The Kings and the Rascals



“And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.” – Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow

With less than two weeks to go before the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, club competitions are wrapping up, and international managers are hoping no injuries hit their key men. As it was in 2010 with Spain’s pronouncement of dominance, this year’s edition promises to be captivating, with many story lines in play. Will Brazil be fit and ready to host in time? (Spoiler alert: Probably not). Is this the major tournament when Spain, the world #1, finally relinquishes its throne? Is Germany set to finally claim it for the perceived golden generation? Can either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, the twin peaks of this footballing epoch, lead their respective countries to the promised land? Can the United States do anything worthwhile?

The beautiful game has blessed us mortals with vicarious moments of excitement and wonder, and on no greater international stage does it occur than at the World Cup. Held nineteen times since 1930 (every four years with the exceptions of 1942 and 1946, for World War II), the World Cup has come to symbolize the best of global soccer at any given moment. It acts as the zeitgeist of the world’s most popular sport, and it has solidified the legends of many who step up on its magnified stage. Pelé is not Pelé without his spellbinding debut in 1958, healing the Brazilian wounds which still remained from the injustice of 1950. Carlos Alberto shone in 1970, giving his compatriot a proper goodbye. Cryuff brought us total football with his whirling wizardry in 1974, albeit for a Netherlands team which lost in the final to West Germany. Maradona raised his hand to God, and God blessed him with the World Cup in 1986. Zizou and Henry ignited France with their je nais se quoi in 1998, capturing victory in their homeland. Ronaldo exploded in 2002, and misfortune reared its ugly head for Zidane in 2006. Tiki-taka took over the collective conscience in 2010, as perhaps the best collection of midfielders ever assembled drove their opponents into submission with mesmerizing passing sequences and furious patience.

Groups are presented in alphabetical order, with FIFA rankings at the time of this writing and special notes appearing in parentheses.

Group A

Countries:  Brazil (host nation, five-time champion, 4), Mexico (19), Croatia (20), Cameroon (50)

Avg. World Ranking: 23.75

Brazil returns as the host nation for the second time, the first occurring during the ill-fated campaign of 1950, and the state of some venues is in question. Battling legal and funding issues has been the story for Brazil thus far, with many arenas nowhere near their construction schedules. FIFA is sweating, and the reported working conditions carry possible human rights violations. The 2009 book Soccernomics took an in-depth look at the heinous costs of hosting large-scale sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics, with authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski concluding that tourism revenue does not even begin to bridge the gap countries, especially underdeveloped nations, create when they host. Building arenas is expensive and not worth it, and Brazil may face the ramifications of its showcase for many years to come, perhaps in the vein of China post-2008 Olympics.

But none of that has anything to do with the soccer. Not really, anyway. A World Cup win would revitalize a soccer-crazed nation which has battled crime and poverty in its effort to reserve a place at the table of premier nations. The Seleção remain a world-beating colossus, and the team’s 3-0 victory over Spain in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup sent a decisive message to all the rest. Neymar has seamlessly transitioned to the European game at Barcelona, and his brilliance up front will be a key for a team looking to return to glory. Captain Thiago Silva anchors what has been one of the world’s finest defenses, although it has struggled in competition recently, and the steady Julio Cesar, all 34 years of him, will be between the posts. This tournament could prove to be the definitive coming-out party of Oscar, whose antics at Chelsea have given many great midfielders pause. Six of the nineteen World Cup champions were host nations, the last being France in 1998, and no country is as enamored with this game, it seems, as Brazil.

Mexico is a frustratingly thrilling team to watch, although it is coming off a CONCACAF Gold Cup run which ended prematurely at the hands, or feet, of Panama, whom it defeated to earn a spot at this World Cup. Chicharito and Giovani dos Santos provide the fireworks, while Jesus Corona and/or Guillermo Ochoa mans the goal. Croatia is perhaps a slightly underrated squad whose disappointing performance at Euro 2012 will lend itself to sparking the likes of Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić, who command a timepiece midfield. One man to watch is Mario Mandžukić, whose rather inconsistent season with Bayern Munich has dragged him from the bench to the playing field and back. The 27-year-old forward will be looking to carry his recent form, including a February 12 hat-trick against DFB-Pokal, to Brazil, if for no other reason than to agitate Bayern boss Pep Guardiola. Cameroon is the lowest-ranking African team in this tournament and was the first team mathematically eliminated from the 2010 World Cup. The odds are not in its favor, although it is never favorable to entirely discount Samuel Eto’o.

