FIFA 2014 World Cup Quarterfinals Preview

The Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup was absolutely riveting, with five of the eight matches going to extra time. The eight teams that are left all survived a grueling match against a worthy opponent, and are now one game away from reaching the semi-finals. After everything that’s happened in this tournament, these quarterfinals matches will be impossible to predict, but it never hurts to try, so here it goes…


2014 FIFA World Cup Predictions

The clock is ticking and we’re coming closer and closer to kick-off.  The world’s biggest football carnival will soon burst into life and we’ll see numerous footballing heroes (and possibly villains) emerge. There will be controversies aplenty on and off the pitch, but which teams will finish in the top two in their group to progress to the round of 16?

Without the help of a convenient psychic octopus to aid us (rest in peace, Paul), making predictions will be a little bit more difficult, but without further ado, let’s try and look into the future and predict who will qualify starting with groups A to D.

Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, & Cameroon

Brazil will qualify from this group.  Not the boldest prediction in the world, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t pressure on the Seleção to perform especially with the specter of protests looming over the World Cup.  The squad and manager seem comfortable enough though some members are expressing sympathy regarding the grievances of the protesters.  Rather than inhibiting the team, the players and manager could be spurred on by the need to give Brazil something to cheer about.  With the wily Luiz Filipe Scolari at the helm the Brazilians can harness the anger and use it to generate momentum, especially if they get off to a good start against the Croatians.  The only question is over goalkeeper Julio Cesar and whether he’s played enough football this season to be up to the mark.

The Croatians didn’t make qualification easy for themselves, firing their coach Igor Stimac and replacing him with Niko Kovac in time for the play offs.  There is talent in this team with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic, though the latter is suspended for the opening match against Brazil after being sent-off against Iceland in the play offs.  Their second match against Cameroon will be crucial in their efforts to progress to the knockouts.  Should the Croats triumph against Cameroon they should be able to beat Mexico to secure a berth in the round of 16.

Mexico’s qualifying campaign was extremely traumatic.  The Mexicans needed their rivals, the United States, to score a last minute goal against Panama to ensure a play off spot against New Zealand.  This Mexican commentator was rather grateful for Graham Zusi’s equalizer.

Mexican fans were thankful to Zusi too, presenting the US International with a plaque, a framed photo, and dubbing him ‘San Zusi’.   Mexico though can’t expect any favours in their World Cup group and it’s hard to see them progressing to the knockout stages, especially with key players like Javier Hernandez struggling for form.

Here’s an interesting tidbit, Mexico has qualified 15 times for the World Cup (including this one) but have never won the trophy.  Having failed to win the World Cup in 14 previous attempts, El Tri hold the record for the most number of appearances by a nation in this tournament without having won it.  Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Cameroon managed to negotiate their way to the World Cup after beating Tunisia 4-1 on aggregate in the African qualifying zone.  However, qualification for the Indomitable Lions wasn’t smooth sailing with them losing 2-0 to Togo in the group stages of the campaign, only to have the result overturned in their favor as a result of the Togolese fielding an ineligible player.   Then came Samuel Eto’o’s retirement and subsequent U-turn from said decision.

There is undeniable talent within the team with Alex Song, Stephen Mbia, and Jean Makoun forming a potentially strong midfield trio, but will that and Samuel Eto’o’s guile up front be enough to see Cameroon make it through to the next round?  The odds are stacked against them.

Their match against Brazil could be a little tasty especially, if Vincent Aboubaker takes to the pitch.  Aboubaker fractured Thiago Silva’s cheekbone whilst playing for Lorient against PSG.  Silva is unlikely to forget that encounter in a hurry.

Group Winners: Brazil
Runners Up: Croatia

Group B:  Spain, Netherlands, Chile & Australia

The Spaniards may have wished for an easier group to launch their defense of the World Cup, but games against the Netherlands, Chile, and Australia could be just what they need to kick start their campaign.  Good results against Holland and Chile can help build momentum for Spain whilst it’s hard to see Australia troubling the World Champions.  Spain negotiated their qualifying group without difficulty, emerging unbeaten and it’s hard to see them crashing out of this group either.  The squad is packed with talent and more importantly, winners, whilst the addition of Diego Costa gives the Spaniards a potent threat up front.  Coach Vicente Del Bosque is a wise old head and will know exactly how to ease the pressure off the squad and keep their eyes on the prize.  If Spain manages to win the World Cup, then they will lay a strong claim to being the greatest international team in history.  For the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas, and company the chance to write their names into the record books is motivation enough.  The frightening part for all of Spain’s competitors is that this squad is good enough to do it.

Holland comes into the World Cup with a youthful team complimented with a number of experienced world-class talents.  How Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie, and Wesley Sneijder perform will go a long way to determining whether the Oranjes’ stay in Brazil is a long or brief one. Manchester United manager, Louis Van Gaal, has opted to go with a youthful looking squad with the likes of Stefan De Vrij, Jordy Clasie, Memphis Depay, Bruno Martins Indi, and Jasper Cillessen all making the cut.  This may be a tournament too soon for the Dutch and they’ll look to develop under Guus Hiddink after Van Gaal relinquishes the reins.  The match against Spain, a repeat of the 2010 World Cup Final, will not be as tense or turgid, though Xabi Alonso will probably be keeping an eye on Nigel De Jong’s studs should the two be on the pitch at the same time.  The key game will be against Chile.  It the Dutch win that then they’ll make it through to the knock out stages.

Chile Is a side that most teams would rather avoid.  Indeed, this is a side that could go places if everyone is fit.  With the likes of Arturo Vidal, one of the best midfielders in Europe, and Alexis Sanchez the Chileans have two world class footballers to build their team around.  Eduardo Vargas can help supplement the attack whilst Gary Medel will add steel to the midfield for Jorge Sampaoli’s side.  Chile, on their day, can be a match for any team. Underestimate the Chileans at your peril; this World Cup could see La Roja add extra spice to the tournament.

