Tag Archives: Estadio

World Cup 2014: Third-Place Match Prediction

Like it? That's an Italian wine bottle shaped in the World Cup. I got it back in 1990 when Italy hosted, and finished third.

Like it? That’s an Italian wine bottle shaped in the World Cup. I got it back in 1990 when Italy hosted, and finished third.

This is the match neither of the two teams wanted to play but really have no other choice. Doesn’t it make you wonder who wins the Third-Place Match at the World Cup? The team that’s the least disheartened? Or the team that most feels they have one last thing to prove? A neat bit of trivia: the third-place match is the one World Cup match that has never come down to a penalty shootout and went into extra time only once in the World Cup’s history. Whatever the situation, the two semifinal losers will duke it out for one last World Cup shot in the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha.

I don’t think very many people make predictions for the third-place match. Maybe they do. Whatever the situation, I thin I’ll make a prediction for Saturday’s game. First a rundown of the two teams. Starting with past head-to-head results.

Past Head-To-Head Results: Netherlands and Brazil have squared off eleven times before: Netherlands won three, Brazil three and five draws and both teams have scored a total of 15 goals against each other. The World Cup has been the stage for four of those previous rivalries. First was in 1974 during second-round group play which the Netherlands won 2-0. Second time was in the 1994 quarterfinals where Brazil was the victor that time 3-2. Third time was the following World Cup in the semifinals where they tied 1-1 only for Brazil to win in a penalty shoot out. Fourth time was at the last World Cup in the quarterfinals where Brazil pretty much gave it away with an own-goal and Oranje won 2-1. So what does the fifth World Cup rivalry look like?

Netherlands FootballNETHERLANDS: Here’s a team that’s struggling to get their first World Cup win. Three times the bridesmaid (1974, 1978 and 2010), never the bride. Here in 2014, they were brilliant in the group stage winning all their games and humiliating defending champions Spain 5-1.  They continued to look good with their 2-1 win over Mexico in the Round of 16. However there was a sign they would struggle when they played to a scoreless draw against Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. Hey, don’t underestimate Costa Rica’s defense. Fortunately their replacement goalkeeper Tim Krul was the right choice as he blocked two Costa Rican penalty kicks to help Netherlands advance to the semifinals.

Then their semifinal against Argentina. Netherlands had slightly more ball possession while Argentina had five attempts on target compared to three from the Dutch. Nevertheless it was awfully bleak for a game like that. The two were just tough rivals. So after 120 scoreless minutes, it took penalty kicks to decide. This time head goalkeeper Cillessen was kept in. However  the penalty kicks from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder were no match for Argentina’s Sergio Romero. It only took a four in a row from Argentina to take them to the final.

So now that the Dutch are out of contention for the Cup, will they win this match? They have played one third-place match before back in 1998 to Croatia and lost 2-1. They have shown in plays against Argentina and Costa Rica that they can control the ball and they can control their opponents, even when they don’t score. They showed in their 5-1 win against Spain they can really seize the moment and challenge a top rival. However the fact they haven’t scored a goal since the Round of 16 really makes me question if the ‘Orange Magic’ has faded. Also who knows how hungry Brazil is? And I’ll get to them later. If they want to win, they should maintain the same control they had during the field play time they had. Also Cillessen should be on guard. Until the penalty shoot out against Argentina, he has only conceded four goals this World Cup. Natherlands has the ability but do they have the hunger?

Brazil FootballBRAZIL: To be honest, there were actually bigger humiliations at this World Cup than Tuesday’s Mineirazo. Like defending champs Spain losing 5-1 to the Netherlands and then 2-0 to Chile to be out of the running. Or how about England failing to win a game for the first time since 1958? Even Italy being ousted in Group Stage for the second World Cup in a row is a pretty big embarrassment. Nevertheless Tuesday’s 7-1 loss to Germany right in front of a home crowd as World Cup host nation really bruised the nation’s football ego. A nation that had the biggest World Cup legacy had their current teams weaknesses exposed by Germany on a home stage and in front of the eyes of the World. And they still have to fight one last time.

No doubt this was a team that was showing signs of struggle. Coach Scolari knew the difficulties he had to deal with and team psychologist Regina Brandao really had to work with the team. The setbacks of Neymar getting his back broken and Thiago Silva being banned from the semifinal match was sure to almost everybody this would set Brazil back, but nobody expected a disaster like this.

Now that the third-place match is ahead, there may be question if Brazil will be ready physically. Neymar of course won’t be there. Thiago Silva can be eligible to play again which should be crucial as he was critical to their defense. Also the question if Fred will be on the roster especially after his bad play during the game. Also there is the big question of whether Brazil will be there for the game mentally. You can bet that between Tuesday and Saturday, Brandao will have to work better than she ever has. Of all current players on Brazil’s team, it’s probably Julio Cesar that would probably be the one most hurt mentally. He’s the one that let those seven goals in.

