25 Storylines No One Is Talking About Ahead of World Cup
The World Cup is almost upon us. Less than two months remain before the big kick-off on June 12, when hosts Brazil start their bid to lift a sixth trophy in the curtain-raiser against Croatia.
The question of whether the hosts or indeed any other side will win the biggest title in football is obviously the biggest story of the World Cup. But that is far from the only thing that counts at Brazil 2014.
The following are 25 intriguing subplots to the upcoming festival of football. Some are more lighthearted than others, but all are guaranteed to generate at least a few headlines once the tournament kicks into gear.
Will Diego Costa Strife Be Worth It?
Ahead of the World Cup, Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa suddenly found himself thrown into the spotlight thanks to a wonderful club season. The hitman had the luxury of two international sides pleading for his services: birth nation Brazil and adopted home Spain.
Eventually the burly goalscorer opted for the Furia Roja, incurring the wrath of Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who according to FourFourTwo accused Costa of "turning his back" on the nation and its fans.
But will his choice turn out to be the right one?
Will Any Side Finish Without a Single Point?
For some nations, the dream of the World Cup can finish in a nightmare. Few results are more feared than the dreaded group-stage whitewash: finishing with three defeats and not a single point.
A total of nine teams have entered the World Cup and never recorded a point, although none of those nations will be present in 2014. But out of the current qualifiers Greece, with a grand total of one win and five defeats, start as historical favourites to prop up the bottom in Brazil.
Is There Hope for Pele's World Cup Favourites Colombia?
In 1994, Brazilian football legend Pele identified Colombia as one of the favourites to win the World Cup.
His prediction could not have been further off-base: An immensely talented team failed to fire, returning home after the first round. Then the tragic outcome of Andres Escobar's murder further blighted their campaign.
This time round, the Cafeteros have again come into O Rei's gaze. The Brazil idol claimed they should be amongst the four semi-finalists, via El Universal.
Can Colombia overcome the "Pele Curse" and challenge for the World Cup?
Will Schwarzer Smash Golden Oldie Records?
Chelsea veteran Mark Schwarzer is an outside bet for the World Cup. At 41-years-old, the Australia legend last year announced his retirement from the Socceroos, as reported by ABC.
An impressive performance off the bench against Atletico Madrid, however, showed that the goalkeeper still has the talent to play at the top level. Could he be persuaded to leave the pipe and slippers behind and become the World Cup's second-oldest player behind Cameroon's Roger Milla?
Can Belgium's Wonderkids Go the Distance?
Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Christian Benteke; the Belgium national team has an enviable list of exciting young talent ready to shine. But can the golden generation convert raw potential into a successful campaign in Brazil?
It is not all young hopefuls. Veteran performers like Vincent Kompany and Daniel van Buyten have the experience to keep their team-mates' feet on the ground, and the World Cup will be a fascinating stage for Marc Wilmots' men to show their stuff.
Will Roy Melt in the Manaus Sun?
The World Cup draw had barely been confirmed before England coach Roy Hodgson made the headlines. As reported by the BBC, the experienced manager admitted it was "not ideal" to be playing in the stifling Amazonian heat of Manaus, attracting widespread criticism and derision for his honesty.
England will face Italy in the city on June 14, a game that could be vital for their hopes of escaping from a tough group that also includes Uruguay and Costa Rica. But will Roy withstand the 80 percent humidity of the jungle? Or will he and his team wilt in unfriendly temperatures?
What Hope for the Bielsistas?
While Gerardo Martino has struggled at Barcelona in his maiden season, and the great Marcelo Bielsa himself is only just beginning with Marseille, there will be one representative of the Rosarino's kamikaze attacking football on display in Brazil.
Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli is a confirmed disciple of El Loco, favouring non-stop pressing and offensive play which has borne instant results for La Roja. Chile may not be among the favourites, but they could well be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in 2014.
Who Will Cook the Argentine Barbecue?
In the land where the cow is king, even the Argentine national team holds the communal barbecue as a vital part of squad bonding. Famously ahead of the 2010 World Cup, coach Diego Maradona conceded that keeping an Argentine one month away from grilled beef and wine was torture (Medio Tiempo), in his justification of a lax regime.
In the build-up to the tournament, there will be fierce speculation over who will be in charge of getting the fire going and putting the meat over the coals. Or, indeed, if current coach Alejandro Sabella will take his predecessor's advice, or try to impose a stricter regime on the class of 2014.
Can Perennial Challengers Germany Go Extra Step?
It is hard to imagine a more consistent World Cup performer than the German team. In the last eight World Cups, the nation has never finished lower than the quarter-finals, while reaching the final in 2002.
But there is one black mark for the side who finished third in both 2006 and 2010. Joachim Low's men have not won a single World Cup since reunification of East and West Germany; all three triumphs came while the nation was still separated.
Will 2014 be the year, or will the World Cup drought continue?
Which Manchester United Players Could Actually Win Something?
There is no way of masking the blow. For the Manchester United faithful, accustomed to at least challenging for silverware, the first season after the retirement of manager Sir Alex Ferguson has been an unmitigated disaster.
But could there be a silver lining in the cloud for some of the demoralised squad? Stars like Wayne Rooney (England), Robin van Persie (Netherlands), Juan Mata (Spain) and Antonio Valencia (Ecuador), to name but a few, will be heading to the World Cup in less than two months.
Lifting the world's most important football trophy would certainly help to heal the wounds left by a season to forget.
Will Gerrard Become History-Making Captain?
To be brutally honest, few observers are backing England to win the World Cup in Brazil. But should the unlikely happen, it could be an exceptional double achievement for midfield titan Steven Gerrard.
The Liverpool legend is on the verge of lifting the Premier League with his club. If he also triumphs in Brazil, he would complete the historic double of being the first England captain to lift domestic and international honours in the same year.
Which Giants Will Fall at the First Hurdle?
It is logical that, with 32 participating nations, not every team can make an impact at the World Cup. Every four years, a side tipped for greatness tastes humiliation by falling at the first hurdle.
In 2010 both the holders and 2006 finalists, Italy and France, failed to make it past the group stages in a disastrous performance for the European giants. Will any giant follow their example in Brazil by making an ignominious exit?
Will Netherlands Continue Their Best Loser Run?
One has to feel sorry for fans of the Netherlands national team. No team has gotten to the final so many times only to endure the bitter taste of defeat in the World Cup's deciding fixture.
The likes of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder have just one objective: to kill the ghosts of 1974, 1978 and 2010 and finally rid the Oranje of the title of the World Cup final's biggest losers.
What Kind of Mischief Will Befall Mario Balotelli?
Milan forward Mario Balotelli has established himself as one of football's most exciting players. This is partly, however, due to his habit of getting himself in trouble off the pitch as much as what he has achieved on the pitch.
Super Mario will be charged with leading Italy through a tough group in Brazil; but the world will also be watching to see if the controversial striker will make the headlines for reasons other than his footballing ability.
Can France Continue Good/Bad Cycle?
France's World Cup campaigns in recent years have followed a very particular pattern. Great success in the international tournament has invariably meant the next competition would be an abject failure.
1998's win was followed four years later by a group-stage exit, while final defeat in 2006 led to another early plane home in South Africa. According to tradition, therefore, Brazil 2014 should be a promising competition for Les Bleus.
Who Will Be the Uruguay of 2014?
It still ranks as the biggest upset of World Cup history. Home favourites and South American giants Brazil were humbled by tiny Uruguay in the 1950 final, creating a mental scar for the Selecao that has taken 64 years to start healing.
Now the World Cup has returned to the nation. Could history repeat itself? Argentina are one team that could meet Brazil in the final, and a loss to the Albiceleste would arguably be even more damaging to the home psyche than the Maracanazo more than half a century ago.
Which Concacaf Nation Will Go Furthest?
Teams from North America have been present at the World Cup from the very first tournament back in 1930. Unfortunately for the continent, however, their history at the event has been far from glittering. Indeed, the United States peaked in that first tournament before being thrashed 6-1 by Argentina in the semi-finals.