Australia’s World Cup preparations have been pretty rough.  Holger Osieck was sacked back in October following successive 6-0 defeats to Brazil and France, and replaced with Ange Postecoglou.  Much like the Dutch, the Socceroos have opted to go with a youthful squad with the most experienced players being Miles Jedinak, Mark Bresciano, and Tim Cahill.  It’s Australia’s misfortune that they’ve been drawn against three of the stronger sides in the World Cup and face the real possibility of exiting the tournament without a point on the board.  That said, with no pressure on them the Aussies will be free to express themselves on the pitch – it all depends on how adventurous the players and the coach are willing to be.

Group Winners: Spain
Runners Up: Chile

Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast & Japan

Colombia has been left reeling with the news that striker Radamel Falcao will not be able to play at the World Cup.  Whilst losing a forward of that quality would be a blow to any side, the Colombians are by no means short upfront.  Jackson Martinez will bear the burden of scoring the goals for whilst the highly rated James Rodriguez is one to watch out for as well.  Playing in South America will suit the Colombians and they will not view the other teams in their group with too much trepidation.  Opponents could target Mario Yepes as a weak link though and may ask their quicker players to target him and exploit his lack of pace.

Greece made it through to the World Cup by defeating Romania 4-2 on aggregate in the play-offs.  The 2004 European Champions have not had a great history at the World Cup, participating just twice in 1994 and 2010, notching up their only victory against Nigeria in South Africa.  Under the reign of Fernando Santos, Greece have attempted to move away from the Otto Rehhagal template, though their last campaign wasn’t anything to crow about goal-scoring wise.  The Greeks scored just 12 times in 10 games in the group phase and the lack of firepower could be a detriment against the others in their group.  Much will rely on Kostas Mitroglou, who was scoring for fun at Olympiakos before his move to Fulham, which to put it mildly has not been a great success.

The Ivory Coast will be thanking the football gods for putting them in a relatively kind group after their experiences in 2006 and 2010.  That said, qualification to the knock out stages is not guaranteed for a side that has always flattered to deceive despite being littered with talent.  With the likes of the Toure brothers, Didier Drogba, and Wilfried Bony, the Ivory Coast have the players to cause their opponents problems; but as a unit will they be mentally strong enough to make it over the first hurdle?  The big game players will need to produce big performances early on, otherwise the Ivorians could be heading for another first round exit.

Japan was the first country to qualify for the World Cup and could be the tournament’s surprise package. Possessing some of the games more skillful technicians, Japan’s game could easily cause problems for the other teams in the group.  Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda appear to be putting their disappointing club season behind them in Japan’s recent friendlies whilst in forward Shinji Okazaki they may finally have found a penetrative forward to lead the line.  With 12 of their 23 players plying their trade in Europe the Japanese have the experience to go with the talent, and under the guidance of former AC Milan coach Alberto Zaccheroni, the Asian champions have the tools to do well in this World Cup.

Group Winners: Colombia
Runners Up: Japan

Group D: Uruguay, Italy, Costa Rica & England

Uruguay was the last side to win the World Cup in Brazil in 1950.  They’re unlikely to lift the trophy again in 2014, but then again they were not expected to have such a good run in the last World Cup.  The Copa America champions are hoping that Liverpool striker Luiz Suarez recovers from injury, but they have a chap by the name of Edinson Cavani who is not too shabby either.  Uruguay is arguably the group favorites but they cannot revert to the form of their qualifying campaign, which was poor to say the least.  The Uruguayans eventually booked their place in the final with a playoff win over Jordan, but any repeat of their qualifying performances and they may well be looking at an early exit.  Their key man may not be on the pitch, but on the bench.  El Maestro Óscar Tabárez has a knack of getting the best out of Uruguay and you wouldn’t bet against him masterminding another Uruguayan World Cup adventure.

Italy’s recent performances have been a cause for concern.  Drawing against the likes of Luxembourg is not the ideal preparation for the Azzurri.  But as Roy Hodgson pointed out, it’s best to read nothing into Italy’s recent performances because when it comes to the serious business the Italians more often than not turn it on.  Like Uruguay, Italy seems to have a coach that is perfectly suited to them.  Cesare Prandelli has already guided Italy to a European Championship final and is a coach who can manage to get the best out of his players, even the mercurial Mario Ballotelli.  The Italians will be keen to make up for a lackluster 2010 World Cup and have a mix of talent from the wildly unpredictable Antonio Cassano and Mario Ballotelli to defensive rocks like George Chiellini, and of course the supreme gifts of Andrea Pirlo.  Italy has the players to get through the group and with Prandelli in charge, the Azzurri could go quite far in this tournament.

England come in with a refreshingly youthful looking team coached under the watchful eye of Roy Hodgson.  For a manager noted for his caution, his decision to pick the likes of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (if fit), and Ross Barkley points to a man with a long-term strategy.  Going forward England do look exciting but defensively they look a little suspect, especially if one of their first choice back four gets suspended or injured.  His other conundrum is what to do with Wayne Rooney.  Since bursting on the international scene at Euro 2004, the Manchester United striker has not really produced the goods in subsequent international tournaments.  Crucially for Hodgson though is that England doesn’t need to rely on Rooney to score the goals, as there are threats from other areas of the pitch.  Hodgson’s dilemma is this though: can he trust his England team to hold on to a lead?  It could be the backline that may lead to England’s downfall.

Costa Rica will go in as the rank outsiders, but they can cause opposition defenses trouble.  With the talented Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz upfront there are goals in this side.  Keylor Navas, the Costa Rican keeper, is a player of pedigree as well keeping 14 clean sheets for his club side Levante in La Liga.  If he performs well, expect a move to a bigger club.  Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica’s Colombian coach has managed to make this side a difficult team to play against and one that certainly shouldn’t be underestimated.