There have been big-name athletes and teams that would have to perform right after a humiliating performance. Some would be the all-or-nothing type and deliver half-heartedly and then there are some that would deliver for pride and come out shining despite losing it all. That’s what it would come down to with Brazil’s play on Saturday. Brazil has played three third-place matches in past World Cups and won two but this is a different third-place match for the team. We know how hurt they are but how will they deliver on their last shot for glory?

Prediction: Okay, you all know what my pick is. I’ll tell you who I think will win and who I want to win. I think it will be the Netherlands 2-1. I think Brazil might not have recovered from Tuesday’s match psychologically. Though I could be wrong. Actually I hope I’m wrong because I want Brazil to win for pride. In fact I sent the Brazilian team a tweet: “Finish the way a true athlete would and WIN ON SATURDAY!”

Update (11 July): Actually I did some thinking in the past 24 hours and even did some reading. And I didn’t let statistics get in the way, even though World Cup host nations have played the third-place match four times before and won three times. Actually I based my opinion on team attitude. That is a critical factor for the third-place match. And my new prediction is Brazil 2-1. The Netherlands lacks motivation. Coach Louis Van Gaal sees the game as pointless, Wesley Sneijders said the only match that matters is the one for the Cup and Arjen Robben has appeared equally disinterested. However the Brazilians are very motivated for this match. And rightly so. Scolari has encouraged the team to play the match out for pride and the honor of the Brazilian team. I’m sure after the embarrassment on Tuesday, that is the motivation they will need. Even the teammates agree, and Thiago Silva is eligible to play again. Go Brasil!

Advertisements

Brazil 1950: A Country’s Shining Moment Ends With A Country’s Heartbreak

The World Cup in 1950 was to be Brazil's shining moment. Instead it delivered a heartbreak that still haunts them to this day.

The World Cup in 1950 was to be Brazil’s shining moment. Instead it delivered a heartbreak that still haunts them to this day.

You may remember a while back I talked about Brazil’s football legacy but refrained from talking about 1950, the first time they hosted.  The first time they hosted was intended to be a grand moment for the country and especially their football team. In fact the Maracana was built to be the grand stage for Brazil’s win. Unfortunately the Cup ended with a heartache that still haunts the country to this day.

WAR IS OVER, THE WORLD CUP IS BACK

1950 was to be the fourth time the FIFA World Cup would be held. It started in 1930 but the 1942 World Cup had to be cancelled because of World War II. The 1946 World Cup was also cancelled as the world was still recovering from the end of that war just one year earlier. Just like 1948 was the year that brought the Olympic Games back to life, 1950 was the year the World Cup came back. However Germany and Japan were still part of the international sanctioned list and were banned from competing, just like they were banned from the 1948 Olympic Games. Brazil and Italy were given automatic berths: Brazil as host country and Italy as defending champions. The four British nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland returned to FIFA after seventeen years of ‘exiling’ themselves.

WE WANT OUT

The 1950 Brazil team. Before 1950, Vrazil's best finish at the World Cup was third in 1938.

The 1950 Brazil team. Before 1950, Brazil’s best finish at the World Cup was third in 1938.

Seven spots were allocated to European countries, six to American countries and one to an Asian country. If you think it’s hectic getting teams to qualify for the World Cup, you should hear about 1950. Not because of competitive play but more because of international politics and football politics. Iron curtain countries like the USSR and two countries that participated in 1938–Hungary and finalist Czechoslovakia– refused to participate. Argentina, Peru and Ecuador withdrew after the qualifying round, possibly because of a dispute with the Brazilian Football Federation. The Philippines, Burma and Indonesia withdrew leaving India to receive the Asian berth by default. Austria declined to participate in qualifying feeling its team wasn’t good enough and Belgium withdrew from the qualification tournament which allowed Switzerland and Turkey to qualify without playing their final round of matches.

With the qualification done, it was off to the World Cup, right? Scotland withdrew because the very prideful chairman of the Scottish Football Federation insisted Scotland would only travel to Brazil as winners of the Home Championship. When England showed up, Scotland withdrew, even though England planned to attend even without the Championship. Turkey withdrew because of the huge cost of traveling to Brazil. FIFA invited two European nations who failed in qualifying–Portugal and France–to fill the gap. Only France accepted.

Now with the fifteen teams set for Brazil, that should lead to straight competition, but that led to more withdrawals. First came the draw on May 22, 1950 in Rio de Janeiro. India was the first drawn team to withdraw because of travel costs. France then withdrew because of the cost and time to travel between the cities. That left the World Cup with a field of only thirteen teams. Just like 1930 again! After all that, here’s how the teams worked out:

  • Group 1: Brazil, Mexico, Switzerland and Yugoslavia
  • Group 2: England, Chile, Spain and the United States
  • Group 3: Italy, Paraguay and Sweden
  • Group 4: Uruguay and Bolivia

ON WITH THE CUP

After all that hassle, the World Cup finally began on June 24, 1950. This would be the first world Cup since the inaugural 1930 World Cup where group play would be contested and would be the only World Cup where group play would decide the winner. It was Brazil’s idea to do this because more games meant more ticket sales to help compensate for the expenses of the stadiums. FIFA at first rejected the idea but agreed when Brazil threatened to pull out as hosts. The matches were held in six stadiums in six cities: Rio De Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Porto Alegre and Recife. Four of the six stadiums were long into existence before the World Cup. There were only two that were build especially for the Cup: Estadio Raimundo Sampaio in Belo Horizonte and the Maracana in Rio.

