15 People with Most Riding on World Cup
Coming every four years, the World Cup is inevitably a watershed for football's top stars. A good tournament can assure a player's place in the history books, while an indifference or disappointing competition may leave a stain on one's career that is difficult to remove.
But as ever, the stakes are not equal for the competitors of each of the 32 competing nations in Brazil 2014. Some figures, invariably, have more to lose than others.
The following are people whose reputations could be hanging on the events of June and July, as they strive for a successful World Cup. Be they players, coaches or even politicians, Brazil 2014 arrives with almost unimaginable pressure on their backs.
15. Iker Casillas
Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas has nothing to prove in Brazil 2014. With two European Championships and a World Cup in 2010 under his belt, the veteran has won it all with Spain during a glittering international career.
Close to his 33rd birthday, however, the next competition could prove to be Casillas' swansong for La Furia Roja. The keeper will be desperate to show his talents once more in Brazil as Spain strive to become the first team to defend the World Cup since Brazil themselves in 1962.
14. Jose Pekerman
It is hard not to feel sorry for Colombia. After an excellent qualifying campaign, the dark horses for Brazil 2014 were dealt a devastating blow leading up to the World Cup: Star forward Radamel Falcao ruptured his cruciate ligaments, as reported by The Mirror's Liam Prenderville, and remains a serious doubt to make the plane, let alone play a crucial role.
Argentine coach Jose Pekerman must recover from that setback and utilise a nevertheless strong squad to make up for the loss of El Tigre. Without the goals of the powerful No. 9, however, there is no doubt that Pekerman's task to better the quarter-final reached with Argentina in 2006 looks rather more difficult to achieve.
13. Luis Suarez
In 2010, Uruguay marksman Luis Suarez managed to make himself both the hero and the villain of the South Africa World Cup. The then-Ajax star was key in the Celeste's surprise run to the semi-finals with three goals; he also courted controversy with his handball on the line against Ghana and subsequent exuberant celebration of the penalty miss that kept his team alive.
Four years on, and Suarez will again be the focal point of Uruguay's attack. Times have changed, though; Oscar Tabarez's men have aged, and few young hopefuls have broken through to put pressure on the elder statesmen in the team.
Any success the Celeste do have will lean heavily on the goals that the Liverpool man can provide, if he can keep his temper in check.
12. Mario Balotelli
Milan striker Mario Balotelli seems to spend more time in the gossip sections of newspapers than in the sports pages. In the World Cup, however, the fun will end; Italy need a strong tournament from their erstwhile son.
Balotelli enters his first World Cup as the first-choice striker for the Azzurri, in a group that, alongside Uruguay, England and Costa Rica, looks challenging right from the off. With 12 goals in 29 appearances, his Italy record is far from outstanding, but his performances in Euro 2012 suggest that he could be the big-game player his nation needs.
11. Roy Hodgson
Despite his undoubted intelligence, England manager Roy Hodgson at times appears a hapless figure. He has been a worthy servant in the high-pressured job since taking over just weeks before the 2012 European Championships, but has never convinced a large section of the population that he is the man for the job.
The World Cup organisers barely did Hodgson a favour, drawing England with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica in one of the toughest groups at Brazil 2014. It will be difficult, but getting out of the first round is the minimum the manager will have to achieve to keep the wolves from his door.
10. Robin van Persie
There are few centre-forwards in modern football that possess the panache, strength and pure precision in front of goal that Robin van Persie enjoys. That blistering talent, however, has rarely been reproduced when representing the Netherlands in world competition.
Van Persie contributed just one goal to the Oranje's march to the final in South Africa, overshadowed in every sense by Wesley Sneijder behind him. But at 30, RVP is in his prime; he should be ready to carry the Netherlands team on his shoulders as they strive to go one better than in 2010.
9. Sepp Blatter
As president of international football's governing body FIFA, Joseph "Sepp" Blatter has presided over the awarding of two of the most controversial World Cups to date. With questions and criticisms still circling over Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022, at the very least the administrator needs events in Brazil to go as smoothly as possible.
8. Franck Ribery
In many ways, Franck Ribery is the continuation of a fine French attacking tradition from midfield. The Bayern Munich star carries on this heritage from Zinedine Zidane and, of course, the great Michel Platini. However, there is one thing that separates Ribery from his illustrious predecessors.
