As we count down the days to World Cup 2014, here’s a look at the players and teams to watch, with some looks back at their finest moments in World Cups past. Part 1 in a 4-part series.
By Matthew Hernon
Gunning for title number six on their home patch, the Seleção go into the tournament as favorites following a very impressive showing at last year’s Confederations Cup. Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who knows what it takes to win the 18-carat gold trophy, has gone for a young but settled squad. If they can cope with the pressure, a glorious summer beckons.
Memorable WC Moment—Carlos Alberto fires home after a delightful move involving eight Brazilian outfield players (see below.) Arguably the greatest team goal in World Cup history, it capped off a terrific display as Brazil beat Italy 4-1 to win the 1970 final.
Trivia—That was their third of five World Cup victories, a record in the competition. They have also won more games (67) than any other team and are the only side to have played in every tournament.
Key Player—Neymar (Barcelona)
One to Watch—Oscar (Chelsea)
Despite boasting a number of exciting attacking players, Croatia struggled for goals in qualification and will be without key striker Mario Mandžukić for their opener against Brazil. The loss of Niko Kranjčar through injury is another blow, though they have enough talent to get out of the group. The final game against Mexico is likely to hold the key.
Memorable WC Moment—Golden Boot winner Davor Šuker makes it 3-0 as Croatia stun the mighty Germany to reach the 1998 World Cup Semi-Final in their first ever tournament. (at the 2:13 mark)
Trivia—Captain of that side Zvonimir Boban once karate-kicked a police officer who was attacking one of his team’s supporters in a match between Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb and the Serbian outfit Red Star Belgrade. Unsurprisingly vilified in Serbia, he became a national hero in his homeland.
Key Player—Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
One to Watch—Mateo Kovačić (Internazionale)
Since that glorious summer in 1990 when Roger Milla and company helped them to the Quarter-Finals in Italy, the Indomitable Lions have failed to get past the group stages in four attempts and are once again expected to bow out early. The fact they are playing Brazil last, however, could work in their favor if the Seleção are already through by then.
Memorable WC Moment—François Omam-Biyik leaps above the Argentinean defense to score the opening goal of the 1990 World Cup and stun the holders in the process. (around the 1:20 mark)
Trivia—Minutes before that goal François’s brother André Kana-Biyik was sent off for a reckless challenge. Cameroon ended the game with nine men, but managed to hold on for a memorable 1-0 victory.
Key Player—Samuel Eto’o (Chelsea)
One to Watch—Joël Matip (Schalke 04)
Like Croatia they were poor in qualification, but when it comes to the serious business they usually do well. They’ve qualified for the knockout stages in every World Cup since 1986, except for in 1990 when they were banned from competing. A number of the players that helped Mexico beat Brazil to the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics will be in attendance.
Memorable WC Moment—Star player Hugo Sánchez performs his trademark somersault celebration after scoring Mexico’s second goal against Belgium in front of 110,000 adoring fans at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in 1986. (You can catch the goal, if not the somersault, below.)
Trivia—With 24 defeats in total Mexico have lost more games than any other country at the World Cup, though one of the main reasons for that is they are one of the few teams that always seems to qualify.
Key Player—Javier Hernández (Man Utd)
One to Watch—Diego Reyes (Porto)
Following last year’s 3-0 defeat by Brazil, some have suggested that Spain’s long domination is coming to an end, yet with the quality they have at their disposal it would be folly to rule them out. They’re not as strong as they were four years ago, but they should once again be difficult to break down. They haven’t conceded a goal in the last ten knockout games they have played at the World Cup and Euros.
Memorable WC Moment—Andrés Iniesta celebrates scoring the winning goal against Holland in the 2010 Final by revealing an undershirt paying his respects to former U21 teammate Daniel Jarque, who sadly passed away a year earlier.
Trivia—Spain will once again play Holland in their opening match at the 2014 World Cup. It is the first time finalists from the previous tournament have been drawn together in the group stages.
Key Player—Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona)
One to Watch—Koke (Atlético Madrid)
Runners-up in 2010, they are unlikely to go as far this time, though should do better than their Euro 2012 effort—one where they lost every game. Coach Louis van Gaal has helped to restore the side’s confidence since then, guiding them to nine victories in ten games during qualification. Known for his attacking, expansive style, Man Utd fans will be keen to see how their new manager lines his team up.
Memorable WC Moment—Johan Cruyff, who had thrilled fans with his Cruyff turn earlier in the tournament, volleys home Rob Rensenbrink’s cross to give Holland a 2-0 lead against Champions Brazil, guaranteeing their place in the 1974 World Cup Final.
Trivia—Cruyff refused to play in the World Cup four years later. At the time it was believed to have been a protest against the Argentinean dictatorship, however, in 2008 he revealed that it was because of an attempted kidnap on his family.
Key Player—Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich)
One to Watch—Jordy Clasie (Feyenoord)
They weren’t entirely convincing during the qualifying campaign, but showed their class by completely outplaying England at Wembley last autumn. An attacking team that presses with a high tempo and regularly switches betweens formations in games, they have the ability to hurt any team in the world. Final game against Holland is likely to be crucial.
Memorable WC Moment—Eladio Rojas fires the ball home from 30 yards out to give Chile a 2-1 lead against the USSR booking the home side’s place in the 1962 World Cup Semi-Final just two years after the country suffered the strongest earthquake ever recorded (9.5 Magnitude). At the 1:40 mark:
Trivia—Earlier in that tournament Chile were involved in a match dubbed the ‘Battle of Santiago’ against Italy, an encounter that included spitting, punching and kicks to the head. The game’s referee, Ken Aston, later introduced red and yellow cards to football.
Key Player—Arturo Vidal (Juventus)
One to Watch—Eduardo Vargas (Valencia, on loan from Napoli)
Lowest ranked team in Brazil, placed in one of the most difficult groups, the prospects don’t look great for the Aussies. Even former captain Paul Wade has written of their chances, stating that “they will get absolutely smashed.” The Socceroos will be out to prove him and the other doubters wrong, but it does look like an extremely difficult task.
Memorable WC Moment—Harry Kewell’s late strike sends Australia through to the Second Round in 2006 after a dramatic Group F decider against Croatia.
Trivia—That game is most famous for the performance of referee Graham Poll, who created World Cup history by booking Josip Šimunić three times before finally realizing he should send him off.
Key Player—Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls)
One to Watch—Massimo Luongo (Swindon Town)