Much of the world watched on Friday as FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, held the draw for next year’s tournament in Brazil at a swank venue along the country’s northeastern coast. The dreams of millions of fans have a bit more clarity now that the 32 national teams that qualified for the World Cup have been sorted into eight groups of four. Here’s what to look out for:
America the Underdog: World soccer offers the one global arena where the U.S. isn’t a peerless superpower, a swaggering goliath. Instead, the U.S. men’s national team is a hard-working motley crew of diverse origin, some players—a contingent born in Germany with G.I.-dads—with little actual connection to the nation they’re representing. To make it in the big time, many in the American squad had to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, leave home early and ply their trade in obscurity in foreign lands. If the complacent, star-studded Olympic basketball Dream Team of the 1990s reflected a country basking in its post-Cold War supremacy, the U.S. soccer team now represents a humbler 21st century America, shorn of its hegemonic ambitions and more connected to the rest of the world.
And it’s got a hell of a struggle ahead of it. Despite this iteration of the U.S. team being perhaps the best ever, the World Cup draw handed it a dismal verdict: Germany, Ghana and Portugal. My colleague Bill Saporito sums up the challenge that awaits here. If the U.S. can surprise their more fancied opponents, it’ll be quite the Cinderella story.
The Real Group of Death: As eye-catching as the U.S.’s group may be, the really deadly one is Group B. Fine: the Australians are lightweights (destined to be whipping boys). But look at the other three: Spain, the Netherlands and Chile. The Spanish, of course, have won an unprecedented three major tournaments in a row—a half-decade spell that may immortalize this side as the greatest national team in the history of the game. The Dutch, who lost to Spain in a brutally-contested final in 2010, are perhaps the most pedigreed team to not win a World Cup and the current squad oozes class and talent. The speedy, exciting Chileans—before the draw at least—were considered dark horses to win it all. That one of these three will leave Brazil early is a shame. That we get to watch them all fight it out for survival is a delicious treat.
Bringing the World Cup Home: A World Cup tournament played in Brazil — the first since 1950 — carries with it an undeniable extra frisson. Brazil remains the spiritual home of the game and the most successful nation in World Cup history. After spanking Spain in the final of last year’s Confederations Cup—a warm-up tournament to the real thing—the World Cup hosts are the clear favorites in 2014. But the pressure on them to succeed will be immense. Brazil’s 1950 defeat to Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro scarred an entire generation of fans and players; its memory still burns. And it’s not just the ghosts of the past that will be haunting the current Brazilian side: the whole month-long spectacle of the World Cup will be accompanied by mass protests in a country where the vast expenditure on hosting the tournament has sparked a heated debate on Brazil’s entrenched socio-economic divides.
The Charge of the Dark Horses: Such is the media glare on the world’s most popular sport that the teams touted as “dark horses” seem very much in the spotlight. For no team is this more true than Belgium, which boasts, on paper, one of the strongest squads in the tournament. The cast of the Belgian “golden generation”—Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Tomas Vermaelen, Moussa Dembele, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelo Lukaku, and the list goes on and on—plays for many of Europe’s top club teams. After an absence of over a decade from major competitions, Belgium excelled in the 2014 qualification campaign, uniting a nation characterized so often by its disunity. They begin the World Cup in a relatively easy group and ought to be brimming with confidence by the time they face a sterner test.
The Ivory Coast, arguably Africa’s most underachieving side, has been cursed in recent World Cups with tough first round groups. Not so this year, and you expect aging super stars such as Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba to give their all in what may be their swan song on the international stage. Their main rival in Group C, Colombia, also enters the tournament with a degree of optimism—few sides possess the Colombians’ attacking prowess and, as a South American team, they may find it easier to adapt to Brazil’s varied conditions.
A Continental Competition: Brazil’s geographic vastness throws in a few variables not seen in recent World Cups. In the middle of June, the searing hot weather in the country’s northeastern coastal cities will be a world away from what teams will experience playing at venues in the more wintry south. The Europeans, in particular, may struggle in the early afternoon under an unforgiving Recife sun. England—where overcast skies and a damp chill in the air is considered perfect “football weather”—plays its first game against Italy deep in the humid Amazonian jungle. It’s a setting that, though unwelcome for the English, ought fascinate soccer fans everywhere.