Soccer / Sports

Belgium rebuilt its whole soccer system to shape its World Cup team



FIFA World ranking: 4.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Five-time champion (1958, '62, '70, '94, 2002).

How qualified: Host country.

Fun fact: Brazil hasn't lost a competitive game at home since September 1975, a string of 57 consecutive games.

The skinny: Brazil is young and talented but inexperienced at the World Cup level, with just five of the 23 men on its roster returning from 2010. But coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has been here before, leading Brazil to its last title in 2002 before guiding Portugal to the semifinals in 2006. He took over Brazil again in November 2012 and was charged with ushering in a new team, which he did with great success in last year's Confederations Cup as Brazil won for the third straight time. That may not be a good thing though: No reigning Confederations Cup champion has ever won a World Cup.


FIFA World ranking: 50.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1990).

How qualified: Beat Tunisia in CAF playoff.

Fun fact: This will be Cameroon's seventh World Cup, most by an African nation. But it has advanced beyond the group stage just once.

The skinny: Cameroon is stocked with talent but it's going through a transition with several well-known figures -- Geremi and Rigobert Song among them -- having given way to youngsters such as Joel Matip, 22, and Nicolas N'Koulou, 24. The new mix was unimpressive in qualifying, a lack of form Cameroon confirmed this spring in losses to Portugal and Paraguay before playing Germany to a draw Sunday. As for how it does in Brazil, that will be decided by forward Samuel Eto'o, who has clashed with teammates and, at 33, is no longer the player who won four African Player of the Year awards.


FIFA World ranking: 20.

Last World Cup: 2006.

Best World Cup finish: Third place (1998).

How qualified: Beat Iceland in UEFA playoff.

Fun fact: Croatia did not compete as an independent country in the World Cup until 1998, seven years after it declared independence from Yugoslavia.

The skinny: Real Madrid's Luka Modric has earned the nickname "the Croatian Cruyff" for his elegant and precise passing. But under coach Niko Kovac, Modric and midfield mates Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic may be asked to sacrifice their attacking skills for a defensive posture -- especially with Croatia drawing the unenviable task of playing host Brazil in the opener. The team will be without experienced defender Josip Simunic, who was left home while serving a 10-match international ban for making a neo-Nazi salute after the qualifying win over Iceland.


FIFA World ranking: 19.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1970, '86).

How qualified: Beat New Zealand in intercontinental playoff.

Fun fact: Coach Miguel Herrera has ordered his players to abstain from sex, red meat and alcohol until after the World Cup

The skinny: Herrera rescued Mexico at the end of a disastrous qualifying campaign, leading the team to a win over New Zealand in a playoff in November to grab one of the last invitations to Brazil. He hasn't lost since, going 6-0-2 to raise expectations at home once again. During his short tenure, he's come to rely on a team composed primarily of players from Mexico's domestic Liga MX, but he lost one of those players Saturday when midfield key Luis Montes broke his right leg moments after scoring in a World Cup warm-up with Ecuador.


June 12: Brazil vs. Croatia at Sao Paulo.

June 13: Mexico vs. Cameroon at Natal.

June 17: Brazil vs. Mexico at Fortaleza.

June 18: Cameroon vs. Croatia at Manaus.

June 23: Cameroon vs. Brazil at Brasilia; Croatia vs. Mexico at Recife.



FIFA World ranking: 62.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2006).

How qualified: AFC Group B runner-up.

It's a fact: Australia holds the record for the most one-sided international win in soccer history with a 31-0 victory over American Samoa in World Cup qualifying in 2001.

The skinny: Australia was the first team to arrive in Brazil, setting up camp in Vitoria 16 days before the tournament opener. And the Socceroos figure to be among first to leave too. New Coach Ange Postecoglou was hired in October to lead a regeneration of the national team program, and he got started on that last month when he left 36-year-old defender Lucas Neill off his roster. Only two of Australia's likely starters in Brazil are older than 29 -- including Tim Cahill of the New York Red Bulls -- while six are 25 or younger.


FIFA World ranking: 14.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Third place (1962).

How qualified: CONMEBOL round-robin, third place.

It's a fact: Chile's last three national team coaches have come from neighboring Argentina.

The skinny: Chile could be one of the surprise teams of the tournament. It has played one of the toughest schedules of any World Cup team in the past nine months, beating England and Costa Rica, losing by a goal to Germany and Brazil and playing Colombia and Spain to draws. To get out of group play, it will have to eliminate a 2010 finalist, either Spain or the Netherlands. Sound impossible? A popular TV ad backing the team in Chile stars the miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010 and ends with the slogan "For a Chilean, nothing is impossible."


