazil, but his form for the North London side this season will worry German fans. Özil has a tendency to disappear in big games, and manager Joachim Löw will need to do everything he can to keep Özil at his creative best.
In the group stage the Germans will go up against a familiar face in US coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who scored some crucial goals for Germany in 1990 and managed them in 2006. After a disappointing exit to Real Madrid in this years Champions League, Germany’s core of Bayern players will be as determined as ever to help their country to glory. Don’t be surprised if the Germans are the last ones standing when all is said and done in Brazil.
The pressure on the Brazilian team at this World Cup is tough to imagine. They’ll be playing in front of their home fans in a country that lives and breathes football. Brazil is the most decorated team in World Cup history having won it a record number 5 times, the most recent being a 2002 title in Japan thanks to the magnificent play of Ronaldo.
The Seleção are known for their skillful, creative, free-flowing, fast-paced style that is sure to win over many fans watching around the globe. The Brazilian squad this year is (once again) full of electric players who can make breathtaking runs through a defense with skill and swagger. Many of these players grew up playing on the streets of Brazil dreaming of one day being able to represent their country. Those who reach the World Cup and succeed achieve godlike status, most of them only go by one name for the rest of their lives. Brazilian legends like Garrincha, Pele, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho are revered to the point of sainthood. This year poses an opportunity for players like Neymar and Oscar to raise themselves to the same level.
While Brazil is known for their beautiful attacking football, they have arguably their best defense in recent history. Thiago Silva is widely regarded as the best centre-back in the world, and he’s more than familiar with his defensive partner David Luiz. A few days ago it was announced that Luiz will transfer from Chelsea to Silva’s club Paris Saint-Germain for a fee close to £50 million. Barcelona’s Dani Alves is an attacking threat coming down the wing from right back, and he’ll do his best to find Brazil’s aptly-named strongman Hulk who has a flare for dramatic belters from long-range.
But if Brazil are to win on their home soil, they’ll need Neymar to play better than he ever has before. The 22-year-old was slightly underwhelming in his first season at Barcelona after transferring from Brazilian club Santos last summer. But there is no question that Neymar has talent, he’s magical when on the ball. Regarded by many as the next Brazilian great, there is no better time for Neymar to establish himself as a legend by leading his country to a glory that would be tough to match. Winning the World Cup at home with millions of soccer-mad Brazilians watching, many would undoubtedly claim it to be the greatest moment in their nation’s history.