Group Winners: Uruguay
Runners Up: Italy

Group E: Switzerland, France, Ecuador & Honduras

Switzerland, under German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, qualified for the World Cup with relative ease booking their spot with a game to spare.  In terms of attacking sensibilities Switzerland have the players to hurt the other sides in their group.  In Xherdan Shaqiri, Gökhan Inler, Granit Xhaka, and Josep Drmić the Swiss have a group of players who will create chances, but they’ll need to convert them.  Shaqiri has a particular point to prove given his lack of game time at Bayern Munich; Pep Guardiola labeled the Swiss international as his “most important bench player,” not a tag that Shaqiri will cherish too much.  Fabian Schär is another player worth watching with the young defender being linked to Arsenal, whilst Stephan Lichsteiner will provide width from his fullback position.  Hitzfeld will keep an eye on his right flank though as it could be susceptible to counters should Lichsteiner find himself out of position.

Ecuador qualified fourth in the South American qualifiers, stuttering over the finish line with only one win in their last six qualification games.  It was a difficult period for the Ecuadorians as they tragically lost striker Christian Benitez last July as a result of heart failure.  Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia captains the side and, along with fellow winger Jefferson Montero, will be crucial to how the Ecuadorians will play.  Coach Reinaldo Rueda will look for his team to get the ball wide as quickly as possible and attack the opposition from the flanks.  Montero will be one to watch given his unpredictable nature.  Enner Valencia has been making a name for himself whilst everyone knows what they’ll get from Antonio Valencia.  For Ecuador to progress the team will need to click into gear as a unit right from the start and avoid defensive clangers like this:

Life is never dull with France.  After coming from 2-0 down in the playoffs against Ukraine to win 3-2 on aggregate, they were drawn in a relatively easy group only to have Clément Grenier and more importantly Franck Ribéry ruled out with injury.  Didier Deschamps doesn’t even have the luxury of calling up Samir Nasri after axing the Manchester City forward.  Howeve,r Deschamps’ focus is not on picking the best eleven players, but those who he thinks will form the best team.  Even with Ribéry out, the French still possess a very strong spine with Hugo Lloris in goal, Laurent Koscielny at the back, Paul Pogba in midfield, and Karim Benzema up front.  Also, Ribery’s misfortune could open the door for Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann to show everyone that he’s made for this level of football.  With the memories of the 2010 World Cup still lingering, Didier Deschamps will be on his guard to ensure that the squad remains harmonious and avoids complacency.  Losing Ribery is no doubt a big blow but it is not a fatal one for the French.  Should this squad come together and pull in the same direction then we could see Les Bleus make a decent impression on the World Cup.

Honduras is not expected to do much in the World Cup, but that doesn’t mean they’ll make things easy for their opponents.  Strong and compact, the Hondurans will be looking to record their first World Cup win at the very least.  Wilson Palacios will patrol the midfield, and the Hondurans will try to use their pace on the counter and their strength at set pieces to gain the upper hand.  Expect to see La Costlynha if the ball goes to striker Carlo Costly.

The Hondurans will not overawe physically, but will need to keep their discipline to ensure that they are not hit with a raft of suspensions.  This will be Honduras’ third appearance in the World Cup, having featured in 1982 and 2010 with a record of three draws and three losses.  One of those draws came in the 2010 World Cup against Switzerland.

Group Winners: France
Runners Up: Switzerland

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

The Argentineans will no doubt revel in their role as potential party poopers, especially if they manage to beat Brazil in the final.  This is a side with an embarrassment of riches going forward with the likes Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain, and of course the talismanic Lionel Messi giving the Albiceleste an unrivalled goal threat.  The Argentineans qualified easily from the South American qualifying section and should comfortably negotiate their World Cup group.  This won’t be Lionel Messi’s only opportunity to win the World Cup, but if he were to lift the trophy on Brazilian soil he will cement himself as one of the all time greats.  The defense is pretty solid as well with the likes of Pablo Zabeleta and Ezequiel Garay patrolling the backline, though they’ll hope goalkeeper Sergio Romero will have spent enough minutes in goal to ensure that things remain tight at the back.  A lot will depend on Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago too as they will be required to shield the defense, win back possession, and give the ball to their supremely gifted frontline.  Coach Alejandro Sabella has managed to put together a formidable unit harnessing the team’s natural gifts whilst giving them a strong collective identity.  Reaching the final is the bare minimum for Argentina.

Bosnia and Herzegovina qualified for their first World Cup, topping their group on goal difference.  This is a team packed with attacking talent with Edin Džeko leading the line and Miralem Pjaneć providing the guile as the Bosnians will be looking to give their nation a lift with a good showing at the World Cup.  Coach Safet Sušić has imbued his side with an extremely attacking philosophy so at the very least expect any match involving the Bosnians to contain a fair number of goals.  Asmir Begović should expect to have a few shots to save, but the Bosnians can rest assured that they possess an extremely good goalkeeper who is capable of putting in match-saving performances.  The Bosnians have the firepower to negotiate the group stage; they just have to hope that the likes of Džeko and Vedad Ibišević convert the chances that come their way.  They’ll be the only team making their debut at the World Cup and will certainly be an entertaining side to watch.

Iran, coached by former Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz, has never qualified for the knock out stages of the World Cup and they’re unlikely to break their duck.  Queiroz has managed to convince the likes of Steven Beitashour to represent Iran, which has strengthened the backline.  In Alireza Jahanbaksh, he has a genuine talent who could go on to be a star if he continues to develop; indeed, Jahanbaksh was voted the best young player in the Dutch Eredivisie this season.  Andranik Teymourian will be important in the Iranian’s midfield whilst upfront a lot will rest on the shoulders of Reza Ghoochannejad and Ashkan Dejagah.  However, Iran will come into the tournament as one of the most underprepared teams due to a lack of support from the Iranian Football Federation and top clubs within the country.  Queiroz has lamented the slipshod preparations and has admitted himself that the Iranians “will not make it to the next round.”

Nigeria, the current African champions, possesses a few names that Premier League fans will be familiar with.  Coach Steven Keshi has lifted the mood of the Super Eagles fans and has stuck to his guns in shaping the team the way he wants.  Keshi’s emphasis has been on youth, and he has also instilled tactical flexibility within the team as well as getting the best out of Jon Obi Mikel.  For Keshi himself, it’s been a triumph, as he’s had to fight political battles with his own football association in order to implement his vision.  Thus far it has been a success with Keshi leading the Super Eagles to the African Cup of Nations title as well as qualifying for the World Cup with relative ease, topping their group before dispatching Ethiopia 4-1 on aggregate.  The key match will be against Bosnia and Herzegovina and with the attacking talent on display for both sides, the clash could be one of the more goal-laden games in this World Cup.  Peter Odemwingie, seemingly enjoying his football at Stoke, Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses will pose questions to opposing defenders, but at the back the Nigerians will need to be solid if they wish to progress to the latter stages of the tournament.