Group B

Countries: Spain (Defending champion, 1), Chile (13), Netherlands (15), Australia (59)

Avg. World Ranking: 22.25

Winning three major tournaments in a row is unprecedented. Winning four isn’t impossible – impossible is eating the sun – but it is extremely difficult for a team to remain at the top of the world ladder for as long as Spain has. The tiki-taka style Spain has impressed upon its opponents simultaneously frustrates and influences the world. Holding upwards of 80% possession and constricting other teams into submission has led to victories in Euro 2008, Euro 2012 and, of course, the 2010 World Cup. Vincente del Bosque’s side generally plays without a striker, instead utilizing players like Cesc Fabregas as a “false 9,” even with celebrated forwards like Fernando Torres and Fernando Llorente at its disposal. This worked for a while in the 2013 Confederations Cup, but it doesn’t seem terribly sustainable. Just because the other team can’t win due to a lack of having the ball doesn’t mean that your team does win, and Spain sometimes struggles to generate the necessary offense. The team sort of takes to playing not to lose rather than playing to win, and while its brand of pass-pass-pass soccer is visually astounding to some, it isn’t joga bonito. It took an extra-time goal from Andrés Iniesta in 2010 for the team to win a final 1-0, adding an amendment to a classic sports adage: defense wins championships…if the offense scores at all. The late addition of Diego Costa, admittedly a gamble but one worth taking, may be just what Spain needs to repeat.

Perhaps no team is more familiar with the Spanish midfield’s flair for keep away than the Netherlands, who lost the war of attrition in that final four years ago. The Dutch get to see Spain yet again in the opening match of group play on June 13th. This Netherlands squad is full of egos and big personalities, albeit ones who have moments of sheer brilliance on the ball. Recently-appointed Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal will be leading the oranje, a team whose history of excellence has yet to lead to a World Cup title. van Gaal’s main weapon, Robin van Persie, is coming off an injury-riddled and disappointing season at United, though he did manage to score 18 goals in the Premier League and was the Netherlands’ top scorer in World Cup qualifying. He enters the 2014 World Cup as his country’s all-time top scorer, and at age 30, he may be viewing this as his last chance at international success. The other centre forward van Gaal will employ, Schalke 04’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, may be a dark horse candidate for golden boot, depending on how much time he sees and what he does with it. This team really hinges, however, on two of the best midfielders in the world, Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben and Galatasaray’s Wesley Sneijder, each of whose field vision and creativity is matched only by his volatility. Robben has a way of toying with defenders on the wings, and he will create crossing opportunities when he doesn’t fancy himself a shot.

Ranked thirteenth in the world, Chile will rely on Alexis Sanchez of Barcelona and Arturo Vidal of Juventus to lead its formidable attack. If anyone other than Spain or the Netherlands is getting out of this group, it’s Chile. When Sanchez, Vidal and Eduardo Vargas are all in form, the team is extremely tough to halt. In South American play, Brazil has had its way with Chile, and if those two meet in the knockout stages, psychology may come into play more than physicality or skill. Otherwise, the Chileans could be a good upset pick to get as far as the semifinals. Australia is Australia; the Socceroos love their nation as much as the nation loves them, but don’t expect anything more than a possible draw or upset victory. Australia is great for spoiling other teams’ parties while ignoring its own, which began earlier than the rest.

Group C

Countries: Colombia (5), Greece (10), Côte d’Ivoire (21), Japan (47)

Avg. World Ranking: 20.5

The Colombian national football team enters the 2014 World Cup with the most acclaim and hope it has carried since the ill-fated, Andres Escobar-led 1994 campaign in the U.S. The team will ride the success of world-renowned striker Radamel Falcao, whose eleven goals in Ligue 1 this season led his AS Monaco squad to a runners-up place. Falcao dances with the ball, eluding defenders and sending the ball in almost comical trajectories to the net, and his knack for being in the right place at the right time has brought him to the apex of the international striker conversation. Falcao’s Monaco running mate, James Rodriguez, is only 22, but his delivery of the ball to the front will be key for the Colombians, who look to reach unparalleled levels of success for their country.

