The top players are here (mostly), the stadiums are ready (sort of) and preparation time is up: The 2014 World Cup begins Thursday.
After Brazil takes center stage in Sao Paulo (yes, Croatia will be there, too, but all eyes will be on the host), the two biggest heavyweight fights of the first round arrive in short order: Spain versus the Netherlands on Friday and England versus Italy on Saturday. On Monday, the United States plays its first match, against Ghana.
So settle in for the next month and enjoy.
Brazil football team in practice ahead of the FIFA World Cup
It is no secret where all the attention will flow in Group A. Brazil is not only once again among the favorites to win the tournament but is also the host, a role that has multiplied normal expectations. The Selecao has its usual constellation of stars, including the flashy Neymar and the tough-as-nails defender Thiago Silva, and it is coached by Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to its last World Cup victory, in 2002. The intrigue, though, transcends the playing field. Lately the members of the team have become central figures in a larger national drama in which the stereotype of the country's idyllic sports culture has been punctured by widespread protests and antipathy toward the tournament. No longer just heroes and entertainers, the players have been cast by some as symbols of the inequality, exclusivity and skewed principles that are said to plague Brazil by opponents of the tournament, who decry its expense in the face of needed spending on infrastructure, health and education. Expect this passion play to last for a while, but rest assured there are other narratives to be found in the group. Mexico is still seeking equilibrium on the field after escaping a disastrous qualifying tournament during which it cycled through four coaches. Croatia, led by the tireless and multidimensional midfielder Luka Modric, has the unenviable task of facing Brazil in the opening game of the tournament. Samuel Eto'o, who made his World Cup debut at 17, will play in his fourth tournament for Cameroon, a team that has never lived up to the promise of its quarterfinal finish in 1990. (Read: Tournament favourites Brazil eager to make mark in opener)
- ANDREW KEH
Spain will begin their FIFA World Cup 2014 campaign against Netherlands
On Friday, the headliners of Group B, Spain and the Netherlands, will meet in Salvador in a rematch of the 2010 Cup final. The winner of two European titles and one world title since 2008, Spain is saturated with experience - players like Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres - and is looking to become the first team to win consecutive Cups since Brazil in 1958 and '62. A sobering loss to Brazil in last year's Confederations Cup at the Maracana made some wonder if Spain's golden era was coming to an end, but the team's ambition under coach Vicente del Bosque has never waned, and Spain went undefeated in qualifying. The Dutch, after a disastrous Euro 2012, also cruised through qualifying unbeaten. Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, the bete-noire of the 2010 final, will still be featured, but Louis van Gaal is taking a younger, faster, more aggressive team to Brazil. Chile stands a real chance of making it out of the group instead of the Netherlands, provided it defends well, which has not been a strength. Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez poses a daunting threat up front alongside Arturo Vidal of Juventus, but Chile will be without Matias Fernandez, a Fiorentina midfielder, who will miss the tournament with an ankle injury. The Socceroos of Australia are the lowest-ranked team in the World Cup (No. 62), and under a new coach, Ange Postecoglou, who took over in October, the team is young, inexperienced and perhaps even out of shape. The star forward Tim Cahill scored two goals in a recent friendly loss to Ecuador and another in a tie against South Africa; if Australia is somehow going to pull a stunner, he will be the reason. (For all the FIFA World Cup 2014 news, click here)
- DAVID WALDSTEIN
Colombia coasted through South American qualifying, with a points total and goal difference second only to Argentina, and was rewarded with a place in the seeded pot in December and what appeared to be one of the easier draws. But then the team lost its best player, striker Radamel Falcao, and a lot of air went out of the Colombian balloon. Fret not: This team still has striking talent in Jackson Martinez and Teofilo Gutierrez, a strong midfield led by James Rodriguez and Fredy Guarin, and an experienced hand on the bench in the Argentine Jose Pekerman. Ivory Coast is finally seeing things break its way after being placed in the so-called Group of Death in the past two World Cups, but is its window closing? The spine of the team is over 30 - Didier Drogba is 36 and Yaya Toure; 31 - and battered by failures in past runs as favorites. Recent results (a loss to Bosnia and Herzegovina and a win over El Salvador) offer little clue if this is finally the Elephants' year. Greece is among the oldest teams in the World Cup (average age: 28.1), and midfielder Giorgos Karagounis, 37, has been around so long that one wonders if he once played with Socrates (the Brazilian one, not the philosopher). Japan could be the wild card here: It has a terrific midfield led by Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, but question marks in front and behind.
