Get your bunting up, your replica shirt at the ready and the beers on ice- the 2014 World Cup is almost upon us. For the next three weeks, the eyes of billions of people from across the globe will be focused on Brazil for what is the biggest tournament in football, with 32 countries set to compete for the honour of winning the infamous gold trophy.
A galaxy of elite players from a variety of leagues has descended on Brazil to showcase their talent on the most prestigious stage of them all. From Real Madrid’s Ronaldo to Barcelona’s Neymar, the best of the best will be hoping to impress where it matters the most. The cream of the crop will perform in the depths of the rainforest, near the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema and in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer in the country that didn’t invent football- but reinvented it.
But who’s got what it takes to become the 2014 World Cup Winners at the Estadio Maracana in Rio De Janeiro on July 13? Here’s my take on the top five favourites to win it in the South American sunshine…
The tournament favourites with a distinct advantage- it’s on their turf. The Samba boys represent football for a country where it’s played barefoot in the street and on the beaches. The sport runs through their veins- and boy do the Brazilians know how to play it. Five times winners, the last time they won it was in 2002 in Japan, when they beat Germany 2-0 with both goals coming from Golden Boot winner Ronaldo.
Guided by Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazil go into the competition with two warm-up wins to their name and are huge favourites to storm Group A, with games against Cameroon, Croatia and Mexico. But class oozes through the team in every position, from Davi Alves, Thiago Silva and Dante to Willian, Fernandinho and star man Neymar. When it clicks, it really clicks and makes for a wondrous spectacle- but will the pressure of being the home nation and favourites prove too much?
One to watch: It has to be Neymar.
Outright odds to win it: 3/1
The Argentineans will be buoyed by the fact that they are familiar with the climate and they will be focused on getting one over the neighbours in their own back garden. The last time they won it was back in 1986 in Mexico for the second time, largely thanks to a star turn by a certain Diego Maradona, but with back to back wins in the warm up fixtures and a squad brimming with world class players, Alejandro Sabella will know his team is in with a real shot of lifting the gold trophy.
Group F has been relatively kind to Argentina, with games against Iran, Nigeria and Bosnia & Herzegovina. When you’ve got Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Huguain, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi amongst your arsenal, anything is possible. But it’s captain Lionel Messi that the team will be relying on to deliver the goods. Having never scored a World Cup finals goal, everybody is aware of what the striker is capable of conjuring up. If he turns it on, expect Argentina to shine. If it clicks, there’s no reason they can’t go all the way.
One to watch: Of course it’s Lionel Messi.
The Spaniards head to Brazil as the current World Cup holders, after beating the Netherlands 1-0 in extra time with a goal from Andres Iniesta in 2010 at South Africa to win it for the first time. With two warm-up wins and no injuries of note, Vicente del Bosque will be confident of his team’s progression through to the latter stages of the tournament again.
Placed in Group B and facing games against Australia, the Netherlands and Chile, many of the faces that featured in the 2010 triumph are included again in the squad. Quality aplenty from Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba in defence to Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Diego Costa, the Spanish play delightfully inventive, free-flowing football with the strength in depth capable of securing a second tournament win in a row.
One to watch: There’s a few, but I’ll go for Diego Costa.
Outright odds to win it: 13/2
The injury to captain Marco Reus has rocked the German contingency who travel to Brazil in indifferent form. Two draws and a win in their warm-up games against inferior opposition won’t provide Joachim Low with any solace, but with a stellar squad and a favourable group it would be wrong to have the Germans down as anything but serious contenders.
West Germany last won the World Cup in Italy in 1990, beating Argentina 1-0 with a single goal from in what was a repeat of the 1986 final and have won it three times in total. Pitched in Group G with matches against Ghana and USA, their main competition comes in the form of Portugal. With threatening players like Mario Gotze, Thomas Muller, Andre Schuerrle, Lukas Podolski and Miroslaw Klose, expect to see the Germans feature well into the knock-out stages, with an intimidating, unapologetic confidence.
One to watch: Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Outright odds to win it: 13/2
Belgium has already adopted the tag of the ‘dark horses’ for the tournament. The Red Devils are blessed with a generation of talent at the peak of their careers as they head to Brazil. Lead by Marc Wilmots, the ‘golden generation’ play fluid, attacking football worthy of gracing the best stage in the world and it’s time to prove their worth.
Drawn in Group H, Belgium will kick off against Russia, Algeria and South Korea in a bid to progress. You only have to look at the squad to see why they’re being tipped by critics and pundits alike: from the back with Thibaut Courtois in goal to captain Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen in defence through to Eden Hazard, Alex Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, the country are more than capable of advancing into the knock-outs. If they have the belief and the conviction, they could surprise a few people.
One to watch: Eden Hazard.
Outright odds to win it: 20/1