The World Cup, La Copa del Mundo, Le Coupe du Monde is upon us once again. The greatest sporting event in the world and the most watched event on Earth is back. This year, the World Cup takes place in the mystical home of the beautiful game, Brazil. This years World Cup has many fascinating storylines and I think this is the most open World Cup in years and many teams can actually win. Here is my World Cup preview breaking it down group by group and highlighting the storylines to focus on.
With a World Cup this year where seemingly a dozen teams can win there are a few stories that shine above the others. There are players and teams playing for history and glory. There is a host nation that expects to win and then there are the unknown factors. What players and teams will make a name for themselves and become legendary. Here are my top story lines to follow.
1. Lionel Messi and Argentina
No single player has more pressure on him this World Cup than Lionel Messi. Messi has been the best player in the world for the better part of the last 7-8 years. He has won an unprecedented 4 FIFA World Player of the Year awards, 3 Champions League Finals and several La Liga titles and other trophies at his club team, FC Barcelona. However, he has struggled massively in his two prior World Cup appearances, scoring only 1 goal and basically being a non-factor.
The stakes for Lionel Messi are different than they are for most players looking to achieve greatness and become legends. Messi is looking to become the greatest ever or at least in that discussion with Pele, Beckenbauer, Ronaldo (Brazil), Zidane and the Argentinian legend Maradona. All of those legends were great players but they also won the World Cup at least once. Messi needs to win the World Cup to be the best player of all time. If he doesn’t all discussions of such accolades will start and end with he didn’t win the World Cup. It won’t matter how many individual awards and club trophies he wins. This is it, the pressure is on and he knows it!
2. Can Spain become the best national side ever?
Spain is the defending World Cup champion and the 2-time defending European champions. If they win the World Cup this year, in my view they are solidified as the best national team in history. I know people will argue the Brazil Pele teams that won 3 of 4 World Cups from 1958-1970 but with the addition of the 2 European Cup titles, it’s hard to argue Spain isn’t the best ever if they win in Brazil.
Spain brings some of the best and most experienced players of any of the teams in Brazil. They are loaded with stars from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid but my question is are they getting too old? Are they passed their peak? They were exposed in the Confederations Cup final versus Brazil last year…or was that just a fluke? We shall see; it will certainly be fascinating to watch!
3. Can Brazil return to glory
In the football mad country of Brazil, the winner of 5 World Cups and the homeland of some of the best players of all time-they are staving for glory. They haven’t won a World Cup since 2002-GASP! While that 2002 team may have been the greatest soccer team ever assembled, there are no longer the familiar names of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Juan Carlos or Kaka. The team, fresh off the Confederations Cup victory over Spain last year is now led by a young but still unproven talent named Neymar.
Neymar was a massive signing for FC Barcelona this year and has been a good player but I don’t think he has reached his potential yet and at 22 years old; he has a chance to etch himself in Brazil World Cup lore.
Brazil has other good players as well like Marcelo, Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Hulk, Fred and others but make no mistake-this is Neymar’s team and if Brazil is going to return to glory, it will be his young legs that carry Brazil and please their relatively attractive fans!
4. Who else?
While I think Argentina with Messi, Spain and Brazil are the 3 most interesting stories leading into the World Cup; the question is who else becomes the story? What players and teams step it up and make history. Here are a few other storylines that will be interesting to follow.
Cristiano Ronaldo will be under the radar at this World Cup as his Portugal team is not expected to do too much and he is coming off an injury (assuming he plays). However, if he were to single-handedly lead Portugal to glory a la Maradona in 1986, then that would propel this Ronaldo to the annals of World Cup history a la 2-time champion, Ronaldo from Brazil.
The Germans and the Dutch are always interesting. Both squads are loaded with talent and the Dutch are the runners up from the last World Cup and really could have won that game. The Germans and Dutch both could win the World Cup without a doubt but they need to step it up against smaller, quicker teams that play a less rigid style.
Will an African team finally break through and make a World Cup semifinal or better? This has been the question since Cameroon in 1990. There is certainly a lot of talent on the African teams this year as there has been for the last few World Cups. If you recall Ghana had a heart breaking loss in the last World Cup. Ivory Coast has continually disappointed on the biggest stage but still boast a lot of talent and of course Cameroon has Samuel Eto back again although seemingly not in top form. We shall see if this will be the year. Personally I don’t think so.
Now I will go through each group and pick my two from each group that I think will advance and explain why.
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Advancing: Brazil and Croatia
Brazil is the clear team to beat in Group A and while the second best team is tough to say offhand, I do not think it is Mexico. I have watched them a lot and although they have a great player in Chicharito and the leadership of Rafa Marquez; they don’t play well as a team and I don’t think they’ll make it out of the group.
Cameroon has the very talented but questionable Samuel Eto plus Alex Song from Barcelona and formerly Arsenal but I don’t think that’s enough. They have also had some strife within their team over the past few years. While Croatia is a good, solid team and has the very talented Luka Modric leading the team that has played together a lot. I think they squeak through in second place in Group A along with Brazil.