Because of the uneven number of teams per group, it was decided that only the team that finished first advances. Group 4 had no problem deciding the advancer as that only required a single game, which Uruguay won 8-0 over Bolivia. In Group 3, Sweden was the winner with a win against Italy 3-2 and a draw against Paraguay 2-2.

Groups 1 and 2 were the two fully contested groups and they provided the most action. Group 1 was a no-brainer right from the start. Brazil delivered an attack style of play that would take them to the top of the group with a 4-0 win over Mexico, a 2-2 tie against Switzerland and a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia.

World Cup 1950 wasn't all Brazil, Brazil. It also was the stage for the American's 1-0 upset over England.

World Cup 1950 wasn’t all Brazil, Brazil. It also was the stage for the American’s 1-0 upset over England with Joe Gaetjens (right) scoring the winning goal.

Group 2 was not exactly remembered for its winner Spain or for Spain’s wins of 3-1 over the US, 2-0 over Chile or 1-0 over England. Instead Group 2 was known for one of the biggest soccer upsets of the time. The US vs. England match first appeared to be England’s for the taking since England, known then as the ‘Kings of Football,’ had the pros on their team while the American team was made up of part-time players who made their income from the jobs they worked. However the English and the 13,000 in attendance at the Estacio Independencia in Belo Horizonte were stunned when American Joseph Gaetjens, who was actually not an American citizen, scored the first goal in the 38th minute. Despite strong challenging play from both sides throughout the game, there were no other goals scored. The Americans’ 1-0 win over the English is still considered one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.

The aftermath of this was also interesting. It made huge news in World Cup countries and almost made huge news in England but was trumped by the news the English cricket team lost to the West Indies for the first time ever. The English were nitpicky about the win saying that the team ‘had arrived through Ellis Island,’ referring to the assumption most Americans on that team were children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. For the record, three members of the American team including Gaetjens were not yet American citizens. In the United States, the win only made sidelined news. The Americans were still disinterested in soccer as they still promoted their ‘all-American’ sports like baseball, football and basketball. The win would gain appreciation by the Americans over time and especially in the last 25 years with the Americans slowly welcoming soccer especially after hosting the 1994 World Cup and the formation and success of MLS (Major League Soccer). The game has recently been dubbed by the Americans as the ‘Miracle Match’ and even spawned a small 2005 film “The Game Of Their Lives.’

ANOTHER SET OF GROUP PLAY?

Because of the uneven numbers of the groups in the first round, it was not only decided that only those that finish first in their group advance but also that it be group-style play to decide the winner.Also that ticket sales thing also has a lot to do with it too. This would be the only time in World Cup history in which group play would decide the winner. In group order, the finalists were Brazil, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay. All of the games in the ‘winners group’ were played either in Sao Paulo’s Estadio de Pacaembu or the Maracana. All teams played all their matches on the same day and at the same time. Brazil’s matches in this round were all contested at the Maracana.

The group play of the winners started July 9th with a 2-2 draw between Uruguay and Spain. Brazil delighted a crowd of 139,000 with a 7-1 win against Sweden which included four goals from Ademir. On July 13th Brazil continued their winning ways in front of a crowd of 153,000 with a 6-1 victory over Spain which included the Cup’s only ‘own goal’ by Spaniard Jose Parra Martinez. Uruguay gained some boost with a 3-2 win over Sweden with the winning goal coming with five minutes to go. The two games on July 16th were still group games however many still believed they played the role as 3rd Place Final and Final because of the end result and the team’s overall placing. Sweden beat Spain 3-1 in Pacaembu with a measly attendance of 11,000 and would finish the World Cup in third place.

A FINAL GAME TO BE REMEMBERED

“Down through its history, only three people have managed to silence the Maracana: the Pope, Frank Sinatra and me.”

-Alcides Ghiggia

Okay, here it was. This was Brazil’s for the winning. They were in excellent position to win the World Cup. They’ve already proven to the world their greatness. Even if Brazil tied Uruguay, they could still win the World Cup because Brazil had two wins while Uruguay had a win and a tie. The general public were not the only ones claiming Brazil to be the victors days before the match even started. The specialized press were too. In fact the Brazilian newspaper O Mundo printed an early edition paper that day with the Brazilian team on the front page with the headline ‘These are the World champions.” There was a song composed days before the game entitled Brasil os vencedores (Brazil The Victors) and was to be played once Brazil won. Even Julie Rimet, president of FIFA and founder of the World Cup, anticipated Brazil would win and even had prepared a speech in Portuguese to congratulate anticipated winners Brazil after their win. Unlike now, medals were not awarded to teams at the World Cup who finished in the Top 3 but the Brazilian Football Confederation has already made 22 gold medals with the names of the players engraved on them.

