Soccer / Sports

Group by group at the World Cup

GROUP A

Brazil

FIFA world ranking: 4

How they qualified: As host country, Brazil received an automatic invitation.

Best finish: Champions in 1958, '62, '70, '94 and 2002.

About the team: Known as the originators of "The Beautiful Game," Brazil is the heavy favorite to win. If they do so, it may not be with the same flair of its past. Brazil features a stout defense led by Thiago Silva of Paris-Saint Germain and a strong midfield powered by Willian of Chelsea, among others.

Player you may know: Neymar. He is another in a long line of prolific forwards to wear the canary yellow jersey.

Cameroon

FIFA world ranking: 50

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Tunisia in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Quarterfinals in 1990.

About the team: Defense has usually been the team's issue in the World Cup but that may no longer be a problem. This team features several strong defenders like Nicolas N'Koulou (Marseille) and midfielders like Alex Song (Barcelona), but lack a consistent striker.

Player you may know: Samuel Eto'o. At one point, he was considered one of the world's best strikers. He's now lost a step and doesn't consistently play for Chelsea, but he can still pull off magic.

Croatia

FIFA world ranking: 20

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Iceland in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Semifinals in 1998.

About the team: Their red-and-white checkerboard jerseys are the coolest of the tournament. They can also play, but it also wouldn't be a surprise if they fail to advance out of the first round, something they couldn't do in 2002 and '06.

Player you may know: Luka Modric. After struggling in his first year at Real Madrid, he found his footing and confidence and is now one of that team's best players because of his pinpoint passing in the midfield.

Mexico

FIFA world ranking: 19

How they qualified: A win by the U.S. over Panama in the final game pulled Mexico into a playoff against New Zealand. They easily dispatched the Kiwis 9-3 in a two-game aggregate to qualify.

Best finish: Quarterfinals in 1970 and '86.

About the team: One of the hardest teams to predict because no one knows which team will arrive: the swashbuckling team that can tear apart opponents with intricate passing or the mentally fragile team that gives up when calls go against it. They have talent. It just depends upon if they have focus.

Player you may know: Javier Hernandez. The Manchester United forward has all the talent, but he has had trouble getting onto the field.

Player you need to know: Giovani dos Santos. The attacking midfielder has the skills to be a world-class midfielder, as evidenced at short stints at Barcelona, Tottenham, Mallorca and Villarreal. But he has yet to stick with any of those teams. Watch him and you can guess why. He tends to forget that there are 10 other guys in green on the field. But he is capable of the bits of magic that can push a team past the group stages of the World Cup.

Match to watch

Brazil vs. Mexico. A pivotal match in this group. Teams tend to play it safe in the first game, opting to try to secure at least a point, and then opening things up in the second game. But most teams aren't facing a team the caliber of either Brazil or Mexico in their second game. Because each team's last group game isn't a walkover, it will be fascinating to see if they push to get the pivotal three points here. Can Mexico deal with Brazil's physical play? Yes, they do play tough now.

Who will advance?

Brazil will win the group, taking all nine points. Mexico will take the second spot on goal-differential after trying with Croatia.

GROUP B

Australia

FIFA world ranking: 59

How they qualified: Finished second in Asia Group B.

Best finish: Round of 16 in 2006.

About the team: In most other groups, Australia could make things interesting. In this group, however, the Socceroos' chances of advancing aren't good. The team has athleticism but, like the U.S., is missing that go-to goal-scorer that will be needed.

Player you may know: Tim Cahill. The midfielder, who plays for New York in MLS, is Australia's top goal-scorer. He is capable of snatching a point with his head or feet.

Player you need to know: Mile Jedinak. He has been one of the reasons that Crystal Palace was one of the surprise teams in the Premier League this year. The midfielder is steady on the ball and smart with his passes.

Chile

FIFA world ranking: 13

How they qualified: Finished in third place in South America.

Best finish: Semifinals in 1962.

About the team: This team likes to score. Defense? Not so much. They scored 29 goals during qualifying, but holes in the defense that were exploited for 25 goals.

