As far as host-nation favorites go, it doesn’t get much clearer than Brazil being the No. 1 choice to win the 2014 World Cup. The Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro will host the final, and the Seleção’s classic yellow jerseys should feature prominently.
A European team has never won a World Cup in the Americas, making Brazil even easier to choose as favorite, with Argentina right on its heels. The Albiceleste hasn’t won one since Diego Maradona led them to the 1986 title in Mexico, but Lionel Messi is hoping to do the same in 2014.
Here’s how the entire 32-team field shapes up heading into the 2014 World Cup:
Group A opponents: Croatia (June 12), Mexico (June 17), Cameroon (June 23)
Winning the Confederations Cup last summer showed what Brazil can do with home-field advantage. This should be where the host nation picks up its sixth World Cup victory.
Group F opponents: Bosnia-Herzegovina (June 15), Iran (June 21), Nigeria (June 25)
Argentina is on the opposite side of the knockout bracket from Brazil, which could set up an epic final. This team is much more than just Lionel Messi, and it should make it to the showcase match before falling to the Seleção.
Group G opponents: Portugal (June 16), Ghana (June 21), United States (June 26)
No matter the state of the German national team, it always expects a deep run in major tournaments. Group G will be challenging enough to set the Germans up well for the knockout rounds, but die Mannschaft should challenge for its fourth World Cup in Brazil.
Group B opponents: Netherlands (June 13), Chile (June 18), Australia (June 23)
For once, the pressure is off Spain, holder of the World Cup and previous two European Championships. La Furia Roja’s crop of aging stars aren’t expected to win this time — but it’s Spain, which means it’s still a distinct possibility.
Group H opponents: Algeria (June 17), Russia (June 22), Korea Republic (June 26)
A couple years ago, Belgium went from being a team that could surprise in Brazil to a team that is widely expected to perform. A superior youth development system, aided by Belgium’s geography, has quickly brought the nation of 11 million people to the upper tier of world football.
Group E opponents: Honduras (June 15), Switzerland (June 20), Ecuador (June 25)
In a late blow, Franck Ribéry will miss the tournament with an injury, seriously denting France’s hopes in Brazil. However, it should pave the way for Juventus youngster Paul Pogba, on the rise after moving from Manchester United, to star for his country.
Group D opponents: England (June 14), Costa Rica (June 20), Uruguay (June 24)
It seems that with Andrea Pirlo, anything is possible. The ageless playmaker, along with goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, will lead the Azzurri to another final tournament, for which they qualified by going undefeated in the preliminary rounds.
Group G opponents: Germany (June 16), United States (June 22), Ghana (June 26)
Portugal is widely considered to be a one-man show starring Cristiano Ronaldo, and his presence gives the squad a huge boost, but the Selecção has weapons in other attacking positions as well. On the defensive side, Ronaldo’s Champions League-winning teammate Pepe holds down the back line with a bite opponents will find difficult to breach.
Group D opponents: Costa Rica (June 14), England (June 19), Uruguay (June 24)
As Luis Suárez has risen, so has his national team. The Liverpool star underwent surgery for a torn meniscus a couple weeks before the World Cup, but he should be healthy enough to lead his team and challenge for the Golden Boot in the process.
Group B opponents: Australia (June 13), Spain (June 18), Netherlands (June 23)
Marcelo Bielsa stopped coaching Chile in 2011, but Argentine Jorge Sampaoli has brought back a lot of La Roja’s innovative tactical foundation that he started. Chile has a great chance of advancing out of a tough group, and its match against Spain should be one of the most entertaining in the group stage.
Group C opponents: Greece (June 14), Ivory Coast (June 19), Japan (June 24)
Even without Radamel Falcao, Colombia will win Group C. How much farther it advances remains to be seen, but Los Cafeteros have a series of B-list stars on their roster, including Jackson Martínez and Juan Cuadrado, looking for their chance to break into that top tier.
Group D opponents: Italy (June 14), Uruguay (June 19), Costa Rica (June 24)
Perennial underachievers at the World Cup besides when it won in 1966, England has seen a recent change in its style, with possession football taking over the English Premier League instead of the direct, physical game. Manager Roy Hodgson has embraced it, naming Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana, Daniel Sturridge and Rickie Lambert to the final squad.
Group A opponents: Brazil (June 12), Cameroon (June 18), Mexico (June 23)
Don’t sleep on the Balkan nations, especially Croatia. The midfield set of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic is as talented as any in the tournament, which could turn Brazil’s tournament opener from celebratory to funereal in a flash.
Group F opponents: Argentina (June 15), Nigeria (June 21), Iran (June 25)
Croatia is slightly more talented, but Bosnia boasts its own compliment of technical, savvy players. Qualifying for the first time as an independent nation, American fans will be most interested to see how former Saint Louis University midfielder Vedad Ibisevic fares.
Group C opponents: Ivory Coast (June 14), Greece (June 19), Colombia (June 24)
Speaking of technical players, Japan has always produced them in spades. The Samurai Blue’s weakness isn’t in attack, where Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki could run rampant, but in a defense that conceded multiple goals to Brazil, Mexico and Italy in the Confederations Cup last summer.
Group H opponents: Korea Republic (June 17), Belgium (June 22), Algeria (June 26)
Russia is the only nation whose players are all based domestically. While the Russian Premier League is far from the weakest in Europe, and it should advance beyond the group stage, it’s hard to see Russia competing against top teams with 23 players who haven’t had to be at the top of their game during the club season.
