By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (June 12, 2014) US Soccer Players – The start of the 2014 World Cup is – finally! – here. The month-long extravaganza officially begins when hosts Brazil take on Croatia in Sao Paulo. The tournament ends July 13 in Rio’s legendary Maracana Stadium, a place Brazil – and its millions of citizens – hope will culminate in celebration.
In between, there is the little inconvenience of having to play 64 matches. So before Brazil can celebrate – we all know how this ended in 1950 – look for Spain, Argentina, Germany, Italy, USMNT and the rest of the 32-nation field to make a go at it.
The World Cup will also help clear up questions about the state of the game, which are the strongest teams (although the champion isn’t always the best team), and who are the best players at the moment. The quadrennial tournament will also be, once again, a huge opportunity for the world to come together and celebrate the game.
Below are 14 storylines to keep an eye on over the next four weeks:
1. Will the USA get out of the ‘Group of Death’?
That’s the question all USMNT fans are asking. We’ll get our answer over the next two weeks. This will also be Jurgen Klinsmann’s first World Cup as USMNT coach. Look for Tim Howard to guide the defense and Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey to get the passing game going in order to make things happen up top. This could really go either way for the US. The real question is will it resemble 1998 or 2010?
2. Is Brazil ready to host?
Incomplete stadiums, high crime rates and the possible threat of massive protests do not sound like any way to properly host a World Cup. Whether or not all (or any) of these scenarios will play out over the next month remains to be seen. Every host has traditionally gotten attention for not being ready, although Brazil has taken FIFA’s pre-tournament jitters to a whole new level. The 66,000-seat Itaquerao Stadium situation in Sao Paulo remains a real worry and organizers are fully aware there is no room for error with the world watching.
3. Will Brazil win on the field?
Host nations tend to do well at World Cups, although the last country to win at home was France in 1998. The answer to this question will come down to one player. If Neymar plays to his full potential (like at last year’s Confederations Cup), then expect Brazil to win it all. Should Neymar falter, the whole team may go down. Indeed, the pressure could get to them. This team isn’t just trying to win a World Cup, it’s trying to avenge 1950.
4. Can an African team win the World Cup?
This is the question many have asked at every tournament since Cameroon reached the quarterfinals in 1990. The short answer is that while the African teams have gotten better over the past two decades (more of their players are based in Europe), their performances at World Cups really hasn’t improved much. Like four years ago, Ghana looks to be the continent’s best hope – but don’t expect them to get that far.
5. Will Spain repeat as champions?
Spain remains one of the toughest teams in the world, but will it retain its title? Seems unlikely given that a European nation has never lifted the trophy on South American (or North American, for that matter) soil. This could very well be the tournament where Spain collapses. It’s roster is very much the same as it was in 2010 – and that’s not really a good thing. These guys are not getting any younger and they could run out of fuel. There will also be a special attention placed on striker David Villa, who recently signed with NYCFC, and how much of an impact he can make. On the whole, however, Spain faces an uphill battle. RIP tiki-taka?
6. How strong is Argentina?
In a word, very. If a European team can’t win it all, then bet on the South Americans. Of the five from CONMEBOL – Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Uruguay – only two (Brazil and Argentina) have a realistic shot of going far into the tournament. Uruguay does have an outside chance; Colombia is weaker following the loss of the injured Radamel Falcao. Argentina, like Brazil, has the talent and its time for Lionel Messi to show that he can win a title like Diego Maradona did in 1986. I am sticking with my post-draw prediction of an Argentina – Brazil final. As for the outcome, can you say Maracanazo, Part II.
7. How will CONCACAF teams do?
If pre-World Cup warm-ups are any indication (and they are usually not), then Honduras will do horribly. That leaves the USA, Mexico, and Costa Rica. While the USMNT remains the best team in this bunch (they finished first in the Hexagonal last year), this is the chance for Mexico to show everyone — particularly its rabid fans — that it can compete with the best teams in the world. The injury-riddled Mexicans will get past the group stage (it always does), but it remains to be seen if this is a team that has what it takes to go deep into the tournament. As for Costa Rica, it shares a group with Italy, England, and Uruguay. Good luck.
8. Can France and Italy rebound from 2010?
Both teams had horrible World Cups the last time around. A lot has changed in four years. Both teams have new coaches and revamped rosters. France is in a considerably easier group (with Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras), while Italy will have a tougher time (with England, Uruguay and Costa Rica). Up-and-coming midfielder Paul Pogba leads France, while Italy’s fortunes rest on the talented-but-volatile Mario Balotelli.
9. What should we expect from Bosnia-Herzegovina?
This is the only team in the 32-nation field that will make its World Cup debut. Bosnia-Herzegovina is comprised of an interesting group led by the dynamic Edin Dzeko. The team’s biggest problem is that it has few stars and a roster not deep enough to compete at this level. They could surprise some teams along the way, but overall this will be a learning experience for this tiny nation. They could edge out Nigeria to get out of Group F, but it won’t all be considered a failure if it does not.
10. What about Portugal?
The Portuguese – like Spain before winning the Euro in 2008 – are a nation with a rich tradition with nothing in its trophy case. The country has done well on the youth level in years past, but nothing on the senior level. This could very well be the summer they finally do it. A lot will depend on Cristiano Ronaldo and whether he can replicate the success he has had on the club level in recent seasons with Real Madrid.
11. Which 5 first-round games should you not miss (not including USMNT matches)?
If you can’t watch every opening round game, then here are five you definitely should not miss: Spain-Netherlands (June 13), England-Italy (June 14), Germany-Portugal (June 16), Brazil-Mexico (June 17), and Italy-Uruguay (June 24).
12. Will goal-line technology change anything?
Of course! The hope is that the embracing of technology will not only help the referee and his assistants but also result in fair outcomes. Officials tested the system for reporters this past week and all went well. The aim now is to minimize errors.
13. How will teams handle the weather?
Brazil is a big country and weather will vary based on location. For the teams who have to play in Manaus, located in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, the situation could be dire. Unbearable humidity and heat could affect the players – and the outcome – as the tournament progresses. It’s a major part of this World Cup
14. Will the World Cup boost soccer in the United States?
Absolutely. The World Cup has become very much like the Olympics. Sports fans may not watch figure skating or swimming on a random Saturday afternoon, but they watch during the Olympics. Ditto for soccer. The World Cup is the ultimate showcase for the game. Major League Soccer, on a two-week break for the first round of the World Cup, should get a boost once it resumes with its season – no matter how the USA does in Brazil.
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