While Platini lifted the European Championship title in 1984 and Zidane dribbled and bullied France to their first World Cup triumph in 1998 (following that up with Euro 2000), Ribery cannot boast a similar victory to his name.
The 30-year-old is at his peak and is coming off the back of perhaps his best-ever international season as he drove France to qualification. But he will know that if the Gallic side are to make a name for themselves in Brazil, a great deal rests on his talent and determination.
7. Alejandro Sabella
On the face of it, Alejandro Sabella's future as Argentina coach should be more than secure. The former Estudiantes man has imposed stability and tactical coherency on the Albiceleste, turning around an outfit demoralised by the reckless reigns of Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista.
Sabella has also not shied away from tough decisions. One of these, the choice not to call up the in-form Carlos Tevez, could be crucial in deciding his fate after Brazil 2014.
If Argentina are successful, the Juventus man will go unmentioned. But a repeat of the 2010 quarter-final finish, or worse, would see the pressure build immensely on the coach, paying the price for leaving out one of the nation's most popular footballers.
6. Philipp Lahm
Bayern Munich and Germany stalwart Philipp Lahm has achieved more than most footballers could ever dream of. The full-back has racked up countless titles in Bavaria, but when in national team colours, he has only come agonisingly close to reaching glory.
Two third-place finishes in World Cups, plus a runners-up medal in Euro 2008 and another third-place four years later, place Lahm and Joachim Low's Germany side as the nearly men of international football in the modern era.
They will once more start as one of the favourites in Brazil, and as captain, Lahm will be the man who will have to push them the extra mile and end the losing streak.
5. Cristiano Ronaldo
With the Ballon d'Or on his mantelpiece and having driven Portugal to the World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo enters Brazil 2014 on a high. But he will be conscious that his form while wearing the colours of his homeland has rarely matched up with that on offer every weekend in La Liga with Real Madrid.
In the three European Championships and two World Cups Cristiano has competed in, he has hit the net nine times; respectable numbers, but barely reflecting his supreme talent in front of goal. The Portugal squad cannot count on the same stars and depth as when the Madrid man first entered, meaning his goals will be vital if they wish to advance.
4. President Dilma Rousseff
While not exactly a football personality, Brazil President Dilma Rousseff has an extremely large interest in seeing the World Cup go to plan. For better or for worse, what happens in 2014 will be taken as an indirect referendum on the Workers' Party leader.
Preparations for the World Cup have been punctuated by spiralling costs, construction deaths and protests from a public unhappy at having to shoulder some of the financial burden. A successful tournament would allow Dilma to think ahead to re-election in October of this year.
A disastrous competition, meanwhile, would not do the combative head of state any good at all.
It is a role that Neymar, the supremely confident, tricky Barcelona star, did not ask for. Nevertheless, from his teenage years the former Santos prodigy has never shown any reticence in becoming the young icon of the Brazil national team, a position he will carry into the home World Cup.
If the Selecao click and the wins come easy, the 22-year-old striker will be idolised by his nation. If the campaign hits the rocks, however, Neymar will be first in the firing line for critics. It is a precarious balance for such a young mind, even one with the self-belief of Neymar.
2. Lionel Messi
It is the eternal comparison in Argentina. Who is the finest player of all time: Lionel Messi, or Diego Maradona? Despite all he has accomplished as part of one of the finest club teams ever in the shape of Barcelona, for many Argentines Messi continues to trail his former national team coach.
Why? Because while Messi's international trophy cabinet remains bare, El Diego led Argentina by the scruff of her neck to a World Cup title in 1986.
The Rosario native went through the last World Cup and Copa America in a rare goal drought, but he will have to step up in 2014 to inspire a talented yet fragile Argentina side, which will start as one of the favourites in Brazil.
1. The Nation of Brazil
For all the individual talent that will be on display in the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian people have more to lose than anyone. Nothing less than victory will be tolerated by the football-mad public, who are still stung by the events of the last World Cup played on their soil.
In 1950, the Selecao threw away a 1-0 lead to crash against Uruguay, a match baptised as the "Maracanazo", which still sends a shudder down people's spines. Only a sixth World Cup title, lifted on the same site as that disaster 64 years ago, will finally heal the wounds left in Rio de Janeiro.