Player you may know: Alexis Sanchez. The Barcelona forward endured a rough start in Spain after signing from Udinese in 2011. But he is starting to heat up with 38 goals in 86 games, including 18 through 32 games this year.

Player you need to know: Arturo Vidal. The Juventus midfielder has 22 goals through 49 games this year, an amazing total in the defensively tough Serie A.

Spain

FIFA world ranking: 1

How they qualified: Finished first in their qualifying group.

Best finish: Champions in 2010.

About the team: The most accomplished team in this year's tournament. Spain is the defending World Cup champs as well the two-time defending champs of Europe (2008 and '12). It can be argued their success is based on familiarity. The majority of the starting lineup plays together for either Barcelona or Real Madrid, so they have an already-established chemistry that other teams lack.

Players you may know: The duo of Andres Iniesta and Xavi are the puppet-masters for Barcelona's midfield, as well as for Spain's. They are patient with the ball, never stop moving and can see runs into space develop before other players make their moves. The constant possession of the ball, coupled with hundreds of short passes, is known as "tiki-taka."

Netherlands

FIFA world ranking: 15

How they qualified: Finished first in their qualifying group.

Best finish: Runners-up in 1974, '78 and 2010.

About the team: The Netherlands, the originators in the 1970s of the concept of interchangeable players known as "Total Football," is capable of beating any team. They are extremely deep at goalie, midfield and forward, but their defense is thin.

Player you may know: Arjen Robben. The Bayern Munich winger has arguably the best left foot in the world, but perhaps not the best set of eyes. He sometimes dribbles too much and doesn't incorporate the rest of a talented team into attacks. He seems to have learned how to use his skills in a team concept.

Player you need to know: Stefan de Vrij. The Feyenoord back is considered one of the best young players in the world and figures to be at the center of a bidding war this summer.

Match to watch

Spain vs. Netherlands. What better way to start Group B than that matchup between two of the world's best teams? Netherlands was beaten by Spain 1-0 in the finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It will be interesting to see if either team will go for the three points or if they will play conservatively to and grab the one point that comes with a tie.

Who will advance

Spain and Netherlands. It would be fun to see Chile, with its attacking mindset, advance but the group is mostly about defense. While Spain and Netherlands may not be as tough at the back as Italy or Germany, their possession-dominated game ensures that that a strong line of defense isn't always needed.

GROUP C

Colombia

FIFA world ranking: 5

How they qualified: Finished second in South America.

Best finish: Round of 16 in 1990.

About the team: One of the most balanced teams in the World Cup, Colombia is full of young talent. They are one of the dark horses to advance deep into the tournament

Player you may know: Radamel Falcao. The Monaco forward is rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate injury in his left knee, but is expected to be healthy for the tournament. He is a prolific striker who could use a good World Cup as a springboard to an even bigger club in Europe.

Greece

FIFA world ranking: 10

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Romania in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Never advanced past the group stage.

About the team: The Greeks are consistently a head-scratching team. They surprised the world by winning the European championships in 2004, but haven't been able to parlay that success into anything more. They have a stout defense and tireless midfield. They have forwards who have scored lots of goals, but few have come in big games.

Player you may know: Giorgos Karagounis. At 37, this will likely be the Fulham's midfielder last big tournament. He's tough and experienced.

Ivory Coast

FIFA world ranking: 21

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Senegal in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Never advanced past the group stage.

About the team: Ivory Coast, known as the Elephants, is extremely talented, but has yet to put that talent together in the world's biggest soccer tournament. Some of that is due to tough group draws.

Player you may know: Didier Drogba. Though 36, the Galatasaray forward is a world-class striker who is a nightmare for defenders because of his size, strength and intelligence. Chelsea must wish it had never let him go.

Japan

FIFA world ranking: 47

How they qualified: Finished first in their group.

Best finish: Round of 16 in 2010.

About the team: Japan has a disciplined team that features several creative players who can unlock defenses. Forward and goalkeeper will remain question marks, particularly against Colombia and Ivory Coast.

