The 2014 World Cup has arrived, and it couldn't come soon enough for the planet's elite national teams.
While the rest of the country is another story, hosts Brazil are more than ready for the action, and they look poised to make a serious run at their sixth World Cup championship—this one coming on home soil. Spain enter the tournament somewhat lurking under the Brazilian spotlight as the defending champions will try to make it two in a row after coming out victorious in 2010.
From Germany to Italy, to Argentina and many more, there are no shortage of contenders who are more than capable of stealing the spotlight away from both Brazil and Spain.
Let's break down all of the group-stage fixtures and dissect the most intriguing groups.
|June 12||Brazil vs. Croatia||A||4 p.m.||Sao Paulo|
|June 13||Mexico vs. Cameroon||A||12 p.m.||Natal|
|June 13||Spain vs. Netherlands||B||3 p.m.||Salvador|
|June 13||Chile vs. Australia||B||6 p.m.||Cuiaba|
|June 14||Colombia vs. Greece||C||12 p.m.||Belo Horizonte|
|June 14||Uruguay vs. Costa Rica||D||3 p.m.||Fortaleza|
|June 14||Ivory Coast vs. Japan||C||6 p.m.||Recife|
|June 14||England vs. Italy||D||6 p.m.||Manaus|
|June 15||Switzerland vs. Ecuador||E||12 p.m.||Brasilia|
|June 15||France vs. Honduras||E||3 p.m.||Porto Alegre|
|June 15||Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina||F||6 p.m.||Rio De Janeiro|
|June 16||Germany vs. Portugal||G||12 p.m.||Salvador|
|June 16||Iran vs. Nigeria||F||3 p.m.||Curitiba|
|June 16||Ghana vs. United States||G||6 p.m.||Natal|
|June 17||Belgium vs. Algeria||H||12 p.m.||Belo Horizonte|
|June 17||Brazil vs. Mexico||A||3 p.m.||Fortaleza|
|June 17||Russia vs. South Korea||H||6 p.m.||Cuiaba|
|June 18||Australia vs. Netherlands||B||12 p.m.||Porto Alegre|
|June 18||Cameroon vs. Croatia||A||3 p.m.||Manaus|
|June 18||Spain vs. Chile||B||6 p.m.||Rio De Janeiro|
|June 19||Colombia vs. Ivory Coast||C||12 p.m.||Brasilia|
|June 19||Uruguay vs. England||D||3 p.m.||Sao Paulo|
|June 19||Greece vs. Japan||C||6 p.m.||Natal|
|June 20||Costa Rica vs. Italy||D||12 p.m.||Recife|
|June 20||Switzerland vs. France||E||3 p.m.||Salvador|
|June 20||Ecuador vs. Honduras||E||6 p.m.||Curitiba|
|June 21||Argentina vs. Iran||F||12 p.m.||Belo Horizonte|
|June 21||Germany vs. Ghana||G||3 p.m.||Fortaleza|
|June 21||Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Nigeria||F||6 p.m.||Cuiaba|
|June 22||South Korea vs. Algeria||H||12 p.m.||Porto Alegre|
|June 22||United States vs. Portugal||G||3 p.m.||Manaus|
|June 22||Belgium vs. Russia||H||12 p.m.||Rio De Janeiro|
|June 23||Australia vs. Spain||B||12 p.m.||Curitiba|
|June 23||Chile vs. Netherlands||B||12 p.m.||Sao Paulo|
|June 23||Brazil vs. Cameroon||A||4 p.m.||Brasilia|
|June 23||Croatia vs. Mexico||A||4 p.m.||Recife|
|June 24||Italy vs. Uruguay||D||12 p.m.||Natal|
|June 24||Costa Rica vs. England||D||12 p.m.||Belo Horizonte|
|June 24||Japan vs. Colombia||C||4 p.m.||Cuiaba|
|June 24||Greece vs. Ivory Coast||C||4 p.m.||Fortaleza|
|June 25||Nigeria vs. Argentina||F||12 p.m.||Porto Alegre|
|June 25||Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iran||F||12 p.m.||Salvador|
|June 25||Honduras vs. Switzerland||E||4 p.m.||Manaus|
|June 25||France vs. Ecuador||E||4 p.m.||Rio De Janeiro|
|June 26||United States vs. Germany||G||12 p.m.||Recife|
|June 26||Portugal vs. Ghana||G||12 p.m.||Brasilia|
|June 26||South Korea vs. Belgium||H||4 p.m.||Sao Paulo|
|June 26||Algeria vs. Russia||H||4 p.m.||Curitiba|
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group D|
|Cameroon||Chile||Ivory Coast||Costa Rica|
|Group E||Group F||Group G||Group H|
Most Notable Groups
Group D: Italy, Uruguay, England, Costa Rica
Group G has been pegged as the group of death seemingly since the draw took place, but nobody has been able to overlook Group D.