Group Winners: Argentina
Runners Up: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana & USA

Germany feature in a group that allows no room for error.  There is also the added pressure of this collection of players needing to realize their potential and win the World Cup.  Anything less would simply be considered a failure.  Germany has an intensely strong squad with arguably the world’s best goalkeeper in Manuel Neuer; their defense is solid, though Coach Joachim Low probably wishes that he had two Philipp Lahms to fill the full-back positions.   Even with Marco Reus ruled out, the Germans still have the likes of Mario Götze, Thomas Müller, Julian Draxler, and of course Mesut Özil.  The attacking potential of the Germans is frightening but, and it’s a big BUT, they do not possess a striker to match the class and caliber of their attacking midfielders.  Miroslav Klose, who recently overtook Gerd Müller as Germany’s record goal scorer, will be expected to lead the attack, but at 35 is this a World Cup too far for him?  He will have the added incentive of potentially becoming the all-time leading World Cup scorer if he bags at least two goals in this tournament.  A lot will depend on the defensive midfielders as well with Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira (who has just returned from injury) and Bastian Schweinsteiger required to form a solid platform to help the German attack to flourish.  This team is good enough to win the World Cup, but can they cope with the pressure and expectation that comes with the ‘favorites’ tag?  Only time will tell.

Portugal is hoping that their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo will be fit for their World Cup campaign, though a Ghanaian witch doctor is planning otherwise.  Portugal breathed a sigh of relief when Ronaldo returned to action in a 5-1 win over the Republic of Ireland, and it’s hard to imagine them functioning without him, such is the importance of the current Ballon D’or holder.  Despite possessing the likes of Bruno Alves, Fábio Coentrão, Pepe, João Moutinho and the highly rated William Carvalho, such is the dependency on Ronaldo that the psychological blow of losing him would be devastating especially as Portugal, like the Germans, are short of top quality strikers.  With a fully fit Ronaldo in their ranks, the Portuguese can launch devastating counter attacks and can always rely on him to pull something out of the bag if they need it.  Without him the Portuguese will need to have Moutinho pulling the strings and hope that the likes of Nani, Helder Postiga, Éder or another attacker weighs in with their share of goals.  As important as Ronaldo is to Portugal, do not underestimate the influence of Moutinho, who will dictate the play for the Portuguese.  Don’t be surprised if Moutinho is at the heart of most of Portugal’s goals.

Ghana was only a penalty kick away from becoming the first African side to reach the World Cup semifinals four years ago.  Alas, it wasn’t to be and now the Black Stars’ hopes of emulating their World Cup adventure in South Africa is far more difficult given the group they are in.  Ghana made it to the World Cup easily enough, thumping Bob Bradley’s Egypt 7-3 on aggregate in the play offs and ended up as the continent’s top scorers netting 25 goals on the road to qualification.  Asamoah Gyan will be a key figure for them once again and despite his move to the UAE, he has still been banging the goals in for the Black Stars.  He’ll be ably supported by Kevin-Prince Boateng.  The midfield will be patrolled by Sulley Muntari, Kwado Asamoah, and Michael Essien.  Their weakness lies in goal where there really isn’t a dominant number one so the Ghanaians and their coach James Kwsei Appiah may hope that their front line deliver as they’ll likely need to score more than one goal a game to obtain a result in this group.  The fans of the Black Stars and the ‘Pot Man’ (not that kind of pot!) hope that Gyan and company can go on another memorable World Cup run.

The USA can consider themselves unfortunate to be drawn in this group, but their inclusion has thrown up an intriguing plot line if nothing else.  Coach Jürgen Klinsmann will be hoping to once again defeat his former assistant Joachim Low when the US face Germany.  Klinsmann is not afraid of making big decisions, most notably dropping Landon Donovan from the 23-man squad, though the former German international striker can claim that he’s earned the right to make the big calls.  After an initially difficult start, Klinsmann oversaw victories over Italy (away), Mexico (away), and Germany, produced a 12-match winning run in 2013, and won the Gold Cup.  Critics have argued that Klinsmann is not tactically sound enough, but he has put his stamp on a strong American side and opponents won’t find it easy against a hard working US team.  He’s well stocked in the goalkeeping department with Premier League duo Tim Howard and Brad Guzan.  Their defense will need the likes of Geoff Cameron and DaMarcus Beasley to provide leadership.  The midfield is industrious with Michael Bradley a key figure, and upfront a lot will depend on Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, who bagged a welcome brace against Nigeria.  Klinsmann is targeting a place in the knockout phase of the World Cup.  To do that, the Americans will need to hit the ground running.

Group Winners: Germany
Runners Up: Portugal

Group H: Algeria, Belgium, Russia & South Korea

Algeria was the last team from Africa to qualify for the World Cup, narrowly edging Burkina Faso on the away goals rule.  The Desert Foxes have won favor with the likes of Javier Zanetti, Rivaldo, and Diego Maradona all believing that Algeria has the potential to surprise their opponents.  It would be in keeping with Algeria’s World Cup history if they do cause a hiccup – in 2010 they held a lackluster England to a 0-0 draw, and more spectacularly in 1982 they beat West Germany and Chile only to be denied a place in the knockout stage when the West Germans and Austrians colluded to play out a sterile match which ensured that they went through at Algeria’s expense.

Keep an eye on Sofiane Feghouli, who will be central to Algeria’s attacking plans, and striker Islam Slimani, who currently plays for Sporting Lisbon.  Coach Vahid Halilhodžić also has the talents of Nabil Bentaleb to call upon as the Tottenham man pledged his allegiance to Algeria.  In fact, a fair number of their squad ply their trade in Europe, playing in the Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish leagues.  If the Algerians can get their game together they could give the big guns in their group a run for their money; but despite their ambitions to qualify for the knock out stages, it’s hard to see them getting past the first hurdle.

