There is perhaps no greater thrill for an athlete than playing for one's country in competition.
The 2014 World Cup will bring together players from 32 different nations for a month-long soccer tournament. Each and every participant will hope to represent their country well in Brazil. For some teams, qualification was the real victory and savoring the moment is more important than winning. For others, a deep run into the knockout rounds or a place in the final is the only way to achieve true glory.
The group stages lay down the foundation for each team's goals. They've known their opening-round opponents for months now, and it's finally time for the players to put everything on the line.
Let's take a look at the latest betting lines for the early group stages followed by predictions on some of the more intriguing matchups from the first week of the tournament.
|June 14||Costa Rica||+1205|
|June 17||South Korea||+338|
(Note: Odds courtesy of OddsShark.com and updated as of Wednesday, June 11.)
Matches To Watch
Group B: Netherlands vs. Spain
There is no good reason for any soccer-loving fan to miss a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final.
Spain is looking to cap off a run as the most dominant country on the planet over the last few years. They won the aforementioned cup match as well as the last two European championships.
The Netherlands, originators of "Total Football," are three-time World Cup runner-ups and will be desperate to not only get revenge against Spain but make sure their run toward the final gets off to a good start.
The Oranje will be led by winger Arjen Robben, whose singular brilliance down the flank and combination play with striker Robin van Persie should create ample opportunities for the Netherlands. As ESPNFC's Simon Kuper writes, Robben's individualistic contributions to the Dutch team stem from his unique upbringing in northern Netherlands:
Had he been raised in the west of the country, the dribble would have been coached out of him. I grew up playing in the Netherlands, and still remember the cry that used to rise when any kid dared run with the ball: 'Niet pingelen!' ("Don't dribble!") Dutch soccer has always been about the geometric beauty of triangles. Even Dutch 8-year-olds know that the ball moves faster than the man.
As an untutored genius from the sticks, Robben missed out on all of that.
How far will the Netherlands advance in the 2014 World Cup?
His speed and dribbling ability are level with some of the best wingers in the world, and not even the Spanish defense can contain him over 90 minutes.
The Netherlands will trot out a young group on the defensive line, which will allow Spain to generate some intricate attacks of their own. Dutch defenders Bruno Martins Indi and Ron Vlaar will be hard-pressed to disrupt the metronomic passing skills of Andres Iniesta and Xavi.
With the likes of strikers Diego Costa and David Villa to cap off the attack for Spain, this titanic matchup should end in a thrilling draw.
Prediction: Draw, 2-2
Group D: Italy vs. England
The English take the World Cup as seriously as just about any other country in the world—even Brazil. They did invent the modern version of the game after all.
It is this outlandish pressure to succeed that has made the England squad relative disappointments at every World Cup since they won the tournament in 1966. As it stands, only victory will suffice.
This year's event could prove to be especially painful, as England may not escape a tough group that features the likes of Italy and Uruguay.
England will be led by versatile striker Wayne Rooney, who has scored 39 goals for the Three Lions. Rooney believes that his young teammates have already surpassed Italy in terms of talent, per the national team's official Twitter account:
.@WayneRooney: I think we've moved ahead of Italy. We have a youthful squad so will be interesting to see how we have progressed— England (@england) June 11, 2014
The team will rely on a youth movement outside of Rooney. Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling could all log significant playing time against Italy. The hope is that the moment won't overwhelm the youngsters and that they will use their speed to confound the likes of Italy's Giorgio Chiellini at center-back and Daniele De Rossi in midfield.
What will be the outcome of Italy vs. England?
According to a report from BBC.com, the pitch at Arena Amazonia is in bad shape and could make intricate passing difficult in this matchup. It will be interesting to see if England goes with a direct approach and tries to connect on long passes instead of utilizing elaborate build-up play.
Italy have yet to decide which striker will lead their attack. Mario Balotelli is famous worldwide for his off-field antics and powerful shot, while Ciro Immobile is a 24-year-old striker with just two caps for the national team to his name.
England manager Roy Hodgson is glad he doesn't have to make the choice between those two, via Oliver Kay of The Times:
Hodgson is asked if he'd prefer to face Balotelli or Immobile. "A great question for Prandelli, not me," he says. "The headache isn't mine"— Oliver Kay (@OliverKayTimes) June 10, 2014
The muggy conditions and dicey pitch will bog down both teams. This favors Italy, as either Balotelli or Immobile could make an impact from set pieces and steal a goal.
Italy's midfield maestro, Andrea Pirlo, will be key to the Azzurri maintaining possession throughout the match, but an unlucky giveaway at the back due to field conditions could allow Rooney or Sterling to push through with a goal for England.
Prediction: Italy wins, 2-1
Group C: Japan vs. Ivory Coast
This could be the match that decides the winner in Group C, since Colombia's attack will struggle without their classic No. 9 Radamel Falcao causing turmoil in the penalty box. At the very least, a place in the knockout stages is on the line in this intercontinental draw.
Ivory Coast has the size and strength advantage in midfield. Yaya Toure and Cheick Tiote can outmuscle Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, although the latter pairing have more creative flair and speed with the ball at their feet.
Ivory Coast also has a brilliant pair of strikers in Didier Drogba and Wilfried Bony. The aging Drogba will have an issue with stamina in this tournament; this makes Bony all the more important, as the team will need his power and pace to boost the attack.
Japan should try to test goalkeeper Boubacar Barry early on; he's a 34-year-old liability in goal and hasn't achieved nearly the same level of success as his teammates out on the pitch.
Which team will top Group C?
If Japan can get Barry second-guessing himself, they might be able to light up the scoreboard in this one. It's a distinct possibility considering the 4-3 victory they notched in a friendly with Zambia in preparation for the World Cup.
The contrast in styles should make for an interesting match. Look for Drogba and Toure to get heavily involved in linking up around the box and score a goal each, while Tiote protects the back line and stymies Japan's attack well enough to secure victory.
Prediction: Ivory Coast wins, 2-1