Greece heads into its third World Cup this year, anchored by forward Giorgios Samaras and captain Giorgios Karagounis. Karagounis, the 36-year-old heart and soul of the Hellenic squad, will likely be playing on the world stage for the last time, and though he has had possibly the most international success of any Greek player ever – cue Euro 2004 highlights –  he will be looking to close his career out with a monumental display. Meanwhile, Greece’s management is in upheaval, mirroring its government, and Claudio Ranieri is said to be the next in line to coach the team following the conclusion of this World Cup. Don’t expect that to weigh too heavily on the minds of the players.

Côte d’Ivoire will look to make a splash, capitalizing on Yaya Touré’s title-winning season at Manchester City and the Gervinho revival at AS Roma. At 36 years of age, Didier Drogba is likely seeing his last international tournament as well, and he will be looking to add to the lasting impression he will undoubtedly leave anyway. Yaya’s brother Kolo anchors a young, largely inexperienced defense which nevertheless has to be the wall in front off goalkeeper Boubacar Barry. One thing is certain about this Côte d’Ivoire team: it enjoys a camaraderie which isn’t always present among national squads, whose players often face each other multiple times a season in domestic leagues and then are expected to coalesce effortlessly come international duty time (Side note: this has often been the errant wrench in the England machine).

Japan’s fortunes will rest plainly on the shoulders of two players more than any others, Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa and Milan’s Keisuke Honda. The 25-year-old Kagawa is the straw which stirs Japan’s sake, and his creativity will either ignite or pacify the Japanese attack. Honda is a lightning-quick left-footer who can slot home free kicks and succeeds in the air. Japan faces an uphill battle, but don’t be surprised if the land of the rising sun makes it to the knockout stages.

Group D

Countries: Uruguay (1930 champions, 6), Italy (Three-time champion, 9), England (1966 champion, 11), Costa Rica (34)

Avg. World Ranking: 14.75

One of the most polarizing players on the planet happens also to be one of its most prolific strikers. Liverpool’s Luis Suárez causes fits of rage the world over, whether it be for his brash attitude when scoring 31 league goals this season or for his alleged racial abuse of Patrice Evra. Suárez is an excellent goal poacher and a captivating runner with the ball, and Uruguay needs him in top form if it hopes to taste victory in this tournament for the first time since the very first World Cup in 1930. Behind him, Suárez will find Edinson Cavani, the Diego Forlán replacement who will have to shoulder some of the scoring load as well, particularly if Suárez’s injury problems persist into the tournament. Either Suárez or Cavani can be the focal point of the offense, but Uruguay is much more fun if both are available. 33-year-old captain Diego Lugano is the closest player Uruguay has to a truly world-class defender, and without his aerial prowess Uruguay would hemorrhage goals, much to the chagrin of keeper Fernando Muslera.

Italy enters this edition (sort of) fresh off a surprising run to the Euro 2012 final, which it lost to Spain. Gli Azzurri have won the tournament four times, the last coming amid the Zidane headbutt debacle of 2006. The center of the Italian storm in attack is Mario Balotelli, the curiously fickle forward whose cool headed play in 2012 sparked the Euro run. As he himself knows, when he plays to his seemingly limitless potential, Balotelli is in line with the best strikers in the world. His penalty-taking record is incredible, though he did miss two (the first two of his career!) early in the past Milan season. It will be up to Balotelli to keep calm and carry his team forth, though he is certainly not alone in the quest. Gigi Buffon remains at the top of his game well into the twilight of his thirties, and his contributions were equally important to Italy’s Euro run and qualifying campaign. Giorgio Chiellini directs the defense in front of Buffon. Keep an eye out for Pablo Osvaldo in the midfield, whose play in recent matches has been incendiary.

Ah, England. Here is a nation which believes it is predestined to win every major international tournament it enters, given that it birthed the game in 1863 and all, and is absolutely flummoxed when its squad bows out in knockout stages to Italy or Argentina. In their book Soccernomics, journalist Simon Kuper and sports economist Stefan Szymanski laid out an eight-phase thought process by which England abides when its soccer team enters the World Cup. The eight phases:

1. Pretournament – Certainty that England Will Win the World Cup

2. During the Tournament – England Meets a Former Wartime Enemy (it opens against Italy on June 14th in Manaus)

3. The English conclude that the game turned on one freakish piece of bad luck that could only happen to them

4. Moreover, everyone else cheated

5. England is knocked out without getting anywhere near lifting the Cup (two exceptions: 1966, and a semifinal appearance in 1990)