Belgium, the fifth favourites for the tournament, has an exceptionally talented squad, though they will be hoping that Romelu Lukaku recovers from his injury quickly to lead the attack.  Their strength in depth is awesome, boasting one of the tournament’s stand out goalkeepers in Thibaut Cortois; their backline is led by Vincent Kompany and features the likes of Jan Vertongen and Toby Alderweireld but it’s their midfield where the Belgians are really blessed.  Axel Witsel will screen the back four and keep the game ticking for the Red Devils, allowing the attacking talents of Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, and Adnan Januzaj or Kevin De Bruyne to flourish and get at their opponents.  Belgium is a side that is technically gifted but can be physical if the match demands it.  The backline can more than hold their own and Marc Wilmots can draft in the likes of Marouane Fellaini who, despite a disappointing season at Manchester United, can add a bit of muscle and bully opponents.  A lot of soccer fans and pundits expect Belgium to perform at the World Cup and they shouldn’t allow themselves be weighed down by the levels of expectation.  That said, a number of this side play for big European clubs so the players shouldn’t be overawed by what they can achieve.  Belgium’s best World Cup run came in 1986 when they finished fourth in Mexico.  2014 represents their best chance to match and possibly better that run.

Russia and their coach Fabio Capello will be hoping to make a good impression in this World Cup as their records in the competition aren’t the most eye-catching.  Russia has never gone beyond the group stages of the World Cup, and Capello’s nightmare in South Africa is something the Italian is keen to prove is nothing more than a blip on his illustrious resume.  Igor Akinfeev will be a key man for them following in the tradition of fine Russian goalkeepers.  In front of Akinfeev the Russian defense is not terribly generous, conceding only five goals in 10 qualifying matches.  They suffered a blow in losing Roman Shirokov to injury, but they do have Alan Dzagoev, who will be their creative lynchpin, and Alexander Kerzhakov will be the main goal scoring threat for the Russians.  One would expect the Russians to go through, especially with a coach as successful as Capello in charge, but they cannot take their games against South Korea or Algeria lightly.  If Russia stumble at the first hurdle then they will not play another competitive World Cup-related game until 2018, when they host the tournament.

South Korea go into this World Cup with one of the younger sides in the tournament with an average age of 25.7 years, and coach Hong Myung-Bo hopes that his team’s pace, skill and athleticism will see them progress into the knockout round.  Don’t put it past them either, as South Korea is not the easiest side to play against and they will not stop running until the final whistle goes.  Their main man will be Son Heung-min, who has pace to burn and is comfortable with both feet.  Kim Young-kwon is an important player too; he has been touted for bigger and better things by his Guangzhou Evergrande manager, Marcello Lippi.  If Lee Chong-Yong can rediscover his form prior to his injury, then the South Koreans have another pacy skillful outlet to channel their attacks.  The classy Ki Seung-yueng and Kim Bo-kyung are capable of dictating the tempo of a game in midfield.  The major concern is with their goalkeepers and whether Jung Sung-Ryung and Kim Seung-gyu can step up their game and protect the South Korean goal.  Their match against Russia will likely decide who will progress through to the knockout stages.

Group Winners: Belgium
Runners Up: Russia

So there you have it, but the time for talking is pretty much done. Bring on the World Cup!

Mexico Goes Into the World Cup Facing a Lot of Uncertainty

El Tri is on the verge of playing their most important FIFA World Cup in years. The 2014 FIFA World Cup might be very significant as Mexico’s roster is comprised by a balance between promising and experienced players. Moreover, out of the 23 players that will take on the tournament in Brazil, 10 players were part of the squad that won the gold medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics. As such, it seems that Mexico is headed to an impressive World Cup performance.

However, the actual panorama of the Mexican squad is far from ideal. In the past year, Mexico has had 4 different managers and the list of players that have been called up to play for El Tri is as long as ever. Moreover, essential players such as Andres Guardado and Javier Hernandez struggled last season to have a consistent amount of time on the pitch. To make matters worse, Carlos Vela, currently the best Mexican player, is not even willing to be part of Mexico’s World Cup roster.

In addition to the above, Miguel Herrera has shown that he is still searching to define his starting XI. Mexico’s last four matches against Israel, Ecuador, Bosnia and Portugal confirm that “El Piojo” Herrera is experimenting as much as he can. In fact, the 23 players that have been called up for the World Cup have all seen action in those games, and still don’t know if they will start for Mexico on June 13 against Cameroon. Furthermore, the injury of Luis Montes, one of the few Mexican players that was considered to have a secure place in the staring XI, has aggravated the uncertainty that surrounds the Mexican squad. The feeling of uncertainty is such that I have witnessed Mexican soccer experts disagree greatly in their prediction of Mexico’s performance in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. For some of them, Mexico will be mediocre and probably won’t secure more than 3 points in the group stage. On the other hand, others believe that Mexico should be able to grab a victory against Cameroon and Croatia and draw against Brazil.

On the bright side, Mexicans still have reasons to feel optimistic (at least during group stage). If Mexico has shown anything in the in the past World Cups, it is that regardless of the players, coaches and strategies, the group stage is usually not a problem. In fact, along with Brazil and Germany, Mexico has progressed to the knockout stage in the last 5 World Cups. If you add this World Cup expertise to a so called “golden generation” of players, we could be days away from seeing Mexico sail effortlessly through group stage. Unfortunately for Mexico, its path seems to be destined to end in the round of 16. Since Brazil will probably win at least two of its three group matches, Mexico is aspiring to, at best, the second place of Group A. In such an event, Mexico will move on to the round of 16 and encounter the first place of Group B, a fierce group consisting of Australia, Chile, the Netherlands, and Spain.

