Four years of waiting is over and it all begins today as Brazil host Croatia in the opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The beautiful game returns to the heart of football, as São Paulo takes center stage today kicking off 30 days of football bliss. In a true world competition, it’s great to see 32 nations come together with the goal of winning the FIFA World Cup Trophy.
Much has been made of the draw and group selections, from the team who surprisingly made it and those who did not qualify. Looking over the 32 teams, it can quickly be reduced to a small, handful of teams who have a chance to win the competition this year.
Top of the bunch, EURO 2012 and World Cup 2010 winners, Spain top the list. Arguably, one of the best countries that have dominated the sport and major competitions the last few years. This country has one of the best starting XI and a very deep bench. Yet repeating as World Cup Champions is never an easy task, as host country Brazil has repeated 1958 and 1962 and Italy back in 1930 and 1934. Spain starts their quest on Friday against their 2010 World Cup final opponent, Holland. Talk about a game setting the tone for the rest of the cup, this is it.
My heart continues to scream “ITALIA!” but realistically I am not thrilled at their prospects past the group stage. Yet, they were a dark horse in the in the EURO 2012, when they made the finals after an amazing 2-1 victory over a stronger Germany team, but ended up burnt out dropping a 4-0 decision to Spain. Italy will go the way of Mario Balotelli. If Cesare Prandelli can keep the big man involved and happy, Italy could make it to the quarterfinals. A great mix of young and old in the midfield led my Andrea Pirlo and Danielle DeRossi with a stalwart, Gigi Buffon between the posts.
This year I am picking Argentina, La Albiceleste, to win the 2014 FIFA World Cup in neighboring Brazil. Argentina should cruise through the group stage with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. Their ticket out of Group F should be punched to the semifinals, where they could end up playing defending champions, Spain. Not an easy task, but the offense that La Albiceleste brings is going to be tough to stop. Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuain lead the attack with Angel DeMaria, Maxi Rodriguez, Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano anchoring a good midfield. Their weakness could be on defense, but if their offense can find the back of the net 3-4 times games, Argentina will be set.
Brazil will carry the weight of their countrymen on their shoulder as the host nation this year. You can never count these skilled footballers out, but could their inexperience be their downfall? Neymar is being put in the spotlight up front to do the damage for Brazil, with Jô, Fred and Hulk. The midfield stacks up nicely with Ramires and playmaker, Oscar. The defense is very potent on offense with Dani Alves, Marcelo and David Luiz. Good to see AS Roma defender Maicon part of the squad in could be his final World Cup at age 32.
I do think highly of Germany and Uruguay, but both teams have been struck with injury that could affect their run at the World Cup. The Germans lost their goal scoring threat in Marco Reus and will most likely be replaced by Chelsea star, André Schürrle. Four Germans have 100+ caps, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Poldolski and Miraslov Klose, they have the experience, which could play a major role in Brazil, as long as they can find some goals.
Uruguay looks to be competitive, but Luiz Suarez’s status is still in doubt for the first game. He put up some excellent numbers this year for Liverpool scoring 31 times. If he can’t go, then it will be the experience of Diego Forlan to take over the striker duties. Edison Cavani would need to step up his play to make up for the loss of Suarez. However I think La Celeste comes up just a bit short this World Cup.
While not really sleepers or dark horses, I do like Chile and Belgium both having great showings in Brazil. Belgium has been on everyone’s radar for some time with talent and experience and a game changer in Eden Hazard. Without doubht Thibaut Courtois is the best goalkeeper in the world as World Cup play starts. Pele has already tipped Chile as a favorite this year in Brazil. With a high tempo offense led by Alexi Sanchez and anchored by Autro Vidal, manager Jorge Sampaoli has his work cut out for him.
Beyond this group, I don’t see any other surprises in the tournament. You already know what little I think of US Soccer, Jurgen Klinsmann has similar thoughts. They MIGHT win one game in their group, but will be going home early. Portugal might be the only team some would see as a surprise not to progress. You can’t replace the FIFA Ballon d’Or winner, Christiano Ronaldo, if he can’t go Portugal will struggle. Even if he plays, I don’t see Portugal advancing past the second round. France is the other team, after quitting on Raymond Domenech in South Africa 4 years ago, Les Bleus was stuck with an injury to Franck Ribery, which is the heart of their offense. While they should advance out of Group E, their run will end in the second round.
Can’t wait for a month full of world class football from one of the greatest footballing countries in the world, Brazil. Hopefully the protests don’t interfere and the stadiums are ready and safe. Football is here, get ready to enjoy the 2014 FIFA World Cup!