World Cup favorites emerge, but there's a long way to go

Posted by Gabriele Marcotti

COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil -- Now that the predictions and projections, supposition and speculation, analytics and aspersions, video analysis and voodoo are over, we can begin. Now we know what we'll be doing and what we'll be watching every day between June 12 and June 26, 2014.

Now the storylines can unfold.

But before we get to that, a word on the ceremony itself. Finding time to remember Nelson Mandela, who passed away Thursday night at the age of 95, was the least that could be done. That they found so little time to do so leaves a really bad taste.

Nobody expects a minute's silence to actually last a minute anymore, but it's reasonable to expect it to last more than seven seconds. That's how long I counted between the announcement and Sepp Blatter blurting out "And now, let's applaud!"

That said, on with the groups.

Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty ImagesThe 32 World Cup coaches will have their work cut out for them next summer.


Brazil will advance, but don't expect it to be as straightforward as the draws handed to previous hosts (South Africa excepted). Cameroon bring plenty of World Cup experience plus a hard-running, physical midfield and a superstar in search of a swan song, Samuel Eto'o. Mexico can't possibly be as bad as they were in CONCACAF qualifying. And Croatia have individual quality; Luka Modric, Darijo Srna and Mario Mandzukic are three who immediately spring to mind. They simply haven't performed to their potential, which is why Niko Kovac -- who brought his brother Robert along as coach -- replaced Igor Stimac.

Seven months can be an eternity in this game, surely enough time for Croatia and Mexico to straighten things out.

The added twist is that Brazil will likely run right smack into a blockbuster clash in the round of 16 (assuming there is no divine intervention) with Holland or Spain. Nobody has ever won four major tournaments in a row, but then again nobody had ever won three in a row before Spain did it.

Vicente del Bosque's squad actually looks deeper than four years ago. The challenge will likely lie in making painful decisions, as there are a number of erstwhile stalwarts who are being pushed for their place. Chile also have a legitimate claim to advance. Jorge Sampaoli has taken Marcelo Bielsa's sparkling football to a new level, and nobody will enjoy facing the likes of Alexis Sanchez. As for Australia, having wrapped up qualifying a while back, the Socceroos have gone backward, parting ways with coach Holger Osieck. This team could look different in seven months, but on paper at least, it's real hard to see them getting out of the group.


Some see Group C as the least-competitive group, but it could be the most entertaining. Jose Pekerman's Colombia are top seeds and very talented, albeit in a top-heavy way -- Radamel Falcao, Jackson Martinez, Luis Muriel, Juan Cuadrado and maybe even Teo Gutierrez, Juan Quintero and Victor Ibarbo. Getting the balance right will be tricky.

The same can be said for Ivory Coast up front due to Salomon Kalou, Wilfried Bony, Lacina Traore, Giovanni Sio, Seydou Doumbia and, of course, Didier Drogba. Plus, the Elephants' window of opportunity is clearly closing. Alberto Zaccheroni's Japan showed they are far from pushovers, and what they lack in individuals (aside from Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda), they make up for in intensity and organization. Then there's Greece. It may seem harsh to call them "plucky," but that's what they are -- maximum results with minimum resources. And before you write them off, remember that they won a European Championship with that exact formula.

Group D puts three former World Cup winners -- Uruguay, Italy and England -- and Costa Rica together. It looks distinctly uphill for Los Ticos and an open dogfight among the other three. And there are so many subplots, you lose count. Oscar Washington Tabarez will be hard-pressed to repeat the semifinal run of 2010, but the likes of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez have improved since then. Cesare Prandelli's new-look Italy emphasizes creativity and possession, but at the front end they will still likely rely on the inscrutable Mario Balotelli and the resurgent Giuseppe Rossi.

As for England, expectations aren't high, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It takes little for folks to jump on and off the English bandwagon, and you can add Roy Hodgson to the list of coaches who have just over half a year to get it right. Expect June 14's "Rumble in the Jungle" versus Italy in Manaus' Amazon rain forest to set the tone.

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty ImagesRoy Hodgson isn't the first England manager to face a difficult group.


The same conspiracy theorists who were furious that it wasn’t France in the enigmatic Pot X will no doubt be stroking their chins at Group E. Les Bleus drew Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador. It's what you call a soft landing, which is good news for Didier Deschamps as he sorts out his gifted but inconsistent crew.

Switzerland rather sneaked in as a top seed and top-to-bottom was probably the least impressive group in Pot 1. But coach Ottmar Hitzfeld has won just about everything (albeit mostly with Bayern), and he’s anything if not wily. Honduras also looks somewhat overmatched, especially after a distinctly unimpressive -- but ultimately successful -- CONCACAF qualifying campaign. On the other hand, Ecuador looks more likely to challenge France and Switzerland, though they too made hard work of it in CONMEBOL qualifying.

Lionel Messi can't complain too much either. His Argentina side is also top-heavy -- plenty up front, considerably less at the back -- but Alex Sabella has been working on that and they are clear favorites in the group. Stephen Keshi's young Nigeria team doesn't have the firepower of past Super Eagles sides, but they do have plenty of intensity and cohesion and, perhaps most important, a shutdown goalkeeper in Vincent Enyeama. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Bosnia are talked about more for their backstory -- a team and a federation that is working to heal the painful and bloody divisions of civil war -- but if Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic get service, they can hurt most opponents. Iran, with their lack of recognizable names at mainstream European clubs, often get snubbed. Yet it's worth remembering that they won a tough group in qualifying and that Carlos Queiroz is as experienced as they come in terms of coaches.

Meanwhile, Germany got themselves a tricky group. You simply don't expect Joachim "Jogi" Low's men to stumble at the first hurdle and they probably won't, but you can expect them to be stretched by the opposition. Starting with his former boss, Jurgen Klinsmann. The United States team has more than a few players of German origin and a coach who will know the German crew inside and out.

Then there's Ghana, a team with loads of depth in midfield (Kevin Prince Boateng, Sulley Muntari, Emmanuel Badu, Kwadwo Asamoah) and up front (Asamoah Gyan, the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre), and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. You wonder what the latter could achieve if the supporting cast actually shows up so Ronaldo doesn't have to do his superman act.

AP Photo/Silvia IzquierdoThe groups are set, but will the favorites still be head and shoulders above the field come June?


Finally Belgium, the hipster's team of choice, saw their fearsome depth of squad sent into a potentially more straightforward group. The sternest test comes from Fabio Capello's resurgent Russia, who powered through qualifying and boast discipline and individual talent (though perhaps not as much as in previous campaigns). They were one of the few teams to truly stretch Brazil in friendlies in 2013.

South Korea hit a few road bumps in qualifying and don't look as well-drilled as in past World Cups, though Heung-Min Son is a player who can hurt you, especially on the counterattack. As for Algeria, there's a nice group of young talent (Ishak Belfodil, Saphir Taider), but you wonder if this is one World Cup too soon.

The caveat at the beginning of this column still holds. Seven months is an eternity in this sport. Form comes and goes, stars emerge, teams find their balance. Expect things to change, change and then change again.

It will all be conjecture anyway until June 12 when Brazil kick off against Croatia. But that doesn't mean it won't be fun in the meantime.

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