By Matthew Hernon
Have won a lot of praise for the way they have reinvented themselves over the past decade or so. However, it is a trophy rather than plaudits that coach Joachim Löw craves. Semi-finalists in the last two World Cups, they have the quality to go as least as far again, though they do look light up front. 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, aiming to break Ronaldo’s goal scoring record, is their only recognized striker.
Memorable WC Moment—“Rahn schießen, Rahn schießt – TOR, TOR, TOR, TOR!” – Herbert Zimmermann’s emotional commentating after Helmut Rahn scores the winning goal in the 1954 final. Coming from two goals down, underdogs West Germany defeated Hungary 3-2 in a match dubbed “The Miracle of Bern.”
Trivia—Captain of that West Germany side Fritz Walter was saved by near certain death in a Siberian gulag at the end of WWII. A Hungarian prison guard who had played a game against Walter told the Russians that he was from the Saar and not a German.
Key Player—Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich)
One to Watch—Julian Draxler (Schalke 04)
No team are as reliant on one player as Portugal are on Cristiano Ronaldo. Fans will, therefore, be praying that he has recovered sufficiently from his knee and thigh injuries in time for the opening clash with Germany. With him fit and raring to go, they could go quite far – a possible clash with Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the Quarter-finals, without him it is hard to see them getting past the first round.
Memorable WC Moment—Eusebio lights up Merseyside in 1966, scoring his fourth of the afternoon from the penalty spot to give Portugal the lead after plucky North Korea take a shock 3-0 lead, booking their place in the Semi-final.
Trivia—Heir to Eusebio’s throne Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro was given the name “Ronaldo” after the then US President Ronald Reagan. He was his father’s favorite actor.
Key Player—Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
One to Watch—William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon)
Given a tough draw in 2006 and 2010, the Black Stars managed to reach the knockout stages on both occasions so they won’t be overly fazed by the hand they’ve been dealt with this time. They are not quite the force they were four years ago and are vulnerable at the back, however, as they showed with their 6-1 mauling of Egypt in the play-offs, they can be a potent attacking side.
Memorable WC Moment—Asamoah Gyan smashes home an extra-time winner to knock out USA in the second round of the 2010 World Cup. They were then a Luis Suarez hand away from making it to the Semi-finals.
Trivia—Ghana’s most influential witch doctor claims he put a spell on Cristiano Ronaldo to prevent him from playing against Ghana. He told the radio station Angel FM; “I know what Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury is about, I’m working on him…Today it’s his knee, tomorrow his thigh, next day it’s something else.”
Key Player—Kwadwo Asamoah (Juventus)
One to Watch—Daniel Opare (Porto)
Jürgen Klinsmann has gone for an interesting mix of youth and experience, surprisingly leaving out the country’s most decorated player Landon Donovan. No doubt the German coach will most be looking forward to coming up against the team he won the trophy with in 1990, before that, it is Ghana, a team that defeated them in both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Not easy.
Memorable WC Moment—Joe Gaetjens diverts Walter Bahr’s shot to give the amateur USA side a stunning victory over the “Kings of Football” England at the 1950 World Cup. Legend has it that the result was so unexpected that British newspapers reported the score line as 10–1 to England.
Trivia—Twenty years earlier USA actually reached the semi-finals of the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay. Who says they have no history in the game?
Key Player—Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
One to Watch—Julian Green (Bayern Munich)
More than just a dark horse, Belgium have the talent to go far with many tipping them to reach the quarter finals or even the semis. Physically very strong, they have yet to lose a competitive game since coach Marc Wilmots took charge, though bigger challenges await in Brazil. Their high defensive line could leave them susceptible to teams who break quickly.
Memorable WC Moment—A classic encounter, Nico Claesen volleys home the fourth as Belgium surprisingly beat the highly-fancied USSR 4-3 in extra time to set up a Quarter-finals clash with Spain in 1986.
Trivia—Current coach Marc Wilmots is the last Belgian player to score at a major international tournament, he scored the winner against Russia in 2002. A year later he was elected to the Senate for the French-speaking liberal party; The Reformist Movement. He resigned in 2005.
Key Player—Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
One to Watch—Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea)
Russia are expected to join Belgium in the knockout stages, yet they know from previous World Cups that things are not always that simple. There were riots on the streets of Moscow after they lost to Japan in 2002 and there could be again if they fail to finish above Korea and Algeria in Group H. Coach Fabio Capello will be desperate to do well following his dire showing with England four years ago.
Memorable WC Moment—In 1994, Oleg Salenko sets a World Cup record of five goals in a single game as Russia beat Cameroon 6-1 to win their first World Cup match as an independent nation.
Trivia—Salenko shared the Golden Boot with Hristo Stoichkov at that tournament. He is the only player to have won the Golden Boot at both the U20 World Cup and the FIFA World Cup.
Key Player—Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow)
One to Watch—Aleksandr Kokorin (Dynamo Moscow)
The Desert Foxes have made giant strides over the past few years and should do better this time than they did in 2010 when they failed to score a goal. Key players like Sofiane Feghouli and Saphir Taïder, who may have in the past chosen to play for France like Zindedine Zidane, now opt for Algeria. They are tipped by most to finish fourth in Group H, but are capable of causing an upset.
Memorable WC Moment—“We will dedicate our seventh goal to our wives, and the eighth to our dogs,” joked one West German player before taking on Algeria in 1982. The North African side hadn’t read the script though as Lakhdar Beloumi finishes off a delightful move to give them an unbelievable 2-1 victory.
Algeria were then denied a place in the knockout stages after West Germany and Austria conspired to fix their result so both teams emerged from the first round. A 1-0 win to West Germany suited both so when the Germans scored after 10 minutes they effectively stopped playing.
Key Player—Sofiane Feghouli (Valencia)
One to Watch—Saphir Taïder (Internazionale)
Hong Myung-bo was captain of the Korean side that reached the 2002 World Cup semi-finals, now leading the team as manager, his task is simply to get them past the first round. Placed in one of the easier groups, they do have a chance, but will have to play much better than they did in qualifying, after finishing below Iran they decided to fire boss Choi Kang-hee.
Memorable WC Moment—Ahn Jung-hwan gets in ahead of Paolo Maldini to head home a Golden Goal winner against the Italians in front of more than 38,000 ecstatic home supporters at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium in 2002. Guus Hiddink’s men remarkably went on to reach the semi-finals.
Trivia—Things weren’t so rosy for Jung-hwan after the World Cup, he was fired by Italian club side Perugia for scoring the goal that knocked the Azzurri out.
Key Player—Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea City)
One to Watch—Son Heung-min (Bayer Leverkusen)
Check out our previews for the other six groups: