So, we have a total of 32 teams taking part in 63 fixtures over 32 fantastic days, all in the name of deciding the destination of the biggest prize in football – the World Cup.
With the tournament in Brazil inching ever closer, the million dollar question is of course; who will triumph? Well, I’m going to level with you. I just don’t know! The final squads are yet to be announced and with possible injuries, form and the conditions in Brazil all likely to play a major hand in deciding the outcome, it’s almost impossible to pick a winner. I know, I know, it’s a cop-out and I’ll predict a winner before the tournament starts I promise, but until then, you’ll have to make do with my pick of the teams to watch out for this summer…
Drawn in Group D alongside Italy, England and Costa Rica, I think Uruguay will be quietly confident about turning in a decent performance. Uruguay were the final team to claim a place at the finals, beating Jordan in a two-legged Play-Off, but whilst their form in qualification was patchy, their route to Brazil did feature eye-catching wins against Argentina, Colombia and Chile.
In Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, La Celeste boast two of the most talked about strikers in world football, with the latter undoubtedly looking to banish the memories of his controversial sending off (for deliberate handball) against Ghana at the last World Cup in South Africa. Uruguay went on to finish a creditable fourth in South Africa, so have decent World Cup form to add to their unquestionable pedigree. After all, Uruguay have won the World Cup twice. Their first triumph came at the inaugural tournament in 1930, whilst they also won the next World Cup they entered in 1950.
The venue for their second tournament title? Brazil.
Like Uruguay, Argentina have won the World Cup twice before, but unlike their South American cousins, they face a relatively straightforward start to the tournament, tackling Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria in Group F.
Argentina’s defeat to Cameroon when kicking off the 1990 tournament in Italy is one of my most vivid footballing memories and should serve as a reminder that no outcome should be taken for granted at a World Cup. Having said that, an array of household names such as Maxi Rodriguez, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and of course Lionel Messi mean that Argentina will be a force to be reckoned with and should provide more than a match for most of the teams they encounter this summer.
My only European pick for potential glory, Spain head to their base in Curitiba as the reigning World Cup champions. They face an uphill task if they are to keep their hands on the trophy – Italy and Brazil are the only teams to successfully retain their title, with the hosts the last to record back-to-back wins over half a century ago in 1958 and 1962.
La Roja face an intriguing task in the group stages. Their first game in Group B is a re-run of the 2010 World Cup Final against Holland, whilst their next game is against Chile – a team well known to England fans after they delivered a footballing lesson at Wembley Stadium in 2013. Spain finish the group against Australia, who complete a triumvirate of very different challenges for Vicente del Bosque’s men.
Spain were impressive in qualification, topping their group and remaining undefeated (a home draw with Finland the only real blot on their qualifying copybook), whilst their squad reads like a who’s who of modern football. It’ll come as no shock that I’m tipping Spain to go deep into this tournament.
No list of potential winners would be complete without the hosts. Brazil have won the World Cup more times than anyone and simply put, are giants of the international game.
With what will be fervent support behind them throughout, Brazil will be a formidable force and I expect them to top a group that also includes Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon. Whilst Mexcio should provide a stern test (and could do well in the tournament themselves), the Brazilian supporters will expect nothing less than a serious attempt at taking the title and with a squad bursting with talent, there is nothing to suggest it won’t materialise.
The only thing that could work against them is the huge weight of expectation. Whilst their squad contains players who have experience at every level of the game, kicking off in the yellow shirt of Brazil in a home World Cup will be a whole new ball game. Brazil, if not the world, expects. Now it’s up to the players to deliver.