On the morning of July 16th, the streets were already full of energy and there was even a ‘makeshift carnival’ with thousands of signs celebrating the world title and chants of ‘Brazil must win!” The Maracana was bustling in its own way. One thing we should remember is that the Maracana stadium consisted of two tiers of stands and much of the stands were standing area. This is the reason why unlike today they could field a capacity of over 100,000. At this match, the official paid attendance registered 173,380 attended while many estimate the actual attendance was over 210,000. This still remains as a world record for attendance for a team sports match.

As Brazil were in the dressing room, confident of victory in their spiffy white shirts and blue collars, Uruguay has other plans. Uruguay’s captain Obdulio Varela brought as many copies of O Mundo that had ‘These are the World champions” on the front page, laid them on their bathroom door and encouraged his teammates to urinate on them. In Uruguay’s locker room prior to the match, coach Juan Lopez informed the team that their best chance of surviving of surviving the powerful offensive line of Brazil would come through adopting a defensive strategy. After he left, Varela stood up and addressed the team himself, saying “Juancito is a good man, but today, he is wrong. If we play defensively against Brazil, our fate will be no different from Spain or Sweden”. Varela then delivered an emotional speech about how they must face all the odds and not to be intimidated by the fans or the opposing team. In response to his squad’s underdog status, the captain delivered the memorable line, “Boys, outsiders don’t play. Let’s start the show.”

The goal scored by Alcides Ghiggia (centre) in the 79th minutes stunned the Maracana silent and would break the hearts of Brazil.

The goal scored by Alcides Ghiggia (centre) in the 79th minutes stunned the Maracana silent and would break the hearts of Brazil.

As expected, the game began with Brazil playing aggressively and attacking against the majority of the Uruguayan defensive line for the first half. However unlike Spain and Sweden, Uruguay was successful in maintaining their defense and the first half ended scoreless.

First blood was drawn at the 47th minute when Sao Paulo forward Friaca shot low past the goalkeeper to give Brazil the first goal of the game. Captain Varela immediately took the ball after the goal and disputed its validity, arguing that it was offside. Varela’s argument was obviously intentional to the point he even forced the referee, Englishman George Reader, to bring out an interpreter. The protest was unsuccessful but it succeeded in calming the crowd down. Then Varela took the ball to the centre of the field and shouted to his teammates: “Now it’s time to win.”

Uruguay was able to find control of the game and Brazil soon had its defensive frailty exposed. Juan Alberto Schiaffino scored the equalizer for Uruguay in the 66th minute. Then in the 79th minute, Alcides Ghiggia ran down the right side of the field, dribbled past Brazilian defender Bigode and scored another goal. The crowd was virtually silenced; Uruguay was now the leader. The silence continued for the remainder of the play until Reader blew the final whistle. It was official: Uruguay won the Cup by defeating Brazil 2-1.

THE AFTERMATH: BOTH IMMEDIATE AND IN THE LONG RUN

“The maximum punishment in Brazil is 30 years imprisonment, but I have been paying, for something I am not even responsible for, by now, for 50 years.”

-Moacir Barbosa

When the sudden news was official, many said there was a ‘traumatic and disturbing absolute silence’ except for the celebrating by the Uruguayan team and delegation. In Brazil, many newspapers refused to accept the fact that their team had been defeated. Radio journalist Ary Barroso retired, albeit briefly. At least two or three people on the top tier of the stands of the Maracana were so distraught by the loss, they committed suicide. Yes, there were peole so distraught over Brazil’s loss, they committed suicide. One man in the stands even had a heart attack. The gold medals were immediately disposed of. The song Brazil the Victors was never played. The nation was just heartbroken over the loss. The game remains one of the biggest upsets in football history and Brazil commonly refers to that game as the Maracanazo, or “blow at the Maracana.” Even Pele talks of how his father cried saying: “Brazil lost!”

In the years to come, the game was influential for a lot of superstition. For one thing, Brazil refused to have a white-and-blue uniform and would soon adopt their famous yellow shirt with blue collar that still exists today. White is seen as bad luck in Brazil. The players of the time were vilified by the fans and were sometimes seen as bad luck. Many went into silent retirement while some never played for the national team again. Only two players that didn’t play in the final played for Brazil’s team in later World Cups. The defeat would weigh down on Brazil’s team so much, they brought a psychiatrist to the 1958 World Cup to remove the haunts of the memories of that game. Whatever the situation, the Brazilian team of 1958 which featured a 17 year-old Pele capturing the world’s imagination won the World Cup: the first of five total World Cups won by Brazil.

