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DEATH 11.25 AVG. FIFA RANK
December 16, 2013
Ninety minutes after last Friday's World Cup draw, not long after returning to his hotel on Brazil's Bahia coast, United States coach J√ºrgen Klinsmann finally had a quiet moment away from the crush of 2,000 international media members. "Well," Klinsmann said of the Americans' landing in an opening-round group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, "it couldn't have gone any more difficult."
By FIFA's measure Group G is the most imposing of the tournament, with an average rank of 11.25 (see Group of Death/Life charts). No. 2 Germany¬π, Klinsmann's native country, is deep, young and relentless (as well as one of the favorites to win the whole thing). No. 5 Portugal¬≤, led by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, is a dark horse contender, and No. 24 Ghana¬≥ has eliminated the Americans from the last two World Cups. To compound its bad luck, the U.S. (No. 14) drew the worst of 24 possible travel itineraries, an 8,866-mile odyssey to and from its S√£o Paulo base camp.
All, however, is not lost for the Americans. Their opener is against Ghana, a real chance to bag three points. Getting a result is hardly out of the question in Game 2 against Portugal, which has been inconsistent and recently tied an important home qualifier against Israel (No. 62). As for Germany, Klinsmann will have his squad ready to play a team he knows well—and the Germans may have less motivation in the match if they've already qualified for the second round.
Yes, it's an extremely difficult draw for the Americans—but remember, this is a U.S. team that nobody else wants to play, either. Says Ghana coach Akwasi Appiah, "When I saw the U.S. joining the group, I said, 'Oh no, not again.' "
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The path for Brazil¬π is eased by a soft group, but Cup glory still depends on the silky skills of Neymar, the Sele√ß√£o's latest "next Pelé." The 21-year-old Barcelona striker already has 27 goals in 46 international matches and will be expected to help nab "O sexto"—Brazil's sixth world title. Despite a miserable qualifying run, Mexico¬≥ has regrouped under new coach Miguel Herrera; El Tri has the talent to move on. The glory years of Cameroon and Croatia¬≤, however, have passed. Don't bet on either.
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The champs will be challenged: Spain¬π opens against the powerful Netherlands¬≤ in a mouthwatering rematch of the 2010 final and also gets grouped with Chile¬≥, a side with ample attacking flair. The Spaniards earn plaudits for their possession, but their dominance really starts with defense. If anyone can challenge that stranglehold it's Dutch striker Robin van Persie, who scores at will for Manchester United. And pity poor Australia, which is out of its depth.
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Back in the Cup for the first time since 1998, Colombia¬π—led by AS Monaco forward Radamel Falcao—is talented but untested at the highest level. It helps that Los Cafeteros sit atop a wide-open group. Parity should open the door for Ivory Coast¬≥, an African power that's struggled to make its mark on the world stage but which will get one last shot at it with 35-year-old captain Didier Drogba.Japan is dominant in Asia and Greece¬≤ typically is a tough out—both should like their chances to advance.
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A tabloid writer's dream, this quartet will steal headlines not only because the lineup ensures at least one former Cup winner exits early but also because of Luis Suàrez (of 2010 semifinalist Uruguay¬π) and Mario Balotelli (of four-time champ Italy), two flamboyant characters with noses for goal. And then, of course, there's England¬≥—the Three Lions aren't a gold medal threat, but they always bring the drama. Costa Rica¬≤, runner-up to the U.S. in CONCACAF, has its work cut out.
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This is the group the U.S. wanted. Instead, it's Honduras (CONCACAF's No. 3) that gets to face Switzerland¬π (the weakest of the eight seeds), Ecuador¬≤ (the least fearsome of the South Americans) and France¬≥ (which is loaded—but which, traditionally, is just as likely to implode as it is to contend). If Honduras advances it will do so with some American flavor: Among Los Catrachos' MLS contingent is Houston MF Oscar Boniek Garcia, who has the speed and flair to make a difference.
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Argentina¬π will use this group to warm up for an assault on a third title. The race will be for second and the tourney's only debutant, Bosnia-Herzegovina¬≤, is favored. The Dragons feature several players from Europe's top leagues, including Vedad Ibi≈°eviƒá, a VfB Stuttgart striker who attended Saint Louis University after his family fled Bosnia in 2000, and Man City's Edin D≈æeko. African champ Nigeria and Iran¬≥, coached by former N.Y. Red Bulls manager Carlos Queiroz, round out the quartet.
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Belgium¬π, the World Cup's most intriguing team, hasn't made it this far since '02 but travels to Brazil powered by a golden generation of world-class players, including Eden Hazard, the 22-year-old attacker who leads Chelsea in scoring. Inexperience and pressure may be the Red Devils' eventual undoing, but they're unlikely to struggle in group play. Russia¬≥, with its Italian manager, Fabio Capello, is looking to improve upon past failures. Expectations for South Korea and Algeria¬≤ are minimal.
SI's Super Early Don't-Hold-Us-to-It Prediction
It has often been said that Argentina striker Lionel Messi, the four-time World Player of the Year, won't be considered the Greatest of All Time until he wins a World Cup. The way I see it now—and, please, ask me again in June—Messi, 25, will put those doubts to bed in the grandest way possible, leading his country to its third title by conquering archrival Brazil on its home soil. The pressure will be too high on the host nation and its star, Neymar, and with a brilliant display Messi will enter the pantheon of the sport.
South Korea H2
United States G2