2014 World Cup preview and schedule

Los Angeles TimesJune 12, 2014 


Brazil vs. Croatia (Thursday, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Mexico vs. Cameroon (Friday, 9 a.m., ESPN2)
Brazil vs. Mexico (Tuesday, noon, ESPN)
Cameroon vs. Croatia (Wednesday, 3 p.m., ESPN)
Croatia vs. Mexico (June 23, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Brazil vs. Cameroon (June 23, 1 p.m., ESPN2)

BRAZIL (FIFA world ranking: 4)

Best World Cup finish: Five-time champion (1958, ’62, ’70, ’94, 2002).

It’s a fact: Brazil hasn’t lost a competitive game at home since September 1975 (57 games).

The skinny: Brazil is young and talented, but inexperienced at the World Cup level, with five of the 23 men on its roster returning from 2010. But coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has been here before, leading Brazil to its last title in 2002. Brazil, last year’s Confederations Cup winner, will try to buck a trend: No reigning Confederations Cup champion has ever won a World Cup.

CAMEROON (FIFA world ranking: 50)

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1990).

It’s a fact: This will be Cameroon’s seventh World Cup, most by an African nation.

The skinny: Cameroon is stocked with talent, but it’s going through a transition with several well-known figures — Geremi and Rigobert Song among them — having given way to youngsters such as Joel Matip, 22, and Nicolas N’Koulou, 24. Forward Samuel Eto’o has clashed with teammates and, at 33, is no longer the player who won four African player of the year awards.

CROATIA (FIFA world ranking: 20)

Best World Cup finish: Third place (1998).

It’s a fact: Croatia did not compete as an independent country in the World Cup until 1998, seven years after it declared independence from Yugoslavia.

The skinny: Real Madrid’s Luka Modric has earned the nickname “the Croatian Cruyff” for his elegant and precise passing. Modric and midfield mates Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic might be asked to sacrifice their attacking skills for defense — especially with Croatia playing Brazil in the opener. The team will be without defender Josip Simunic, who is serving a 10-match international ban for making a neo-Nazi salute after the qualifying win over Iceland.

MEXICO (FIFA world ranking: 19)

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1970, ’86).

It’s a fact: Coach Miguel Herrera has ordered players to abstain from sex, red meat and alcohol until after the World Cup.

The skinny: Herrera rescued Mexico at the end of a disastrous qualifying campaign, leading the team to a win over New Zealand in a playoff. He hasn’t lost since, going 6-0-2. During his short tenure, he has come to rely on a team composed primarily of players from Mexico’s domestic Liga MX, but he lost one of those players Saturday, when midfielder Luis Montes broke his right leg.


Spain vs. Netherlands (Friday, noon, ESPN)
Chile vs. Australia (Friday, 3 p.m., ESPN2)
Australia vs. Netherlands (Wednesday, 9 a.m., ESPN)
Spain vs. Chile (Wednesday, noon, ESPN)
Netherlands vs. Chile (June 23, 9 a.m., ESPN)
Australia vs. Spain (June 23, 9 a.m., ESPN2)

AUSTRALIA (FIFA world ranking: 62)

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2006).

It’s a fact: Australia holds the record for the most one-sided international win in soccer history: a 31-0 victory over American Samoa in World Cup qualifying in 2001.

The skinny: Australia was the first team to arrive in Brazil, setting up camp in Vitoria 16 days before the tournament opener. The Socceroos figure to be among the first to leave. New coach Ange Postecoglou was hired to lead a regeneration of the national team. Only two of Australia’s likely starters in Brazil are older than 29, including Tim Cahill of the New York Red Bulls.

CHILE (FIFA world ranking: 14)

Best World Cup finish: Third place (1962).

It’s a fact: Chile’s past three national team coaches have come from Argentina.

The skinny: Chile could be one of the surprise teams of the tournament. It has played one of the toughest schedules in the past nine months, beating England and Costa Rica, losing by a goal to Germany and Brazil, and playing Colombia and Spain to draws.

NETHERLANDS (FIFA world ranking: 15)

Best World Cup finish: Three-time runner-up (1974, 1978, 2010).

It’s a fact: The Netherlands is the only country to reach three World Cup finals without winning.

The skinny: The Dutch won’t have to wait long for a chance to avenge their loss in the 2010 Cup final: They open against Spain, a 1-0 overtime winner in South Africa. Though the Dutch have Arjen Robben, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie, playmaker Rafael van der Vaart is out because of a calf injury.