Brazilian goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa would be blamed and even vilified for Brazil's loss for the rest of his life.

Brazilian goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa would be blamed and even vilified for Brazil’s loss for the rest of his life.

However of all the players from Brazil, it was goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa that got hit the hardest. He received the biggest flack and biggest blame for the Maracanazo and it seems like Brazil never forgave him. He was still able to play professionally for another thirteen years and was even part of Brazil’s national team until 1953 but he was commonly shunned by the nation. There was even one time he was in a store in Brazil and a mother pointed at him and said to her small son: “Look at him, son. He is the man who made all of Brazil cry.” Little changed over the years. In 1993 the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation refused to let him be a commentator. In 1994, the Brazilian national team did not want him to visit them because they feared he would give them bad luck. If there was one good thing, his wife stayed married to him for a total of 50 years until her death in 1997. He managed administration at the Maracana but was always at a shortage for money after leaving. He did however received assistance from sources such as Brazilian football team Vasco da Gama and his wife’s friend after her death. The friend remembered his last years: “He even cried on my shoulder. Until the end he used to always say: ‘I’m not guilty. There were 11 of us.'” Moacir Barbosa died of a heart attack in 2000 at the age of 79. He was penniless at the time.

One interesting note is what happened to Alcides Ghiggia who scored that heartstopping goal. He would continue to have a prolific career as a professional player until 1968 and was even signed onto European teams like AC Milan and AS Roma during a time when it was extremely rare for South American players to play for teams outside their home country. As of today, the 87 year-old Ghiggia is the only surviving member of Uruguay’s World Cup winning team from 1950.

Interesting note is that on December 29, 2009, Brazil honored Ghiggia by celebrating that decisive goal by having Ghiggia plant his feet in a mould to take his place along greats like Pele, Eusebio and Franz Beckenbauer. The reception to Ghiggia was surprisingly warm and Ghiggia himself was overcome by emotion to the warmth. Ghiggia also made a return appearance to Brazil during the draw for the groups of the 2014 World Cup in December 2013. Each country that had won a World Cup in the past was allowed to send one of its great players to participate in the draw. Uruguay sent Ghiggia. There was however one negative thing as of recent. Ghiggia has been invited to the opening games of both the 2006 and 2010 World Cup but it was revealed by him that he was not on the guest list for this World Cup. I wonder who did it too? Whatever the situation, FIFA spokesperson Delia Fischer insisted the day before that Ghiggia and a guest will have at ticket. Ghiggia has also commented on this World Cup: “I hope Brazil become world champions, so they can all enjoy it here.”

The Brazilian team this year are hoping to finally make that bad memory of 1950 a think of the past. So far Brazil have been doing very well even if they’re not the most spectacular team out there. They opened with a 3-1 win over Croatia but left people shocked with a 0-0 draw against Mexico. They did reassure people that they will win with a 4-1 win over Cameroon to close out the Group Stage. They did win the Round of 16 match against Chile on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw. For those concerned since that, don’t be. There have been many teams in the last 28 years that had a match lead to penalty kicks before they played in the final for the Cup and won.

Brazil is often praised and even fancied in the way they treat football like a religion. However their reaction to their loss in 1950 is a negative side of that. Sure the loss to Uruguay was a shock but it’s a shame how they went about it. You know how when the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series and fans then showed a sign saying “We forgive Bill Buckner” in reference to Buckner’s Series-costing fumble in Game 6 of the 1986 Series? I hope that if Brazil wins the World Cup, there should be someone in the stands with a sign saying: “Nós perdoamos Moacir Barbosa  (We forgive Moacir Barbosa).”

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: 1950 FIFA World Cup. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1950_FIFA_World_Cup>

WIKIPEDIA: Uruguay v. Brazil (1950 FIFA World Cup). Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uruguay_v_Brazil_%281950_FIFA_World_Cup%29>

Bellos, Alex. “Obituary: Moacir Barbosa” THE GUARDIAN. 13 April 2000 <http://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/apr/13/guardianobituaries.alexbellos>

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group H

Funny how people refer to ‘Groups Of Death’ to groups packed full of the best talent in the world. Group H consists of four teams that are not considered major threats to the World Cup but any of the two can move to the Round of 16. Also don’t count any of them out as possible challengers for the cup. So for my final group rundown, here’s my take on Group H:

Belgium-Belgium (12)- If you thought it was a surprise to see Switzerland among the seded team in FIFA’s World Cup draw, it should have been just a surprising to see Belgium. Even though Belgium was in the FIFA Top 8 at the time, Belgium is a country one would not normally expect to see as a seded team. Their best World Cup finish ever of the eleven previous World Cups they’ve played in was fourth in 1986. The last World Cup they played in was 2002 and they didn’t even qualify for Euro 2012. However that all changed in 2012 when they hired Marc Wilmots as head coach after being assistant coach for three years. Wilmots himself had played for Belgium in four World Cups and even scored five goals in World Cup play. Belgium was placed in possibly the most difficult European qualifying group for 2014 but they played like magic. They won eight games and tied the other two en route to coming first in their group and automatically qualifying with just one game to go. The spirit of the Red Devils was felt again in their homeland as the country greeted them upon their return in big fanfare. Their success helped put them in FIFA’s Top 8 around the time of the draw which led to them classed as one of the seded teams. Their performance in qualifying was so impressive, Wilmots was signed on to be coach for another four more years. However Belgium’s play in friendlies have not been so spectacular as they’ve lost to Romania, Colombia and Japan. They do have impressive wins against the U.S.A. and Sweden and even tied France. Nevertheless their lackluster friendly play has dropped them from the Top 8 and now stand 12th. Nevertheless this is a big boost for country as this will be their first World Cup in 12 years. Half the team play for top European teams like Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. Whatever the situation, no doubt they’ll send the message that Belgium is back.

Algeria-Algeria (25)- Algeria is another team coming to this year’s World Cup hoping for a breakthrough moment. They’ve competed in three World Cups before: in 1982, 1986 and 2010. They have had better luck defining themselves at the Africa Cup of Nations where they’ve made it as far as the semifinals five times and even won back in 1990. However they’re hoping this World Cup to finally progress past the Group Stage. Their squadron is coached by Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic who coached the Ivory Coast at the 2010 World Cup. Top players include Madjid Bougherra, Islam Slimani and Sofianne Feghouli who’s already being called ‘the New Zidane.’ Algeria won their opening group in qualifying for the World Cup. They would then face Burkina Faso for the berth. The first game ended with a 3-2 loss but Algeria came back 1-0 to clinch their trip to Brazil. They’ve also not lost a friendly in the past two years and would include wins against Slovenia and Romania and ties to South Africa and the Ivory Coast. If they play consistently, Algeria could have their best ever World Cup here.

Russia Fixed-Russian Federation (18)- Russia is a team that has struggled to prove itself since the breakup of the USSR back in 1991. Back during the days when the USSR did well by advancing past the Group Stage in all but one of their seven World Cup appearances and even finishing fourth in 1966, the majority of Soviet players were Russian. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia has continued to shell out remarkable talents in the years since. However the national team has always fallen short of making a statement of their prowess. They’ve only qualified for two World Cups–1994 and 2002– and only went as far as the Group Stage in both cases, even though Ukrainian-born Oleg Salenko set a World Cup record in 1994 with the most goals in a single World Cup game: five. They did however have a moment of glory by finishing third at Euro 2008. However they come to Brazil looking for more as they will have the task of hosting the next World Cup in 2018. No doubt they want to create an impression here. Although all the players play for Russian League teams with many playing for Dynamo Moscow, their coaching staff is almost all Italians and the head coach is Fabio Capello who has coached AC Milan, Real Madrid, Juventus and England up to 2012. Russia performed well enough in qualifying to win their qualifying group over heavily-favored Portugal. They’ve showed their abilities by scoring wins against Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea and Morocco. They’ve also tied countries like the U.S.A. 2-2, Serbia 1-1 and Brazil 1-1. It’s make or break for the Russian team here in Brazil. They come to play well and learn.

Korea-South Korea (55)- Isn’t it interesting that Group H has two teams named The Red Devils? There’s Belgium, where the Belgians call them les Diables Rouges or de Rode Duivels, and there South Korea who also go by the name the Taegeuk Warriors. South Korea has traditionally been the best team in Asia. None of the other Asian countries here in Brazil have as much of a track record as South Korea who will be playing in their eighth straight World Cup. Their best finish ever was a fourth-place finish in 2002 when they co-hosted with Japan. Much of their prowess has to be with the K-League that was started in 1983 and has really taken off since. However South Korea appears they don’t have the prowess they’re used to showing. They’ve had wins against Greece and Switzerland in the past two years. However they’ve had to endure losses to Brazil, Croatia, the U.S.A., Russia and Mexico. Since qualifying for the World Cup, they’ve changed coaches to Hong Myung-Bo who’s had experience coaching in the MLS. They’re hoping he can make an improvement for the team and he’s already helped Korea move up to 55th from 59th a month ago. It’s quite possible they might prove in Brazil those low FIFA rankings are just bad estimates.

And now my prediction for the two advancers: I predict Belgium and Russia with Algeria the one most likely to upset.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Okay, I’m done reviewing the last World Cup group. Now time to focus on the last two World Cup stadiums. My final Stadium Spotlight focuses on the two stadiums in two of Brazil’s biggest cities. One is a new stadium, the other is old and legendary. On will be hosting the opening ceremonies and opening match. The other will be the stage for deciding the winner of the Cup, just like it did 64 years ago.