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Advancing: Spain, Netherlands
I think Group B is the toughest group in the World Cup this year aka the group of death. Spain and Holland are the clear favorites to come out of this group, as they were the two finalists in the last World Cup. However, I think Chile is a very good side and could potentially sneak in and beat one of the big boys and cause some trouble.
I think Alexis Sanchez is an amazing player and can lead an inexperienced group if they get some breaks. I think Australia is toast though and they pulled the toughest draw in the tournament. They have some decent players but I don’t expect them to compete in this group. Spain and Holland go through.
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Advancing: Ivory Coast, Japan
This is a tough group to call. None of the teams are great but all could get through. I think that Ivory Coast has the most talent of any team in this group but they are perpetual underachievers. But so was Spain before they started winning everything.
I feel that Japan is the second choice to come out of this group because they are disciplined and a good veteran squad. Colombia was really hurt when their best player, Falcao, was not able to play. I saw Greece play the other night versus Bolivia and they looked OK but I wasn’t overly impressed although Greece did come out of nowhere to win the European Cup about 10 years ago but I pick Ivory Coast and Japan to get through.
Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, Italy, England
Advancing: Italy, Uruguay
This is another really tough group at least in theory. I think Uruguay and Italy are the class of this group and Uruguay could challenge again from the title as they did 4 years ago. Luis Suarez has been one of the 3 best players in the world this year and their veteran squad is hungry. Italy is kind of the same old thing that will play their usual shut down style and score occasionally but as always, do just enough to win.
England is also the same old thing but doesn’t have the talent or teamwork to advance in my view. I think the problem with England is they have a lot of good players who play similar styles and positions. They aren’t a great team. I just saw them play Ecuador live and they were lucky to draw. Speaking of draw, Costa Rica gets a tough draw here and will be lucky to get a point. Italy and Uruguay advance.
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras, France
Advancing: Ecuador, Honduras
I find this to be the least interesting group especially with France’s best player, Ribery, missing the World Cup. That said, I think Ecuador is a decent side and I saw them dominate England in Miami the other day. I don’t think they’re great but I think they’re the best in this group. Switzerland and Honduras to me is a toss up but I will go with Honduras as I’ve seen them play several times and they have always impressed me.
Of course I wouldn’t be surprised if the Swiss or France pull through this group either. They both have talent but I have a difficult time picking France for a variety of reasons and them losing Ribery makes it easy for me to pick them not to advance! Ecuador and Honduras get through.
Group F: Argentina, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria
Advancing: Argentina, Iran
Argentina is the clear favorite in this group without question and if for some reason they don’t advance or even win this group; they should be ashamed of themselves. While I think Argentina wins the group handily, their issue is and will be that all their top players play up front and attack. I feel this will be their eventual downfall even though they are the team I am rooting for to win it all.
I cannot lie, I don’t know much about Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Nigeria. I have followed the results throughout qualifying and while my gut says to go with the European team, Iran has played some good matches. I don’t know many of the players on Nigeria so I cannot truly make an informed decision on them so I go Iran to join Argentina.
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States
Advancing: Germany, Ghana
Germany is the clear favorite in this group and is one of the 3-4 favorites to win it all and they should be. That said the other 3 teams are tough to pick. I am going with Ghana because of their experience together and the fact they have such a great track record versus the US; which I think will be lucky to win a game in this group.
I could rant forever about how stupid a decision the US Coach Jurgen Klinsman made when he cut Landon Donovan but I will leave it at that. As far as Portugal goes, they have Ronaldo and he is an amazing player but they don’t really have much else. As I said earlier, if Ronaldo can carry Portugal to glory then he is right up there with the all time greats but let’s face it…Portugal was lucky to even qualify for the World Cup and they are a one man band. Germany and Ghana get through a tough group.
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
Advancing: Russia, South Korea
This is a very interesting group with no clear favorites. I could see any of the 4 teams winning this group but I go with Russia to win because they have good players from good teams and every player on this Russian squad plays professionally in Russia; mainly with Dynamo Moscow, CSKA Moscow or Zenit St. Petersburg.
South Korea is my second pick but I do not feel strongly. I pick them because I like their style of play and I don’t think either Belgium or Algeria is very strong. However, Algeria has played well on the international stage before so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them advance. But for now I have Russia and South Korea going through to the knockout stage.
For any World Cup preview it is difficult to predict winners and games past the group stage because you don’t know who will play who but here are my final four picks and so on.
Final Four: Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Spain
I think these are the four best sides in the tournament and depending on how it plays out I think the final will be a re-match of the 2002 World Cup final of Brazil versus Germany. I think there is something magical about Brazil playing at home in the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro and the World Cup will go home to Brazil.
That said, I am rooting for Argentina and Lionel Messi all the way because he is way too great a player to have to hear the critics for the rest of his life that he didn’t win the World Cup!