SPAIN (FIFA world ranking: 1)

Best World Cup finish: Champion (2010).

It’s a fact: With wins in the past two Euros and the 2010 World Cup, Spain is the only country to win three consecutive major international championships.

The skinny: Spain is growing old — five potential starters are 30 or older — but is talented and fundamentally sound. Coach Vicente Del Bosque will face pressure to split parts of his aging Golden Generation, such as 34-year-old Xavi, off his starting 11. Does Diego Costa automatically start if his hamstring heals in time? Given Spain’s problems, there might not be a choice if it is to become the first repeat winner in 52 years.


Colombia vs. Greece (Saturday, 9 a.m., ABC)
Ivory Coast vs. Japan (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN)
Colombia vs. Ivory Coast (June 19, 9 a.m., ESPN)
Japan vs. Greece (June 19, 3 p.m., ESPN)
Japan vs. Colombia (June 24, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Greece vs. Ivory Coast (June 24, 1 p.m., ESPN2)

COLOMBIA (FIFA world ranking: 5)

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1990).

It’s a fact: To celebrate Colombia’s first World Cup appearance in 16 years, residents of an Andean village organized a soccer match between trained herds of sheep. The sheep representing Colombia beat those playing as Brazil, 4-3.

The skinny: Colombia has been the surprise of South America under coach Jose Pekerman, who led Argentina to the quarterfinals in 2006. But its chances in Brazil were dealt a blow Monday when Radamel Falcao, who led the team with nine goals in 13 qualifying games, was left off the World Cup roster. Falcao tore a ligament in his left knee in January and isn’t fit enough to play. In Falcao’s place, Colombia’s attacking 4-2-2-2 formation will look to midfielders James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado, and striker Jackson Martinez.

GREECE (FIFA world ranking: 12)

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

It’s a fact: Professional soccer was not played in Greece until 1979. Eleven years later, the national team qualified for its first World Cup.

The skinny: In two previous World Cup appearances, Greece has lost five of six games and been outscored, 15-2. The defense-minded Greeks should fare better this time. Ranked 10th in the world, they’re coming off a solid performance in the 2012 Euros, where they reached the quarterfinals. They have little margin for error, though, so mistakes from a backline anchored by the Olympiakos pair of Dimitris Siovas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos could be deadly.

IVORY COAST (FIFA world ranking: 21)

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

It’s a fact: In Ivory Coast’s three World Cup appearances, only two of its players — both backup goalkeepers — came off teams playing in the country’s Ligue 1.

The skinny: The highest-ranked African team on the FIFA world table, Ivory Coast has mostly disappointed recently, going 22 years since winning its last major title in the 1992 African Cup of Nations. The athletic, physical Ivory Coast squad won’t outsmart or outmaneuver too many teams, but they can outrun and overpower most opponents. The aging — but still lethal — Didier Drogba (36)
will be assisted up front by Roma’s Gervinho (27)
and Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony (25)
while an old backline and 34-year-old keeper Boubacar Barry will benefit from end-to-end midfielder Yaya Toure.

JAPAN (FIFA world ranking: 47)

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2002, ’10).

It’s a fact: Japan was the first team to qualify for each of the past three World Cups.

The skinny: The biggest obstacle to getting out of group play could be Japan’s frustratingly inconsistent play. Since October, it has tied the Netherlands and beaten Belgium but also lost to Serbia and Belarus. The squad coach Alberto Zaccheroni has chosen for Brazil is the most experienced in the country’s history, boasting Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa and Milan’s Keisuke Honda.


Uruguay vs. Costa Rica (Saturday, noon, ABC)
England vs. Italy (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN)
Uruguay vs. England (June 19, noon, ESPN)
Italy vs. Costa Rica (June 20, 9 a.m., ESPN)
Italy vs. Uruguay (June 24, 9 a.m., ESPN)
Costa Rica vs. England (June 24, 9 a.m., ESPN2)

COSTA RICA (FIFA world ranking: 28)

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1990).

It’s a fact: Costa Rica is the only Central American nation to win a World Cup game.