6. The day after elimination, normal life resumes

7. A scapegoat is found

8. England enters the next World Cup thinking it will win it

Wash, rinse, repeat. For more information on why England will absolutely not win this World Cup, check out the book. Just for kicks, though, if England does well, it will almost certainly be because of Manchester City’s Joe Hart, who must be a rock in goal for his team to succeed. England’s midfield features the likes of captain Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, whose time at Chelsea is reportedly giving way to American play with NYCFC. James Milner and Jack Wilshere will likely see plenty of time as well, carrying the ball between the boxes and creating opportunities for Wayne Rooney. It will be paramount for Rooney to play well and not allow his emotions to dictate runs. For a team which barely edged out Ukraine for a spot in qualifying, every little bit counts. 19-year-old Raheem Sterling and 20-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be taking notes from their experienced counterparts, hoping to improve upon the previous generation’s failure to launch. Of note: only one player on England’s final 23-man squad, keeper Fraser Forster of Celtic, plays outside of England’s Premier League.

Costa Rica have an exceedingly youthful team, with only seven of its 23 players aged 30 or older. The team, which finished second in its qualifying group behind the United States, has lost its leading scorer, Álvaro Sabarío of Real Salt Lake, to injury and will be relying heavily on midfielder Bryan Ruiz to direct from the midfield and in situations when he pushes forward. It could very well be that Ruiz, who spent the spring on loan to PSV from his parent club Fulham, moves to the striker position in Sabarío’s absence, alleviating pressure from other attackers such as Joel Campbell and Randall Brenes. Inexperience on the game’s biggest stage could contribute to fatigue, but Costa Rica is another team which could flip the switch on its group and sneak its way into the knockout stages.

Group E

Countries: Switzerland (8), France (1998 champion, 16) Ecuador (28), Honduras (32)

Avg. World Ranking: 21

Here is a fun fact about the Swiss national soccer team which, unless you have decent memory and/or have recently been scouting its Wikipedia page, you probably don’t know: the Swiss own the World Cup record for consecutive minutes without conceding a goal. In 2006, in fact, the team was eliminated on penalties by Ukraine without conceding the entire tournament. Only once it gave one up to Chile in its second group stage game in 2010 did the nation’s stranglehold on clean sheets come to an end. The neutral nation enters this tournament with a team full of immigrants, which outgoing manager Ottmar Hitzfeld has nurtured perfectly. Like Costa Rica, the Swiss squad is very young; its three oldest players are 30 years each, though centre back Steve von Bergen will turn an ancient 31 just prior to the start of the tournament, on June 10th. Switzerland seems to be staring its golden generation in the face, and with a world ranking of 8 in pocket, as well as a friendly victory over hosts Brazil last August, the team could be looking to turn its enthusiasm into hardware. The midfield, led by Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri, will drive the Swiss bus, and scoring will probably have to come from behind the forwards at times. The defense, of course, is excellent, and goalkeeper Diego Benaglio has no problem standing up to the Messis and Ronaldos of the world in dire times.

The crux of the French argument rests with Bayern winger Franck Ribéry, whose charges up the sidelines strike fear into defenders and opposing keepers. Les Bleus bowed out in spectacular fashion from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, as many players took to boycotting practice sessions. Raymond Domenech went out like Louis XVI, and the enlightened French lost to hosts South Africa in its final group stage match, missing the knockout rounds after finishing runners-up in 2006. 27-year-old captain Hugo Lloris will have to turn away shots in goal, with defensive help coming in the form of Patrice Evra, Bacary Sagna and Mamadou Sakho. The dimunitive Mathieu Valbuena directs midfield traffic, with Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema looking to slot home marvelous crosses and thundering cannons from distance. France has many pieces which could contribute to an impressive showing, but the volatility of a revolutionary people may prevent a repeat of 1998 on home soil.

