Into the Amazon: Your guide to the World Cup


Ian Johnson

By guest writer Lincoln Hirn

The FIFA World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world.  Worldwide, it has more viewers than the NFL Playoffs, the Olympics, the NBA Finals or any other televised athletic contest. To the uninitiated, the World Cup can seem like such a confusing web of teams, players and nations that the simple act of viewing the tournament with any sort of informed interest can seem as daunting as a trek through the Amazon Rainforest, which just so happens to be a venue for this year’s World Cup.  Fear not, however,  I am here to guide you through the soccer wilderness and to hopefully allow you to truly enjoy the greatest sporting event the world has to offer.  First, a brief overview of the tournament’s format:

The Group Stages

There are 32 teams in the World Cup, who were divided into eight groups of four in a blind draw this past winter, and compete in a round-robin style tournament.  Every team will play each of their fellow group members once, and will be awarded three points for a win, one point for a draw (tie) and zero points for a loss.  At the end of the group stages, the two teams in each group with the most points advance to the knockout rounds.

The Knockout Rounds

After the group stages, the 16 teams remaining will play in a single elimination tournament bracket that culminates in the World Cup Final in the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  If a match in the knockout rounds is tied after 90 minutes of regulation, the game moves into two 15-minute overtime periods and, if still tied, to the dramatic penalty shootout.

Now that we’re all familiar with the format, let’s explore some of the teams competing in this year’s World Cup.

The Favorites – Spain, Argentina, Germany, Brazil

wc favorites

Every World Cup has a few teams that seem, at least at the start of the tournament, to be a cut above the competition. This year is no exception, and the most popular pick to win the Cup is surely Brazil. Brazil has the most impressive World Cup pedigree of the elite group of favorites, having won the World Cup a record five times and boasting a staple of legendary mononymously-named players such as Pele, Jairzinho, Garrincha, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Socrates and Romario, to name a few.  The current Brazil team is led by 22-year-old phenom and hair icon Neymar, who, in the summer of 2013, led Brazil to their second straight Confederations Cup Trophy.  That same summer, Neymar transferred to Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona.  The stage was set for him to take the world by storm, but he couldn’t quite stick to the script and, in his first year in Spain, has failed to live up to expectations.  If he can regain his form and lead his team (which also includes international superstars such as Dante, Hulk, Julio Cesar, David Luiz, and Dani Alves), then the storyline is already in place for a Brazilian title on home turf.

To accomplish that goal, Brazil will need to be stronger than the other favorites.  Argentina will rely on Lionel Messi, the immensely talented attacker who was voted FIFA World Footballer of the Year three consecutive years from 2010 to 2012.  Messi, who is notoriously disappointing when playing for his country, will need to step up for this team if they are to win.  While Argentina certainly have excellent players outside of Messi – most notably Sergio Aguero, Angel di Maria, and Javier Mascherano – they will most likely go about as far as Messi carries them.  The continent of Europe is led into this World Cup by defending champion Spain and Germany, perennial also-rans who seem poised to finally make good of their promising wealth of talent.  While there is no doubt that Spain and Germany have enough talent to win the Cup, they must overcome a rather significant hurdle: in the 84 year history of the World Cup, a European team has never won the trophy in South America.


The Dark Horses – Belgium, Chile, Holland, Italy, Uruguay, Portugal

wc horse

Everyone loves a sexy upset pick, and the five teams listed above certainly carry strong chances of success in Brazil. Belgium are currently experiencing the coming of age of a golden generation of young talent, led by Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, a pair of attackers who have starred in the English Premier League over the last two seasons.  Chile have also brought a strong squad into the tournament, and are led by dominant central midfielder Arturo Vidal, but will have to contend with an incredibly difficult group that includes both Spain and Holland.  The Dutch will also be dangerous, bringing a bevy of world class attackers such as Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie to the tournament, but have an unproven defense.  Italy are led to Brazil by swaggering midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, and Portugal boast the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year and hair gel connoisseur Cristiano Ronaldo.  But the real pick of the dark horse bunch is Uruguay, who made it all the way to the semi-finals back in 2010.  Uruguay are led by the mystifyingly brilliant Luis Suarez, a man as apt to bite an opponent as he is to score.  Uruguay will have relative home-field advantage, being a South American country, and will have enough talent to reach the final and hoist the trophy.


The Darker Horses – France, Columbia, England, Croatia, Ivory Coast

wc horse2

It’s unlikely that any of these teams will win the World Cup, but if he field is shaken up by a series of major upsets, that may change. France has the most talent of any of these teams, but will be missing their talisman and starting left winger Franck Ribery due to injury.  Even without Ribery, however, France has plenty of talent and could surprise any team that underestimates them.  England has a squad full of promising young players, but their team is too ripe to really compete for the World Cup this year.  Croatia are led by star midfielder Luka Modric and striker Mario Mandzukic, but just don’t have all the pieces necessary to mount a serious title challenge, and Columbia will have a very tough time doing much without their star striker Radamel Falcao, who is missing due to injury.  That leaves the Ivory Coast, who, over the past decade, have been widely regarded as the best hope for the continent of Africa to capture its first World Cup.  The current golden generation of Ivorian players are nearing the ends of their careers and have yet to have any real success. Could these aging stars’ swan song finally deliver a World Cup to Africa?


The Stars and Stripes – United States of America

Photo courtesy of US Department of State
Photo courtesy of US Department of State

The USA team has a tremendously difficult task ahead.  Despite the fact that this year’s US team is undoubtedly the most talented squad the America ever brought to the World Cup, expectations are very low, just ask team manager Jurgen Klinsmann.  Much of this has to do with the group the US have been drawn into, which includes Germany and Portugal, who are ranked second and fourth in the world, respectively, and Ghana, the tough and plucky African nation who have knocked Uncle Sam out of the cup on the past two occasions. If the US has any hope of getting out of this group, they must surely defeat Ghana and steal at least a draw from Portugal. One thing to keep an eye on for the US is how the team copes without Landon Donovan, who, despite being arguably the best American player of all time, was left off from the final World Cup squad. It will be an uphill battle, but behind Klinsmann, star players like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, and a group of talented role-players such as Fabian Johnson, Mix Diskerud, Geoff Cameron, Graham Zusi, and Matt Besler, the US can certainly pull off an upset.

Finally, here are my predictions for the tournament:

Final: France 2, Argentina 1

France has the talent to compete with any team in the tournament, and if they can avoid an inner-team revolt, like in 2010, there’s little stopping the French from taking home the title.

Top Scorer: Sergio Aguero (Argentina)

Aguero has had an excellent season, winning the English League championship for his current club Manchester City, and has shown he can score in international games as well. He’s a great opportunist, and with the most dynamic player in the world in Lionel Messi creating chances for him, the stage is set for Aguero to shine in Brazil.