On Friday, December 6th, the entire world awoke with childlike anticipation, mentally preparing themselves for the results of the 2014 World Cup draw. In short, it was incredibly unkind to the U.S. My feelings about our group can be expressed by this Ron Swanson GIF:
To get a better sense of which groups are the toughest in 2014, I first calculated averages within each group based on FIFA world rankings. After struggling through basic math for roughly an hour, I found a chart online showing the same thing (only more organized and aesthetically-pleasing). Here it is (via Guardian U.K.):
Group A: The Brazilians, with their immense talent and home field advantage, should advance easily. Supporters will expect to see Brazil’s characteristic trifecta of pace, ball control, and relentless attack in 2014. But the Brazilian defense shouldn’t be overlooked. Pound-for-pound, they have one of the most experienced and talented back lines in the world. Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, and Marcelo are all starting players on top clubs in their respective leagues. The midfield has young talent in Lucas, Oscar, and Ramires. As well as veterans, like Kaka and Ronaldinho. Rising star Neymar won MVP at the Confederations Cup this summer, where Brazil defeated Spain 3-0 in the final. They’ve already proven they can capitalize on home field advantage. And they’ve already proven they can beat the best team in the world.
Croatia, Mexico, and Cameroon, are all average. However, Croatia and Mexico are likely more favored. The Cameroon squad failed to even qualify for the 2013 African Cup, which doesn’t bode well for their prospects in the World Cup. Likely, Croatia and Mexico will face a dogfight to advance.
Top 2: Brazil/Croatia
Group B: Spain, #1 in the world and defending World Cup champions, are the easy favorite in Group B. Like Germany, the Spanish squad boasts incredible depth, with few (if any) weaknesses. Their defense is slower but arguably tougher and more experienced than Brazil’s. Spain’s midfield, however, is where their power lies. The Spanish squad boasts an unrivaled surplus of world class talent in the middle of the field. Veterans Xavi and Iniesta have both frequented the shortlist for FIFA Player of the Year as of lately:
There’s also Juan Mata, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Jesus Navas, Santi Cazorla, and Isco (i.e. ridiculous). Forward David Villa won the Silver Boot (2nd most goals) in 2010. He’ll be returning in 2014. Also returning are the 6 players named to the all-tournament team in 2010 (the 11 best players of the competition). 6 of the 11 were Spanish. All are returning to Rio.
The Chilean squad has one of the toughest center midfielders in the world with Arturo Vidal. Chile advanced to the knockout round in 2010 and could repeat their efforts if they can at least defeat the Netherlands. But that’s a big “if”. The Dutch were World Cup finalists in 2010 and boast a threatening attack with veteran forwards Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben. And of course, there’s Wesley Sneijder, who played stellar in South Africa. In 2010, Sneijder won the Bronze Boot (3rd most goals) and was awarded the Silver Ball (2nd best player overall) and, deservedly, was named to the all-tournament team. That was 4 years ago, however. A scrappy Chilean squad could easily surprise the Dutch in 2014.
Top 2: Spain/Netherlands
Group C: This is one of those groups where any two teams could possibly advance. But Columbia is the clear frontrunner with a brutal attack in Monaco teammates Falcao and James Rodriguez (who are already accustomed to playing with one another in club football). This should serve as an advantage come 2014. Young talents like Luis Muriel and Victor Ibarbo further strengthen Columbia’s attack. In 2012, FIFA awarded Columbia the “Best Mover of the Year” award (the team who progresses farthest in the FIFA world rankings). The 2014 squad will be keen to continue their form.
Greece, Ivory Coast, and Japan, seem evenly matched. Greece always proves to be a wildcard. In 2004, they shocked Europe by winning the UEFA Cup. Yet, they failed to make it past the group stage in the 2010 World Cup. Ivory Coast also has the potential to surprise. They boast a strong roster with Yaya Toure controlling the midfield and captain Didier Drogba upfront. Rio will likely be Drogba’s last World Cup appearance. If the team rallies around his goal-scoring ability, Cote d’Ivoire have a good chance of continuing to the knockout round. Japan advanced in 2010 but showed lackluster results recently in the Confederations Cup, losing all three matches in the group stage.
Top 2: Columbia/Ivory Coast
Group D: This group highlights an interesting phenomenon within the psyche of World Cup fans. If you’re American (or anyone else in the world besides a Brit) you agree that Group G is obviously the “group of death”. However, if you’re English, you tend to disagree. I partially sympathize with them. Group D will certainly be difficult. But I would trade Ghana for Costa Rica any day of the week.
The average world ranking of Group D is 14 overall. The next toughest is Group C with an average of 20. There’s definitely a wide gap. Both Italy and Uruguay are top 10 in the world and will prove to be very tough opponents for England. The Italian squad were finalists in the 2012 Euro Cup and advanced to the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup this summer, only losing to Spain in penalty kicks. They’re clear favorites, with good results in recent competition and a squad with a lot of experience.
Uruguay, on the other hand, is a top squad hiding under the radar. If you don’t closely follow the sport of football, Uruguay is a team that can be easily dismissed. Because, when you think of elite South American football, most people think Argentina and Brazil. But to discount this team would be foolish, for two reasons. First, Uruguay were nearly finalists in the 2010 World Cup, losing a close match to the Netherlands 3-2 in the semi-finals. They were also semi-finalists in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Second, Uruguay arguably has the strongest striking duo in the world, aside from Argentina. Luiz Suarez and Edison Cavani will be a nightmare for defenders.