Ecuador returns to the World Cup for the first time since 2006, and Antonio Valencia will have to be the team’s leader on and off the field if it expects to survive the group stages. Forward Felipe Caicedo led Ecuador in scoring during qualifying, with seven goals in nine games, and his thumping pace will lead to scoring opportunities around the box. Captain Walter Ayoví has been with Ecuador in each of the country’s World Cup appearances, and this is likely his last chance to shine internationally. His age does not hamper him, however; Ayoví played every minute of every World Cup qualifying match for Ecuador this time. Coach Reinaldo Rueda led Honduras to its first World Cup in 28 years when he brought it to South Africa in 2010, and now he looks to leave an imprint on another American nation. It’s worth pointing out that each of Ecuador’s World Cup runs, including this one, has featured a Colombian manager at the helm.

Speaking of Honduras, the CONCACAF team is in back-to-back World Cups for the first time ever. The Central American squad plays with a conservative, defensive formation and doesn’t push too far forward, even in times of need. 21-year-old midfielder Andy Najar, who plays his club soccer with Anderlecht in Belgium, could spark some thrilling runs, and if Honduras escapes the group stages, the midfield will be the reason why. Don’t count on it.

Group F

Countries: Argentina (Two-time champions, 7), Bosnia and Herzegovina (25), Iran (37), Nigeria (44)

Avg. World Ranking: 28.25

For Argentina, claiming a World Cup in enemy territory, on Brazilian soil, would mean so much to the team and its nation. The eyes of the world are on Lionel Messi and his frolicking bunch of powder-blue-and-white comrades. I’ve already written at length about Messi on this site, and probably will again, so I won’t bore you with the details; just know that I think Messi is the best, and a World Cup would solidify that claim. He isn’t alone in this journey. Argentina has possibly the best scoring front in the world, one for which Spain would trade a thousand of its magisterial midfielders. Alongside Messi, play in and around the opposing box will come from Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero, who led his club to a second league title in three seasons, as well as Gonzalo Higuaín, whose move to Napoli from Real Madrid last summer led to a 17-goal league season. Behind the forwards, Fernando Gago and Maxi Rodriguez will dictate the pace of the Argentine game, and Ángel di María’s attacking style can open second-chance opportunities and space on the wings when he charges up the middle. Javier Mascherano must be the rock in the back of the midfield for Argentina to work, and the defense features Pablo Zabaleta as its foundation in front of keeper Sergio Romero, who has admittedly struggled at times with AS Monaco. Manager Alejandro Sabella brings a stabilizing force which was not present in the Diego Maradona-led squad four years ago, and his exclusion of volatile genius Carlos Tevez speaks to his insistence on creating a team which can gel both on and off the pitch.

Bosnia and Herzegovina enter its first major tournament as an independent nation. The team will look to Edin Dzeko, fresh off a Premier League title alongside Agüero at Man City, to lead its scoring charges. The joke about Dzeko typically goes thus: A man walks into Subway. The attendant behind the counter asks, “What would you like?” The man says, “Give me the best sub you’ve got.” So the attendant gives the man Edin Dzeko. Dzeko, of course, will likely start each of Bosnia’s matches in the World Cup, and though he has historically had a tendency to underperform in a starting role, this club season seems to have given him necessary confidence. Bayer Leverkusen’s Emir Spahic holds down the defense, alongside Mensur Mujdza. Coach Safet Sucic entrusts goalkeeping duties to Asmir Begovic of Stoke City, and the team seems in prime position, based on its draw, to at least make the round of 16.

Former Real Madrid and Portugal manager Carlos Queiroz leads Iran, the highest-ranking Asian team in this year’s tournament. Try as he might, he does not seem to be able to keep a grasp on the squad, and he recently admitted that the team “will not make it to the next round.” The team faces an uphill battle in its own country, as the Iran Football Federation suffers from a lack of funding as well as, some might say, a lack of institutional order. The team’s on-field fortunes rest with captain Javad Nekounam, who, along with Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah, leads a midfield expressly designed to set up opportunities for forwards Reza Ghoochannejhad and Karim Ansarifard.

Nigeria enters the World Cup as Africa Cup of Nations champions. Perhaps the most noteworthy point about this Nigerian team is the re-introduction of do-everything forward Peter Odemwingie, who hasn’t been featured for his country in two years. Coach Stephen Keshi made an immediate splash by re-calling Stoke’s Odemwingie, who reportedly felt slighted after being left out of the Cup of Nations team and has the ability to play box-to-box as well as up front. Odemwingie, along with fellow forward Shola Ameobi, lends guidance and experience to a team with several promising young players, including Victor Moses and Ogenyi Onazi. Chelsea midfielder Jon Obi Mikel will guide the ball and provide forward force, and the defense features only one player over the age of 26 in Joseph Yobo of Norwich City. Lille keeper Vincent Enyeama stands between the posts for a team which has the potential to scrap its way into the knockout stages.

