June 9, 2014
THE LASTING image from the final match of South Africa 2010 is of Spain's players lifting their country's first world championship trophy amid fireworks and confetti while the Dutch watched, begrudgingly donning their second-place medals after 120 grueling minutes in Johannesburg. La Furia Roja finally climbed the world ladder to affirm their status among the alltime elite, while the Oranje again fell short on the grandest stage.
As fate would have it—or, for conspiracists, as weighted lottery balls would—the two giants were not only drawn together in 2014 but will also open play against each other. That June 13 encounter in Salvador will mark the first time that the previous World Cup's finalists have met in the opening round, and both sides will feature familiar casts.
Barcelona and Real Madrid still contribute heavily to manager Vicente del Bosque's Spanish side, which maintains its No. 1 status in FIFA's world ranking. (Only the Dutch have interrupted that run since mid-2010, for one month in '11.) Andrés Iniesta, scorer of the Cup-winning goal in South Africa, returns with fellow Bar√ßa midfielders Xavi and Cesc F√†bregas, as well as defenders Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba. From Madrid, goalkeeper Iker Casillas is accompanied by defender Sergio Ramos and midfielder Xabi Alonso, recipient of Nigel de Jong's infamous karate kick to the sternum in the '10 final.
The Netherlands' attack still runs through Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, though Van Persie again arrives dinged up (right knee) and Wesley Sneijder's place is more uncertain under new coach Louis van Gaal. Further questions linger about a callow defense, and the squad was dealt a major blow when AS Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman, poised for an international breakout, suffered a left-knee injury that will keep him out. It's enough to understand why, after just two years, Van Gaal recently declared himself "totally sick of being national coach"—even though the Oranje coasted through qualifying. (He'll take over at Manchester United after the Cup.)
But before assuming the European powers will advance to the knockout round, take a good hard look at Chile. Playing relatively close to home, the Chileans have world-class talent in Barcelona forward Alexis Sànchez (who knows the Spanish core well from his club training ground) and Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal. Those two form the backbone of an experienced unit that also reached the knockout stage in South Africa—emerging from its group as a runner-up to Spain—before succumbing to mighty Brazil in the round of 16.
Chile is no longer led by madman manager Marcelo Bielsa, but Jorge Sampaoli is cut from a similar cloth: He guided La Roja to a third-place finish in South American qualifying (four points behind Argentina, two behind Colombia) and embraces the unconventional high-octane, high-pressing style established by El Loco.
Led by the country's alltime leading scorer, New York Red Bulls midfielder Tim Cahill, Australia qualified through the Asian confederation with relative ease, but that did not mask issues that led to a coaching change after 6--0 friendly losses to Brazil and France last fall. Ange Postecoglou now guides the overmatched Socceroos, who would be lucky to play the role of plucky spoiler and emerge with even a single point from one of the competition's tougher groups.
Born in Brazil, this naturalized Spanish citizen, though coming off a thigh injury, will slide into a role that the team's most recent strikers, David Villa and Fernando Torres, are in no form to fill. A dynamic finisher who's flourished with Spanish champions Atlético Madrid, the 25-year-old provides an exciting new option up top. What a story it would be if Costa lifted La Furia Roja to a second straight title, this time on his native soil.
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