Brazil opened the 2014 World Cup with a ceremony fitting of the worldwide gravity of the event. Then their countrymen went out on the pitch and proved once more why they are the favorite to capture their first title in more than a decade.
Brazil earned a 3-1 win over Croatia on Thursday to officially kick off their month-long reign as World Cup host. The match was mired in controversy after Fred flopped to the ground to earn a go-ahead penalty kick from Neymar, but it's a result few will remember come July. What's important is that after years of controversy, palpable anticipation and some admitted dread, the World Cup is finally underway.
And Friday kicks it into high gear for real.
There are three matches on the slate as Group A finishes its preliminary match while Group B goes for a twofer. The most anticipated contest of the evening is easily Netherlands-Spain, which most feel will go a long way in determining the Group B championship. Spain is the defending World Cup champion and top the FIFA rankings by a considerable margin. Netherlands just so happen to be the country Spain defeated four years ago to win in South Africa.
That's not a small deal.
Neither is the day's opening match between Mexico and Cameroon. Mexico are considerable favorites in the match, but their national program has undergone massive strife over the last year. It will be interesting to see how players react to the stage. Chile, who are a Group B dark horse, will take on Australia to cap off the evening.
Let's take a quick look at each match and get to know these teams beyond their geography. (Though, if you can point out exactly where Cameroon is on a map of Africa on your first try, well, kudos.)
Mexico vs. Cameroon (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2, WatchESPN)
The winner of this match will have an inside track to earning the second spot from Group B for elimination play. The loser already has its back against the wall two total matches into the World Cup. A draw is boring and kind of sad; we should all hope one doesn't happen.
Mexico are still in the midst of rebuilding their reputation after a miserable 2013 campaign. Miguel Herrera has only held the reins since mid-October, having been the fourth and final coach in Mexico's month-long shuffling of the deck. Herrera has had success leading El Tri to the World Cup, but they have continued to struggle in finding consistent scoring options.
Portugal and Bosnia and Herzegovina earned 1-0 victories over Mexico in their final lead-up matches before heading to Brazil. They have been shut out in three of their last six matches total, earning only two wins. The most notable triumph for Mexico's national team might be Herrera's crusade against, umm, extracurricular activities during the World Cup.
Still, the head coach has faith in his squad coming into Friday.
"We're ready, there are no excuses," Herrera told reporters, via Tom Marshall of sportingnews.com. "The team has surprised me more than I thought...We can be world champions."
Cameroon have far more modest goals. The African nation made it out of the group stage just once, their quarterfinals run in 1990. The five other appearances have been mired in disappointment, including in South Africa four years ago. Cameroon went three and out, scoring only two goals to unofficially finish in 31st place.
Their hopes in large part rely on the excellence of Samuel Eto'o. There has been a cloud of mystery surrounding where Eto'o will line up on the pitch, but wherever he's going to be he'll have to be effective. Working as a striker in the 4-3-3 will allow Eto'o to have goal-scoring opportunities; he will just have to rely on others, specifically the wings, to create them.
If Cameroon are able to get on the board early, they're in good shape. Mexico will try to keep the goalscoring to a minimum and employ conservative ball control tactics to dictate the pace. Three total goals and this one goes to Cameroon in an upset. Any fewer and the outcome heavily favors Mexico.
Spain vs. Netherlands (3 p.m. ET, ESPN, WatchESPN)
No disrespect to any of the other games, but—OK, total disrespect. Spain-Netherlands is Friday's marquee matchup. It might even be the marquee matchup of the entire group phase, depending on whether your nostalgia overrides the mammoth Portugal-Germany clash in Group G.
The Netherlands are not the same team they were in 2010. There has been a massive youth movement within the national program, one that saw many notable faces from four years ago exiled from the starting lineup. Those changes were spurred by an embarrassing showing at Euro 2012 and will help the long-term outlook of the program.
Whether that's good for the here and now is anyone's guess.
Captain Robin Van Persie is the key to everything the Dutch do on their attack. The Manchester United star has had a whirlwind four years since his last World Cup meeting with Spain, morphing from extremely-talented-but-oft-injured star in the making to full-blown superstar. Van Persie is now one of the world's premier goalscoring threats and has a motivated Arjen Robben at his side.
Robben, who narrowly missed beating Iker Casillas for what would have been a game-winning goal in 2010, has continued his own solid development. Playing for German giant Bayern Munich, Robben is often the under-appreciated member of the Netherlands attack. Louis Van Gaal will need him to step up and take some of the pressure off Van Persie if the underdogs hope to pull this out.
Like their counterparts, Spain are not as bulletproof as they were in South Africa. In 2010, the Spaniards were one of the most composed national teams in recent memory. A majority of their starting 11 were at the height of their prime. Even those on one side or the other of the "prime" spectrum performed well. Spain were very, very good.
While they're still FIFA's top-ranked team and a contender for a repeat bid, it's going to be more difficult this time around. FiveThirtyEight ranks Spain fourth among the 32 tournament teams, giving them only an eight percent chance to win. Fellow Group B member Chile is given the fifth-best opportunity, while Netherlands are all the way back in 12th.
Spain's problems are mostly age-related. Midfielders Xavi and Xabi Alonso are well into their 30s. So is Casillas. Of their most critical starting players, one could argue that only Diego Costa, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are considerably better now than in 2010.
These are still two powers. This is still an exciting matchup. But we're getting them at far different stages than their classic final.
Chile vs. Australia (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2, WatchESPN)
This is the most straightforward of Friday's three matches. Chile is a potential sleeping giant. The aforementioned FiveThirtyEight metrics give the Chileans nearly a 70 percent chance of making it out of Group B with one of the two top spots. As most salivate over the meeting of Netherlands and Spain, Chile should be in a position to get three easy points.
Australia are currently ranked 62nd in the world. This is decidedly not the same squad that went all the way to the Round of 16 in 2006. They're easily the weakest side in Group B, an outfit that will likely be overwhelmed by three teams thrown together in the same group only because the draw system says so. Australia were not advancing in any of the eight groups sent to Brazil, but they were thrown in one of the two most difficult.
For Chile, this is a matter of taking care of business and getting out without any more injuries. Midfielder Arturo Vidal's aggravation of his knee injury in a friendly against Northern Ireland leaves his status for Friday and beyond up in the air.
"We will have to wait to see if you can play in these games," midfielder Marcelo Diaz told reporters. "Vidal is one of the best players in the world, he is very valuable and anyone would like to have him. But it's not just one player who will carry the team, it is all of us."
Putting it bluntly: Chile cannot get out of this group without Vidal. The Juventus star is indispensable. He's one of the best midfielders in the world—one of the best players, regardless of position—and was expected to carry the country's hopes on his back alongside Alexis Sanchez. With Sanchez and Vidal on the pitch, Chile has two talents that can will them to win.
Without one, their status is up in the air.
Chile are good enough to beat Australia without Vidal. Are they good enough to take down Netherlands and Spain? That's highly questionable.
All rankings information via FIFA.
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