These two groups offer one sure thing — Argentina will go through on top — and then a bunch of questions. Are Switzerland really sixth in the world? Have France overcome their attitude problems*? Can Ecuador/Honduras/Iran/Nigeria push away the perception biases against their continents and actually challenge the European/South American powers?
Switzerland’s football team is a reflection of the country itself: a multicultural nation whose style is cold and boring. That is, of course, unkind (the bit about being cold and boring) but you can’t argue that Switzerland is a very defensive team. That’s because the Swiss play to their strengths. Goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and LB Ricardo Rodríguez both had decent seasons with Wolfsburg, likewise RB Stephan Lichtsteiner with Juventus. Napoli midfielders Gökhan Inler, Velon Behrami and Blerim Džemaili join Bundesliga wunderkinds Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. This is a team marshaled by the great Ottmar Hitzfeld, a man whose club pedigree is as great as any manager in the tournament. This team made it into the World Cup because they won a weak group. That doesn’t mean they’ll be pushovers. ROUND OF 16
Over the last six years, France‘s national side has been the very opposite of disciplined. The side revolted against its manager, Raymond Domenech in South Africa, and the team failed to get out of the group stage. Then in Euro 2012, a dressing room bust-up after losing 2-0 to Sweden in the final group game resulted in the firing of French legend Laurent Blanc. That era appears to be over. Didier Deschamps has put together a very competent team that is short on star power, but no less flashy. The biggest name here is Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema, after Franck Ribery was ruled out through injury. From that infamous Sweden match, only four players remain: captain Hugo Lloris, Mathieu Debuchy, Benzema, and Olivier Giroud. This year’s World Cup Squad only features five other players who even travelled to Ukraine. The problems are gone, the pedigree remains. QUARTER-FINALISTS
When Ecuador played England, many outlets wrote about how the South Americans gave England a good run, and how the heat makes a difference, and blah blah blah blah. Here are the facts: 1) Ecuador won seven of their eight home qualifying matches (plus they drew Argentina) because they play in Quito, a city sitting at almost 2900m. But away from home, they managed only an 0-3-5 record. That’s basically saying they advanced because their opponents couldn’t breathe. 2) They perpetuate old stereotypes about South American teams that don’t score, but kick the hell out of their opponents. 3) They only have one player who regularly started in a major European league, Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia. This side snuck in because they had a better defensive record than Uruguay. That won’t help them here. THREE AND OUT
More of the same from Honduras. Only Maynor Figueroa and Wilson Palacios have any big league experience (and let’s please not muddy the waters by countering that MLS or the Scottish Premier is big league). They will be strong on the ball (why physicality is so prized in the Western Hemisphere, I’ll never know) but their fate will be the same as fellow CONCACAF qualifiers, Costa Rica. THREE AND OUT
Argentina will perform well at this World Cup for many of the same reasons as the hosts: a well-rounded squad (though not as good as Brazil), a tournament based in South America, and a fairly easy progression into the knockout stage. One thing that Alejandro Sabella’s men won’t have to contend with is pressure… not on the scale of Brazil’s pressure anyway. But Argentina haven’t won a trophy in almost 30 years, and they must think they can pull an Uruguay, circa 1950 against their old foes. La Albiceleste boasts the scariest offence in this tournament: Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero… and of course, Lionel Messi. The three share an understanding… and just behind them is Ángel Di María looping in and out from the right wing. A dream final between Brazil and Argentina is possible in a tournament promising several tasty end-scenarios. SEMI-FINALISTS
The build-up to Bosnia-Herzegovina‘s maiden World Cup appearance was fun to watch, as Safet Sušić built a team to attack. The Bosnians tore through a relatively weak group, scoring at least three goals in six of their 10 qualifiers. But this is not qualifying and now it appears the coach has had a rethink in World Cup warm-ups, adding an extra defensive midfielder and playing with a solitary striker. In fact, he’s only bringing two out-and-out strikers: Eden Džeko and Stuttgart’s leading scorer, Vedad Ibišević. Roma’s Miralem Pjanic will likely play just behind Džeko, but what about the rest of the side? This is a team that should be proud of its accomplishments, 20 years after a devastating war. But the party is over. THREE AND OUT
It’s not a good sign when the biggest name on the team is the manager. Former Portugal and Real Madrid manager, Carlos Queiroz has taken Iran to Brazil. This is a side that is reportedly ill-prepared for the tournament (the government is a police state and the team doesn’t have a lot of resources). The assumption is that Queiroz will make them very defensive… and no one wants to see that. They won’t make it to the 60-minute mark, let alone the knockout round. THREE AND OUT
Pride has been restored to the one of Africa’s biggest footballing nations. Nigeria took the 2013 African Cup of Nations, winning it for the first time since 1994. That was the same year the Super Eagles won the group at USA ’94, where they took Italy to extra-time in the Round of 16. In France ’98, the same thing: winning the group by beating Raúl’s Spain and Stoichkov’s Bulgaria. Since then, they have qualified for two more World Cups and finished dead last in their groups. This tournament’s squad features a quality mix of young forwards: Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa are both only 21, while Emmanuel Eminike is the veteran at the ripe old age of 27. Stephen Keshi is bringing six strikers to Brazil. What does that tell you? They came to play. ROUND OF 16
*The team, not the nation; changes, not miracles.
Up Next: Groups G & H