As record five-times winners of the World Cup and this year’s hosts, Brazil need no introduction. The Seleçao enter as tournament favourites (when have they ever not?) and Confederation Cup winners – although it is worth noting that incumbent winners of the latter have never won the following World Cup. Their legendary coach Luiz Felipe Scolari (affectionately known as Felipão or Big Phil in Brazil) has an excellent track record, having previously won the 2002 World Cup back when the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho were part of the squad.
This time around, Brazil can hardly claim to have an attacking prowess even remotely close to the one they had in 2002, but they do have a game-changer in Barcelona’s Neymar – whose technical skills are among the best in the world at the moment. Their main man upfront is Fred, who plies his trade with Brazilian club Fluminense. While hardly comparable to the phenomenal Ronaldo, Fred has emerged as Brazil’s most reliable goalscorer – he scores at crucial moments and in all the big matches, and was the joint top scorer at the 2013 Confederations Cup.
Brazil’s midfield boasts a plethora of world-class players such as the Chelsea contingent of Oscar, Willian and Ramires, Inter’s Hernanes and Tottenham’s Paulinho- the latter has been in indifferent form at his club but never fails to perform for his country. What really stands out for Brazil this year though is their defence – it can be argued that their captain Thiago Silva of PSG is currently the best centre-back in the world, and he is accompanied by Barcelona’s Dani Alves, Marcelo, who played a huge part in winning the Champions League for Real Madrid this year, and the imposing Dante, who plays for Bayern Munich. In goal, Brazil have the unflappable Julio Cesar, who is Scolari’s first-choice goalkeeper despite playing for Toronto in the mediocre MLS on loan from QPR last season.
Key player: Neymar
Fast, skilful and two-footed, Neymar is the most technically gifted player in the squad. He primarily plays as an inside forward, providing chances for his team-mates and his finishing is nothing to sniff at either. However, his critics argue that he goes to ground far too easily and has gained a reputation as a diver.
One to watch: Bernard
Shakhtar Donetsk’s Bernard is a left winger blessed with amazing pace, technique, and flair. Comparable to Neymar in terms of his playing style and only one year younger, Bernard has a great future ahead of him.
Brazil should easily qualify from their group and will likely reach at least the semi-finals. However, this is a nation which attaches huge expectations to the national side and the locals will be expecting them to go all the way and win it. However, whether they will be crowned champions come July is not as foregone a conclusion as most people think. They boast world-class players in all departments but Neymar aside, their attack leaves a lot to be desired.
Finishing second in their World Cup qualifying group behind Belgium and ahead of Serbia, Croatia possess several world-class footballers in their midst – Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic (who was largely the reason why Sevilla walked away with this year’s Europa League) and Bayern’s Mario Mandzukic to name a few. Their coach Niko Kovac is an ex-captain of the national side and was a popular choice following the reign of Igor Stimac, who was largely an unpopular figure. Shakhtar’s Darijo Srna is one of the world’s current best right-backs and his likely future successor Srne Vrsaljko of Genoa is a hot prospect who is being followed by some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Croatia can also boast to have one of the most exciting young talents in Inter’s Mateo Kovacic, a playmaker who is equally adept as regista or trequartista.
Key player: Luka Modric
Gifted with amazing vision and creativity, Modric was one of Real Madrid’s best players this season, dictating the midfield with his excellent passing range and was instrumental in his club’s Champions League triumph.
One to watch: Mateo Kovacic
A similar player to Modric is Kovacic, who is only 20 but has already displaced the much more experienced Fredy Guarin from the Inter starting lineup. Despite appearing in only a handful of games this season, Kovacic is a dazzling dribbler and showed what he is capable of when he provided three assists in Inter’s 4-1 rout over Lazio and dictated the tempo in the following game against Chievo.
Croatia should just about make it to second place, ahead of Mexico and Cameroon, who are certainly no pushovers. However, in the second round they will likely come up against a very talented Colombia side which can prove to be their downfall.
The Mexicans were hardly impressive in qualification, winning all six fixtures in a straightforward first group but struggling in a relatively more challenging second group (which included USA, Costa Rica and Honduras – hardly world powers) and finishing fourth, just barely making it to Brazil. Coach Miguel Herrera managed to steady the ship after a spate of sackings, and must be credited for managing to see the team through to the World Cup. He tends to go by form rather than reputation, and has not been afraid to axe well-known names such as Man Utd’s Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and Villareal’s Giovani dos Santos. Striker Oribe Peralta has been the main man during Mexico’s road to qualification, and has even managed to relegate Hernandez to the bench. Their experienced skipper Rafael Marquez is always a reliable option for the defence, and Porto’s Hector Herrera is an aggressive box-to-box midfielder who will probably be pulling the strings in the middle of the park.
Key player: Oribe Peralta
Widely considered to be one of the best strikers not playing in a European league, Peralta (similar to Brazil’s Fred) scores when it matters, and is equally proficient at crafting opportunities for the other squad members. Powerful, fast and with a wicked right-foot shot, Peralta may not be playing outside of Europe much longer.
One to watch: Javier Hernandez
Scoring 35 goals in 57 appearances for Mexico, Hernandez is not experiencing the best of times, with every chance of him starting on the bench for his country and in addition will very likely be leaving Man Utd this summer after largely being used as a substitute by David Moyes this season, something Herrera recommended. However, you underestimate this striker at your peril and don’t bet against him providing a response to both club and country in Brazil.
Unless Mexico seriously step up their game, they will likely be packing their bags in the group stage this summer.
Traditionally one of Africa’s better teams, Cameroon did not impress during their qualification despite finishing top of the group and unbeaten against Libya, DR Congo and Togo. Notably, a 2-0 defeat against Togo was overturned when the latter fielded an ineligible player. They beat Tunisia in the final round over two legs, routing them 4-1 at home. However, they were thrashed by Portugal 5-1 in a friendly back in March, and many are (perhaps unfairly) prematurely dismissing the side’s chances in Brazil. The other teams in their group (bar Brazil) have similar talent pools to Cameroon and it is entirely possible that Les Lions Indomptables will manage a minor upset by edging the group stage.
Key player: Alex Song
The engine of this Cameroon side, Song plays for Barcelona and is accomplished as both a holding and box-to-box midfielder. Seemingly inexhaustible and an extremely hard worker, Song is an absolute powerhouse and he will need to be at his best if Cameroon are to progress to the knockout stages.
One to watch: Joël Matip
Matip is a highly-rated centre-back who plays for German club Schalke 04. He towers over most players at 193cm, and is quite frankly a beast both in the air and on the ground.
Prediction: Cameroon will likely battle it out with Croatia for second place. If they perform to their best there is no reason why they shouldn’t reach the knockout stages.