Finally the long qualification process has ended, and the 7+ month speculation period begins. The teams all now know where they are going and who they are playing, and it has provided us with some tasty matchups, and some ones that are going to be fascinating in equal measure. For those in the know about world soccer, and those who don't know Bosnia from Greece, this is a group preview.
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
The hosts obviously have a ton of pressure on them to not only win but win convincingly for a nation that expects so much from its team. They might not be the most talented team in this tournament, but with the backing of the home fans, it clearly spurred them on in the Confederations Cup. When they get out (it's a formality with most host nations), a game against the runner up of Group B awaits, and that's no cakewalk. But they might be the favorite, and deservedly so. Mexico after a horrendous qualifying campaign were handed a favorable group with a Croatia team in turmoil after qualifying issues themselves, and a Cameroon team who haven't been the best of late. Mexico will have trouble if they get out, but the group draw is about as good as they could have hoped for.
Group B: Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia
One of the 3 groups of death, soccer fans are served up a treat by watching a rematch of the last World Cup Final in the first game of the group between Spain and Holland. I pray that it's a better game than that final (it won't take much). Holland cruised through qualifying, but I do wonder if they are quite as good as they were in 2010, especially that backline which has some question marks. Chile are a very good side with players like Alexis Sanchez who has come good at Barcelona, and Arturo Vidal who has been amazing this year for Juventus. It's not a formality that both of the European sides advance. Australia are in turmoil, and have been handed a nearly impossible draw to get out of.
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Colombia are making their first World Cup appearance since 1998, and they have a bevy of talented players like Falcao, Rodriguez and others that will make noise. Greece are a stout defensive team that had some issues through qualifying, but are a quality side that will surprise some people. Japan are Asia's best team, but did not put their best foot forward during the Confederations Cup and have issues at keeper that may well keep them out of the knockout stages. Ivory Coast have long been reckoned as one of Africa's best teams, but they've never made it out of the group stages. This is their best chance to do so, and as I type this, I would pick them to get out.
Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
This for me is the true Group of Death. Uruguay on South American soil are nothing to sneeze at, and despite their qualifying issues they have such a potent strike-force that it probably won't matter. Their back 4 and goalkeeper are problem areas that good teams may be able to exploit, but Suarez, Cavani and Forlan should be able to overcome that. England did not get done any favors here, but they may like their chances against a known quantity in Italy, and a Costa Rica side which will be underrated by everyone. It also makes this group that much more interesting that Uruguay and Italy played to a stand-still last year in the Confederations Cup, and Costa Rica have some quality that will surprise people.
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
No one understood why Switzerland were seeded ahead of Holland and Italy for this tournament, and there is a good chance afterwords that those questions will only be spoken louder. France are the class of the group, and if they can get their act together, a deep run in the tournament is not out of the realm of possibility. Ecuador are an interesting side, but probably the weakest of the South American sides, and Honduras could easily be overmatched on this stage as they were in 2010, although they are familiar with Switzerland already.
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria
Argentina were handed a nice and favorable draw not only in their group, but to get to the quarters as well. They don't have to trouble, and will play 3 teams that are going to be overmatched against them. The true question is who will finish second. Bosnia have some talented players like Ibisevic and Dzeko, but do they have the depth to compete in this type of tournament? Iran are a bit of an unknown quantity, so it is hard to judge them on their possible matchups, but if past World Cups are any indicator, then they will be in trouble. The Super Eagles won the African Cup of Nations and have shown decently against bigger sides, but will they slip again with a golden opportunity to get out of the group?
Group G: Germany, Ghana, Portugal, United States
Yeah... it's pretty bad for the Yanks. Not only do they have perennial boogeyman Ghana in the opening game, they get to play both Cristiano Ronaldo and Germany, and have the worst travel schedule of any team in the tournament. BUT... This draw doesn't favor as bad as one might think if they listen to narrative. Ghana are a very good side, the best African team by a fair margin, but if the US can get something out of that one, the game against Portugal is going to be the decider for the United States. I don't personally think Portugal are that amazing behind Ronaldo, and the US might be able to exploit Portuguese weaknesses like both Northern Ireland and Israel did in qualifying. Germany will likely not have that many problems getting out of the group, but do they have the leader to get them forward in the tougher games later?
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
Belgium, as everyone's new darling and holder of the Golden Generation mantra, get a nice and favorable draw against a middling team from both Africa and Asia, and a European team that aren't the toughest to break down in the world. They'll be tested as soon as they exit the group stage, but for the meantime they will probably not have any issues getting out. Russia are a decent side, but they don't inspire a ton of confidence, and neither do Algeria and South Korea. Figure both European sides will advance.
Early Group Stage Predictions (In order):
Group A: Brazil, Mexico, Cameroon, Croatia
Group B: Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia
Group C: Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan
Group D: Uruguay, Italy, England, Costa Rica
Group E: France, Ecuador, Switzerland, Honduras
Group F: Argentina, Nigeria, Bosnia, Iran
Group G: Germany, Ghana, USA, Portugal
Group H: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria