National teams from around the globe worked for the past four years to reach this point. Now they have three games in the group stage to show they belong among the final 16, which would also put them within four wins of glory at the 2014 World Cup.
The format is conducive to high drama. Since it's only single round-robin play in the group stage, there's added pressure to showcase top form right away. That's why there's usually a couple surprise exits. Certain sides just aren't able to reach their peak at the right time.
With that in mind, let's check out a complete schedule for the opening round of play, starting with the host nation of Brazil taking on Croatia. It's followed by predictions for the group winners and a look at some teams who could be heading home early.
|June 12||4 p.m.||A||Brazil vs. Croatia||ESPN|
|June 13||12 p.m.||A||Mexico vs. Cameroon||ESPN2|
|June 13||3 p.m.||B||Spain vs. Netherlands||ESPN|
|June 13||6 p.m.||B||Chile vs. Australia||ESPN2|
|June 14||12 p.m.||C||Colombia vs. Greece||ABC|
|June 14||3 p.m.||D||Uruguay vs. Costa Rica||ABC|
|June 14||6 p.m.||D||England vs. Italy||ESPN|
|June 14||9 p.m.||C||Ivory Coast vs. Japan||ESPN|
|June 15||12 p.m.||E||Switzerland vs. Ecuador||ABC|
|June 15||3 p.m.||E||France vs. Honduras||ABC|
|June 15||6 p.m.||F||Argentina vs. Bosnia-H.||ESPN|
|June 16||12 p.m.||G||Germany vs. Portugal||ESPN|
|June 16||3 p.m.||F||Iran vs. Nigeria||ESPN|
|June 16||6 p.m.||G||Ghana vs. USA||ESPN|
|June 17||12 p.m.||H||Belgium vs. Algeria||ESPN|
|June 17||3 p.m.||A||Brazil vs. Mexico||ESPN|
|June 17||6 p.m.||H||Russia vs. South Korea||ESPN|
|June 18||12 p.m.||B||Australia vs. Netherlands||ESPN|
|June 18||3 p.m.||B||Spain vs. Chile||ESPN|
|June 18||6 p.m.||A||Cameroon vs. Croatia||ESPN|
|June 19||12 p.m.||C||Colombia vs. Ivory Coast||ESPN|
|June 19||3 p.m.||D||Uruguay vs. England||ESPN|
|June 19||6 p.m.||C||Japan vs. Greece||ESPN|
|June 20||12 p.m.||D||Italy vs. Costa Rica||ESPN|
|June 20||3 p.m.||E||Switzerland vs. France||ESPN|
|June 20||6 p.m.||E||Honduras vs. Ecuador||ESPN|
|June 21||12 p.m.||F||Argentina vs. Iran||ESPN|
|June 21||3 p.m.||G||Germany vs. Ghana||ESPN|
|June 21||6 p.m.||F||Nigeria vs. Bosnia-H.||ESPN|
|June 22||12 p.m.||H||Belgium vs. Russia||ABC|
|June 22||3 p.m.||H||South Korea vs. Algeria||ABC|
|June 22||6 p.m.||G||USA vs. Portugal||ESPN|
|June 23||12 p.m.||B||Netherlands vs. Chile||ESPN|
|June 23||12 p.m.||B||Australia vs. Spain||ESPN2|
|June 23||4 p.m.||A||Croatia vs. Mexico||ESPN|
|June 23||4 p.m.||A||Cameroon vs. Brazil||ESPN2|
|June 24||12 p.m.||D||Italy vs. Uruguay||ESPN|
|June 24||12 p.m.||D||Costa Rica vs. England||ESPN2|
|June 24||4 p.m.||C||Japan vs. Colombia||ESPN|
|June 24||4 p.m.||C||Greece vs. Ivory Coast||ESPN2|
|June 25||12 p.m.||F||Nigeria vs. Argentina||ESPN|
|June 25||12 p.m.||F||Bosnia-H. vs. Iran||ESPN2|
|June 25||4 p.m.||E||Ecuador vs. France||ESPN|
|June 25||4 p.m.||E||Honduras vs. Switzerland||ESPN2|
|June 26||12 p.m.||G||United States vs. Germany||ESPN|
|June 26||12 p.m.||G||Portugal vs. Ghana||ESPN2|
|June 26||4 p.m.||H||South Korea vs. Belgium||ESPN|
|June 26||4 p.m.||H||Algeria vs. Russia||ESPN2|
FIFA.com and ESPNMediaZone.com
Picks for Group Winners
If the draw had been more kind to Portugal it would have likely been a lock to advance. Instead, the Seleccao ended up in the "Group of Death" alongside a dominant German squad and two sides with the talent to advance in Ghana and the United States.
The tough group puts a lot of pressure on Cristiano Ronaldo to perform like the best player in the world right away. He's certainly motivated, as illustrated in comments passed along by ESPN UK from French outlet So Foot Junior about what a World Cup title would mean to him:
That would crown a great career. I know it will be difficult, but everything is possible with work.
I have always watched the players who performed the best, and by observing them I understood one thing—what makes the difference between good players and stars is their work. I have played with footballers who had incredible talent, and it's difficult to say if they were better than me, but where they fell down was in consistency.
Starting against Germany is also a disadvantage. It means there's a good chance Portugal ends up losing while either Ghana or the United States earn all three points. That will put the talented but not incredibly deep side in an early hole that will be very difficult to dig out of over the next two matches.
The reigning champions from Spain are highly likely to secure a berth in the knockout rounds. It leaves one spot coming out of Group B for either Chile or the Netherlands with Australia probably relegated to a spoiler role. It's a worrisome situation for the Dutch.
Which of these marquee sides is most likely to get knocked out early?
Not only is Chile one of the tournament's most underrated sides, but the Oranje are entering the event without their usual strength in the midfield. The absence of Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart is going to make it very difficult to control the pace of the match.
Furthermore, the Netherlands' defense lacks experience with just one player having more than 15 international appearances. It's hard to imagine the attack, led by Robin van Persie, will be enough to overcome the question marks elsewhere in such a tough group.
There are certainly strong cases that can be made both for and against Uruguay. On one hand, the Celeste are a side with plenty of very experienced international players and have the potential to feature one of the most dynamic offenses, featuring Luis Suarez.
Yet, the concern is they don't have enough talent elsewhere on the roster to survive a group that also includes Italy and England. As Paul Carr of ESPN notes, the outlet's Soccer Power Index rates Group D as the toughest in the tournament:
SPI's toughest group: D with avg rank of 14.0 (URU, CRC, ENG, ITA). 2nd is G at 15.3 (GER, POR, GHA, #USMNT).— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) December 6, 2013
The high-end talent up front in Suarez and Edinson Cavani is a major weapon, but it takes more than strength in one area to advance. Unless some of the supporting cast shows improved form, Uruguay could be making an early trip home.