-SAO PAULO : Arena de Sao PauloSao Paulo

Year Opened: 2014

World Cup Capacity: 61,606

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, B, D, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (F1 vs. E2) & a semifinal

Sao Paulo’s new stadium came about as Estadio Pacaembu was too small to host World Cup games and was getting too old. Also the much bigger Estadio de Morumbi was judged by FIFA as unsuitable to hold World Cup games. Thus the creation of the Arena de Sao Paulo. However creating the stadium came with difficulties. First, national funding for the stadium was delayed for two years. Secondly, the Arena originally planned to hold 72,000 for World Cup games. Relocation of TV Equipment and VIP seating reduced the capacity to 61,606. Even though the stadium has officially been opened on May 10th, it was noted modifications were still underway two weeks ago and people are still unsure if the stadium has been finished. They better be ready June 12th because they’re hosting the opening ceremonies and first match: Brazil vs. Croatia. After the World Cup, the seating will be reduced to 48,234 and will be managed by the Corinthians football team who will have the stadium renamed Arena Corinthians. The stadium is also a venue for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

-RIO DE JANEIRO : Estadio do Maracanamaracana 1

Year Opened: 1950

World Cup Capacity: 78,838

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, E, F, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (C1 vs. D2), a quarterfinal & final for the Cup

If many people view football as a religion, then the Maracana has to be one of its prize temples, especially for Brazilians. This stadium was opened in 1950 to host the World Cup. The final game of that World Cup set a world record that stands today of the largest attendance of a soccer game: official count at 199,854 but actual attendance is estimated around 210,000. Since the World Cup, the Maracana has continued to attract large crowds to games for clubs like Vasco da Gama, Botafogo, Flamengo and Fluminese. The latter two still have the Maracana as their home stadium. However the capacity was greatly reduced in 1992 when an upper stand collapsed, killing three and injuring 50. Remember there was a time when stadiums allowed for both seats and standing area which allowed for such big totals I talked about. The Maracana was converted into an all-seater stadium since the accident. A bit of trivia: The Maracana can never be demolished as it was classified as a national landmark in 1998. Maracana 2

For the 2014 World Cup, major preparations and changes had to take place. The irony being the stadium had already underwent major renovations starting in 2000 just after it celebrated its 50th anniversary and completed in 2007. The original seating bowl that had a two-tier configuration was demolished and made way for the construction of a one-tier seating bowl. New seats in colors of yellow, blue and white form among the green match of the field to create the national colors of Brazil. The renovated Maracana played host to the Confederations Cup last year. After the World Cup, the stadium will return to being the host venue for Flamengo and Fluminese, continue to host major concert and will be the stage during the 2016 Summer Olympics for football games and the opening and closing ceremonies.

And that wraps it up. I’m done predicting World Cup groups and I’m done reviewing World Cup stadiums. All that needs to be done is let the show begin. I’m sure it will be a memorable one.

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group G

Group D has been most lauded as the ‘Group Of Death’ not just because of three country’s current prowess but because of their past World Cup legacy. Group G could rightfully be called the ‘Group Of Death’ because there are four teams that rank amongst the world’s best and it can be any two of the four making it to the Round of 16. Here’ s my rundown:

Germany fixed-Germany (2)- Brazil may be the country with the biggest World Cup legacy but Germany is a close second. They have stats and feats of their own to brag about too: competed in all but two World Cups, has made the Top 8 every year since 1954, qualified for the final seven times like Brazil and won the Cup three times. The Mannschaft know how to make a power of themselves and create a legacy but they also have their own glitches too. Like there have been two Euro tournaments this century when they failed to advance past the Group Stage. Even in World Cup play within the past twenty years they have lost to underdogs like Bulgaria, Croatia and Serbia.

The current German team is in good hands with Joachim Low who has managed Germany since the 2006 World Cup. He has guided Germany to the 2008 Euro finals and to the semifinals in the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Germany also has their stars too like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski, Thomas Muller and Miroslaw Klose who is just one goal short of tying Ronaldo’s World Cup goal record of 15. Germany already shows solid play as they’ve lost only once since Euro 2012, to the U.S. 4-3 and I’ll get to that later. They’ve also had good wins to England, Sweden, France and Chile. However they did have a 1-1 draw against their traditional ‘achilles heel’ Italy. Low and the boys will have a lot of proving to do in Brazil. No doubt they have the talent and skill to do it. It’s just a matter of them delivering.

Portugal Fixed-Portugal (3)- Before this century, Portugal had only competed in two World Cups: 1966 where they finished third and 1986. Ever since the World Cup has expanded to 32 teams in 1998, Portugal has qualified all but once and they’ve shown their talent off in grand style. Their best World Cup performance this century was a fourth-place finish in 2006. Their biggest moment to shine was in Euro 2004 which they co-hosted with Spain and made it to the final.

