- - 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

Colombia is playing in its first World Cup since 2002. The nation has never made it past the round of 16. And star striker Radamel Falcao will miss the tournament after failing to recover in time from a torn ACL suffered in January.

Yet expectations are high for the Colombians, who rode a strong qualifying campaign to one of the eight seeds in the World Cup draw. Even without Falcao’s scoring instincts, an offense featuring the creative talent of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado should be enough for Colombia to get through.

After falling victim to tough groups each of the past two World Cups, the Ivory Coast has received a much kinder schedule this time around. Coming off a 24-goal season for Manchester City, tireless midfielder Yaya Toure is arguably the world’s most complete player. At 36 years old, striker Didier Drogba remains an imposing presence up top.

With crafty midfielders Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda orchestrating the attack, Japan won’t go down without a fight. Defensively disciplined Greece, meanwhile, will need production out of inconsistent striker Konstantinos Mitroglou if it wants to stay beyond the group stage.

Group D: Italy, Uruguay, England, Costa Rica

Having crashed out early as the defending champion four years ago, Italy will be targeting redemption in Brazil. While polarizing striker Mario Balotelli grabs the headlines, the Italians will be leaning on the Juventus quartet of deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo, center backs Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

After finishing fourth in 2010, Uruguay proceeded to struggle through qualifying. But if striker Luis Suarez recovers from minor knee surgery in time to join Edinson Cavani up top, Uruguay can contend. Suspended in recent years for racially abusing one opponent, then biting another, Suarez was recently voted the English Premier League’s top player following a 31-goal season for Liverpool.

Speaking of Liverpool, England manager Roy Hodgson will be hoping to imitate that high-scoring club after picking five of its stalwarts: right back Glen Johnson, midfielders Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling, and forward Daniel Sturridge. Yet Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney remains England’s focal point, whether he’s lined up as an attacking midfielder, winger or center forward.

Costa Rica saw its distant odds further dimmed last month by Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio’s broken foot, though goalkeeper Keylor Navas could steal a result or two on his own.

Group E: France, Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras

Following a calamitous group-stage exit four years ago and a tense qualifying campaign, France is not the power it once was. To boot, Les Bleus have been subjected to the biggest injury blow of the World Cup, with Bayern Munich star Franck Ribery recently ruled out because of a back ailment.

But there is still a sense of hope surrounding this team. Strikers Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud give France plenty of firepower up top, while 21-year-old midfielder Paul Pogba is already among the world’s elite at his position. Although there are some defensive question marks, Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris should help smooth over the cracks.

Making matters easier for France is the forgiving nature of its opposition. While Switzerland enters the tournament ranked No. 6 in the world, a soft qualifying group inflated that number. The Swiss are still strong in midfield, where they are anchored by the Napoli duo of Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami and sparked by 22-year-old winger Xherdan Shaqiri.

With Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero on the flanks, Ecuador could prove to be stiff competition for the runner-up slot. Rounding out the group is tiny Honduras, which includes MLS standouts Victor Bernardez and Boniek Garcia, as well as D.C. United product Andy Najar.

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria, Iran

At 26 years old, Argentina star Lionel Messi has already led Barcelona to two Champions League titles and been named the world’s top player four times. In 2012, he broke the calendar-year record by notching 91 goals in 69 games for club and country.

But the World Cup remains Messi’s white whale. In two tournaments, he has scored just one goal while failing to take Argentina past the quarterfinals. With Messi in his prime and the tournament on South American soil, is it time for the diminutive forward to cement his legacy? Joined in a three-man front line by the ever-dangerous Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, Messi can’t have any complaints about his supporting cast.

Competing in its first World Cup, Bosnia and Herzegovina is an enticing dark-horse pick. Led by striker Edin Dzeko and midfielder Miralem Pjanic, Bosnia went 8-1-1 in qualifying while scoring 30 goals and conceding six.

Also in contention for a spot in the round of 16 is African champion Nigeria, which flows its attack through central midfielder John Obi Mikel and winger Victor Moses. Group underdog Iran will likely start Vancouver Whitecaps right back Steven Beitashour, who was a fringe player for the U.S. national team before deciding to play for his parents’ home country.

Group G: Germany, Portugal, United States, Ghana

In a group packed with storylines for the Americans, none is more tantalizing than United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann facing a Germany team he helped win the 1990 World Cup as a player, then led to third place in 2006 as its manager.

Running the show for Germany’s high-octane attack is Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. Among the myriad weapons at his disposal: overlapping right back Philipp Lahm, silky playmaker Mesut Ozil and 2010 World Cup leading scorer Thomas Muller. And that goes without mentioning veteran striker Miroslav Klose, who is two goals from becoming the World Cup’s all-time scoring king.

The U.S. team’s main opposition for second place is a Portugal squad featuring the inimitable Cristiano Ronaldo. After winning 2013 world player of the year honors, Ronaldo set the single-season Champions League scoring record while carrying Real Madrid to the title. He’s even more of a one-man show for his national team, though the likes of Raul Meireles and Nani do add some balance to the Portuguese offense.

The Americans will open the tournament Monday against Ghana — the athletically gifted team that has eliminated them from the past two World Cups. The U.S. will likely need to end that hex by defeating Kwadwo Asamoah and Co. if it harbors realistic hopes of advancing.

Group H: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria

The term “golden generation” has been thrown around a lot in reference to Belgium, which is participating in its first World Cup since 2002 but is a trendy pick for an extended stay. At this point, calling it a “dark horse” might be disingenuous.

Pulling from a nation of just 11 million people, Belgium’s roster includes a slew of renowned young players — from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to winger Eden Hazard and striker Romelu Lukaku. Captaining the team is Manchester City center back Vincent Kompany, an intimidating physical force widely considered to be the English Premier League’s top defender.

Led by former England manager Fabio Capello, Russia caught some eyes by finishing ahead of Portugal to win a formidable qualifying group. Quick and clever midfielder Alan Dzagoev is the player to watch on this Russian team, which will be looking for a strong showing leading into its turn as the host nation four years from now.

Outside of midfielder Son Heung-min, South Korea largely lacks the pure technical quality it has boasted during its recent World Cup runs. That could open the door for Algeria, which offers one of the tournament’s more promising talents in 19-year-old Tottenham midfielder Nabil Bentaleb.