The talk and hype is FINALLY over. The World Cup is here.
Yesterday we gave you all the basics you need to enjoy the 32-team tournament (the feedback on that post was great, so if you have any more tips on where to watch games in the Philly area and beyond, toss it in the comments).
On Monday, we'll focus on the United States, but right now, it's time to give you the must-watch games and a few predictions sure to go terribly wrong.
To get a good look at the whole bracket, click on the image above. I don't pretend to be an expert on many teams in the tournament, but I watch more games than is probably healthy. For a detailed breakdown of each group, this is a solid link.
A reminder: 2 teams advance from each 4-team group. After that, it's a single-elimination bracket for the final 16 teams.
GROUP A (Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon)
What Happens: Brazil is a 3:1 (or better) favorite in among oddsmakers to win the whole thing, and opens today at 4 p.m. against Croatia. Mexico has been spotty, to say the least, and needed help from the rival Americans just to qualify.
Names to Know: Neymar (Brazil), Hulk (Brazil), Daniel Alves (Brazil), Mario Mandzukic (Croatia), Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon), Javier Hernandez (Mexico).
Key Match: Mexico vs. Croatia, June 23, 4 p.m. Obviously the Brazil matches are must-watches, but Mexico-Croatia could decide who finishes second in the group. Assuming neither team got any points from Brazil, the winner of that match could advance.
Philly Comparison: Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon) = Jim Thome. A bonafide individual star, but a player who hasn't had the right pieces around him to see the team success he probably deserves.
Going Through: It was close here with Cameroon, but I'll say Brazil and Croatia.
GROUP B (Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia)
What Happens: Spain is the reigning World Cup champ, and begins with the team they beat in the 2010 final: The Netherlands. Chile is scary good, and they are always the third team mentioned. Australia needs a miracle.
Names to Know: Andres Iniesta (Spain), Xavi (Spain), Diego Costa (Spain), Arjen Robben (Netherlands), Robin van Persie (Netherlands), Alexis Sanchez (Chile), Arturo Vidal (Chile), Tim Cahill (Australia)
Key Match: Spain v. Netherlands, June 13, 3 p.m. There may be other matches that decide the group's fate, but the rematch of the 2010 World Cup final is an absolute must-watch.
Philly Comparison: Diego Costa = Kobe Bryant. Costa plays for Spain, but is Brazilian through and through. There are a ton of hard feelings in Brazil, especially since the host country could really use a striker like Costa. Like Bryant, many in his hometown/country won't greet him too kindly.
Going Through: The first "big" side to go home will be The Netherlands, as Spain and Chile advance.
GROUP C (Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan)
What Happens: Greece is usually boring but is the only team here that defends. Colombia is moody and without its biggest star. And the Ivory Coast always comes in with high expectations but never seems to quite match them. Japan is always a little mysterious.
Names to Know: Carlos Valdes (Colombia), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast), Keisuke Honda (Japan), Shinji Kagawa (Japan).
Key Match: Colombia v. Ivory Coast, June 19, noon. There could be a lot of goals in this game, and lots of exciting play in the midfield. Yaya Toure is one of the best midfielders in the world, and as he goes, so go the Ivory Coast.
Philly Comparison: Didier Drogba = Allen Iverson. Like Iverson in his final seasons, Drogba is a once-in-a-generation talent on his last legs who has been an icon for his team for more than a decade. He deserves a championship (that he won't get).
Going Through: For no other reason than a hunch, I'm going to say the loss of star Radamel Falcao hurts Colombia, and the Ivory Coast and Japan find a way through.
GROUP D (Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy)
What Happens: England is loaded with young talent that may or may not wilt under pressure. Many experts seem enamored with Uruguay, partially because they're good, but largely for this "home-continent World Cup" thing. I'm not really buying that, but whatever. Italy is flying under the radar, and they're fine with that.
Names to Know: Luis Suarez (Uruguay), Edinson Cavani (Uruguay), Joel Campbell (Costa Rica)* only for this, Wayne Rooney (England), Daniel Sturridge (England), Andrea Pirlo (Italy), Mario Ballotelli (Italy).
Key Match: Many are focused on Saturday's Italy-England showdown, but I'll take Uruguay vs. England, June 19, 3 p.m. I think Italy takes the group, so this game is critical to see who else advances. Plus, you never know if Suarez decides to eat someone's ear.
Philly Comparison: Andrea Pirlo = Jimmy Rollins. A player who is one of the best ever for his team, but might not be fully appreciated until after he's gone. Like Rollins, Pirlo already has a title, and like Rollins, he is likely in his final years. Both Class acts all the way who represented their teams well.
Going Through: Picking England makes me very nervous, but I think Uruguay wilts a bit under the pressure. Let's go with Italy and England.
GROUP E (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras)
What Happens: Switzerland was somehow "seeded" in the draw while France was not. Because of that, it's and odd group where anyone can emerge. Ecuador is not a team to take lightly, while Honduras can be a challenge if you're not patient.
Names to Know: Antonio Valencia (Ecuador), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland), Karim Benzema (France), Paul Pogba (France), Yohan Cabaye (France), Patrice Evra (France).
Key Match: Switzerland vs. France will be important, but I'll try an outlier with Switzerland v. Ecuador this Sunday at 3 p.m. I think France wins the group, and if Ecuador can get three points off the Swiss in the opener, things will get VERY dicey for the peaceful Swiss.
