- - Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Brazil is the favorite to win the 2014 World Cup. That much was all but confirmed Oct. 30, 2007.

That was the day FIFA awarded its global showcase to the land of flair-filled soccer known as “jogo bonito.” Having rolled to a 3-0 win over world champion Spain in last summer’s Confederations Cup final, Brazil will be under immense pressure to win the big prize on home turf — 64 years after falling just short the last time it hosted.

The Spaniards, who have also claimed the past two European Championships, can’t be counted out. Germany and Argentina boast supremely talented squads as well.

But this is Brazil’s tournament to lose. Here’s a closer look at the Samba Boys, and the 31 nations standing between them and title No. 6.

Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon

Disregard Brazil’s home-field advantage for a moment and just marvel at the roster constructed by coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who has returned to the helm after leading his nation to glory in 2002.

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Coming off an up-and-down first season with Barcelona, 22-year-old rising star Neymar continues to dominate in the Brazilian uniform — to the tune of 31 goals in 49 caps. Paris Saint-Germain center back Thiago Silva is regarded as the world’s finest defender. Few fullbacks are more dangerous going forward than Dani Alves and Marcelo. Chelsea maestro Oscar pulls the midfield strings with aplomb.

While Brazil is the group’s powerhouse, Mexico is its enigma. El Tri amazingly went through four coaches in six weeks last fall and came within minutes of failure to qualify. Yet if Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez or Giovani dos Santos can find a rhythm up top alongside Oribe Peralta, the 2012 Olympic gold medalists are capable of a deep run.

With an attack led by playmaker Luka Modric and striker Mario Mandzukic, Croatia will do its best to make the Mexicans’ stay a short one. Although Cameroon is the group’s long shot, 33-year-old Samuel Eto’o still has the ability to punish any team that overlooks the Indomitable Lions.

Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia

Let’s get this straight: Spain still offers an embarrassment of riches, with enough talent to field two title-contending squads. That said, there are signs aplenty that the dynasty is on its last legs.

The “tiki-taka” strategy built on short, quick passes has shown signs of cracking — for the national team and for a Barcelona side that employs Spain’s core. Marquee midfielders Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso are on the wrong side of 30. Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa is coming off a nagging hamstring injury. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas is no longer a regular starter for Real Madrid.

Spain also won’t have the luxury of a feeling-out process, as it opens Friday against the Netherlands in a rematch of the 2010 final. New Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal will deploy the Oranje in an unconventional 5-3-2 formation, with Wesley Sneijder supporting the lethal strike duo of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.

Australia doesn’t have much hope in this brutal group, despite the gritty leadership of New York Red Bulls forward Tim Cahill. But don’t count out Chile. If Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal is near 100 percent following his minor knee operation last month, the dynamic Chileans have all the makings of a dark-horse contender.

Group C: Colombia, Ivory Coast, Japan, Greece

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