The time has come. The time we've all been waiting for. The World Cup arrives just once every four years. It's a beautiful thing... a sporting event that tunes in the eyes and ears of people all around the world. Hundred of millions of people crowd around television sets cheering on and united with the countries of their home and citizenship. The crazy excitement and celebration the world cup brings is unparalleled, and the very spirit of how we carry our days - completely changes. 32 hopeful teams bear the pride, voices, and hopes of their people and their respective nations. It's an epic fight of pure will that ends with the last team standing. With the opening ceremony already under way, here's my group-by-group breakdown of the World Cup, analyzing which country has the edge, identifying a possible sleeper, picking out a player to watch, predicting which teams will advance to the knockout stage and my final four.
(Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon)
The favorite: Brazil. Fans of the Selecao will be expecting nine points from the team’s three games against decent, but not great, competition. Brazil has a loaded roster; the only questions are whether the team can find a reliable striker and if it can cope with the pressure.
The sleeper: Mexico. Mexico’s decline from 2011 Gold Cup and 2012 Olympic champions to nearly missing out on the World Cup has been as shocking as it has been puzzling. Safely in Brazil, maybe El Tri can snap out of its funk.
Player to watch: Neymar da Silva Santos, Forward, Brazil. The FC Barcelona playmaker took a bit of time to settle in Spain but emerged this season as one of the team’s best players. Already drawing comparisons to Pele, Neymar will be heavily relied on for his creativity, precision, and speed on the offensive end. He's definitely a very entertaining player to watch.
Predicted order of finish: Brazil, Croatia, Cameroon, Mexico
Schedule: Brazil vs. Croatia (Thu., 4 p.m., ESPN); Mexico vs. Cameroon (Fri., noon, ESPN2); Brazil vs. Mexico (June 17, 3 p.m., ESPN); Cameroon vs. Croatia (June 18, 6 p.m., ESPN); Brazil vs. Cameroon (June 23, 4 p.m., ESPN); Croatia vs. Mexico (June 23, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
(Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia)
The favorite: Spain. The reigning World and European champions aren’t as dominant as they once were especially without an already aging David Villa out of World Cup play, but it’s premature to call time on the Spanish dynasty. Striker Diego Costa’s fitness will be key to Spain’s success in later rounds. Look for Iniesta to continue his beautiful play in setting up teammates and facilitating possession - something Spain religiously has been able to maintain.
The sleeper: Chile. England got a taste of how good Chile is in a 2-0 defeat in London in November. The Netherlands’ big hopes for the tournament could be dashed if it’s not ready for Alexis Sanchez and Co.
Player to watch: Andrés Iniesta, MF, Spain. In my humbled opinion, Iniesta is the best midfielder in futbol. His ability to facilitate possession for any team he represents is unparalleled and will be called on to orchestrate Spain's beautiful European style passing offense.
Predicted order of finish: Spain, Chile, Netherlands, Australia
Schedule: Spain vs. Netherlands (Fri., 3 p.m., ESPN); Chile vs. Australia (Fri., 6 p.m., ESPN2); Australia vs. Netherlands (June 18, noon, ESPN); Spain vs. Chile (June 18, 3 p.m., ESPN); Australia vs. Spain (June 23, noon, ESPN2); Netherlands vs. Chile (June 23, noon, ESPN)
(Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan)
The favorite: Japan. This is the very interesting group to watch because the crown can go to any one of its participating teams. With Honda and Kawaga leading the offense, and the only team from Asia being represented, I feel Japan's got the grit and tenacity to go home with the win.
The sleeper: Greece. It won’t be pretty, but the Greeks will defend deep, tackle tough and hang around in every game they’re in. If a few breaks go their way, don’t be surprised to see them advance.
Player to watch: Shinji Kagawa, MF, Japan. He’s had a tough time at Manchester United, but there’s no doubt the Japanese attacking midfielder has great skill and vision.