Player you may know: Shinji Kagawa. The creative midfielder was an up-and-coming star at Borussia Dortmund before signing with Manchester United two years ago. The move hasn't worked. Kagawa barely plays for club but it still one of the key players for country.

Match to watch

Colombia vs. Ivory Coast: The FIFA rankings don't reflect it, but the teams in this group are so even, goal-differential could be the deciding factor for which two teams advance. Therefore this game, which could feature plenty of goals, could be the key.

Who will advance

Ivory Coast and Colombia. Don't be surprised if Japan sneaks in ahead of the Ivory Coast.

GROUP D

Costa Rica

FIFA world ranking: 34

How they qualified: Finished second in their group behind the U.S.

Best finish: Round of 16 in 1990.

About the team: Costa Rica is tough to beat at home but isn't as formidable on the road, which makes this team a wild card in this group. The loss of forward Alvaro Saborio (foot fracture) really hurts their chances.

Player you may know: Bryan Ruiz. The midfielder parlayed a successful stint in Holland into a move to Fulham in the Premier League. He was, at best, an average player there and has moved back to Holland where defenses aren't as tough. The defenses will be tough in this group.

England

FIFA world ranking: 11

How they qualified: Finished first in their group, which included Poland.

Best finish: Champions in 1966.

About the team: To be a fan of England's soccer team is like being a fan of the Braves. They constantly tease but rarely pull off a championship. The team features world-class players Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, but continues to struggle to figure out what style it wants to play. Things may change this year because, like Spain, several potential starters played together on Liverpool and their chemistry may help England develop a style.

Player you may know: Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United forward is one of the most prolific scorers in England's history, but he's also a man without a true position. He can pop up in a variety of odd places on the field.

Italy

FIFA world ranking: 9

How they qualified: Finished first in their group, which included Denmark and Czech Republic.

Best finish: Champions in 1934, '38, '82 and 2006.

About the team: Italy, with a traditionally disciplined defense and patient style of play, is consistently built to win the World Cup. In addition to its four titles, it has twice finished as runner-up (1970 and '94). Despite the lack of success European teams have had in South America, Italy has enough depth to be a team to watch.

Player you may know: Gianluigi Buffon. The 36-year-old Juventus man is still considered one of the world's best goalkeepers. He, along with midfielder Andrea Pirlo, is the heart of La Squadra Azzurra.

Uruguay

FIFA world ranking: 6

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Jordan in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Champions in 1930 and '50.

About the team: Their country's population may be less than metro Atlanta's, but Uruguay is one of world's best teams because of the talent at striker in Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan. But the team is more than scorers. Uruguay features a steady defense. They would like nothing more than to win the World Cup in the country where they won their second championship.

Player you may know: Suarez. The Liverpool forward made headlines for all the wrong reasons the previous years (his handball in the 2010 World Cup, racist remarks toward Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, etc.). But he blossomed into one of the world's best players during the 2013-14 year when his 31 goals topped the Premier League.

Match to watch

Italy vs. Uruguay. A contrast in styles, featuring Uruguay's world-class attack trying to unlock Italy's world-class defense. Italy may be hunting for points after opening with a tough match against England. Uruguay will likely be seeking three points after opening against Costa Rica.

Who will advance

Italy and Uruguay. England struggles to score and melts in the heat, while Italy and Uruguay slide through.Group E

Ecuador

FIFA world ranking: 28

How they qualified: Finished fourth in South America.

Best finish: Round of 16 in 2006.

About the team: The team went undefeated at home during qualifying but also failed to win on the road, which doesn't bode well considering the tournament is on the other side of South America. This is a team filled with veterans, which makes the road record surprising. The team is trying to move on following the death of standout forward Christian Benitez (24 goals), who died of heart failure in Qatar last summer.

Player you may know: Antonio Valencia. The Manchester United winger is dangerous on the flanks and tough to knock off the ball.

France

FIFA world ranking: 16

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Ukraine in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Champions in 1998.