Group G

Countries: Germany (Three-time champion as West Germany, 2), Portugal (3), United States (14), Ghana (38)

Avg. World Ranking: 14

Germany enters this World Cup in need of validation. For years, it has been at the forefront of the football conscience, thumping and bounding its way to semifinals and finals but never climbing all the way to the top. 3rd place at the 2006 World Cup (under current US coach Jürgen Klinsmann). Not since 1990, when it was still West Germany, has this nation won a World Cup, and its last Euro triumph came in 1996. Runner-up at Euro 2008 to Spain, at the beginning of the tiki-taka renaissance. The emergence of Mesut Özil coincided with a 3rd place finish in South Africa in 2010. Reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2012, and losing in disappointing fashion to Italy. This has been the German narrative, and manager Joachim Löw looks to change that. He has replaced the typical, utilitarian style of efficient German football with one which is more reminiscent of Pelé’s squads than Beckenbauer’s. The current generation of German players may be the finest the country has ever produced, and this seems like the prime opportunity for it to win. Bastain Schweinsteiger anchors the central midfield, which typically features Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira, who is coming off an injury but claims he is back to full health. Captain Philipp Lahm is one of the game’s great leaders, and he will lead the charge forward from his wide position in the back. This German squad has plenty of parallels with the dominant Spain teams of recent years: most of its players are in the country’s domestic league, playing for the two biggest club teams, one of whom recently won an iconoclastic UEFA Champions League title over the other. It has an absolutely dominant goalkeeper between the pipes and a creative defense in front of him. The midfield is superb, with two-way players excelling in every facet of the game. The bench is excellent. The coaching is proven. There is no need for an in-his-prime, world-class striker, although Miroslav Klose has returned for one more shot at breaking a World Cup tie in goals scored with his countryman Gerd Müller. The Germans feature only three players aged 30 or older, and many more who are right in the middle of their primes and in form. The stars seem to be aligning for Germany, finally, maybe. Look for a breakout tournament from 21-year-old Bayern wunderkind Mario Götze, who will likely be coming off the bench for the majority of the games.

Depending on your temperament, Portugal is the new Spain: a prominent soccer nation which has bred some of the finest players ever and is always near the top of FIFA rankings and one which, unfortunately, has yet to raise a major trophy (unless you count the “Most Entertaining Team” award from the 2006 World Cup). A semi-final appearance at Euro 2012 gives the Portuguese reason to believe in this team, led by reigning Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, returning to international play following his first major European trophy win with Real Madrid. His play in qualifying was electric, and he has a flair for scoring dramatic, resonating cannonballs via free kick or as exclamation points to spectacular runs. Lest we forget, it was Ronaldo whose hat trick in qualifying eliminated the mystifying Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his Swedish team. A solid defense, led by WWE wrestler Pepe, gives way to a stocky midfield featuring the likes of Raul Meireles, Nani and Monaco’s incomparable João Moutinho.  Like Germany, Portugal seems poised for a world-stopping breakthrough in a major tournament.

The United States arrives in Brazil with a captain but without its real leader. Manager Jürgen Klinsmann swore to shake up the American squad in order to better position it for future tournaments, and in doing so he left off the most renowned American player ever in Landon Donovan. Youngsters like Julian Green (who reportedly guaranteed his USMNT spot by agreeing not to play for Germany instead), John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin will play alongside mainstays Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore, whose play up front will especially dictate where the US can go in this tournament. The most important player on the team both now and going forward, however, is midfielder Michael Bradley, whose play in Europe over the past couple of seasons has elevated him beyond simply being Bob Bradley’s son. As Bradley goes, so goes the USMNT, and he will have to stabilize and direct the midfield from a typically deep-seated location. Like Switzerland, the US features many expatriates, players whom Klinsmann has convinced to wear the red, white and blue over any other colors. The spotlight will deservedly be on the midfielders, with each having to try and play beyond what Landon Donovan could have brought to the team. Brad Davis in particular was a curious selection, as he only has 16 caps for the national squad and, at 32 years of age, is in no way a building block for the future. Without Donovan’s poise and knack for clutch performances, the Americans face an uphill battle with no general. This goal says everything about Donovan as a player and the legacy he will leave with the USMNT. Donovan will cast a shadow over his country’s performance throughout its run, and the failure to select him could leave the United States players feeling deflated. The country’s performance in this World Cup is almost immaterial in the grand scheme of Klinsmann’s vision, as he is already looking toward Russia and 2018 to really make an international impact.