Group B opponents: Spain (June 13), Australia (June 18), Chile (June 23)
The Oranje is a young team led by a veteran coach in Louis van Gaal, but even a brilliant tactician such as the new Manchester United manager will have a tough time getting a lot out of this squad. At least the defense has familiarity on its side, with half of the defenders named to the roster playing for Feyenoord in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Group E opponents: Ecuador (June 15), France (June 20), Honduras (June 25)
At the draw, Switzerland was the team in the highest-ranked pot that everybody wanted to draw. The Swiss are solid without being spectacular, but they are also capable of surprising results, such as when they handed Spain a defeat in their first World Cup match four years ago.
Group G opponents: Ghana (June 16), Portugal (June 22), Germany (June 26)
U.S. manager Jürgen Klinsmann has already said his team won’t be winning the World Cup, and it doesn’t seem like a ploy of reverse psychology. With top teams such as Portugal and Germany in its group, even a win in the first match against Ghana won’t provide too much hope for advancing out of the first round.
Group G opponents: United States (June 16), Germany (June 21), Portugal (June 26)
Ghana sits just below the U.S. heading into the World Cup largely based on the teams’ contrasting finishes to warm-up games. The Black Stars knocked the U.S. out of the last two World Cups, but 2014’s team is very different, and it might lack the same incisiveness in attack that the last two squads provided.
Group A opponents: Cameroon (June 13), Brazil (June 17), Croatia (June 23)
It hasn’t been a great build-up to Brazil for Mexico, which went through a number of managers during the qualification cycle and only snuck into the tournament via a home-and-home playoff against New Zealand. Miguel Herrera has his team in a defensive-minded 5-3-2 system, which means goals will be hard to come by against Brazil and Croatia.
Group E opponents: Switzerland (June 15), Honduras (June 20), France (June 25)
The lowest-ranked South American team to qualify, Ecuador still has an outside chance of advancing beyond the group stage due to its weak draw in just its third World Cup finals appearance. La Tri failed to qualify four years ago, but it did advance to the round of 16 in 2006.
Group C opponents: Japan (June 14), Colombia (June 19), Greece (June 24)
The Ivory Coast’s golden generation is on its way out, with aging stars such as Didier Drogba ready to cash in after this tournament. An unreliable defense paired with an inconsistent attack means the Ivorians will likely go home after three matches.
Group C opponents: Colombia (June 14), Japan (June 19), Ivory Coast (June 24)
A team known for its staunch defense, Greece will be tough to break down, but without offering much on the other end of the field, it won’t go far. Giorgios Samaras is the Greeks’ most prolific attacker, and he’s coming off an average season in the Scottish Premiership.
Group F opponents: Iran (June 16), Bosnia-Herzegovina (June 21), Argentina (June 25)
Against the U.S. in its final tune-up game, Nigeria looked listless and disjointed. The attack couldn’t connect, and players seemed to be easily frustrated with one another, which doesn’t bode well for facing tough teams such as Bosnia and Argentina.
Group H opponents: Russia (June 17), Algeria (June 22), Belgium (June 26)
Korea’s recent record in international competition is downright dreadful, capped by a 4-0 loss to Ghana in Miami on June 9. In the only other warm-up match before the World Cup, South Korea lost to Tunisia, and it enters the tournament as the second-lowest ranked team, just ahead of Australia.
Group D opponents: Uruguay (June 14), Italy (June 20), England (June 24)
Los Ticos looked decent heading into the World Cup, but losing Real Salt Lake striker Álvaro Saborío was a major blow to any hopes they had of surprising in their group. It will be a battle to take any points from three tough match-ups now.
Group A opponents: Mexico (June 13), Croatia (June 18), Brazil (June 23)
The Indomitable Lions have one of the coolest nicknames of teams in this World Cup, but that’s about where the positivity ends. Free-agent striker Samuel Eto’o, 33, headlines a roster of largely bench players for their clubs.
Group H opponents: Belgium (June 17), Korea Republic (June 22), Russia (June 26)
Algeria is a largely unknown quantity, matched in that regard only by Iran. The most recognizable name on its roster is Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Nabil Bentaleb, the 19-year-old French-born midfielder who made his first-team professional debut in December 2013.
Group B opponents: Chile (June 13), Netherlands (June 18), Spain (June 23)
Australia is young, inexperienced, and besides captains Mile Jedinak and Tim Cahill, largely unimpressive. Losing Celtic midfielder Tom Rogić to injury just prior to traveling to Brazil sealed the Socceroos’ fate, which could result in an embarrassing display against three top teams.
Group E opponents: France (June 15), Ecuador (June 20), Switzerland (June 25)
Even in a manageable group such as Group E, Honduras is expected to finish at the bottom. Connections to Major League Soccer abound on the squad, making Los Catrachos a second-favorite team for many Stateside, but even Roger Espinoza and Andy Najar won’t be able to carry this team beyond three games.
Group F opponents: Nigeria (June 16), Argentina (June 21), Bosnia-Herzegovina (June 25)
Iran has never advanced beyond the first round of the World Cup, winning just one game at the final tournament in its three attempts so far (embarrassingly for Americans, it was against them at France 1998). American-born Steven Beitashour is on the squad after accepting a call-up to his parents’ birth country in 2013, following one friendly appearance as an unused for Klinsmann’s U.S. side.
GALLERY: Scenes from Brazil's World Cup