Philly Comparison: Paul Pogba = Mitch Williams. Because a mohawk is just a mullet sticking straight up.
Going Through: I'm just not buying Switzerland, sorry. I'll take France and Ecuador.
GROUP F (Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria)
What Happens: Argentina is the tournament's second favorite in many eyes, while Bosnia has some talent and is the likely runner-up in the group. Nigeria has some individual talent, but can they put it together. Iran is a mystery, but can seemingly play some defense.
Names to Know: Lionel Messi (Argentina), Edin Dzeko (Bosnia), Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Key Match: You'll want to watch Argentina and not take your eyes off Messi, but the big one might be Bosnia v. Nigeria, June 21, 6 p.m.
Philly Comparison: Edin Dzeko = Keith Primeau. Like Primeau, Dzeko is rarely flashy, but he always gets it done. He's in the right place when it matters most, and he rarely misses a chance he should finish. He's also pretty good with his head, and there's a Primeau joke in the.... nevermind.
Going Through: I'm not as high on Argentina as some, but they should win the group and it'll be Argentina and Bosnia moving on.
GROUP G (United States, Ghana, Portugal, Germany)
[We'll tackle this group on Monday, but for the sake of predictions...]
Going Through: Germany and the United States.
GROUP H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea)
What Happens: Belgium has become such the sexy darkhorse pick that it's not much of a darkhorse anymore. Algeria and Russia are mysteries and South Korea should bring up the rear.
Names to Know: Vincent Kompany (Belgium), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium), Edin Hazard (Belgium).
Key Match: Belgium should take the group easily, so second might hinge on the final matchup of Algeria v. Russia, June 26, 4 p.m.
Philly Comparison: Vincent Kompany = Brian Dawkins. The heart and soul of the team and one of the top defenders in the world, Kompany is the Belgian captain and must keep his younger talented teammates grounded.
Going Through: I admit knowing very very little about Algeria, Russia and South Korea. I'll take Belgium and Algeria to go through.
Brazil over Chile; Ivory Coast over England; Spain over Croatia; Italy over Japan; Bosnia over France; Germany over Algeria; Argentina over Ecuador; United States over Belgium (call me a homer, I don't care).Quarterfinals:
Brazil over Ivory Coast; Italy over Spain; Germany over Bosnia; Argentina over United States.Semifinals:
Germany over Brazil, Argentina over Italy.Final:
Germany over Argentina.
And now, a few words from our non-soccer guys:
* * *Enrico:
Italy is going to win. Blue is the best color.
* * *Andrew Unterberger:
1. England (Probably get lots of good songs out of it)
So the England will win because everything I want to happen always does.
* * *Greg Paone:
I’d just like to preface this by saying I don’t know much about soccer, or futbol, nor do I claim to. I know about the kicking, handballs and Ronaldo’s abs. And that’s about as far as my soccer knowledge stretches.
But it’s the World Cup so of course I’m going to watch. I do honestly find excitement in the world’s most popular sporting event and personally can’t wait for the inevitable moment when FIFA president Sepp Blatter makes an ass out of himself in front of a worldwide audience… again.
As far as my predictions are concerned, I’ll start with the U.S.
That whole “GROUP OF DEATH” thing doesn’t sound too appealing. I hear Germany is quite good at soccer so I see the Germans advancing from atop the group.
From past World Cups, I know Ghana is pretty much the 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs to the U.S. team after crushing the Americans’ dreams of advancing. Not this time, though, as I see the U.S. topping Ghana this go-round and outpointing Portugal to advance to the knockout stage. Seriously, who else does Portugal have outside Ronaldo?
But the dream ends there. The U.S. bows out in the second round to Belgium. Klinsmann was right. The U.S. can’t win.
As for the rest of the tournament, this is all a toss-up for me.
I come from a half-Irish/half-Italian background. Well-placed sources tell me Ireland didn’t qualify this year and I refuse to pick Italy because I don’t get why the Italians wear blue. (Sorry, Enrico. Don’t fire me!)
Gimmie Argentina over host Brazil in the final. Messi – yeah, I know him, too – finally gets Argentina over the hump.
No matter what, I’ll be watching. Go ‘Merica and vivo el futbol!
* * *The Evster:
If you do not think Brazil is gonna win the World Cup™, you are living a goddamn lie. They are a LOCK to take the trophy. Of the 19 World Cup tournaments ever played, six were won by the host nation, and while I realize that's not a very convincing stat, you can honestly shove your precious stats right into your precious fat face. This sport is not about stats, it's about talent, and joy, and a love for the game, and no one has more fun than the Seleçåo. Then again, Spain is really, really good, and I've never seen any team pop the ball around like they do. Tikki-takka, tikki-takka. It's insane. They could be the best side in the history of the sport. And Germany is just SOLID. So technical, so Schweinsteigery and SO German. But c'mon, you can never count out Italy, right? And ummmmmm, did you forget about a little country called Argentina? THEY HAVE MAYBE THE BEST PLAYER WHO EVER LACED 'EM UP. Seriously, who is going to be able to handle Côte d'Ivoire with Didier Drogba and Yaya? They are a powerhouse. YOU THINK BELGIUM CAN HANDLE THEM? HA! Actually, they might be able to. OMG CAMAROONIANS ARE SO FAST! And don't sleep on the Ukraine! Are they even in it?! The USA can suck my butttttttttttt!!!