England’s biggest opponent, however, is England. They have a lot talent, albeit young talent (Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Danny Welbeck, Oxlade-Chamberlain). The veteran players are world class but mostly past their prime. Rooney is only 28 but always proves to be unpredictable. Gerrard and Lampard are both mid-30s and will likely be appearing in their last World Cup in 2014. Joe Hart, at least, will be reliable in goal. We shouldn’t expect the same antics we saw from England goalkeeper Robert Green in the group stage against the U.S. in 2010. Although, as an American, I will always be grateful for this epic fail:
My favorite club team in the world is Everton, so I’m predisposed to liking the England squad. I honestly want to see them win. But something is telling me they face an early exit in 2014. In South Africa, the U.S. and England both narrowly advanced to the knockout stage. I have a sneaking suspicion that, once again, we both are destined to the same fate. This time, in the form of defeat. That being said, with England’s abundance of youth prospects, they should find themselves back in the top 10 come 2018.
Top 2: Italy/Uruguay
Group E: Switzerland is the most surprising squad in the top 10, with scarce big name talent. Granit Xhaka (21) and Xherdan Shaqiri (22) are exciting youth prospects. The Swiss will rely on them in 2014. Switzerland went undefeated over 10 games in the World Cup qualifying round (7-3-0). Then again, the toughest team in their group was Slovenia (#29 in the world). The Swiss are probably the weakest top 10 team in the world. However, in a group like the one they find themselves, expect to see them advance.
Normally, France would be favorites in Group E. But lately, the French national team is anything but normal. Stunningly, they barely qualified for this year’s World Cup. They find themselves uncharacteristically outside the top 10 (#19 in the world). And let’s not forget about the drama that unfolded at the 2010 World Cup, when an argument between captain Patrice Evra and an assistant coach led to a team revolt.
The French have the personnel to go far. But their still the French. Like England, France is their own worst enemy. Thanks to an easy group, they’ll likely advance. But the sweet 16 might be as far as they go.
Top 2: Switzerland/France
Group F: Argentina will undoubtedly have the easiest path to the knockout round (as if they needed it). Lionel Messi (4-time back-to-back FIFA World Player of the Year) shares the attack with Sergio Aguero (together, two of the top 10 best strikers in the world). Mascherano and Di Maria add depth in the midfield. Wingers Lavezzi and Palacio further bolster an intimidating attack. Argentina’s defense is nothing to write home about. But they clearly compensate for it. If Messi and Aguero get hot, the Argentines could win the cup.
First-timers Bosnia and Herzegovina will be looking to make a name for themselves on the international stage. They’re the second highest ranked team in the group but it doesn’t necessarily make them favorites to advance. #36 in the world Nigeria won the 2013 African Cup. This shouldn’t count for nothing. It’s entirely possible for the African champions to knockout higher-ranked Bosnia/Herzegovina. Iran, on the other hand, will be lucky to earn a single point in this group.
Top 2: Argentina/Nigeria
Group G: If you’re familiar with the World Cup then you’re probably familiar with the term “group of death”. If you’re unfamiliar, then get familiar with Group G. In 2014, the U.S. will face the toughest group in the tournament. Germany (#2 in the world) is an absolute powerhouse and favorites to win it all. I could name their top players but I would have to name their entire starting 11. Germany s good. Period. But let’s not forget about Portugal (#5 in the world) and Christiano Ronaldo. Love him or hate him (hate him), he’s one of the best players in the world. In 2013, Portugal were the biggest “movers” within the FIFA top 20 (shifting nine places within the rankings from #14 to #5).
Last but not least, in some cruel twist of fate, the U.S. will be playing Ghana. F***ing Ghana. If you watched the 2010 World Cup, you understand why Americans are apprehensive. The U.S. were eliminated by Ghana during the knockout round in a heartbreaking loss in extra time. Now, a rematch is inevitable, alongside the likes of Germany and Portugal. Group G is unquestionably the “group of death”. Alas, if the U.S. want to be taken seriously in the eyes of international football, this is their chance. Lucky for us, the Americans have a secret weapon…
TIM HOWARD’S BEARD
Top 2: Germany/Portugal
Group H: Expect the Belgians to sweep the group stage. Aside from Uruguay, they’re the most underrated team in the tournament. Belgium will likely be top 5 in the world come 2018, with some of the best youth prospects in football. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is only 21 and already on his way to becoming world class. In the midfield, there’s Dembele, Fellaini, Witsel, Eden Hazard, and De Bruyne (with an average age of 24). Belgian’s attack is young and talented as well, with Mirallas, Lukaku, and Benteke (average age of 23). And let’s not forget about 17 year-old forward Zakaria Bakkali (rumored to be Belgium’s next wonder kid). In the back field is where Belgium’s maturity lies, with Vermaelen, Vertonghen, and Kompany on defense (still, all three are under 30).
If the Belgians play to their full potential, they have the ability to compete for the cup. But their inexperience will likely cost them in the knockout round against veteran squads like Spain and Germany. Despite their talent, Belgium is unpredictable. They dropped 6 places in the FIFA world rankings prior to the draw, falling farther than any other team in the top 20.
Advancing to the knockout round alongside Belgium will likely be Russia, who finished top of their table in World Cup qualifications (above Portugal).
Top 2: Belgium/Russia