- ANDREW DAS
This group features three former World Cup champions - Italy, Uruguay and England - and the certainty that at least one of them will not advance to the second round. Italy has struggled as usual in its warm-up matches, and the attacking style favored by coach Cesare Prandelli figures to rely largely on the immense talent and mercurial mood of forward Mario Balotelli. The Balotelli who scored twice with majestic touch and precision in defeating Germany in the semifinals of Euro 2012 would make Italy dangerous against anyone. Luis Suarez, the Uruguay star who scored 31 goals for Liverpool in the Premier League this past season, is expected to be recovered from minor knee surgery. Uruguay reached the semifinals in 2010 and has one of the world's most threatening attacks with Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan - that is, if Suarez does not get tossed for biting someone or handling the ball (again). There is little expectation for England and much debate about whether Wayne Rooney, who has never scored a World Cup goal, should even be in the starting lineup. But coach Roy Hodgson has infused his team with youth, speed and even expectation. Daniel Sturridge scored 21 goals for Liverpool this season, second in the Premier League only to his teammate Suarez. Costa Rica's hopes sustained a blow when forward Alvaro Saborio, who has 32 goals in 93 international appearances, broke a bone in his foot. He will miss the tournament. (Read: Submarine, minesweeper guard England players)
- JERE LONGMAN
France won the World Cup in 1998 but got just 1 point in 2002. After a slow start, the team made it to the final in 2006, and its captain, Zinedine Zidane, was ejected for head-butting an Italian player. In 2010, the team melted down, again getting just 1 point after a player revolt against team management. What to expect this time? The talent is there, with the likes of Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi to make up for the injured Franck Ribery, but with France, who knows? Switzerland has unassumingly moved up the world rankings in recent years, to the sixth spot. It was unbeaten in qualifying, though its group was fairly weak. A young attack that includes Xherdan Shaqiri of Bayern Munich, Josip Drmic and Granit Xhaka, all under 23, makes this a side to watch now and in the future. Ecuador grabbed the last automatic qualifying spot in South America, but it cannot match the firepower of Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Watch out for two players named Valencia, striker Enner and midfielder Antonio of Manchester United. Honduras is up against it. Fans of Major League Soccer will know a few of the players, including Jerry Bengtson of the New England Revolution and the former Sporting Kansas City star Roger Espinoza, but it is tough to see the Catrachos getting more than 1 point.
- VICTOR MATHER
Lionel Messi is the best player on the best team in a not-too-daunting group, so it would be stunning if Argentina did not breeze into the knockout rounds. (Frankly, it would be stunning if the Albiceleste did not make a deep run.) Argentina has the attacking talent - Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Ezequiel Lavezzi - to outscore any team in the field, but in South Africa that formula worked only until the quarterfinals, when Germany shut it down and showed it the door for the second straight Cup. A third straight premature exit could have serious repercussions for Messi with Argentina's fans, who already view him with suspicion, but the biggest threats to his legacy probably do not come from this group. Bosnia and Herzegovina is making its World Cup debut, and like Iran it arrives as a bit of a mystery: a roster of players unfamiliar to even dedicated fans supplemented by the occasional overseas pro (the MLS defender Steven Beitashour and Fulham winger Ashkan Dejagah for Iran, and strikers Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic for Bosnia). Nigeria is the wild card, since its team camp is often equal parts promise and problems. The young Super Eagles won praise at last summer's Confederations Cup, when their play in losses to Uruguay and Spain helped people forget that they had nearly boycotted the tournament in a dispute over bonuses. A repeat of either of those things is always possible with an African team, but the country's soccer federation has tried to pre-empt any trouble by drawing up a code of conduct that explicitly forbids such antics. Maybe that will help Nigeria get out of the first round for the first time since France 1998.
- ANDREW DAS
Some observers - OK, most observers - think Group G is pretty much the worst draw the United States could have gotten. Add in some question marks about the established Americans - Landon Donovan, the hero of 2010, did not even make the team this time around - and it is easy to see a nightmare unfolding. That said, coach Jurgen Klinsmann has some weapons: Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are always threats, Tim Howard is still one of the best goalkeepers around, and if the Dutch league's Jozy Altidore shows up (as opposed to the Premier League's Jozy Altidore), the United States just might be able to surprise some people. Two goals against Nigeria on Saturday - his first in any competition since December - could be just what Altidore needed. Who will be the class of the group? Germany certainly has the pedigree, with semifinal appearances in the last two tournaments. The Germans will be feeling some time pressure, though, as veterans like Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger are probably playing in their final World Cup. Portugal is the consensus pick to finish second because it has the best player in the group - and maybe the world - in Cristiano Ronaldo, who, if he is healthy again, figures to be in form after leading Real Madrid to the Champions League title. Ghana is the least-known member of the group but could easily advance to the knockout stages. The Black Stars, who eliminated the United States from the past two tournaments, have loads of talent, including Asamoah Gyan, a lethal striker who is hoping to become the fourth African player to score in three World Cups. (Read: German team gets a visit from explorer Mike Horn)
- SAM BORDEN
Belgium is playing in a major tournament for the first time since 2002, but because it drew into the weakest of the groups, it is a strong favorite to advance. The team is experiencing something of a golden generation; it was an impressive 8-0-2 in qualifying, scoring 18 goals and giving up just four. And its attack is filled with options, including this year's breakthrough Premier League star, Romelu Lukaku; Chelsea's Eden Hazard; and Wolfsburg's Kevin De Bruyne. An unsung hero is Axel Witsel, who directs play from a defensive midfield position. Russia has been threatening to break through at a big event for a while, and this easy group may provide the chance. The Russian league has been paying top dollar for players in recent years, and this team is entirely domestically based, which could give its play extra coherence. Look for goals from Aleksandr Kokorin of Dynamo Moscow. South Korea made the knockout stages in two of the last three Cups, but it was uninspired in its qualifying campaign, finishing behind Iran. Its big striker is Park Chu-young, who could not break into the Arsenal team this year. (There are those who say he was signed only to sell Arsenal shirts in his home country.) Even in an easy group, Algeria could be in trouble. Its top scorer, Islam Slimani of Sporting Lisbon, is one of many on the team plying their trades for second- or third-tier European teams.
- VICTOR MATHER
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