This is the first of eight World Cup group previews as the days tick away to the tournament opener on June 12 in São Paolo between Brazil and Croatia.
Monday brings Group A and B, Tuesday C and D, Wednesday E and F and, finally, on Friday the United States' task in Group G gets broken down along with Group H. For comprehensive World Cup coverage, bookmark this page.
Brazil (4th in FIFA rankings) | Qualified as host nation | 67-15-15 all-time, five-time champions
Croatia (20th) | Second-place finish in UEFA Group A | 6-5-2 all-time
Cameroon (50th) | Defeated Tunisia 4-1 in CAF third round | 4-9-7 all-time
140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
The host always gets it easy, right? This was a kind draw for a Seleção, and they know it. Which means...
DAVID AND GOLIATH
This is Brazil's group to lose – and they know that, too. In your lifetime you won't find a World Cup team with heavier expectations or a heavier burden. They're playing not only for a title, but for the chance to erase the misery of 1950, when Brazil hosted and lost to Uruguay in the finals.
On the flip side are Cameroon, whose one trip into the knockout rounds came way back in 1990. If they spring the upset here, it'll be one of the greatest wins for any African nation on the World Cup stage.
We can all point and laugh at Mexico for all the struggles they've had over the last two years. El Tri have, for the first time, brought true joy to all of CONCACAF.
But they are one of the few teams who never, ever play scared against Brazil (remember who Mexico beat for Olympic gold two summers ago? Yeah). The two teams meet on June 17 in Fortaleza, and it will be required viewing.
|June 12 | 4 PM||Brazil||Croatia||Arena Corinthians, São Paulo|
|June 13 | 12 PM||Mexico||Cameroon||Arena das Dunas, Natal|
|June 17 | 3 PM||Brazil||Mexico||Estádio Castelão, Fortaleza|
|June 18 | 6 PM||Cameroon||Croatia||Arena Amazônia, Manaus|
|June 23 | 4 PM||Cameroon||Brazil||Estádio Mané Garrincha, Brasília|
|June 23 | 4 PM||Croatia||Mexico||Arena Pernambuco, Recife|
Giovani dos Santos, F, Mexico: Dos Santos was supposed to be king of the world by now, but he's really taken his time about it. That said, he's finally come into his own at the club level, putting up 12 goals and 8 assists for Villarreal in La Liga, and remains the only Mexican who combines world-class pace, power and close control. Put it all together, and at 25, he should become a star.
Neymar, F, Brazil: He's not the next Pelé and he's not the next Messi. He's just a wildly entertaining, hugely effective second forward – ponta de lança in Portuguese – who saves his best performances for the national team. He was irrepressable in last summer's Confederations Cup, and is a good bet to be so again.
Samuel Eto'o, F, Cameroon: Eto'o is, at 33, the old man of the group. He doesn't have the 1-v-1 skills of dos Santos or the tricks of Neymar, but he still has pace and a superior understanding of where danger is about to happen. A pure lead-the-line poacher – probably the world's best over the past decade.
Luka Modric, MF, Croatia: Modric was instrumental in leading Real Madrid to la decima in May, turning in a man of the match performance on the biggest club stage there is. He is the foremost of the "new breed" of creative midfielders, adept at both the pretty parts of the game and the absolute drudgery.
NEXT BIG THING...
Neymar's 22, so obviously we already need to find the next Neymar. This is the same culture that demands 12 months a year of NFL Draft coverage, but whatever – I'm in it now.
Honestly though, picking out who's got next in this group is easy: Mateo Kovacic is as good a 20-year-old as there is playing in Europe. He's used primarily as a regista (deep-lying playmaker) for his club, Inter Milan, and for his country. It's quite possible that, three weeks from now, we're all talking about how he's the best midfielder in this group and, 'Wow can you believe PSG paid 40 million euros for him?'
The home crowd!
There is nothing in US sports history that compares to Brazil losing the World Cup on home soil. It haunts the memory of an entire nation – a nation that, at the first sign of nerves from their team, will turn and viciously attack the squad they're supposed to be supporting.
Good, good times.
The White House was built from stones imported from Croatia. So if you're an American looking for a "second team" to support ... no, that doesn't really do it, does it? Still, you can at least root for them to beat Mexico.
SIX DEGREES OF MLS
How about one degree? Júlio César, who will almost certainly start in goal for Brazil, draws a paycheck from Toronto FC.
Mexico will advance because that's what Mexico do. Somehow, some way, every four years like clockwork.
As for the rest? I'm not dumb enough to bet against Brazil. As fun as a group stage catastrophe would be to watch, I've got my fingers crossed Gotterdamermung 2: The Quickening won't happen until the final, when they get immolated by Messi & Co. and then the world gets reborn in the river of life.