Cup, Up and Away

After the draw, the breakdown, all the way to Rio
December 16, 2013

G

1 2 3 4

GROUP OF...

DEATH 11.25 AVG. FIFA RANK

LIFE

Ninety minutes after last Friday's World Cup draw, not long after returning to his hotel on Brazil's Bahia coast, United States[4] coach Jürgen 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 Germany¹, Klinsmann's native country, is deep, young and relentless (as well as one of the favorites to win the whole thing). No. 5 Portugal², led by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, is a dark horse contender, and No. 24 Ghana³ 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 São 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.' "

A

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GROUP OF...

DEATH

LIFE 24.25

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[4] and Croatia¬≤, however, have passed. Don't bet on either.

B

1 2 3 4

GROUP OF...

DEATH

LIFE 21.00

The champs will be challenged: Spain¹ opens against the powerful Netherlands² in a mouthwatering rematch of the 2010 final and also gets grouped with Chile³, 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[4], which is out of its depth.

C

1 2 3 4

GROUP OF...

DEATH

LIFE 20.25

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[4] is dominant in Asia and Greece¬≤ typically is a tough out—both should like their chances to advance.

D

1 2 3 4

GROUP OF...

DEATH 14.25

LIFE

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[4]), 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.

E

1 2 3 4

GROUP OF...

DEATH

LIFE 22.75

This is the group the U.S. wanted. Instead, it's Honduras[4] (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.

F

1 2 3 4

GROUP OF...

DEATH

LIFE 26.25

Argentina¹ 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-Herzegovina², is favored. The Dragons feature several players from Europe's top leagues, including Vedad Ibišević, a VfB Stuttgart striker who attended Saint Louis University after his family fled Bosnia in 2000, and Man City's Edin Džeko. African champ Nigeria[4] and Iran³, coached by former N.Y. Red Bulls manager Carlos Queiroz, round out the quartet.

H

1 2 3 4

GROUP OF...

DEATH

LIFE 28.25

Belgium¹, 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. Russia³, with its Italian manager, Fabio Capello, is looking to improve upon past failures. Expectations for South Korea[4] and Algeria² 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.

Brazil A1

Chile B2

Japan C1

Italy D2

France E1

Nigeria F2

Germany G1

South Korea H2

Mexico A2

Spain B1

Colombia C2

Uruguay D1

Ecuador E2

Argentina F1

United States G2

Belgium H1

PHOTOJONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (RONALDO) PHOTOJOEL AUERBACH/GETTY IMAGES (NEYMAR) PHOTOVI IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES (VAN PERSIE) PHOTODON EMMERT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (DROGBA) PHOTOFRIEDEMANN VOGEL/GETTY IMAGES (SUAREZ) PHOTOLUIS VERA/LATINCONTENT/GETTY IMAGES (MESSI) PHOTOJOEL AUERBACH/GETTY IMAGES (BONIEK) PHOTOJAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (IBIŠEVIC) PHOTOCHRISTOF KOEPSEL/GETTY IMAGES (HAZARD) SIXTY FIVE ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)