The final will be played on 13 July in Rio de Janeiro if the centrepiece Estadio do Maracana is ready. Preparations for the event have been underway for years but have been plagued with delays, deaths and corruption.
The Brazilian government has invested significantly into infrastructure for the World Cup. However, there are protesters that oppose the huge cost of the event when poverty and inequality remain big domestic issues. A smooth run to the final would calm officials’ nerves, who must fear a backlash and popular uprising should Brazil be knocked out early.
The climate will surely be an issue for some teams playing in the humid northern parts of the country near the equator. Airports remain the biggest infrastructure concern for the government and tournament officials as severe delays and cancellations are frequent in domestic flights.
After a long qualification process that began in 2011, 32 teams have made it to the finals. Defending champions Spain seem to have lost their invincible aura since they won in 2010 but remain top of the FIFA World Ranking. Germany is my favourite to win.
This week we preview hosts Brazil and the other teams in Group A.
BrazilCONMEBOL - Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol
Population: 201 million
Language: Portuguese. The team is referred to simply as Seleção (the Selection).
FIFA World Ranking: 9th
Qualified: By right as host.
Fun Fact: A history of providing humorous single-named players continues. Jefferson, Dante, Fred, Bernard, Oscar and Jo are all legit members of the Brazil squad and not my Nana’s weekly bingo opponents.
History: These five-time champions have never failed to qualify for the World Cup but the two previous tournaments have been disappointing results by Brazil’s high standards.
Key Players: Young Barcelona wunderkind Neymar will be one to watch, as he has the knack for producing a game-changing moment out of nothing. Hulk could also live up to his name and be a complete beast.
Prediction: The hosts will be under a HUGE amount of pressure to perform given the country’s big investment. Can win. Should win. Must win.
CroatiaUEFA – Union of European Football Associations
Population: 4 million
Language: In Croatian, the team is also known as Vatreni (the Blazers).
FIFA World Ranking: 16th
Qualified: Beat Iceland in a European play-off.
Fun Fact: I spent a wonderful sex-filled week in Croatia a few years ago and took no notice of anything football-related, sorry.
History: Consistent qualifiers to the Euros and World Cup, but a third place in 1998 remains their best effort to date.
Key Players: Lightweight midfielder Luka Modric plays for Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid and has great technical ability. The rest of the team are relatively solid but anonymous Premier League and Bundesliga players.
Prediction: The game against Mexico will be massive for both teams, but I think Croatia will be the ones going home early.
MexicoCONCACAF - Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football
Population: 119 million
Capital: Mexico City
Language: The Spanish nickname for the team is El Tricolor (the 3 colours).
FIFA World Ranking: 21st
Qualified: By winning the Inter Confederation play-off.
Fun Fact: Mexico won gold in the men’s football at London 2012.
History: Consistently make the knockout stages of the World Cup. Quarter finalists when they hosted in 1970 and 1986.
Key Players: Manchester United impact striker Javier Hernandez is probably their most well-known player, otherwise they have a solid, mainly home-grown, squad which secured their place in Brazil by thrashing New Zealand 9 - 3 over the two-game play-off.
Prediction: Should scrape through to next round ahead of Croatia but will need a friendly draw to keep going further.
CameroonCAF - Confederation of African Football
Population: 22 million
Currency: Central African Franc
Language: French-speaking locals say Les Lions Indomptables (the Indomitable Lions).
FIFA World Ranking: 46th
Qualified: Winner of the African third round playoff.
Fun Fact: Cameroon has a habit of showing up with unconventional kits. Sleeveless shirts and a controversial Puma onesie have been highlights from recent tournaments.
History: Has the best World Cup record of any African team, with a 1990 quarterfinal against England being their best result.
Key Players: Chelsea striker Samuel Eto’o is their captain and record goal scorer for Cameroon. Alex Song of Barcelona provides a solid midfield platform for this squad’s speedy young attack.
Prediction: They will be well supported by neutrals but realistically should finish bottom of the group.