More than ever, the path of El Tri seems uncertain and full of questions. However, every World Cup we get pleasant surprises from teams that overcome their adverse conditions and surprisingly reach relevant stages of the tournament. The question is: will Mexico shine like gold and establish itself as a World Cup heavyweight, or will it shine like pyrite and again turn out to be a World Cup deception?


Can The World Cup Create New American Soccer Fans?

In a little over a week, a tournament will commence that millions around the world wait for during an excruciatingly long four-year period.  It’s a contest that players, coaches, and fans take immense interest in, and even elicits mild curiosity from the casual spectator.  Many follow the progress of their national teams in the four year intervals, eagerly watching their development until the time comes when the squad is finally announced: the twenty-three that will represent their country on the world’s largest stage.

This year, the stage is set in Brazil and the World Cup kicks off in Sao Paulo with the host nation playing Croatia. It’s a moment that has been anticipated since the finale of the 2010 edition when Spain lifted the trophy in South Africa and proclaimed themselves champions of the world. It almost seems like an eternity ago, doesn’t it?

It was a moment to appreciate the present, reflecting on all the matches the summer had offered and the brilliance the world had seen in each one, but it was also a time to envision what the following World Cup would offer. Brazil seemed so far off, yet so near.  With the history the country offers as the all-time leading champion, Brazil presents itself as a land of intrigue and infinite possibilities with its size and diversity.

Since the moment FIFA announced the 2014 World Cup would be hosted by Brazil, the reaction to the news was a complete mixture of appreciation and derision. Much of the negativity stemmed from within the borders of Brazil, interestingly enough, and focused heavily on the construction of the new stadiums built specifically for the tournament.  With costs skyrocketing past initial expectations, deadlines falling drastically behind schedule, entire neighborhoods moved out due to their decrepit appearances and proximity to the venues, and numerous injuries and deaths resulting from poor working conditions, the entire affair had many wondering whether the contest would even be a positive experience.

Does the World Cup provide dreams of a bright summer and even brighter future, or simply undelivered promises hidden underneath the hype and expectations?

It’s interesting the differing perspectives and opinions that a single event can create; however, it’s not too difficult to grasp as the World Cup literally affects the activities of entire nations that live and breathe soccer. Businesses cut hours, people skip work, crowds gather at bars, pubs, and restaurants (anywhere with access to a television and alcohol), and soon the chants begin. National anthems, players’ names, the tournament’s official song—it could be anything, as long as it fuels the fire of passion.

As the opening date of the group stage draws near, it doesn’t take long to notice people on the streets sporting the jerseys and waving the flags of their country. It’s a moment to take pride in your nation as the selected players represent you.

Any time the prestigious tournament rolls around, the sport catches the attention of the United States for a brief amount of time. Numerous television networks fight for the broadcasting rights, as the ratings for soccer seem to soar during the period despite never recreating those strong numbers any other time of the year. It begs the question of, “does the U.S. have a passionate enough of a following to warrant any success the team may garner in the tournament?”

Soccer still lags far behind the major sports in this country in terms of viewership and attendance, despite the recent trends of growth that suggest a shift could occur in the near future. It’s safe to say there are more than enough eyeballs on the one month that consists of the World Cup, but how about the other times of the year when Major League Soccer is in session?

It’s tough to pinpoint the exact reason why the average American will tune into the World Cup and cheer on their team but insists on ignoring the existence of a league within the country’s borders. It may be a lack of awareness and perhaps some teams have yet to reach out and publicize themselves enough in their area to get more fans in the stadium.

Maybe there isn’t a team nearby for them to cheer for. MLS consists of 19 teams at the moment, with two more to join for the 2015 season, and another arriving two years later.  Some of these teams are filling holes in the map where the lack of a professional soccer team is very apparent. It seems Commissioner Don Garber has made it his mission at the moment to focus on expanding to the Southeast, where previous teams folded at the start of the millennium, and also gain teams in bigger markets to feed more money into the league.

MLS isn’t the richest league in the world by any means, which might be a reason why it hasn’t caught on yet because it doesn’t have the same amount of reach as the Premier League or La Liga. That by no means negates MLS’s development, which has been incredible since its inception in 1996, as the number of teams has nearly doubled and the level of play has vastly improved. The fact remains, though, that the sport can’t acquire the TV deals it desires to extend to broader audiences. Networks that broadcast MLS games seem to only acquire a dozen from the entire slate of games and, of the teams chosen, there doesn’t appear to be much diversity.

There is no doubt that the average MLS follower most likely is a fan of the U.S. national team and will watch every single match it participates in this summer. A typical MLS fan seems to be well-versed in the sport, watching the games of other teams in the league, following the play of various leagues around the world, as well as observing the progress of several different national teams. Perhaps this is no different than any other soccer fan from another part of the world, but the point is that there seems to be a certain type of passion that only exists within a soccer fan, as opposed to a fan of another sport.

Soccer fans seem to be the ones most willing to jump up and down, scream, wear the colors of their team, and stay proud regardless of a win or tie. They never give up, and this attitude continues to be reflected when it comes to the national team as well. The connection of the love of your soccer team and the love of your country is tied together because every four years the players you follow take part in the most important games of their lives.

This type of fanaticism and passion seems limited in the U.S. as the majority of the population hardly pays attention to the sport anyway. So the question remains if the future of soccer within the United States is a bright one or not. Does it have a tough road to complete in order to garner more fans, to create a tough, competitive league that can win over the casual viewers and make admirers out of them?

The World Cup is the battleground, not only for the U.S. national team in Brazil, but also for the popularity of the sport amongst Americans. Will this be the year that more people take an interest and wonder who are these faces representing them down in South America, what teams they play for, what their histories are, or why they’ve been chosen as opposed to others?

If soccer can pose these kinds of questions to its audience then the road to soccer’s success in America will be much easier.


Dispelling the Top 4 Cliches of the 2014 FIFA World Cup

The World Cup is nearly upon us and as the anticipation is ramping up for the biggest sporting event on the planet, so will the debates, talking points, narratives and clichés.  No doubt soccer fans from all over will gather together with like-minded friends and discuss everything there is to talk about regarding the World Cup. In the course of a conversation people may throw out some statements that seem reasonable at first, but are also worth looking into in more detail.

