The 2014 World Cup draw today has brought about a global version of the classic bracket madness many in this country usually associate with college basketball's March Madness.
The highly anticipated event, The Draw, was held in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil, and after Fernanda Lima mercifully and graciously ceded center stage to football (http://bit.ly/196BWBa) the eight groups were decided:
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon.
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia.
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan.
Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy.
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras.
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria.
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA.
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, Korea.
Few World Cups have had as intriguing a draw as this and though one could argue that from the get-go several teams could be saving money by buying return tickets early, there will be some surprises among those traveling early. There are six months to go before the cup is played and a lot can happen--from injuries that turn a favorite into a has-been, to teams losing form, to teams finding it, to wondrously timely rehabilitations that turn a team around. But if we look at how these teams' current rosters are performing, and if we postulate that those performances will continue into the summer, we can take an educated guess as to how the cup might progress.
In Group A, Brazil and Croatia, the teams that will meet for the first game of the tournament June 12th in Sao Paolo, seem the two destined to make it through to the next stage in that order. Mexico could wake up and provide some competition, but unless current coach Miguel Herrera, reverts to bringing in the likes of his international stars the Tri will be hard put to offer much resistance. Samuel Eto'o and company aside, Cameroon simply do not seem to have the guns to keep up.
Prediction: 1-Brazi, 2-Croatia.
In Group B, Spain, followed by the Netherlands and Chile, seem the likely candidates to progress with lowly Australia likely to get clobbered often. The fun games of this mix will be seeing how Spain and the Netherlands match up against a Chile that has been playing better than either European side without the number of top guns either finalist from the last World Cup have at their disposal. This will be the first group with a potential surprise, and with an in form South American side playing in its home continent, I predict that Chile keeps its form to become the second team to come out of this group, upsetting the Netherlands.
Prediction: 1-Spain, 2-Chile.
In Group C, Colombia is the best team and if they retain their form from earlier this year I do not see any competition for them here. Defensive minded Greece and tough and resilient Japan will simply not have enough against a wily Ivory Coast playing in friendly climes and thinking of 2014 as their last hurrah. Drogba, Kalou, Gervinho, and the Toure brothers will simply be too much for all but the Colombians, who will also have a hard time beating them but will prevail.
Prediction: 1-Colombia, 2-Ivory Coast.
In Group D, Uruguay will be the surprise team. They will recover their form, get home-continent support and outstanding performances from the likes of Suarez and Cavani, and yes even a rejuvenated Forlan, to top the group. They will beat a weak England and tie a tough but not yet in synch Italy (who will either draw or barely beat England), and yet clobber Costa Rica. The Central Americans will play Italy and England tougher than either European team has reason to believe and that surprise will make for unexpected score lines. In the end, though, the best progress.
Prediction: 1-Uruguay, 2-Italy.
In Group E, Switzerland will pay the price of its unfair seeding with tough matches against France and Ecuador while beating Honduras. The Ecuadoreans will ride their continental support to at least one upset match and the Hondurans will simply be too weak against their opposition. This will leave France to eek-out a result and top the group.
Prediction: 1-France, 2-Ecuador.
In Cake-walk F, Argentina will win every game while resting its stars, while the other three will pick up the crumbs and in the end it will be Nigeria providing the African continent's second bright spot with a hard fought win over Bosnia-Herzegovina and an easier win over Iran.
Prediction: 1-Argentina, 2-Nigeria.
In Group G, Germany and Portugal will progress in style with Ozil's side sailing through and Cristiano Ronaldo making his mark early in the tournament. Ghana and the USA seem outclassed by the two European giants and the odds of an upset are slim. Nevertheless the African and North American sides will play their hearts out and make their games entertaining if mostly predictable.
Prediction: 1-Germany, 2-Portugal.
In Group H, the second easiest of the tourney, Belgium and Russia should progress in that order as their African and Asian competition seem too weak to mount much resistance. Nevertheless the mix of styles here will make for an entertaining if highly predictable group.
Prediction: 1-Belguim, 2-Russia.
At this point it would be instructive to mention that the early odds maker calls have been the following : hosts Brazil were made a 3-1 favorite to win the cup while Argentina were next at 9-2, followed by Germany at 6-1, Spain at 7-1, Belgium 14-1, Colombia and France, at 20-1, Uruguay, Holland, and Italy at 28-1, Portugal and England at 33-1, and Chile and Russia at 66-1, with all others at three figures to one.
Group of 16
We reach the knockout stage with the following pairings based on the predictions above: Brazil vs. Chile with the hosts overwhelming their neighbors from the opposite coast of the continent. Spain vs. Croatia with the title holders overwhelming their continental foes. Colombia then meet a classic Italy, one that becomes a contender once the tournament gets to the serious stages. Balotelli, Pirlo, Buffon, and company, have their best game of the cup, and their ageing players have their last hurrah as they beat Falcao and company, but not until the Colombians have had their fun. France, feeling good after topping their group, continue their run over the young Nigerians but barely win and only thanks to their experience.
Tough Uruguay meet their match in wily Ivory Coast and in one of the most entertaining games of the cup the South Americans make home continent mean something and advance. Argentina beat Ecuador but it costs them as their continental brethren play a tough match and the bruised Messi legions feel the impact. Meanwhile Portugal dispatch Belguim with another stellar Ronaldo performance while the Germans dispatch Russia with a clinical score line.
The cup's classics take over from here.
Brazil ride their home field advantage to a classy victory over Italy while Germany destroy France. Argentina, still feeling the impact of their previous match are hard put to beat Portugal, but still manage with some unsanctioned unsportsmanlike roughness and a touch of Messi magic. While in another of the cup's classics Spain barely beats Uruguay who provide tough resistance to the end.
From here on in the gods make the players, coaches, refs, and fans, pay their dues.
If Brazil managed to win their previous games fairly, without officiating favoritism, if coach Scolari brought the right players to the tournament, and if the players have built some honest team momentum, as opposed to simply ridding the wave of their supporters on and off the field, they will beat Germany. But if they messed up in any one of those categories, coach Low will be reaching the finals.
On the other side, though, it will simply be a matter of whether del Bosque has both motivated his team and kept his starters fresh. If he has done so, even a Messi-led Argentina, playing on its home continent, will be beaten by Casillas, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Villa, and company. If, on the other hand, the Spaniards have been allowed to run out of steam, a healthy Messi alone will take his team to the finals.
Let us assume that if not throughout the cup, then at least in the final, we have a fairly officiated game. If so, a Germany vs. Argentina final will see Germany win while in a Germany vs. Spain final the dual cup holders repeat. In a Brazil vs. Spain final the Europeans get their revenge for the 2013 Confederations Cup robbery, while in a Brazil vs. Argentina final the hosts eek-out a last-gasp win, while Messi is crowned the tourney's best.
I will revisit these predictions this summer, and if after any major changes are factored in a revision or two is needed, I will provide a new prediction. Otherwise, this is my best guess going forward. What's yours?