About the team: After embarrassing performances in 2010, France has regrouped and will field another strong team. It features world-class talent at every position, but it will be interesting to see if they are focused

Player you may know: Karim Benzema. The Real Madrid forward will likely partner with Olivier Giroud. Benzema seems to be consistently on the selling block in Spain, but he continues to produce with 17 goals last season.

Honduras

FIFA world ranking: 30

How they qualified: Finished third in CONCACAF.

Best finish: Honduras has never advanced past the group stage.

About the team: Don't overlook this squad, even though it is in a tough group. Honduras proved a handful for Mexico and the U.S. during World Cup qualifying, including a 2-1 victory at Azteca in just "El Tri's" second home loss in 78 games.

Player you may know: Wilson Palacios. The Stoke City midfielder has had a rough go since leaving Wigan to join Tottenham's carousel of signings in 2009. He was eventually sold to Stoke, where he has been used mostly as a reserve. Still, he's a capable player both on the domestic and international levels.

Switzerland

FIFA world ranking: 8

How they qualified: Finished first in its group.

Best finish: Quarterfinals in 1934, '38 and '54.

About the team: This is an interesting team. They don't score a lot of goals, but they don't allow a lot of goals, either. They are experienced in goalkeeper, midfield and defense.

Player you may know: Gokhan Inler. A central midfielder for Napoli, Inler is considered to be a solid defensive-minded player.

Match to watch

Honduras vs. Ecuador. It doesn't have the cache of France vs. Switzerland, but three points for either team in this game may be enough to see one of them sneak through into the knockout round.

Who will advance

France and Honduras. The French shake off the disappointment of the last World Cup and Honduras shakes off history.

GROUP F

Argentina

FIFA world ranking: 7

How they qualified: Finished first in South America.

Best finish: Champions in 1978 and '86.

About the team: They breezed through qualifying, scoring 35 and allowing just 15. Though considered a favorite almost every time they qualify, Argentina hasn't advanced past the quarterfinals since 1990. They are deep and experienced at midfield and forward.

Player you may know: Lionel Messi. Considered one of the world's best players, Messi has the reputation for not being able take his skills from Barcelona and transfer it to his national team. Though small, he is tough to knock off the ball, has a great imagination and can invent shots anywhere near the penalty box.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

FIFA world ranking: 25

How they qualified: Finished first in its group.

Best finish: First appearance.

About the team: They are the darlings of this year's World Cup because of the havoc and strife the country has gone through in the last 21 years. The off-field appeal of this team shouldn't undersell its skill. They feature world-class players at several positions and are more than capable of advancing.

Player you may know: Edin Dzeko. He often falls behind Sergio Aguero in Manchester City's pecking order, but all he does is score. He tallied 10 goals during qualifying and is good with his head and feet.

Iran

FIFA world ranking: 37

How they qualified: Finished first in its group.

Best finish: Iran has never advanced past the group stage.

About the team: The Iranians are playing well under Carlos Queiroz. They scored 30 goals and allowed seven during qualifying. The team makes use of several players with dual nationalities.

Player you may know: Javad Nekounam. The midfielder made his reputation with Osasuna in Spain. The captain of Iran's team, he scored six goals in qualifying.

Nigeria

FIFA world ranking: 44

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Ethiopia in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Round of 16 in 1994 and '98.

About the team: A team in the better sense of the word. Coach Stephen Keshi has often decided to omit high-profile players such as Obafemi Martins, choosing instead those who get along more.

Player you may know: John Obi Mikel. The Chelsea midfielder is a favorite of manager of Jose Mourinho, though fans discount him because he's not very flashy. He's good at reading the game and shielding defenses. His plan works. The team won the African Cup of Nations last year.

Match to watch

Argentina vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina. This should be a special moment because it marks the first game for the young country with the bloody history in the world's most popular sporting event. As Atlanta learned when hundreds of Bosnians came to the Georgia Dome for a friendly against Mexico, the country is passionate about its teams.