The skinny: Costa Rica has little chance of surviving this group, especially now that Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio, who led the team in scoring during qualifying, is out because of a broken bone in his foot. That blow has been cushioned somewhat by the recent form of Joel Campbell, who scored eight times in 32 games with Greek club Olympiacos. At the other end, keeper Keylor Navas is coming off a breakout season at Levante in Spain.

ENGLAND (FIFA world ranking: 10)

Best World Cup finish: Champion (1966).

It’s a fact: England played in history’s first official international soccer game, in Scotland, in 1872. Naturally, neither team scored.

The skinny: Brazil’s climate has been worrisome for the English, who began training camp working out in three layers of clothing to simulate South America’s heat and humidity. If England goes out early, it won’t have the weather to blame. It has a rather uninspiring roster with only one true world-class player in Wayne Rooney. But if Daniel Sturridge scores as he did with Liverpool, and if Jack Wilshere and teenager Raheem Sterling play up to their potential, England could surprise. In goal, Manchester City’s Joe Hart is solid.

ITALY (FIFA world ranking: 9)

Best World Cup finish: Four-time champion (1934, ’38, ’82, 2006).

It’s a fact: Midfielder Daniele De Rossi has a “beware of being tackled” tattoo on his right calf. Set in a yellow triangle, it pictures a stick man sliding in to win the ball from another.

The skinny: Italy rolled unbeaten through UEFA qualifying, but it’s not taking the same team to Brazil, leaving home players responsible for nine of its 19 goals in those 10 qualifiers. Coach Cesare Prandelli is taking Mario Balotelli, who can take over a tournament. He did so in the 2012 Euro, when he carried Italy to the final. New Jersey-born striker Giuseppe Rossi, Florentina’s top scorer with 16 goals, was among the final cuts. Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo is out after suffering a broken leg Saturday.

URUGUAY (FIFA world ranking: 7)

Best World Cup finish: Two-time champion (1930, 1950).

It’s a fact: Uruguay, with a population of 3.4 million people — and about 14 million head of cattle — is the smallest country to win a World Cup.

The skinny: Luis Suarez is in a battle against the clock to come back from knee surgery. Though Uruguay is the favorite in a group that includes three former champions, it faces a tough road. Two of those teams — Italy and England — are European, and in the 2010 World Cup, Uruguay did not beat a European opponent. The same thing happened in the Confederations Cup two years ago, when Uruguay lost to Italy and Spain.


Switzerland vs. Ecuador (Sunday, 9 a.m., ABC)
France vs. Honduras (Sunday, noon, ABC)
Switzerland vs. France (June 20, noon, ESPN)
Honduras vs. Ecuador (June 20, 3 p.m., ESPN)
Honduras vs. Switzerland (June 25, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Ecuador vs. France (June 25, 1 p.m., ESPN2)

ECUADOR (FIFA world ranking: 26)

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2006).

It’s a fact: Ecuador retired the No. 11 jersey of Christian “Chucho” Benitez and dedicated its World Cup effort to him after he died from cardiac arrest while playing last summer.

The skinny: Ecuador has qualified for three of the past four World Cups, which led coach Reinaldo Rueda to say he wants to go to the final this summer. Good luck. Ecuador is facing too many obstacles to success in Brazil. Benitez was its leading scorer, defender Jayro Campos is out because of an injury and now midfielder Segundo Castillo appears to be out as well after injuring his right knee Saturday.

FRANCE (FIFA world ranking: 17)

Best World Cup finish: Champion (1998).

It’s a fact: France’s Lucien Laurent scored the first goal in World Cup history 19 minutes into a 4-1 win over Mexico in the 1930 tournament’s opening game in Uruguay.

The skinny: If the French can’t reach the semifinals, they’d rather not hang around. Five times they’ve made the final four, but in the 11 other Cups since World War II, they’ve gone out in the group stage or failed to qualify for the tournament. This could be the year that pattern ends, though. The team should cruise through group play even without Franck Ribery, who is out because of a bad back.

HONDURAS (FIFA world ranking: 33)

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

It’s a fact: Honduras’ biggest international win came in the 2001 Copa America. Added to the field hours before the first game, it went on to beat Brazil, 2-0.

The skinny: Honduras doesn’t defend well, has little creativity in midfield and is without a talented striker up front. So yeah, it has a chance — a very slim one provided keeper Noel Valladares plays the games of his life at 37, New England Revolution forward Jerry Bengston and former Houston Dynamo forward Carlo Costly can score and Honduras wins every 50-50 ball.

