The draw has worked out well for the Brazilians, whose group is easy enough to win comfortably, but tricky enough to keep them on their toes. The key game will be against Mexico in Fortaleza, and there Brazil will have the motivation of avenging their defeat in last year's Olympic final. Croatia will be weakened by the suspension of center-forward Mario Mandzukic. Mexico, who were so lucky to qualify, now look well-placed to progress to the second round.
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Group B will open with a reprise of the match that followed Mandela's circuit around the pitch in Johannesburg: Spain against the Netherlands, in steamy Salvador. The 2010 final was chiefly memorable for Nigel de Jong plunging his studs into Xabi Alonso's chest. Holland are less violent these days, but Spain still have the edge in class. Chile are an energetic, talented side who have a puncher's chance against the European sides. Australia will be lucky to go home with a point.
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Ivory Coast have been unlucky in their two previous World Cups—in 2006 they landed in a group with Argentina and Holland, and in 2010 it was Brazil and Portugal. Group C will be their weakest-ever World Cup group, so it's unfortunate that they'll be bringing their weakest-ever World Cup squad. Japan and Colombia are the sides most likely to progress. Greece battled gamely in the Euros last year, but they've yet to play well at a World Cup.
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England coach Roy Hodgson specified before the draw that he was more concerned about where his team played than who they played, and that he particularly didn't want to play in the jungle city of Manaus. Naturally, England will start their campaign against Italy in Manaus, in a match that kicks off at 2 a.m. English time. The English FA chairman Greg Dyke was captured on camera reacting to the draw by miming cutting his own throat.
There are all kinds of juicy narratives for the English media to have fun with. The most tantalizing concerns England's match against Uruguay and the English national hate figure Luis Suárez, who last year became one of the few athletes to be booed at the London Olympics. Italy's tournament smarts make them the favorites for the group, with Uruguay or England fighting to join them in the second round.
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The obvious conclusion after France's last three tournament showings was that the players simply didn't like international tournaments and would rather not have to go to them. In the event, they scrambled into this one in the manner of Indiana Jones with a dramatic playoff win against Ukraine, and their reward is to be placed in the easiest group, along with Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras. Switzerland's inability to score against Honduras got them knocked out of the last World Cup after they'd beaten Spain. This time, they should make the second round along with France.
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Argentina's tournament will be all about Lionel Messi and whether he can finally dominate a World Cup—the one thing his few critics can argue he hasn't yet done—and in so doing, stake a claim to be the greatest to have played the game. Messi is well aware of this, which puts him under pressure. However, Argentina's talented squad might see the chance to steal the World Cup from under the noses of the Brazilians as a great laugh. If Brazil and Argentina both win their groups, the structure of the draw means they could only meet in the final. If Messi can't dominate a group featuring Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria, and Iran, maybe the critics are right.
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Americans who don't love soccer might wonder about the limited range of opponents the World Cup tends to throw up for the U.S. team. If FIFA has 209 members, why does the United States always end up playing the same few countries?
The best thing about Group G from an American point of view is that this time, Ghana can't actually knock them out—unless they face them again in the final. Whatever happens in that opening game in Natal, the United States can progress as long as they defeat Portugal and Germany. They dispatched a Portuguese team of similar quality to today's in the 2002 group stages. They lost to a German team of vastly inferior quality to the 2014 vintage in the quarterfinal, but only thanks to the Hand of Frings. The point is that football is unpredictable, and near-miracles do happen. Which is just as well, because the U.S. team needs one.
Neutral interest will center on the performance of Germany. The third-favorites for the tournament have won style points and admirers in recent years, but their failure actually to win anything is becoming increasingly awkward. Italy's victory over them in last year's Euro semifinals exposed a glass jaw. The opener against Portugal will subject Germany's credentials to an early test.
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Belgium are a difficult side to assess: lots of great individual players, little tournament experience. They're lucky to have been placed in a winnable group. Russia are paying Fabio Capello a lot of money, but it is difficult to imagine their players paying much heed to him, and South Korea can't compete with Belgium's class. Algeria may well compete for second place.
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