Who will advance

Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It seems as if there are no easy groups in this World Cup and this one is no exception. Bosnia edges Nigeria for the last spot. Don't be surprised if it comes down to goal differential.

GROUP G

Germany

FIFA world ranking: 2

How they qualified: Finished first in their group with an unbeaten record.

Best finish: Champions in 1954, '74 and '90.

About the team: Much will be made of the fact that no European team has ever won a World Cup in South America. Along with Spain, Germany is one of two teams that are capable of making history, despite rocky results in their warm-up games. They have arguably the world's best goal keeper, one of the best fullbacks and a few of the best midfielders. However, they aren't deep at forward. Not only are they a three-time champ, but they are four-time runners-up.

Players you may know: Philipp Lahm. Though just 30 years old, it seems like he's been in Germany's lineup forever. He may be the best fullback in the world. Bayern Munich manger Pep Guardiola said he's the most intelligent player he has ever coached. He may play at his natural fullback spot or coach Joachim Low may move him to a holding midfielder spot, a position he played to great effect this year at Munich.

Miroslav Klose. If Lahm seems like he's been in Germany forever, then Klose has. The 35-year-old needs just two goals to set a World Cup record. He has 68 goals for Germany and is just one of two true forwards on the roster.

Player you need to know: Mesut Ozil. He tends to float in an out of games, one of the reasons Real Madrid sold him to Arsenal, but when he's locked in he can tear apart defenses with his passes.

Against the U.S.: 6-0-3

Ghana

FIFA world ranking: 38

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Egypt in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Quarterfinals in 2010.

About the team: U.S. fans know all about this team because it has eliminated the Americans from the past two World Cups. They should have advanced to the semifinals in South Africa, but were denied by a Luis Suarez handball on the goal line. From the midfield up, Ghana features starters from the most-competitive leagues in Europe. They aren't as strong in back or in goal.

Players you may know: Michael Essien. The A.C. Milan midfielder isn't the same player he once was for Chelsea, but he still reads the game well, tackles well and will provide the leadership the team needs.

Asamoah Gyan. His goal knocked the U.S. out of South Africa. He's very slippery, a good dribbler and has an eye for goal. He missed a penalty against Uruguay in the last World Cup.

Player you need to know: Kevin-Prince Boateng. The Schalke man can play almost anywhere across the front or in midfield. He has a reputation of trying to be too flashy.

Against the U.S.: 3-0-0

Portugal

FIFA world ranking: 3

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Sweden in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Semifinals in 1966, 2006.

About the team: Portugal is a dark-horse candidate to win the it all because of one player: Cristiano Ronaldo. But as Argentina and Lionel Messi know, having the world's best player doesn't necessarily translate into success. Portugal will bring an experienced team to Brazil, led in the back by a pair of bruising center backs: 32-year-old Bruno Alves and 31-year-old Pepe.

Players you may know: Ronaldo. He's extremely fast down either wing, deadly precise with free kicks, can score with his feet or his head and doesn't mind playing defense. More than any player, he can single-handedly carry his team. Just 29, he's already the top goal-scorer in his country's history.

Pepe. The central defender has a reputation for playing dirty for Real Madrid, but he's effective. He can score off set pieces and is good in the air defensively.

Player you need to know: William Carvalho. The Sporting Lisbon midfielder is wanted by Manchester United.

Against the U.S.: 2-1-2

United States

FIFA world ranking: 14

How they qualified: Finished first in the CONCACAF group.

Best finish: Semifinals in 1930.

About the team: Depending upon your view of Landon Donovan, the team was either thrown into turmoil or solidified with the news that the veteran didn't make the roster. Instead, coach Jurgen Klinsmann opted for a mix of the younger and inexperienced (Julian Green, DeAndre Yedlin and Timothy Chandler) with the older and World-Cup inexperienced (Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski). If Klinsmann's gamble works and the U.S. advances into the knockout rounds, he's a genius. If it doesn't, despite a contract that runs through 2018, he may be out of a job before the plane leaves Brazil. Either way, it is an odd team. The general wisdom holds that the best teams are composed of players who compete in the best leagues, i.e. Europe. Most of the U.S. team doesn't meet that standard. Tim Howard and Geoff Cameron played well in England last season. Chandler, John Brooks and Fabian Johnson played well in Germany. Most of the rest of the squad plays in the improving MLS.