FIFA World ranking: 15.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Three-time runner-up (1974, 1978, 2010).

How qualified: UEFA Group D winner.

It's a fact: The Netherlands is the only country to reach three World Cup finals without winning one.

The skinny: The Dutch won't have to wait long for a chance to avenge their loss in the 2010 Cup final: They open against Spain, a 1-0 overtime winner in South Africa. And though the Netherlands will have the likes of Arjen Robben, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie at its disposal, playmaker Rafael van der Vaart is out with a calf injury. The question now is which team shows up in Brazil, the one that went unbeaten in World Cup qualifying or the one that was winless in group play at the 2012 Euros?


FIFA World ranking: 1.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Champion, 2010.

How qualified: UEFA Group I winner.

It's a fact: With wins in the last two Euros and the 2010 World Cup, Spain is the only country to win three consecutive major international championships.

The skinny: Spain is growing old -- five potential starters are 30 or older -- and complacent. It was blitzed by Brazil in last year's Confederations Cup. But it remains as talented and fundamentally sound as any team in the world. Still, Coach Vicente Del Bosque will face pressure to split parts of his aging Golden Generation, such as 34-year-old Xavi, off his starting 11. Then there is Diego Costa. Does he automatically start if his hamstring heals in time? Given Spain's problems up front, there may be no choice if Spain hopes to become the first repeat winner in 52 years.


June 13: Spain vs. Netherlands at Salvador; Chile vs. Australia at Cuiaba.

June 18: Spain vs. Chile at Rio de Janeiro; Australia vs. Netherlands at Porto Alegre.

June 23: Australia vs. Spain at Curitiba; Netherlands vs. Chile at Sao Paulo.



FIFA World ranking: 5.

Last World Cup: 1998.

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1990).

How qualified: CONMEBOL round-robin runner-up.

It's a fact: To celebrate Colombia's first World Cup appearance in 16 years, residents of an Andean village organized a soccer match last Sunday between trained herds of sheep. The sheep representing Colombia beat those playing as Brazil, 4-3.

The skinny: Colombia has been the surprise of South America under coach Jose Pekerman, who led Argentina to the quarterfinals in 2006. But its chances in Brazil were dealt a blow Monday when Radamel Falcao, who led the team with nine goals in 13 qualifying games, was left off the World Cup roster. Falcao tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in January and though he has been training with the team he isn't fit enough to play. In his place Colombia's attacking 4-2-2-2 formation will look to midfielders James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado and striker Jackson Martinez.


FIFA World ranking: 10.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

How qualified: Beat Romania in European playoff.

It's a fact: Professional soccer was not played in Greece until 1979. Eleven years later the national team qualified for its first World Cup.

The skinny: In two previous World Cup appearances, Greece has lost five of six games and been outscored 15-2. But the defense-minded Greeks should fare a little better this time around. Ranked 10th in the world, they're coming off a solid performance in the 2012 Euros, where they reached the quarterfinals. They have little margin for error, though, so mistakes from a backline anchored by the Olympiakos pair of Dimitris Siovas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos could be deadly given Greece's limited scoring ability.


FIFA World ranking: 21.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

How qualified: Beat Senegal in African playoff.

It's a fact: In Ivory Coast's three World Cup appearances, only two of its players -- both backup goalkeepers -- came off teams playing in the country's Ligue 1.

The skinny: The highest-ranked African team on the FIFA world table, Ivory Coast has mostly disappointed recently, going 22 years since winning its last major title in the 1992 African Cup of Nations. The athletic, physical Ivory Coast squad won't outsmart or outmaneuver too many teams but they can outrun and overpower most opponents. The aging -- but still lethal -- Didier Drogba (36) will be assisted up front by Roma's Gervinho (27) and Swansea City's Wilfried Bony (25) while an old backline and 34-year-old keeper Boubacar Barry will benefit from the elasticity of end-to-end midfielder Yaya Toure.


FIFA World ranking: 47.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2002, '10).

How qualified: Asian Group B winner.

It's a fact: Japan was the first team to qualify for each of the last three World Cups.

The skinny: Given the makeup of the group, the biggest obstacle to getting out of group play could be Japan's frustratingly inconsistent play -- since October it has tied the Netherlands and beaten Belgium but also lost to Serbia and Belarus. The squad coach Alberto Zaccheroni has chosen for Brazil is the most experienced in the country's history, boasting Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa and Milan's Keisuke Honda, among others with a European pedigree. Japan qualified for the last five World Cups but never won a game beyond group play. The pressure is on to end that streak this year.


June 14: Colombia vs. Greece in Belo Horizonte; Ivory Coast vs. Japan at Recife.