Since then, one US last-eight appearance (in 2002) and two for Mexico (both at home, in 1970 and 86), is as good as it has gotten for CONCACAF teams. Can the continent's representatives go further in Brazil 2014?
Can Neymar Live Up to Brazil Great Hope Label?
With home advantage, Brazil are logically one of the favourites to lift the World Cup in 2014. Even more so when one considers Luiz Felipe Scolari's team are packed with talent from goalkeeper to centre-forward.
But one man will take the spotlight more than any other. Barcelona forward Neymar is the darling of the home public and expected to lead his side to glory. Can the youngster live up to his potential, and the immense pressure, to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Pele, Romario and Ronaldo?
Have Spain Got What It Takes to Defend Title?
The record books make it clear that Spain's task in Brazil 2014 will not be an easy one. Just two teams in history, Italy (1934 and 38) and Brazil (1958 and 62), have managed to win back-to-back World Cups.
The Furia Roja, however, are accustomed to breaking records, having won an unprecedented three consecutive World Cup and European Championship titles. With one of the best teams around, and the added boost of Diego Costa up front, the side will be strong in 2014.
Can Felipao Become a Two-Time Champion?
Drafted back into Brazil service following the abortive spell of Mano Menezes, Luiz Felipe 'Felipao' Scolari has succeeded in turning around the Selecao's fortunes in recent months. His impeccable World Cup experience, including victory in 2002, has undoubtedly helped in that regard.
The former Chelsea and Portugal boss has one particular record in his sights. If he can win on home soil, Felipao will lift his second World Cup as coach, a feat managed by just one other man, Vittorio Pozzo, who engineered back-to-back Italy triumphs in 1934 and 1938.
Will Pele's Africa Prediction Finally Come True?
It is perhaps one of Pele's most infamous predictions. The three-time World Cup winner and Santos legend looked into his crystal ball and forecast, as remembered by Goal.com, that there would be an African champion on the international stage before 2000.
Would it not be the bitterest irony if his prophecy finally came to pass in his own back yard? Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria represent a strong contingent from the continent, and while they are far from favourites, O Rei may be looking nervous if one of the sides reaches the latter stages.
Can Messi Finally Overcome Maradona?
Lionel Messi has achieved incredible things in the world of football. A section of support from his home country Argentina, however, will not be fully convinced of his greatness until he can match the feats of polemic legend Diego Maradona on the World Cup stage.
The little genius dragged the Albiceleste to the title in 1986, while Messi's performances on the world stage have so far failed to match his brilliance for Barcelona. Will his third World Cup be the arena La Pulga needs to finally put the negative comparisons to bed?
Will Cristiano Add a World Cup to His Ballon D'Or?
For Cristiano Ronaldo, 2013 was a special year. The Real Madrid and Portugal superstar finally managed to dethrone Lionel Messi in the Fifa Ballon d'Or competition, regaining the title of world's best player for 12 months.
Now, CR7 has the opportunity to show he is up to the honour. A shining performance for the forward and Portugal in Brazil 2014 would silence any doubters he may still have.
Can Uruguay Live Up to Maracanazo?
It is the defining match of Uruguay's history as a footballing nation. Having gone behind early in Rio's iconic Maracana stadium, filled to the brim with just under 200,000 spectators, goals from Juan Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia sealed a victory known forever since as the "Maracanazo."
That triumph has arguably weighed upon every Celeste team that has come since. So much so, that Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez explained recently (via La Republica) that he does not want memories of 1950 dredged up before the tournament begins.
Some fans, however, are not quite ready to let go of the "Ghost of 1950."
Can Brazil Bury Ghost of Maracanazo?
If memories of 1950 weigh heavy on Uruguay, they are almost unbearable for Brazilian supporters. That defeat in the Maracana is still remembered as possibly the darkest day in the nation's football history.
64 years down the line, the final is scheduled to be played in the same stadium. No matter who the opponents are, Brazil are expected to be one of the teams in the showpiece match.
Nothing less than a healing victory will be enough.