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.
Let’s face it. Not every team has the same chances of taking home the World Cup trophy. Australia (1500/1 odds) has far less of a chance of making it to the tournament, having been drawn with defending World Cup finalists Spain (13/2) and the Netherlands (34/1). A team like Iran (1000/1), matched against a perennial powerhouse like Argentina (9/2), would have to upset the entire balance of world football order to advance far in the tournament.
So in that spirit, let’s look at the top 12 teams with the best shot to win the preeminent championship of the beautiful game. But we’re not talking FIFA coefficients here; the real place to look for contenders is with the betting odds. (This might seem odd in light of the New York Times expose about match fixing around the 2010 World Cup… but it is not the legitimate bookmakers that have incentive to fix these matches.)
All odds provided by Unibet. Why Unibet among all possible bookmakers? Well… I’ve been partial to the company since the cycling team they sponsored received a raw deal back in 2007. And their hierarchy of teams is not appreciably different than any other. Feel free to peruse the full selection of odds from around the globe here.
1. Brazil (Group A — 3/1 odds)
… much like the hosts, who open their World Cup campaign today against Croatia in just a few hours. Thus we’re jumping ahead to the head of the list and moving backward from teams 1-6.
So is Brazil — both the nation and the team — ready for this World Cup? For better or worse, it begins today. And there are really only two possible endings to this story. Either we A) see the Selecao blaze through the competition and capture its sixth World Cup title, or B) they don’t and the country is struck by another Maracanazo that leaves it even more discontented about the spending that went into hosting the World Cup for the first time since that fateful 1950 edition.
World Cup History
No other country in the world has an uninterrupted history of playing in World Cups. Brazil was unremarkable in 1930 and 1934, unable to get past the first round either time. But in 1938, with World War II on the horizon, they beat Poland and Czechoslovakia before losing to Italy in what was then a 16-team single-elimination bracket. They went on to defeat Sweden 4-2 in the third-place match to first announce their burgeoning status as the preeminent power in the global game of football.
After the war, Brazil hosted the fourth edition of the tournament in 1950. The side, stacked with talent, was on the cusp of greatness. In its preliminary group, only an 88th-minute equalizer by Jacques Fatton in a 2-2 draw against Switzerland blemished an otherwise dominant group stage. Advancing to a second round robin of the four group winners, Brazil pummeled Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1 to set up a winner-take-all showdown with Uruguay.
Well… only Uruguay needed to win. A mere draw would have been enough for Brazil to win its first World Cup in front of 200,000 home supporters in the newly-built Maracana. Instead, after taking the lead, Brazil allowed goals to Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia to steal away the title on the last day. The painful legend of the Maracanazo was born.
Since then Brazil has grown into the dominant force we know today, winning three World Cups in four tries: in 1958 with a 5-2 win over hosts Sweden; in 1962 by beating Czechoslovakia 3-1 in Chile; and a third, the legendary 4-1 victory over Italy in Mexico in 1970. Names like Garrincha and Pele and Rivelino became household names in every corner of the globe. They returned to glory in 1994, winning in penalty kicks against Italy in the United States, and then taking their fifth World Cup title in Yokohama with a brace from Ronaldo in a 2-0 win over Germany.
In 2006 they would fall in the quarterfinals to France, and they haven’t been back to the finals since. But with their wealth of World Cup history, Brazilian fans expect nothing less than the title every time around. That will be doubly true at home, where the first chance to win in front of partisan support faltered on a doleful day in Rio de Janeiro.
Four years ago they…
… reached the quarterfinals for the second straight tournament before bowing out to the Netherlands 2-1 in Port Elizabeth.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Whoever is in goal…
For a team with as much talent dispersed globally as Brazil, it is always odd to see their relative weakness in the last line of defense. Maybe kids just don’t want to be the next Moacir Barbosa, giving up the goal that cost Brazil a World Cup. Maybe it is the general nature of the Brazilian style to focus on pushing forward, on dazzling.
Or maybe they just haven’t managed to find a younger star to supplement their aging corps of goalkeepers. Julio Cesar was in goal for Brazil’s Confederations Cup victory last summer, and was the first-choice in goal in South Africa four years ago. Though the 34-year-old has since moved on from his glory days at Inter Milan and is currently on loan to Toronto FC in MLS he is likely the best keeper in the bunch.
The other two options, Jefferson and Victor, are both 31 years old themselves. Jefferson played in Turkey for four seasons before returning to Brazil in 2009; Victor was once linked with a move to Benfica in Portugal, but nothing came of the 2009 rumors and he has never left his homeland to earn a contract abroad.
In Brazil, the man standing at the back of the formation and manning the goal can never be a source of joy. And since Barbosa’s two goals allowed shattered the collective confidence of a nation in each successive backstop, it has become even more thankless a job. Yet if Brazil is to go far in the tournament, they will need their keeper to be the next Claudio Taffarel or Marcos.
COACH: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Scolari has already led the Selecao to one World Cup title, as he was the man at the helm when they knocked off Germany in the 2002 final. He resigned from that team at the end of the year, and quickly took over Portugal. There he led the Iberians to the finals of Euro 2004, the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup, and the quarterfinals of Euro 2008. Cashing in before diminishing returns got him booted, Scolari took over Chelsea for the 2008-2009 season… and was promptly booted from the club by February 2009. He coached in Turkey before returning to Brazil with Palmeiras in 2010, reuniting with the club where he had been named South American coach of the year in 1999. He would last two years there before leaving by mutual consent of the club. In stepped Brazil, and Scolari answered the call for his second stint with the national team. Anything less than the results of 2002 will be unsatisfactory, especially since Brazil won’t be playing halfway around the world this time around.
Brazil 23-Man Roster
|2 - Dani Alves||5 - Fernandinho|
|3 - Thiago Silva||8 - Paulinho|
|4 - David Luiz||11 - Oscar||7 - Hulk|
|1 - Jefferson||6 - Marcelo||16 - Ramires||9 - Fred|
|12 - Julio Cesar||13 - Dante||17 - Luiz Gustavo||10 - Neymar|
|22 - Victor||14 - Maxwell||18 - Hernanes||21 - Jo|
|15 - Henrique||19 - Willian|
|23 - Maicon||20 - Bernard|
How Far Can Brazil Go?
Everyone will be watching to see what the hosts can do in this tournament. They’ve got the firepower in attackers like Neymar, Oscar, and Fred to break down most teams’ defenses. They’ve got an even more stout defense, a reversal of the common conception of Brazil that has honestly been the norm since that 1994 victory. The biggest question mark is in goal, though Julio Cesar is a question mark many nations would love to have on their side. All 23 players, Scolari, and the support staff are under the ultimate pressure to deliver the World Cup trophy. Anything less than the world championship will be considered a disappointment.