This is an article from the June 9, 2014 issue
AT THE World Cup, even death is in the eye of the beholder. While three of these teams may regard their first-round quartet as this year's Grupo da Morte, for three-time champion Germany it's just a run-up to an inevitable spot in the quarterfinals.
Die Mannschaft hasn't been the juggernaut that legendary defender and former coach Franz Beckenbauer once promised would result from reunification, but it's been European soccer's most consistent contender. The Germans have never failed to advance beyond a World Cup group stage and have played in a final and two semis in the past three tournaments, getting knocked out each time by the eventual champ. They enter Brazil as group favorites again, loaded with talent and eager to end an uncharacteristically long trophy drought, dating to the 1996 European Championship. How eager? The German Football Association has spent $40 million on its own custom-built resort-hotel and training center in Bahia.
The federation is relying on coach Joachim L√∂w—for two years J√ºrgen Klinsmann's assistant—to clear that last troublesome hurdle. For that L√∂w will rely on his midfield, where Arsenal's Mesut √ñzil, Bayern Munich's Thomas M√ºller and Borussia Dortmund's Marco Reus are quick, crafty and can attack from multiple positions, while Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos are box-to-box forces. They can also cover slight deficiencies in back (where captain Philipp Lahm remains a stalwart) and up front (where 36-year-old Miroslav Klose is the only traditional striker). Nevertheless, Germany led Europe with 36 goals in qualifying and hasn't lost a match since its B team fell to the U.S. 12 months ago.
Portugal's uneven qualifying campaign had to be rescued in the end by the peerless Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored all four goals in a two-game playoff against Sweden and who now will bear so much responsibility for his nation's fate in Brazil. The Real Madrid forward is unstoppable—he has netted more than 50 goals across all competitions in each of the past four seasons—but the squad behind him has weak spots and will rely on the counterattack. Jo√£o Moutinho is an elite midfield general, and Raul Meireles adds experience and grit. Coach Paulo Bento has instilled tactical consistency and discipline. The Selec√ß√£o are more than capable of escaping Group G, but only Ronaldo can inspire a deeper run.
The two European powers will have to hold off the best of Africa and CONCACAF. Ghana was the tragic hero of the 2010 tournament, its bid to become the first African semifinalist thwarted by Uruguayan gamesmanship and its own shortcomings at the penalty spot. The Black Stars were the youngest team four years ago and are capable of advancing again, thanks in part to a robust midfield anchored by Juventus winger Kwadwo Asamoah and the ageless Michael Essien.
Dominant in its region, the United States is nonetheless a team in transition, its identity now tied as much to its charismatic coach, Klinsmann, as to any player or system. While much will fall on the shoulders of familiar players—goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfield general Michael Bradley and captain Clint Dempsey—Klinsmann hopes that his focus on fitness and intangibles will spell a crucial difference. A goal or two from Jozy Altidore would help as well.
Die Mannschaft's assembly line has cranked out another potential World Cup star in Reus, an attacker from Borussia Dortmund, where he won the Bundesliga's Player of the Year award in 2013--14. Reus had 41 goals across all competitions in his first two seasons and twice led Dortmund deep in the Champions League. An outstanding dribbler with a devastating change of pace, the 25-year-old will play on the left of Germany's stacked midfield.
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