June 19: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast at Brasilia; Japan vs. Greece in Natal.

June 24: Japan vs. Colombia at Cuiaba; Greece vs. Ivory Coast at Fortaleza.



FIFA World ranking: 28.

Last World Cup: 2006.

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1990).

How qualified: CONCACAF runner-up.

It's a fact: Costa Rica is the only Central American nation to win a World Cup game.

The skinny: Costa Rica has little chance of surviving this group, especially now that Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio, who led the team in scoring during qualifying, is out with a broken bone in his foot. That blow has been cushioned somewhat by the recent form of Joel Campbell, who scored eight times in 32 games with Greek club Olympiacos. Bryan Ruiz, the team's most creative player, will be responsible for getting the ball to Campbell. At the other end, keeper Keylor Navas is coming off a breakout season at Levante in Spain.


FIFA World ranking: 10.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Champion (1966).

How qualified: UEFA Group H winner.

It's a fact: England played in history's first official international soccer game, in Scotland, in 1872. Naturally, neither team scored.

The skinny: Brazil's climate has been worrisome for the English, who began training camp working out in three layers of clothing to simulate South America's heat and humidity. But if England goes out early, it won't have the weather to blame. It has a rather uninspiring roster with only one true world-class player in Wayne Rooney. But if Daniel Sturridge scores as he did with Liverpool this season and if Jack Wilshere and teenager Raheem Sterling play up to their potential, England could surprise. In goal, Manchester City's Joe Hart is solid -- which is good, because he may also be busy.


FIFA World ranking: 9.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Four-time champion (1934, '38, '82, 2006).

How qualified: UEFA Group B winner.

It's a fact: Midfielder Daniele De Rossi has a "beware of being tackled" tattoo on his right calf. Set in a yellow triangle, it pictures a stick man sliding in to win the ball from another.

The skinny: Italy rolled unbeaten through UEFA qualifying but it's not taking the same team to Brazil, leaving home players responsible for nine of its 19 goals in those 10 qualifiers. But Coach Cesare Prandelli is taking Mario Balotelli, who can take over a tournament, as he did in the 2012 Euros when he carried Italy to the final. New Jersey-born striker Giuseppe Rossi, Florentina's top scorer with 16 goals, was among the final cuts, as he was four years ago. Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo was also left out after suffering a broken leg in Saturday's friendly with Ireland.


FIFA World ranking: 7.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Two-time champions (1930, 1950).

How qualified: Beat Jordan in intercontinental playoff.

It's a fact: Two-time champion Uruguay, with a population of 3.4 million people -- and about 14 million head of cattle -- is the smallest country to win a World Cup.

The skinny: The most important race any Uruguayan will run this year will take place not on the field but in the training room, where Luis Suarez is in a battle against the clock to come back from knee surgery. But though Uruguay is the favorite in a group that includes three former champions, it faces a tough road. Two of those teams -- Italy and England -- are European and in the 2010 World Cup Uruguay did not beat a European opponent. The same thing happened at the Confederations Cup two years ago, when Uruguay lost to Italy and Spain.


June 14: Uruguay vs. Costa Rica at Fortaleza; England vs. Italy at Manaus.

June 19: Uruguay vs. England at Sao Paulo.

June 20: Italy vs. Costa Rica at Recife.

June 24: Italy vs. Uruguay at Natal; Costa Rica vs. England at Belo Horizonte.



FIFA world ranking: 26.

Last World Cup: 2006.

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2006).

How qualified: CONMEBOL round-robin, fourth place.

It's a fact: Ecuador retired the No. 11 jersey of Christian "Chucho" Benitez and dedicated its World Cup effort to the charismatic striker, who died from cardiac arrest while playing for Qatari club El Jaish last summer.

The skinny: Ecuador has qualified for three of the past four World Cups, which led an excited coach Reinaldo Rueda to say he wants to go to the final this summer. In that case he'd better buy a ticket because for all its accomplishments Ecuador is facing too many obstacles to success in Brazil. Benitez was its leading scorer, defender Jayro Campos is out with an injury and now midfielder Segundo Castillo appears to be out as well after injuring his right knee last Saturday in a loss to Mexico. That leaves Ecuador depending largely on Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia.


FIFA world ranking: 17.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Champion (1998).

How qualified: Beat Ukraine in UEFA playoff.

It's a fact: France's Lucien Laurent scored the first goal in World Cup history 19 minutes into a 4-1 win over Mexico in the 1930 tournament's opening game in Uruguay.