The first team the United States will face is one which has eliminated it from the previous two World Cups, Ghana. The Ghanaians feature only one player, keeper Steven Adams, from the country’s domestic league; it will be relying on the stylings of Michael Essien and classic utility man Kevin-Prince Boateng to carry the load on the ball. Asamoah Gyan, Ghana’s all-time leading scorer, will lead a group of enigmatic young forwards into Brazil. A pair of 22-year-olds plays behind Gyan, each of whom are attached to major European club teams and will benefit from this experience hugely. Only one player on Ghana’s final 23-man roster, Essien, is over the age of 29, so this is a team which has a seemingly bright future in Africa and beyond.

Statistically, this World Cup’s “Group of Death” is only that by a slim margin over Group D. Each of these squads has a compelling story attached to it, and this group will be the most interesting to watch from a casual observer’s perspective.

Group H

Countries: Belgium (12), Russia (18), Algeria (25), Korea Republic (56)

Avg. World Ranking: 27.75

Marc Wilmots manages everyone’s favorite darkhorse team this year, Belgium. The country’s best-ever World Cup finish was a fourth-place in 1986, and it has never done particularly well in any international tournament. Belgium failed to qualify for either of the last two World Cups or any of the last three European championships, but its own golden generation seems to be boiling over in front of the world. 21-year-old striker Romelu Lukaku scored 15 league goals during a loan stint at Everton this season and will return to his parent club, Chelsea, with increasing promise of a solidified starting spot. His club teammate, Eden Hazard, enjoyed a similarly excellent season on the wings at Stamford Bridge, and his contributions will go a long way to determining what kind of soccer Belgium can produce. Marouane Fellaini, he of the follicle madness, is coming off an upsetting season at Manchester United, one in which he failed to score for the Red Devils. The defense features longtime Bayern man Daniel Van Buyten, a free kick force who is the team’s only player over 30. Captain Vincent Kompany and vice-captain Thomas Vermaelen bring additional Premier League experience, while 22-year-old goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois just won La Liga during a loan spell with Atlético Madrid. Standing up to the two-headed monster that is Barcelona and Real Madrid certainly speaks volumes to Courtois’ character and ability under pressure, and it will likely fall to him to make the same kinds of incredible stops for his nation that he did for his club.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has managed to qualify for the World Cup only three times, and not once since 2002. A third-place finish at Euro 2008 is the only major award the country has earned in the last twenty years, and it is looking to re-claim past glory. Only one player in the squad, midfielder Denis Cheryshev of Sevilla, plays outside of Russia’s domestic league. Aleksandr Kerzhakov of Zenit Saint Petersburg will be the team’s offensive maestro, with Roman Shirokov behind him orchestrating the midfield. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is no Lev Yashin, but he is perfectly serviceable in the net, as was evident in his title-winning season with CSKA Moscow this year. Manager Fabio Capello hopes to find better success with Russia than he did during his four-year turn as England’s manager.

Algeria returns to a second consecutive World Cup, having only conceded two goals during group play in South Africa. The four years since then have been tumultuous for Algeria, but the nation nevertheless qualified for Brazil by finishing atop its African group. Algeria features another very young team, with only four of its players aged 30 or older and none over 31. Islam Slimani is the scoring force up front, and he will try to carry form over from his season at Sporting Lisbon. Sofiane Feghouli is probably the most important player in the midfield for Algeria; the Valencia man has 5 goals in 18 national appearances and will look to make Brazil the stage for his international reveal. South Korea has appeared in more FIFA World Cups than any other Asian nation, with nine. Its best finish occurred as co-hosts with Japan in 2002, when South Korea finished fourth. Heung-min Son is the man to watch for the Koreans this time around; he scored ten goals in Bundesliga play this season, and manager Hong Myung-Bo seems to have taken a liking to the 21-year-old. Ki Sung-Yeung feeds from the midfield, and his pinpoint accuracy could lead the country into the group stages, something South Korea has accomplished in two of the last three World Cups.

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