Predicted order of finish: Japan, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece
Schedule: Colombia vs. Greece (Sat., noon, ABC); Ivory Coast vs. Japan (Sat., 9 p.m., ESPN); Colombia vs. Ivory Coast (June 19, noon, ESPN); Japan vs. Greece (June 19, 6 p.m., ESPN); Japan vs. Colombia (June 24, 4 p.m., ESPN); Greece vs. Ivory Coast (June 24, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
(Uruguay, Costa Rica, Italy, England)
The favorite: Italy. The Azzurri surprised many with a run to the final of Euro 2012. Everybody’s ready for them now. Too many words have been written about the midfield maestro that is Andrea Pirlo, but he really is that good.
The sleeper: England. The Three Lions have reason to be optimistic, with 19-year-old Raheem Sterling and 20-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain forming part of an energetic young core with no ties to previous English failures in the spotlight.
Player to watch: Mario Balotelli, MF, Italy. Balotelli is the perfect kind of "Italian soccer crazy" you want at World Cup time. One of the best goal scorers in the world, solid defender, beautiful ball carrier, unselfish teammate, and just plain cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs off the pitch. He's a personal favorite, and I can't wait to watch Balotelli do his thing.
Predicted order of finish: Italy, Uruguay, England, Costa Rica
Schedule: Uruguay vs. Costa Rica (Sat., 3 p.m., ABC); England vs. Italy (Sat., 6 p.m., ESPN); Uruguay vs. England (June 19, 3 p.m., ESPN); Italy vs. Costa Rica (June 20, noon, ESPN); Italy vs. Uruguay (June 24, noon, ESPN); Costa Rica vs. England (June 24, noon, ESPN2)
(Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras)
The favorite: France. After a disastrous 2010 World Cup, the French — even without Bayern Munich star Franck Ribery, who will miss the World Cup with a back injury — have too much talent not to get out of an easy group.
The sleeper: Ecuador. Other than Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia, there aren’t any big names on the Ecuador team. But don’t write them off because of that; qualifying out of South America is no cakewalk.
Player to watch: Karim Benzema, F, France. The Real Madrid striker, who has been criticized for not being as good as Cristiano Ronaldo (really, who is?), will need to score plenty of goals for France to make a deep run.
Predicted order of finish: France, Ecuador, Switzerland, Honduras
Schedule: Switzerland vs. Ecuador (Sun., noon, ABC); France vs. Honduras (Sun., 3 p.m., ABC); Switzerland vs. France (June 20, 3 p.m., ESPN); Honduras vs. Ecuador (June 20, 6 p.m., ESPN); Honduras vs. Switzerland (June 25, 4 p.m., ESPN); Ecuador vs. France (June 25, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
(Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria, Iran)
The favorite: Argentina. Messi, Aguero, Higuain, Lavezzi. Even casual fans have likely heard of at least some of those four attackers. Argentina’s offense is stacked and the biggest problem will be keeping all of them happy — and hoping its significantly less intimidating defense can hold up.
The sleeper: Bosnia-Herzegovina. Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko is the star of a Bosnian team that cruised through qualifying. Argentina won’t be without competition in the group stage.
Player to watch: Angel di Maria, MF, Argentina. With his boundless energy and underrated skill, the midfielder is key to Real Madrid. A top-heavy Argentina team may count on di Maria to link defense to attack.
Predicted order of finish: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria, Iran
Schedule: Argentina vs. Bosnia (Sun., 6 p.m., ESPN); Iran vs. Nigeria (Mon., 3 p.m., ESPN); Argentina vs. Iran (June 21, noon, ESPN); Nigeria vs. Bosnia (June 21, 6 p.m., ESPN); Nigeria vs. Argentina (June 25, noon, ESPN); Bosnia vs. Iran (June 25, noon, ESPN2)
(Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA)
My favorite: Germany. Find a hole in this team. By the time you do — possibly at striker, where the team will feature either 36-year-old Miroslav Klose or a midfielder playing out of position — Germany will be up 2-0. Klose has a chance to break the world cup all time goal record currently at 14. Only retired Brazilian striker, Ronaldo is ahead of him at 15. Germany is also arguably the deepest team participating, pulling in the best players from Bayern Munich and Dortmund - all of whom have been playing together for the past 6 years.