The skinny: If the French can't reach the semifinals, they'd rather not hang around. At least that's been their World Cup history: Five times they've made the Final Four, but on the other 11 occasions since World War II they've gone out in the group stage or failed to qualify for the tournament. C'est la vie. This could be the year that pattern ends, though. Because while the team should cruise through group play even without midfielder Franck Ribery, who will miss the tournament because of a bad back, France isn't likely to go much further.


FIFA world ranking: 33.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

How qualified: CONCACAF, third place.

It's a fact: Honduras' biggest international win came in the 2001 Copa America. Added to the field hours before the first game, it went on to beat Brazil, 2-0, knocking the South Americans out of the tournament.

The skinny: Honduras doesn't defend well, has little creativity in midfield and is without a talented striker up front. Plus four years ago, in its second World Cup ever, Honduras didn't score a goal. On the bright side it lost one game 1-0, played Spain tough in a loss and tied Switzerland. So yeah, it has a chance -- a very slim one provided keeper Noel Valladares plays the games of his life at 37, New England Revolution forward Jerry Bengston and former Houston Dynamo forward Carlo Costly can score and Honduras wins every 50-50 ball.


FIFA World ranking: 6.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1934, '38, '54).

How qualified: UEFA Group E winner.

It's a fact: Eight years ago Switzerland became the first team to be eliminated from the World Cup without conceding a goal, posting four straight shutouts but going out in the round of 16 anyway when it lost to Ukraine on penalty kicks.

The skinny: A weak group should help Switzerland reach knockout play but this team, the fruit of Switzerland's well-developed youth program, should really be looking toward 2018. With Nuremberg's Josip Drmic perhaps the best of four talented options at striker -- none older than 24 -- and a likely starting 11 that averages 25 years of age, this World Cup is little more than a dress rehearsal for a talented but young Swiss side that could be a major threat when the tournament moves to the more accommodating -- for the Swiss -- climate of Russia four years from now.


June 15: Switzerland vs. Ecuador at Brasilia; France vs. Honduras at Porto Alegre.

June 20: Switzerland vs. France at Salvador; Honduras vs. Ecuador at Curitiba.

June 25: Honduras vs. Switzerland at Manaus; Ecuador vs. France at Rio de Janeiro.



FIFA world ranking: 5.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Two-time champion (1978, '86).

How qualified: CONMEBOL round-robin winner.

It's a fact: Fans in Argentina credited "divine intervention" on the part of Buenos Aires-born Pope Francis -- a fervent soccer fan -- for their team's being drawn into what appears to be the softest of the World Cup's eight groups.

The skinny: Although its national team includes one of the best players in history in Lionel Messi, Argentina hasn't won a major championship since capturing the Copa America in 1993, when Messi was 6. Messi needs a World Cup title to secure his legacy and, playing in neighboring Brazil, he'll lead a team so explosive that Coach Alejandro Sabella will use a 4-3-3 setup to get forwards Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain on the field with him. The midfield, anchored by playmaker Angel Di Maria, and back line, led by attack-minded Pablo Zabaleta, can be exploited, though, especially if too many players push too far forward.


FIFA world ranking: 21.

Last World Cup: First appearance.

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

How qualified: UEFA Group G winner.

It's a fact: Bosnia-Herzegovina, the only team making its World Cup debut this summer, will be the 77th country to appear in the tournament.

The skinny: The team narrowly missed qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro, losing twice in playoffs with Portugal. So after it went 8-1-1 in UEFA qualifying this time around, outscoring opponents by 24 goals to win its group and a spot in its first World Cup as an independent nation, more than 50,000 fans welcomed the team home to Sarajevo. With Manchester City's Edin Dzeko and former St. Louis University All-American Vedad Ibisevic up front, Bosnia-Herzegovina can score in bunches. But the lack of a solid holding midfielder leaves its defense vulnerable and will put pressure on keeper Asmir Begovic (Stoke City).


FIFA world ranking: 43.

Last World Cup: 2006.

Best World Cup finish: Group stage.

How qualified: AFC Group A winner.

It's a fact: The cash-strapped Iranian soccer federation is so short of uniforms that it banned players from participating in the traditional postgame exchange of jerseys with opponents.

The skinny: Most teams are booked at lush resorts during the World Cup but Iran's short stay in Brazil will reportedly be at an airport hotel in Sao Paulo's gritty Guarulhos district. But then Iran has had to do everything on a budget in the lead-up to this World Cup, which is why it went 119 days without a game after qualifying for the tournament. Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz built his team around foreign-based players who qualify for Iranian citizenship, including San Jose's Steven Beitashour (Vancouver Whitecaps), Germany's Ashkan Dejagah (Fulham) and Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton Athletic), who grew up in the Netherlands.


