In the final days before we depart, the weather is finally nice in Medford, Massachusetts. The biting cold and freezing winds have seemingly vanished for Spring, but the memories of all of the god forsaken snow I have shoveled is enough to make any venture south seem like a dream come true, especially when South America is the destination. Warmer weather and a nice vacation are great, but it’s not exactly what you think. Most people assume BrazilDrive is just about two crazy brothers pursuing their crazy dream adventure, and to an extent, it is. But what often get’s overlooked is the event we’re actually going to: the World Cup. Adventure and exotic locations are nice, but this trip would never have existed if it weren’t for our unrequited, obsessive love of soccer. Having played soccer for basically as long as we could stand, Grant and I have traveled far and wide to pursue our love of the sport. All of North Carolina, the East Coast, even Germany, Spain, and South Africa, soccer has led us on many adventures before, and now it is taking us on another.
Our playing careers are mostly deceased, but our love for the sport is ever growing. I am a devout supporter of Liverpool FC and can often be found early Saturday mornings streaming games online. Although Grant tactfully (read: annoyingly) claims to support Everton, he does not really have a team. He claims it would be a betrayal to his Green Bay Packers, but I think he just can’t be decisive. He loves teams for players, and will scour rosters in search of the next young star, regularly emerging with a new go-to team when we play FIFA. My passion is more channeled while his is far ranging, but our unbridled love of soccer is the same. But that’s enough about us. Let’s talk tourney.
Dark Horse: Belgium
Most Intriguing: USA
It’s hard not to consider Brazil favorites in this tournament. The current number one team in the world is in fantastic form at the moment and will be even more motivated to win it all on home soil. Coming off of a Confederations Cup win – including a mastery of reigning champions Spain – they will be chomping at the bit to get to the final. Everyone sings Neymar’s praises (and deservedly so), but you can’t overlook the immense talent on this team. Oscar, Hulk, Paulinho, and Thiago Silva are just a few of the big names Brazil has to offer. With Scolari at the helm and a pretty easy group, a finals run seems inevitable.
What is there to say about England. The nation that boasts the best league* in the world has struggled to make a statement in the World Cup over the past few tournaments, and look unlikely to turn it around. This year they are caught in a transitional period of sorts. The old guard that has been so consistent in the Three Lions kit is showing their age, while the new rank of youngsters have incredible potential, but have not yet proven themselves on the international stage. Do you stick with Ashley Cole, or finally give the fantastic Leighton Baines a shot? And what about Luke Shaw? John Terry and Rio Ferdinand are out, so who holds down the center-half? Sterling and Sturridge, or Rooney and Johnson? England has a wealth of talent but is left with too many questions. Facing the likes of Uruguay and Italy in the group stage, it seems unlikely that Roy Hodgson has the answers.
*Open to debate
Grant and I have debated whether they actually count as a dark horse, but Belgium is nonetheless an exciting team going into the group stages. After not featuring in the 2010 tournament, Belgium dominated their qualifying group by nine points to storm into Brazil. The perfect combination of young talent and players experienced in top-flight leagues, look to see Belgium progress out of the group stages and make a run in the finals. Grant has been singing Eden Hazards praises since his days at Lille, and he has more than lived up to the hype at Chelsea. Backed up by Moussa Dembélé and Marouane Fellaini, and a take-you-pick striking option of Romelu Lukaku or Christian Beneteke (pending a return from injury), you’ve got a young team with more than enough firepower to send a strong message of their arrival in Brazil.
This is an important tournament for the United States. Soccer is on the rise in the states. The talent in the MLS has vastly improved in the last few years and the number of domestic players we have playing abroad is more than ever, all culminating in a strong qualifying campaign that sent us to Brazil in terrific form. Since then, however, things have not been quite as smooth. Being drawn into the “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal, and regular American World Cup dream destroyers, Ghana was the first bit of bad luck, but the form of the team has also come under question. Friendly wins over Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina last year showed the promise that this team carries, but since then losses to Austria and Ukraine and a draw to Scotland shows just how far we still have to go. Jurgen Klinsman certainly has the team moving in the right direction, but how they will fare at the World Cup is a mystery. If Jozy Altidore can overcome his embarrassing form at Sunderland, and if Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley’s returns to the MLS can prove fruitful, the Yanks could have a shot at surprise emergence from Group G. On paper, the odds are not exactly in our favor, but sometimes being the underdog is the motivation a team needs.
Dark Horse: Bosnia-Herzegovina
Most Intriguing: France
In my opinion, Germany is the best team in this tournament. You do not need to look much further than Bayern Munich’s success over the past few seasons, as well as that of their rival Borussia Dortmund. Since the 2010 tournament, these two teams between them have 4 Bundesliga titles, 3 Champions League final appearances, and one Champions League trophy. Considering that the majority of the German national team rosters hail from these two clubs, it will be near impossible for the Germans to not have a good run in Brazil. With Bastian Schweinsteiger anchoring midfield, flanked by the undeniable talent of Mario Götze, Marco Reus, and Mesut Özil, Germany boasts one of the most exciting teams to watch. Veterans Philip Lahm and Miroslav Klose will provide the extra experience as the repeat third-place finishers in 2006 and 2010 look to close in on an appearance in the finals.
As much as it pains me to say it, I believe that the Netherlands will be a bust in Brazil. Ever since I purchased my bright orange jersey in the fourth grade, I have always cheered on the Oranje in the international circuit. My hopes were raised and dashed in 2010, but I fear the runners-up in Johannesburg will not repeat their success in this edition. Similar to England, the Dutch are blessed with a wealth of young talent, but the question arises: give the kids a chance, or put your money on the veterans? Arjen Robben leads the list of shoe-ins for the team, as does Robin van Persie. But a rather dismal season at United puts the striker’s form into question. Still, the presence of impressive young talent like Memphis Depay and Bruno Martins Indi will keep them in the mix, likely advancing out of group play. Unfortunately, finding the balance between young and old is delicate, and Louis van Gaal might be too distracted by his flirting with United to make the necessary adjustments.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is my wild card. This is their first ever World Cup, and despite being large underdogs, they have the potential to make something of their time on the world stage. They impressed in qualifying, took the US to the brink in a friendly, and overall have performed admirably from such a small nation. Despite its size, you only need to look at the roster to understand why they pose such a threat. On either end of the pitch they boast two Premier League stars in Asmir Begovic and Edin Dzeko, prolifically stopping and scoring goals respectively. To fill in the gaps, Emir Spahic marshals the back line, while Sejad Salihovic and Miralem Pjanic orchestrate from midfield. With Argentina, Iran, and Nigeria in their group, it is likely that Bosnia-Herzegovina will advance with the number two spot. With a little luck, they may be able to muster a run into the knockout stages.
The US definitely will be receiving my undivided attention during the tournament, but for me, the most intriguing team in this tournament is France. The biggest controversy of South Africa was the very public implosion of the French team. Internal tension between players and then-coach Raymond Domenech spill out of the dressing room and onto, well, everything. Players refused to practice, the media had a field day, and France’s football – despite a talented team – was awful. That, however, was 2010. This campaign has seen a transformation of French football. The old guard has been almost completely replaced, making room for a number of new French stars who have made quite a statement. Pogba and Matuidi provide one of the most menacing holding midfield duos in the tournament, and with an attack of Ribery, Cabaye, Valbuena, and Benzema, the French will be a force to be reckoned with. The combination of young and old seem to work in their favor, but only time will tell if they can overcome the stigma of 2010 and make a statement in Brazil.