SWITZERLAND (FIFA world ranking: 6)

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1934, ’38, ’54).

It’s a fact: Eight years ago, Switzerland became the first team to be eliminated from the World Cup without conceding a goal, posting four consecutive shutouts but going out in the round of 16 when it lost to Ukraine on penalty kicks.

The skinny: A weak group should help Switzerland advance, but this team should really be looking toward 2018. With Nuremberg’s Josip Drmic perhaps the best of four talented options at striker — none older than 24 — and a likely starting 11 that averages 25 years of age, this World Cup is little more than a dress rehearsal.


Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina (Sunday, 3 p.m., ESPN)
Iran vs. Nigeria (Monday, noon, ESPN)
Argentina vs. Iran (June 21, 9 a.m., ESPN)
Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina (June 21, 3 p.m., ESPN)
Nigeria vs. Argentina (June 25, 9 a.m., ESPN)
Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iran (June 25, 9 a.m., ESPN2)

ARGENTINA (FIFA world ranking: 5)

Best World Cup finish: Two-time champion (1978, ’86).

It’s a fact: Fans in Argentina credited “divine intervention” on the part of Buenos Aires-born Pope Francis — a fervent soccer fan — for their team being drawn into what appears to be the softest of the World Cup’s eight groups.

The skinny: Although its national team includes Lionel Messi, Argentina hasn’t won a major championship since capturing the Copa America in 1993, when Messi was 6. Messi needs a World Cup title to secure his legacy. Playing in neighboring Brazil, he’ll lead a team so explosive that coach Alejandro Sabella will use a 4-3-3 setup to get forwards Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain on the field with him.

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA (FIFA world ranking: 21)

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

It’s a fact: This is the only team making its World Cup debut this summer.

The skinny: The team narrowly missed qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro, losing twice in playoffs with Portugal. So after it went 8-1-1 in UEFA qualifying this time around, to win its group and a spot in its first World Cup as an independent nation, more than 50,000 fans welcomed the team home to Sarajevo. With Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko and former Saint Louis University All-American Vedad Ibisevic up front, Bosnia-Herzegovina can score in bunches.

IRAN (FIFA world ranking: 43)

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

It’s a fact: The cash-strapped Iranian soccer federation is so short of uniforms it banned players from participating in the traditional postgame exchange of jerseys with opponents.

The skinny: The Iranians reportedly are staying at an airport hotel in Sao Paulo’s gritty Guarulhos district. Coach Carlos Queiroz built his team around foreign-based players, including Steven Beitashour (Vancouver Whitecaps), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton Athletic)
and Ashkan Dejagah (Fulham).

NIGERIA (FIFA world ranking: 44)

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1994, ’98).

It’s a fact: Nigeria’s president briefly banned the national team from international competition after it went winless in its past two World Cups.

The skinny: Nigeria warmed up for Brazil with unimpressive draws against Mexico, Scotland and Greece, and a loss to the U.S. Though it has qualified for three of the past four World Cups, it hasn’t won a game there since 1998. Still, goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama predicts the defense-minded team will become the first African nation to reach the semifinals. Whether that happens will depend on how often playmaking midfielder John Obi Mikel (England’s Chelsea)
can get the ball to Chelsea teammate Victor Moses on the counterattack.


Germany vs. Portugal (Monday, 9 a.m., ESPN)
U.S. vs. Ghana (Monday, 3 p.m., ESPN)
Germany vs. Ghana (June 21, noon, ESPN)
U.S. vs. Portugal (June 22, 3 p.m., ESPN)
Portugal vs. Ghana (June 26, 9 a.m., ESPN2)
U.S. vs. Germany (June 26, 9 a.m., ESPN)

GERMANY (FIFA world ranking: 2)

Best World Cup finish: Three-time champion (1954, ’74, ’90).

It’s a fact: Germany’s soccer federation built its own training center in Brazil. It features more than a dozen two-story housing units, a soccer field, a media center and treatment facilities.

The skinny: About the only thing that figures to keep Germany from its third consecutive trip to the semifinals are injuries. Even at less than 100 percent, Germany can go deep in the tournament. More worrisome is the weather. If Germany wins its group and advances, its semifinal will be played in Belo Horizonte, where the humidity typically is above 90 percent in early July.

GHANA (FIFA world ranking: 37)

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (2010).