Here are a few things that you may or may not hear in the run up to the 2014 soccerpalooza otherwise known as the World Cup.

1. No European team has won a World Cup in South America:

This is completely and utterly true, but ask yourself how many times has the World Cup been held in South America? The answer is four. And when was the last time South America held a World Cup? It was 1978, in Argentina. The only times South America hosted the World Cup were: the inaugural tournament in Uruguay in 1930, Brazil 1950, Chile 1962, and Argentina 1978. It’s worth noting that the 1986 World Cup was supposed to be held in Colombia but a mixture of politics and earthquakes prevented the tournament from being held there. Indeed, the Colombians gave up their right to host the tournament in 1983.

The last time the tournament was in the Americas was USA ‘94 whilst Mexico held the event in 1970 and 1986. In total the tournament has been hosted seven times in the Americas. So the next time someone points out that no European team has won the World Cup in South America, it’s worth saying that the tournament hasn’t been hosted there since 1978, and just four times in the region.

2. Belgium are “dark horses” for the World Cup:

Apparently the earliest mention of the term ‘dark horse’ was in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel “The Young Duke.” He wrote, “a dark horse which had never been thought of and which the careless St. James had never observed in the list, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph.”

So effectively, the term means unexpected winner. Now Belgium have been mentioned as potential dark horses, but let’s have a closer look at them. Are they favorites? No, that tag, according to the bookies, is reserved for Brazil. Second, third and fourth favorites are Argentina, Germany, and Spain respectively. Who are fifth favorites to win the World Cup? That’s right: Belgium, and given the squad they have it is no surprise they’re up there in the odds list.

With Thibault Courtois in goal, they have one of the best young keepers in Europe, if not the world. Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertongen and Toby Alderweireld help make a solid base in defense. The Red Devils’ midfield is strong with the likes of Axel Witsel, Stephen Defour, Moussa Dembélé, Nacer Chadli, Kevin De Bruyne, and even the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini beefing up that area of the pitch. And let’s not forget the attacking talent that the Belgians possess in abundance with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, and even the newly-pledged Adnan Januzaj providing the goal threat. Belgium certainly have a squad good enough to make the latter stages in Brazil.

Would it be a surprise if they win the tournament? Yes, but it wouldn’t be that huge a shock. If the odds are anything to go by, the Belgians are expected to make the quarterfinals at the very least.

Perhaps Belgium are not dark horses but instead are, to borrow a quote from Brendan Rodgers, the “chihuahuas who run in between the legs of the horses.”

3. To be considered one of the all time greats, Messi or Ronaldo must win a World Cup:

This statement has popped up now and again in relation to two of the finest players of this generation. This tends to be a polarizing argument and is somewhat clouded by the rather odd, in my opinion, Team Messi vs. Team Ronaldo dynamic.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe that Messi or Ronaldo need to win the World Cup to cement their greatness. Winning the World Cup would certainly embellish their glittering list of honors, but some of the greatest players of all time do not have a World Cup winner’s medal to their name. Johan Cruyff, Eusebio, and Ferenc Puskas are rightly considered some of the finest players to have graced the game but they haven’t won a World Cup. George Best never even played in a World Cup during his brief career, but is rightly recognized as one of soccer’s greats.

To a point, Ronaldo and Messi are their own worst enemies because they’ve made the extraordinary seem mundane. Indeed there’s a striking photo of Ronaldo in Portugal’s 3-2 victory against Sweden, racing towards goal with still some work to do whilst in the background his teammates are already holding their arms aloft in celebration.

Their records, especially in an era where the Champions League is arguably the pinnacle of quality in world soccer, are quite staggering.  This season, as of the time of writing, Ronaldo has scored 50 goals and made 14 in 46 appearances in competitive club matches including an amazing 16 goals in 10 Champions League games. Messi in comparison has “only” scored 41 goals and made 13 in 45 competitive club games. Messi has won the Ballon D’or four times whilst Ronaldo has won it twice.  Ronaldo has scored 150 league goals in La Liga faster than anyone else and Messi racked up the most goals over a calendar year with 91 in 2012.

The pair have smashed records left, right, and center and whilst they are no doubt determined to lead their countries to World Cup glory, their stature should not be affected by the lack of a winner’s medal.

More than anything, we are extremely fortunate to see two of the greatest players the game has ever seen grace the pitch in our lifetime.

4. The World Cup will be a carnival of soccer:

This will no doubt be bandied about, and for all intensive purposes is true. but there is so much more. If the 2013 Confederations Cup is anything to go by then the World Cup will be a lightning rod for large-scale protests and for good reason too.

The roots of the discontent can be found initially in the fare increases in public transportation in Brazil.  From there it escalated into protests against corruption, the state of public services, and the cost of living to name but a few issues.  The protests were not initially against the tournament itself, but the Confederations Cup soon came to be a target for the ire of the protesters.

Sepp Blatter pleaded with protesters not to “use football to make their demands heard.”  Not for the first time, and probably not the last either, Blatter completely missed the point.

On the other hand, players like David Luiz, Hulk, Dani Alves, and Neymar came out in support of the protests, sympathizing with the concerns of their fellow Brazilians.  Oddly enough, whilst the Confederations Cup drew the scorn of protesters, the Brazilian team provided a beacon of unity in that very same tournament.

The legacy of the upcoming World Cup, or the hope at the very least, was supposedly that public money would be used to invest in much needed infrastructure projects whilst private money would be spent to build or improve the soccer stadiums.

What happened instead was public money being diverted to help build stadiums at the expense of the infrastructure projects.  The building of stadiums is well behind schedule so far and has cost the lives of eight construction workers at the time of writing.

South American soccer expert Tim Vickery, speaking to an Irish radio program, pointed out the disconnect between the Brazilian public and the organizers of the World Cup. He singled out a particular banner that distilled the frustrations of protesters into one powerful slogan: “We need FIFA standard schools.”  Vickery explained that if the Brazilian authorities under pressure from FIFA can build modern world-class stadiums, then why are they seemingly incapable of building FIFA standard hospitals, FIFA standard schools, or FIFA standard public transport.