The sleeper: Ghana. Somehow, the Black Stars (quarterfinalists in 2010) are the fourth-best team in the group. Their counterattacking style will suit them well against highly ranked opposition.
Player to watch: Christiano Ronaldo, F, Portugal. The Portuguese team is Cristiano Ronaldo. And Christiano Ronaldo is the Portugal team. I know everyone says Messi's the greatest player, my vote still goes to Ronaldo. Ronaldo can literally carry an entire offense and will be asked to. He requires no setting up and can take the ball from one end to the other with ease, unlike (cough cough...Messi). After leading Real Madrid to victory in the Champions League, carrying renewed and enhanced performance and maturity in his game, look for Ronaldo to have some spectacular plays throughout all of Portugal's games.
Predicted order of finish: Germany, Portugal, USA, Ghana
Schedule: Germany vs. Portugal (Mon., noon, ESPN); United States vs. Ghana (Mon., 6 p.m., ESPN); Germany vs. Ghana (June 21, 3 p.m., ESPN); United States vs. Portugal (June 22, 6 p.m., ESPN); Portugal vs. Ghana (June 26, noon, ESPN2); United States vs. Germany (June 26, noon, ESPN)
(Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea)
The favorite: Belgium. If it wasn’t Belgium, this group of players could be the favorite to win it all. Young, dynamic, deep and balanced, the Belgians are everything but experienced.
The sleeper: Russia. Former England coach Fabio Capello accidentally called up the wrong player for his Russian team for a friendly match in February. When he was with England, the Italian also said he only needed to know 100 words in English to lead England. Still, he’s a good enough coach to steer Russia out of the group stage.
Player to watch: Marouane Fellaini, MF, Belgium. When he is on, the big man with the big Afro is capable of overpowering almost anyone. Problem is, he hasn’t been on since moving from Everton to Manchester United last August. Which Fellaini will turn up in Brazil?
Predicted order of finish: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria
Schedule: Belgium vs. Algeria (Tue., noon, ESPN); Russia vs. South Korea (Tue., 6 p.m., ESPN); Belgium vs. Russia (June 22, noon, ABC); South Korea vs. Algeria (June 22, 3 p.m., ABC); South Korea vs. Belgium (June 26, 4 p.m., ESPN); Algeria vs. Russia (June 26, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
My Final Four:
As hosts and favourites to win the World Cup, it's going to be hard to ignore Brazil. Anything other than victory will be seen as a failure for a nation that has already won the trophy on five occasions. The Selecao last lifted the cup at Korea/Japan 2002 under manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, and "Big Phil," as he is affectionately known, is back at the helm and he will be the leading man in what is sure to be a gripping telenovela.
My favorite team and where my heart is. The returning champions will not easily relinquish the trophy they won at South Africa 2010 and, although key members of the squad are ageing, the likes of midfield duo Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta remain among the best in the business. Their beautiful possession-based style is seen as metronomic and dull by some critics, but it's effective: La Roja have won the last three major championships at Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012.
Joachim Low's team have one of the best midfields in the world, and in Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, they have two players with 100 caps who are still at the peak of their powers. The Germans topped the goalscoring charts in UEFA qualifying, with 36 in 10 matches, and they will test any defence. They have arguably the deepest team filled with players who are used to playing together at Bayern Munich and Dortmund. They will play structured and well-balanced and have one of the best shots of winning the entire world cup this year. Germany is where my money is.
Argentina were top scorers in CONMEBOL qualifying as they secured top spot, and the fact that Sabella's side rarely managed to keep a clean sheet at the other end highlights their commitment to attack. Argentina would like nothing better than to secure their third title on Brazilian soil and poop the party of their arch-rivals. They have the best offense at the world cup. But the question will remain how their poor defense will be able to respond and react to opponents.