FIFA world ranking: 44.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1994, '98).

How qualified: Beat Ethiopia in CAF playoff.

It's a fact: Nigeria's president briefly banned the national team from international competition after it went winless in its last two World Cup appearances.

The skinny: The reigning African champion, Nigeria warmed up for Brazil with unimpressive draws against Mexico, Scotland and Greece and a loss to the U.S. And though it has qualified for three of the last four World Cups, it hasn't won a game there since 1998. That hasn't hurt the team's confidence, though, with veteran goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama predicting the defense-minded team will become the first African nation to reach the semifinals. Whether that happens will depend on how often playmaking midfielder John Obi Mikel (England's Chelsea) can get the ball to Chelsea teammate Victor Moses or Emmanuel Emenike (Turkey's Fenerbahce) on the counterattack.


June 15: Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina at Rio de Janeiro.

June 16: Iran vs. Nigeria at Curitiba.

June 21: Argentina vs. Iran at Belo Horizonte; Nigeria vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina at Cuiaba.

June 25: Nigeria vs. Argentina at Porto Alegre; Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iran at Salvador.



FIFA world ranking: 2.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Three-time champion (1954, '74, '90).

How qualified: UEFA Group C winner.

It's a fact: Sparing no expense in its drive for a fourth World Cup title, Germany's soccer federation built its own training center in Brazil from scratch. It features more than a dozen two-story housing units, a soccer field, a media center and treatment facilities.

The skinny: About the only thing that figures to keep Germany from its third straight trip to the semifinals are injuries since a number of front-line players are banged up. But even at less than 100 percent, Germany is talented enough to go deep in the tournament. More worrisome is the weather. If Germany wins its group and advances to the final four, its semifinal will be played in Belo Horizonte, where the humidity is typically above 90 percent in early July.


FIFA world ranking: 37.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (2010).

How qualified: Beat Egypt in CAF playoff.

It's a fact: Ghana has played in just two World Cups, and it eliminated the U.S. by 2-1 scores both times -- in the group stage in 2006 and in overtime in a knockout-round game in 2010. That's not likely to happen this time because Ghana and the U.S. meet in their group-play opener.

The skinny: Ghana comes into this World Cup still smarting from the way the last one ended, with a quarterfinal loss in which Asamoah Gyan missed a penalty kick after Uruguay's Luis Suarez stopped what would have been a game-winning goal with his hand. Michael Essien, a box-to-box midfielder who missed the last World Cup because of injury, will be the key to Ghana's performance this time around. Gyan returns as the primary striker but he may not be the best Asamoah on the team since midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah was named the country's top player the last two years.


FIFA world ranking: 4.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Third place (1966).

How qualified: Beat Sweden in UEFA playoff.

It's a fact: Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's best-paid soccer player, recently admitted he has no idea how much money he has. He probably has trouble keeping track of how many cars he has, too; it's a considerable -- and growing -- collection that includes an Aston Martin DB9, a Bugatti Veyron, a Maserati, a Lamborghini, a Bentley, a Rolls-Royce, at least two Ferraris and multiple Audis.

The skinny: With the reigning world player of the year on its roster, Portugal has been mocked as "Cristiano Ronaldo and 10 other guys." There may be some truth to that, though, because with Ronaldo sitting out the team's final two World Cup warmups with knee and thigh problems, Portugal struggled through a scoreless tie with Greece and then needed a goal in stoppage time to beat Mexico. And even with Ronaldo it couldn't beat Israel in World Cup qualifying, twice playing to a draw. Despite being ranked fourth in the world, Portugal and Ronaldo both look vulnerable.


FIFA world ranking: 13.

Last World Cup: 2010.

Best World Cup finish: Third place (1930).

How qualified: CONCACAF winner.

It's a fact: When DaMarcus Beasley steps on the field in Brazil he will become the first U.S. player to appear in four World Cups.

The skinny: If the group goes to form, the most logical way for the U.S. to advance would be on goal differential after beating Ghana in its opener and then playing Portugal to a draw. U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann has already said getting to the second round would make this a successful World Cup for his team. The U.S. is solid in goal with Tim Howard and in midfield with Michael Bradley. But the backline is inexperienced at this level and up front the U.S. hasn't gotten a World Cup goal from a striker since Brian McBride scored in 2002.


June 16: Germany vs. Portugal in Salvador; Ghana vs. U.S. in Natal.

June 21: Germany vs. Ghana in Fortaleza.

June 22: U.S. vs. Portugal in Manaus.

June 26: U.S. vs. Germany in Recife; Portugal vs. Ghana in Brasilia.

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