He noted that Brazil effectively had 11 years to prepare for the World Cup even though they were officially announced as hosts in 2007. This was in no small part due to FIFA’s policy of rotating the World Cup around different confederations and the support of the South American Football Federation COMNEBOL, who gave their blessing to Brazil’s bid. Despite the time available to prepare, Vickery pointed out that there was a lack of ‘intelligent’ debate about how the World Cup should be hosted.  Private investors were expected to fund the building of stadiums in places like Manaus, Brasilia, and Cuibá, but organizers didn’t take into account the lack of a culture following local teams and weak home sides in these areas. The commercial viability in investing in these stadiums, especially after the World Cup, is pretty small so the incentive for private investment was always minimal.

Locally, there will be a lot of politicking among political hopefuls in Brazil. The General Election will be held in October of this year and will see Brazilians vote for the Presidency, National Congress, State Governors, and State Legislators. Politicians will no doubt try and tap into the mood of the country and use the World Cup for their own political ambitions.  Former World Cup Winner turned politician Romario, who has been a huge critic of how the tournament has been organized and of FIFA, has already claimed that Brazil has lost the World Cup “off the pitch.” One way or another the upcoming World Cup will see a lot of political jostling.

The soccer at the World Cup will hopefully be played with the spirit that embodies the style and flair of the host nation Brazil.  If there are the expected protests at the World Cup, Brazil have a leader in Luiz Filipe Scolari who can tap into the feeling of the nation, galvanize the team, and rally his country to a World Cup triumph. The Seleção themselves can be a uniting force and provide a symbol for all of Brazil to get behind.  The team will be lauded if they triumph, but the disenfranchised will separate any success on the pitch from the troubles that preceded the tournament and will lay the blame firmly at the door of FIFA and the bureaucrats if they haven’t done so already.

There will be a carnival atmosphere and the soccer will be treasured by the fans.  FIFA, however, in all likelihood won’t feel the love. Still, Sepp Blatter and company can probably draw comfort from another potentially huge profit from a commercially successful World Cup.

There are plenty of stories, clichés, and words that’ll be said or rehashed, in the run up to the World Cup. Can Brazil banish the pain of 1950? How useful will goal line technology be? Will the Brazuca be up to scratch? Can Luis Suarez top his save in the 2010 World Cup? Will the curse of the Nike ad strike again?

There’s plenty to talk about but don’t take things at face value. There’s always a little more to the World Cup than meets the eye. That said keep on talking, keep on debating, enjoy your soccer, and most of all bring on the World Cup!


Confederations Cup Final: Brazil vs Spain Match Preview


The 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup final is upon us, with hosts Brazil set to face Spain for the title on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro.

For Brazil, the final will offer the opportunity for a fourth Confederations Cup title, which could serve as a springboard to further success at next summer’s World Cup, also to be held in Brazil.

Spain have never won the Confederations Cup (this is their second appearance in the tournament), but they have won everything else lately. World Cup winners in 2010 and European champions in 2008 and 2012, Spain are currently unrivaled as the best international side in the world.

With such historic success of late, they also rank as one of the best international teams of all time. Will they add another title to their haul this Sunday, or will Brazil claim another Confederations crown?

Keep reading as we break down the match below.

How They Got Here

As hosts, Brazil were drawn into Group A with Japan, Mexico and Italy. Brazil won all three group matches to win Group A with nine points.

Brazil beat Japan, 3-0, in the opener, followed by a 2-0 victory over Mexico. They closed out the group stage with a 4-2 win over group runners-up Italy.

On Wednesday, Brazil defeated Uruguay, 2-1, in the semifinals, with Paulinho heading in the late winner.

Neymar and Fred have scored three goals apiece to lead Brazil, while Jo and Paulinho have scored twice each.

Spain won Group B with a 100-percent record against Uruguay (2-1), Tahiti (10-0) and Nigeria (3-0).

Spain then outlasted Italy in the semifinals, winning a penalty shootout, 7-6, after the match had finished scoreless following 90 minutes of regular time and 30 more of extra time. Jesus Navas converted the decisive penalty.

Fernando Torres scored four goals in the rout of Tahiti and has recorded five in the tournament so far. David Villa scored a hat trick in the match. David Silva and Jordi Alba have scored two goals each at the tournament.

Talking Tactics—Spain

Spain’s strategy is no secret. Manager Vicente Del Bosque’s team relies on a patient passing game to break down opponents. Spain regularly dominate possession in their 4-3-3 formation and win the ball back quickly upon losing it.

At Euro 2012, Del Bosque experimented with a lineup that featured no true strikers. At this tournament, however, he has regularly used a striker. Roberto Soldado started the opener against Uruguay and the group finale against Nigeria, while Torres started against Tahiti and Italy.

Talking Tactics—Brazil

Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout the tournament, with Fred at the top of the formation and budding superstar Neymar on the left side of the attacking midfield.

In the semifinals, Uruguay stunted Brazil’s attack with high pressing, forcing mistakes and negative passes. But Uruguay’s admirable defending was undone in the first half by a long ball and a bit of skill from Neymar, who set up Fred for the opener. In the second half, Neymar’s corner led to Paulinho’s headed winner.


Spain faced a tough test in the semifinal against Italy—and passed narrowly. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising. Even considering Spain’s 4-0 victory over Italy in last summer’s Euro 2012 final, the Azzurri had the advantage of intimate knowledge of Spain’s tactics and strategy, having played the world champions so often in the recent past.

Brazil won’t have that advantage. What’s more, this is a team still building, or to use Cox’s expression, ticking off boxes. The ultimate goal, of course, is winning the World Cup next summer, but the fans and players alike will be passionate about taking the Confederations Cup title on home soil as well.

An upset is possible, of course. Italy proved Thursday that Spain are not quite the invincible side we like to think they are. But Spain do have plenty of experience in major tournament finals, and Brazil are still dealing with issues in the squad, particularly central midfield.

Home-field advantage will play its role, but in the end, Spain should have enough talent and experience to win.