It’s a fact: Ghana has played in just two World Cups, and it eliminated the U.S. by 2-1 scores both times (2006, 2010).

The skinny: Ghana still is smarting from the way the last one ended, with a quarterfinal loss in which Asamoah Gyan missed a penalty kick after Uruguay’s Luis Suarez stopped what would have been a winning goal with his hand. Michael Essien, who missed the last World Cup because of injury, will be a key. Gyan returns as the primary striker, but he might not be the best Asamoah on the team. Midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah was named the country’s top player the past two years.

PORTUGAL (FIFA world ranking: 4)

Best World Cup finish: Third place (1966).

It’s a fact: Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s best-paid soccer player, recently admitted he has no idea how much money he has.

The skinny: Portugal has been mocked as “Cristiano Ronaldo and 10 other guys.” There might be some truth to that, though, because with Ronaldo missing two of the last three warm-ups because of knee and thigh problems, Portugal struggled in a scoreless tie with Greece and then needed a goal in stoppage time to beat Mexico. Even with Ronaldo, it couldn’t beat Israel in World Cup qualifying, twice playing to a draw.

UNITED STATES (FIFA world ranking: 13)

Best World Cup finish: Third place (1930).

It’s a fact: When DaMarcus Beasley steps on the field in Brazil, he will become the first U.S. player to appear in four World Cups.

The skinny: If the group goes to form, the most logical way for the U.S. to advance would be on goal differential after beating Ghana in its opener and then playing Portugal to a draw. The U.S. is solid in goal with Tim Howard and in midfield with Michael Bradley. But the backline is inexperienced at this level, and up front, the U.S. hasn’t gotten a World Cup goal from a striker since Brian McBride scored in 2002.


Belgium vs. Algeria (Tuesday, 9 a.m., ESPN)
Russia vs. South Korea (Tuesday, 3 p.m., ESPN)
Belgium vs. Russia (June 22, 9 a.m., ABC)
South Korea vs. Algeria (June 22, noon, ABC)
South Korea vs. Belgium (June 26, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Algeria vs. Russia (June 26, 1 p.m., ESPN2)

ALGERIA (FIFA world ranking: 22)

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

It’s a fact: Author Albert Camus was a goalkeeper in school, which probably makes the University of Algiers the only college to have had a Nobel Prize-winning keeper.

The skinny: Algeria, which hasn’t won a major trophy since capturing the African Cup of Nations in 1990. This young, inexperienced team is playing with more flair behind Sporting Lisbon striker Islam Slimani, but it still struggles on offense. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic loves to go to his bench, mixing and matching his lineup.

BELGIUM (FIFA world ranking: 11)

Best World Cup finish: Fourth place (1986).

It’s a fact: Belgium will be the least-traveled team in the group stage, having to travel less than 1,400 miles. By comparison, the U.S. traveled almost 9,000 miles.

The skinny: With 23-year-old Chelsea forward Eden Hazard up front, Man U’s 26-year-old Marouane Fellaini in midfield, Manchester City’s 28-year-old captain, Vincent Kompany, on defense and Atletico Madrid keeper Thibaut Courtois, 22, in goal, Belgium has a solid, experienced collection of young, big-name stars. One question is 21-year-old striker Romelu Lukaku, who injured his ankle last week.

RUSSIA (FIFA world ranking: 19)

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

It’s a fact: Only two of the 42 players called up compete for teams outside the Russian Premier League. Neither one made the World Cup roster.

The skinny: The Russian soccer federation has its eye on 2018, when the country will host the World Cup. Five of the team’s core players are older than 30 and probably won’t be around then, so they’ll try to make a statement here. Former England coach Fabio Capello took over after Russia’s disastrous 2012 Euro and guided the team past Portugal in World Cup qualifying, conceding five goals in 10 games.

SOUTH KOREA (FIFA world ranking: 57)

Best World Cup finish: Fourth place (2002).

It’s a fact: This marks South Korea’s eighth consecutive appearance in the World Cup and ninth visit overall, most among Asian nations.

The skinny: In nine World Cups, South Korea has made it out of the group stage twice. The South Koreans have their work cut out for them if they hope to keep that momentum going in this group. Bayer Leverkusen striker Son Heung-Min is a potent scoring threat, and if the young team — just one player is older than 30 — plays well against Russia, it could make things interesting.

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