Players you may know: Clint Dempsey. He started in MLS and moved to England where he became a star at Fulham. He parlayed that success into a move to Tottenham, where the ever-evolving roster and managers didn't help him. He moved back to Seattle where he struggled in his first season but rebounded this year and has once again become a goal-scoring machine.

Michael Bradley. The midfielder started in MLS before moving to Holland and then to Germany then to England and then to Italy. Now he's back in the MLS. Consistently underrated, he is the most well-rounded player on the roster.

Player you need to know: Aron Johannsson. If Jozy Altidore's form from Sunderland (one goal)carries over, look for Johannsson to step in. He scored 20 goals for AZ Alkmaar in Holland last season.

Match to watch

U.S. vs. Germany. In most cases, Germany's best vs. the U.S. best wouldn't be a very entertaining game. But Germany could have this group wrapped up by the time they play and may rest some of its starters, while the U.S. may need at least a point to secure passage into the knockout round. In those situations, the U.S. is more than capable of winning.

Who will advance

Germany and Portugal. This isn't a surprise, no matter how many "what-if" scenarios are put out there by fans of the U.S. team. It take would an odd combination of luck and skill for the U.S. to advance and the team simply hasn't shown that against the best teams it has faced in the past year. It was throttled by the A-level talent of Belgium and Ukraine (which didn't even qualify). And Donovan's absence isn't to blame. The games against Germany and Portugal have the potential to be multi-goal losses.

GROUP H

Algeria

FIFA world ranking: 25

How they qualified: Advanced by defeating Burkina Faso in a two-game playoff.

Best finish: Algeria has never advanced past the group stage.

About the team: Perhaps most remembered for the last-second loss to the U.S. in the last World Cup, Algeria will play teams tough and may have the quality to finish second in this relatively weak group.

Player you may know: Madjid Bougherra. The team's captain, he will lead from defense. The former Rangers man is by far the most experienced player on Algeria's roster.

Belgium

FIFA world ranking: 12

How they qualified: Finished first in their qualifying group.

Best finish: Semifinals, 1986.

About the team: The roster with the best young talent in the world. From midfielder/forward Eden Hazard to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, almost every position features prospects with difference-making potential.

Player you may know: Hazard. The Chelsea man scored 14 goals last year and is now wanted by other clubs. He's a good dribbler on the wing and has an ability to get a shot off in tight spaces. Plus, Romelu Lukaku and others will keep defenders inside, giving Hazard more room to maneuver.

Korea

FIFA world ranking: 55

How they qualified: Finished second in their qualifying group.

Best finish: Semifinals in 2002.

About the team: They didn't play well in a weak qualifying group and lack the top-to-bottom quality of the country's past teams. Still, Korea rarely beats itself, which gives them the ability to win games late.

Player you may know: Lee Chung-Yong. The Bolton midfielder will captain South Korea.

Russia

FIFA world ranking: 18

How they qualified: Finished first in their qualifying group.

Best finish: Semifinals in 1966.

About the team: Coached by Fabio Capello, this team is built on defense above all else. Every player on the roster plays in the improving Russian league. They are a dark horse candidate to advance deep into the tournament.

Player you may know: Alexander Kerzhakov. The Zenit St. Petersburg player is a bona fide goal-scorer

Match to watch

Belgium vs. Russia. One of these teams should finish atop the group and this will likely be the deciding game. Neither team will likely play for a tie because finishing first is important. The second-place team in this group is scheduled to play the first-place team from Group G, likely Germany, in the next round. Neither Belgium nor Russia will want that.

Who will advance

Belgium and Russia. They have two much quality for Korea and Algeria.

(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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