As we approach the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, the Sports Unbiased Crew will be releasing guides to help make better sense of what you watch as the world’s best soccer players converge on Brazil this summer. Check in regularly as we preview the eight groups, 32 teams, and key players that will play an integral role in determining the next world champion.
Nothing short of outright victory is going to be enough to satiate a hungry Brazilian public hoping to finally see their heroes hoist the FIFA World Cup Trophy on home soil. 2014 is the chance to complete the dream that has lived on since Uruguay dashed the home side’s hopes in the Maracana — the same venue that will host this year’s World Cup final on July 13 in a much revamped (and reduced) capacity.
But Brazil drew a tough group, the draw doing the hosts no favors. Croatia and Mexico are both top-20 teams in the FIFA world coefficient (as of April 10), while Cameroon is an enigma that has a history of getting hot on the world’s largest stage. The most salient question is still probably which of these three teams will snatch second place and passage to the knockout stage behind the Brazilians, but stranger things indeed have happened at the World Cup in the past.
The pressure will be on when these teams take to the field. Let’s now look quickly at each of the six matches that will determine the group standings and predict how the group will shake out. (All times Eastern.)
Brazil v. Croatia/São Paolo (June 12/6:00pm)
The last time the two senior sides met, Kaká scored just before halftime in their Group F encounter in Berlin at the 2006 World Cup and Brazil held on for a 1-0 victory. When the Croats could only muster draws against Australia and Japan, they were subsequently sent home early. The only other time these two squads have met was a year earlier in a friendly in Split which ended in a 1-1 draw. Croatia has never defeated the Brazilians at any level of soccer — not the U-17 or U-20 or senior levels, neither in a friendly nor in competition. And even though they have the greatest wealth of talent since the side that took third at the 1998 World Cup, the Brazilians have both the offensive firepower and defensive talent to emerge victorious in the World Cup opener.
PREDICTION: 2-1 Brazil
Mexico v. Cameroon/Natal (June 13/12:00pm)
For Mexico, which has reached the knockout stage in each of the last five World Cups, this match will be essential if they hope to continue their streak. (Of course, having been knocked out immediately in the Round of 16 each of those past five times, merely qualifying probably won’t be satisfaction enough.) Drawn in the same group as the hosts for the second straight World Cup, the Mexicans will need to nab three points off a Cameroon side that rated ahead of only Australia and South Korea in terms of World Cup teams in the FIFA coefficient leading up to the tournament. Look for youngsters such as Alan Pulido and Oribe Peralta to take charge of a new generation for Mexico as they take care of business for El Tri in Natal.
PREDICTION: 4-1 Mexico
Brazil v. Mexico/Fortaleza (June 17/3:00pm)
Three previous times — in 1950, 1954, and 1962 — Brazil and Mexico have been matched in the same World Cup preliminary-round group. All three times they have played, Brazil has held a clean sheet in victory. The same happened last year, when these teams met at this very stadium in Fortaleza for the Confederations Cup; Neymar scored nine minutes into the match, Jo added another off the bench in second-half stoppage time, and Julio Cesar stopped all five of Mexico’s shots on goal for the 2-0 win. And though Mexico did defeat Brazil in a neutral-site friendly at Cowboys Stadium in Texas in March 2012, the signs all point to the home team prevailing in what will likely be a closer contest than the final score indicates.
PREDICTION: 4-2 Brazil
Cameroon v. Croatia/Manaus (June 18/6:00pm)
Four years ago, Croatia missed out altogether on the trip to South Africa after failing to make it out of UEFA qualifying. The last time they were at the World Cup eight years ago, they failed to make it out of the group stage largely because they played down to the competition in games like this matchup against Cameroon. The African side has had precisely three games against top-20 competition in the past three years: a 3-0 loss to Colombia in October 2012; a 0-0 draw against Ukraine in June 2013; and a 5-1 defeat to Portugal in March. That lack of seasoning against top teams will likely doom Cameroon to a finish that looks far more like their 2010 results than their 1990 run, especially with Niko Kranjcar and Luka Modric fueling the Croat attack.
PREDICTION: 2-0 Croatia
Cameroon v. Brazil/Brasilia (June 23/4:00pm)
If Croatia and Mexico are almost certain to knock off the largely untested Cameroon side, what chances will the African squad have against the hosts? When they met in San Francisco during the group stage of the 1994 World Cup, the score was 3-0 in favor of the South Americans. Interestingly, though, the last time these two teams played — at the 2003 Confederations Cup in France — it was Cameroon that came out on top 1-0. Expect a scoreline more like the former than the latter as the Brazilians romp to the knockout stage in undefeated, untied fashion in front of a partisan crowd in the nation’s capital.
PREDICTION: 3-0 Brazil
Croatia v. Mexico/Recife (June 23/4:00pm)
With the game between Brazil and Cameroon likely to be largely academic, the majority of the world’s eyeballs will be watching to see which of these two squads will advance behind the hosts out of Group A. If predictions hold, the only thing separating them leading into this head-to-head showdown will be total goals; in this scenario, Mexico would need only a draw to advance with twice the goals as the Croats. This could swing either way, but look for Croatia to avenge their loss in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup ensure their passage to the next round and end the two-decade streak of advancement for the Mexicans.
PREDICTION: 1-0 Croatia
Group A Prediction