England and Italy are the heavyweights—until you notice Uruguay is lurking in the same exact group. Costa Rica rounds it out, not looking to be a serious contender to advance, but the damage is done with three elite national teams.
The entire group will take shape quickly after England and Italy face off on the third day of the tournament, and if either side pulls out a victory, they will move into control of the group—likely with Uruguay, who should be able to top Costa Rica in their own opener.
England forward Wayne Rooney wasn't shy on calling out the Italians on the eve of the World Cup, per the team's official Twitter:
.@WayneRooney: Italy should be thinking about how to control our team. They have good players but so do we. They should worry about us.— England (@england) June 11, 2014
Even in a World Cup opener, tensions are sure to be high between these two. Italy knocked England out of Euro 2012 in penalties, but the Italians are hopeful to erase memories of a 2010 World Cup; they were bounced in the group stage in pursuit of defending their 2006 title.
Both teams can't afford to focus on one another too much, though, because Uruguay will be waiting to face both of them after opening up against Costa Rica.
Group A: Brazil, Cameroon, Mexico, Croatia
Many presume it's a given that Brazil will win Group A convincingly and advance on with three wins, but it's not going to be a walk in the park by any means.
The Brazilians open up on June 12 against Croatia, a team filled with elite European club talent such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic—although Mandzukic is suspended for the opener. Rounding out the group are Mexico and Cameroon, two teams similar to Croatia in that they have the talent at some areas of the field to give the best of teams trouble.
The balance of talent spread out between the three inferior teams will make Group A one of the more interesting groups to follow over the first two weeks. But there's still little doubt that one team rises above the rest, and that's the host nation of Brazil.
Brazil themselves are feeling that as well, including head coach Felipe Scolari, per BBC's Ben Smith:
Strong stuff from Scolari: "Let me tell you. The time has arrived. We are going together. This is our #WorldCup."— Ben Smith (@BenSmithBBC) June 11, 2014
Goal.com added that Scolari has even compared this team to the 2002 World Cup winners, which was the last time Brazil hoisted the trophy:
Scolari: Current Brazil side as good as Ronaldo's 2002 champions http://t.co/DnT3quPvTG— Goal (@goal_intl) June 11, 2014
Mexico's speed might pave their way out of the group, or perhaps Samuel Eto'o can take over for Cameroon. Who knows, maybe Croatia can make some noise and advance.
But the one constant in Group A is that it's all Brazil at the top.
Group G: Germany, Portugal, United States, Ghana
There may be more championship contenders in another group, but no foursome heading to Brazil has more winning talent from top to bottom than Group G.
It all starts at the top. Germany come in second in the FIFA rankings and generating as much hype as any other team, and Portugal are No. 4 with Cristiano Ronaldo—the best player on the planet, at least in 2014.
It doesn't get much easier. The United States are currently 13th after a very impressive qualifying run, and Ghana round out the group ranked No. 37 but having advanced to the quarter-finals in 2010.
U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has drawn ire for stating his team cannot win the World Cup, but that doesn't mean his side isn't flowing with confidence, per AFP via FIFA.com:
Talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic. But Greece in 2004, nobody said they would win the European Cup, but they did. Football is not predictable. If we get through this group, the sky is the limit.
You have to be realistic. We are making every year another step forward. We don't look (at) ourselves as an underdog, even if a lot of the others do.
Klinsmann might be downplaying the Americans' chances of winning it all, but the opportunity is undoubtedly there to at least get out of the tournament's toughest group.
Opening with a match against Ghana, the U.S. could avenge their defeat from the 2010 knockout round and start with a crucial three points heading into a match with Portugal. By then, Germany could have the group won and rest some of their starters in the group closer against the USA.
Still, the group will be most impacted by Germany and Portugal facing off in the opening days of the tournament. That match between two of the top five teams in the world will help to decide how things play out.
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