Contrary to what pundits and promotional campaigns might have you believe, there will be 91 players not named Lionel Messi participating in Group F.
Yes, Argentina could really use Messi at top form in order to win it all in Brazil—but if he’s not, this team has more than enough firepower to survive the group stage. Coach Alejandro Sabella tends to throw caution to the wind, playing strikers Gonzalo Higuaín (Napoli) and Sergio Agüero (Manchester City) plus attacking midfielder Ángel di María (Real Madrid) at the same time as Messi—as fearsome a front line as any team’s in the World Cup.
While there are concerns about the defense, where Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta and Benfica’s Ezequiel Garay will have to thwart counter-attacks, La Albiceleste will benefit from the tournament’s proximity. Brazil aside, no team will enjoy more of a home-field advantage.
SI MAGAZINE COVER: Lionel Messi on the World Cup issue
After winning the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria went undefeated through World Cup qualifying on the strength of a defense anchored by Lille goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and a strong midfield organized by Chelsea’s savvy John Obi Mikel. But the knock on the Super Eagles has never been a lack of talent, rather that they underperform on stages of this size—their last two World Cup teams, in ’02 and ’10, went winless in group play.
The hope now is that coach Stephen Keshi can give them a psychological boost. Keshi shocked the world in 2006 by leading Togo to its first Cup—then was shockingly fired before the tournament. (Togo bombed out.) He will be eager to make a strong second impression, this time with a better squad.
Another manager with a point to prove: Iran’s Carlos Queiroz. Enjoying an autonomy unheard of in a country where internal squabbles have consistently under-mined the national team, Queiroz took the bold step of recruiting players with dual eligibility (such as San Jose–born Steven Beitashour, who plays for Vancouver in MLS), and he has asked his charges to test themselves on European clubs.
The result is Iran’s most talented team in a generation. Dutch-Iranian striker Reza Ghochannejhad, who now plays for Charlton Athletic in England’s second division, has scored nine goals in his first 11 caps. Feisty German-Iranian winger Ashkan Dejagah gets regular time with Fulham. And a young homegrown crop—particularly 20‑year‑old winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh—will give Iran the bit of youthful verve that has so often helped teams surprise at the World Cup.
Off-field issues, however, remain hard to overcome. With potential opponents hesitant to play in Tehran and Iran’s players so spread out, the team struggled to book warm-ups against top sides. (Friendlies against the likes of Belarus and Angola hardly count.) A pre-Cup camp in Portugal that would have culminated in a game against Ghana was canceled due to the Iranian federation’s lack of funds.
If Iran isn’t up to playing spoiler, Bosnia and Herzegovina has just enough game-changers to do so in its first major tournament as a unified country. With the scoring skills of Man City’s Edin Džeko and Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibisevic, the guile of Roma’s Miralem Pjanic and the free-kick mastery of Hoffenheim’s Sejad Salihovic, the Dragons can break any game wide open. The question is whether that attacking quartet can lift the rest of the squad, which, outside of goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, is either aging or inexperienced.
Introducing: Iran F Karim Ansarifard
Well-known in Iran, where at 24 he has already twice led the domestic league in scoring (most recently for Tractor Sazi), Ansarifard is a reckless goalmouth poacher with size (6-foot-1, 170 pounds) and strength. Inter Milan, Celtic and Borussia Dortmund are among the clubs rumored to be interested in his services, and others will join in if he helps Iran get out of the group stage.
2014 World Cup Preview: Group F
Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl previews Group F for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and picks his teams and players to watch once play begins.