It’s finally here: the high holiday for soccer geeks, er, fans like myself. The World Cup is one event that lives up to its hype, and the world is really watching. You look at the field and you see that everything is as it should be this year. Every nation that deserves to be in Brazil will be there, starting June 12. Here’s At The Rail’s predictions. I’ll go through two groups a day, finishing on Thursday with my bracket.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: there is little reason to think that Brazil won’t win the whole damn thing. After demolishing the World and European champions in last year’s Confederations Cup, A Selação was dismissed in some circles because they didn’t face a qualifying campaign (because they are the home nation). But if you look at this side’s roster, there are no weak spots. Brazil’s national team has 35 titles from Europe’s Big Five leagues, and 10 players have Champions League medals (along with five players with Copa Libertadores gongs). Fifteen players are returning from last year’s Confederations win… as is World Cup-winning manager Big Phil Scolari. Anything less than the World Cup trophy will be viewed as failure. CHAMPIONS
Meanwhile, Croatia are back in the tournament after missing out on South Africa, and then getting knocked out in the European Championship by eventual champions, Spain. Several veterans are travelling to Brazil, including captain Darijo Srna, Danijel Pranjić, Vedran Ćorluka (really?!? Ćorluka?!?) and Ivica Olić… players who have all seen better days. But Luka Modrić is coming off a Champions League win, Ivan Rakitić won the Europa League with Sevilla (and could be on his way to Barcelona), Mario Mandžukić came second in the Bundesliga scoring race while securing another league title, and Dejan Lovren played so well for Southampton that he’s now on the shopping list of several big clubs. They’ll progress, where they’ll likely meet Spain again. ROUND OF 16
Mexico no longer have their dark-horse caché anymore… in fact, they have no caché whatsoever. Winning only two of 10 games in the CONCACAF hexagonal qualifiers, El Tri‘s performances provoked a national crisis when they lost on the last day. Their collective hides were only saved by a last-gasp win by arch-enemies USA in Panama. The Mexicans are led by mercurial defender Rafael Márquez, with bullet-headed Carlos Salcido marauding around the pitch. Javier Hernandez had a terrible year with a terrible Manchester United side, so he may be motivated to rediscover his scoring touch, especially since he is only five away from surpassing the legendary Cuauhtémoc Blanco… but don’t bet on it. THREE AND OUT
Cameroon appear to have more problems than just football. At the time of writing, the Indomitable Lions had failed to depart for Brazil over a pay dispute. This is not the first time this has happened… but it points to a problem where players’ heads aren’t where they should be. No matter: this is not the golden generation of a decade ago. While Stéphane Mbia had a decent season with Sevilla, Alex Song has spent much of his time at Barcelona on the bench, and Samuel Eto’o has left Chelsea without any silverware to show for his short time in England. Most of the other squad members ply their trades for middling teams in the European leagues. Cameroon haven’t reached the knockout stages in quarter-century. That streak should remain intact. THREE AND OUT.
Destiny awaits for Spain. No team has retained the World Cup since Brazil did it in 1962… and in all four World Cups held in South America, it was a Sudamericano nation that won. But Spain are no ordinary side. This is a team retaining 18 players from its Euro 2012 victory, 15 players from its World Cup win in South Africa… and 12 players from a thunderous night in Vienna in 2008. Twenty-two Champions League medals sit in the homes of this Spanish side… and despite advancing age, they don’t seem to be slowing down. Spain is Football Heaven right now, with the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League trophy and Europa League trophy all residing in España. Win the World Cup and they are the best football team, ever. Period. Fall a little short, and no one will begrudge them anything. They’ll lose but only because it’s Brazil… in Brazil. FINALIST.
Chile have been one of the world’s most exciting sides to watch over the last few years. Put that squarely in the laps of Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal. Sánchez runs riot for both Barça and La Roja, and, at 25 years old, is quickly moving up Chile’s all-time caps and goals charts. Meanwhile Vidal is the pivot for this team, trying to do what he does for Italian champions, Juventus: score goals or set them up. This will be a team that attacks, attacks, attacks… all the way to a match-up with fellow South Americans, Brazil, in the next round. ROUND OF 16.
A finalist in the last World Cup, Netherlands are a shadow of their former selves. While Mark van Bommel called it quits in 2010, along with his father-in-law-cum-manager Bert Van Marwijk, Van Bommel’s fellow midfield hooligan Nigel de Jong returns. Arjen Robben has had another fine campaign for Bayern Munich, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar overcame injury in the season’s first-half to score 12 goals for Schalke. But who else is there? Jonathan De Guzmán was stuck in Wales and Leroy Fer played on an awful Norwich City side. Meanwhile, veterans Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt have been toiling away in the Turkish Süperlig. Robin van Persie will chomping at the bit to overcome a forgetable season at Manchester United. But then there is the elephant in the room: how long before the Dutch side self-destructs, turning to frustration against the opposition, referees and ultimately, each other? THREE AND OUT
Australia, Australia, Australia… we love ya. But you are not going to make major inroads in this group. FIFA’s lowest-ranked team in the tournament, the Aussies have the same problem as every other English-speaking former colony in the world: a national side made up mostly of players who play in their small national leagues, or at Europe’s lesser lights (Canada/USA/New Zealand/Jamaica… I’m looking at you). Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak is probably this star of this outfit, the only outfielder to play in one of Europe’s Big Five. Veterans Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano return from far-flung clubs to help out… but this is just a brief stay for the Socceroos. Australia 2022! THREE AND OUT
Up next: Groups C & D (Shocking, I know)