Even now they show themselves to be a formidable team full of talent like Cristiano Ronaldo, Simao and Helger Postiga. Right after Portugal lost out in the Round of 16 back at the last World Cup, they appointed Paulo Bento who already had a proven record with coaching Sporting CP. Bento has organized the team well and helped guide them to the semis at Euro 2012. Since then, Portugal has had excellent play with key wins against Croatia and Sweden and a big 5-1 win against Cameroon. They’ve only had three losses in that time to Brazil, Ecuador and Russia. Portugal has the consistency and the ability to go at this World Cup. Possibly even make the finals for the first time. Will they deliver? Brazil’s the stage that will decide.

-GhGhanaana (38)- Ghana has proven themselves to be top African team as of late. They made it to the Round of 16 in 2006 and the quarterfinals in 2010. However while most African teams would consider their quarterfinal performance a feat as Ghana was only the third African team in history to advance that far, it was a disappointment as Ghana almost had a sure semifinal berth in their play against Uruguay. Even though the handball by Uruguay’s Luis Suarez was cheating, Ghana were unable to recover from it. We should remember with the World Cup in 2010 in South Africa, African teams had expectations on them unlike previous World Cups and Ghana was the only one of the six African teams to advance past the Round of 16.

Ghana still continues to perform well including fourth-place finishes at the last two African Cups. James Kwasi Appiah is the head coach after being assistant coach during the last World Cup. Gyan is back as captain and AC Milan’s Michael Essien as vice-captain. However Ghana has a lot of proving. They have not won a game against a non-African team in the past two years and their FIFA ranking has dipped a lot in the past four years. It could be either a case of a team in decline or a team that just hasn’t been proven. This World Cup is their proving point.

-UUSA.S.A. (14)- Before this century, the U.S. men’s team was a joke in the football world. When you think the U.S.A., you don’t think football, or ‘soccer’ as they call it. You think baseball, basketball and American football. A last-place finish at the 1998 World Cup sure didn’t help much. This century, the U.S. have really developed a stronger reputation and are seen as a joke way less tan ever. The existence and success of MLS has helped a lot. Making the quarterfinals in 2002 and even finishing #1 in their Group Stage group in 2010 also made the football world see the U.S. men’s football team as an actual contender in world football superiority.

However the last four years has been a yo-yo. For one thing, they had their lowest FIFA ranking (36th) in August 2012. They’ve also endured losses in the lats two years to Brazil, Jamaica, Belgium, Ukraine and Costa Rica. They’ve also had some great wins like 5-1 to Scotland, 2-1 to Mexico, 2-0 to South Korea and 4-3 to Germany (and I’ll get to the juicy bit soon). Part of their recent success has to do with hiring Jurgen Klinsmann who coached Germany in the 2006 World Cup. In addition is the talent and play of players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, rising young gun Julian Green and goalie Tim Howard. 2014 looks like to carve another chapter for the U.S.A. and their quest for soccer supremacy that was once considered a long shot.

Note: Spain vs. Netherlands may be the most eagerly anticipated Group Stage match of this World Cup but the second-most should be Germany vs. U.S. A. Why? First because the U.S.A.’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann played for Germany when the last won the world Cup back in 1990. Secondly because while Klinsmann was coach of Germany from 2004 up to the 2006 World Cup, Joachim Low was assistant coach and became head coach after Klinsmann’s departure. Already Germany got a taste of the U.S.A. in a friendly a year ago with the Americans winning 4-3. The rematch in Brazil should be full of intrigue.

And now my prediction for the advancers: I believe it will be Germany and Portugal. The U.S.A. looks like the one most likely to upset.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT Now that I’m nearing the end of my World Cup preview, my Stadium Spotlights are now moving towards stadiums that are more like Brazil’s prized jewels. And this is definitely a grand one. A brand-spanking new jewel for Brazil, especially for its capital city.

-BRASILIA : Estadio Nacional (Mane Garrincha)Brasilia

Year Opened: 1974 World Cup Capacity: 70,042

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, E, G

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (E1 vs. F2), one quarterfinal & third-place match

The stadium already had a big reputation in Brasilia with it being the stage for home games for Brasilia FC. However the stadium had to be demolished to have a newer bigger stadium in its place in time for the World Cup. Changes involved dismantling the lower tier, retaining the upper tier into the new rectangular bowl, adding a roof and pillars and reducing the size of the field into a football-only field. The changes made the stadium second to the new Wembley Stadium as the most expensive in the world. Nevertheless all the changes were ready by the Confederations Cup and for Beyonce’s concert last September. The venue will continue to be important after the World Cup as they will be home to Brasilia FC and will be a football venue for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

And there you go. Another group review and another stadium spotlight. Last review to come on Sunday.

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group E

Group E consists of four teams that have a lot of strengths but also have weak sides that are very noticeable. But even though Group E isn’t a ‘Group Of Death,’ don’t count them out completely. Here’s my rundown of the Group E teams:

Switzerland-Switzerland (8)- It’s a surprise to see Switzerland among the seeded teams during FIFA’s World Cup draw back in December. Sure Switzerland was in FIFA’s Top 8 but traditionally Switzerland was never a football powerhouse. Switzerland has been to the World Cup nine times and have gone past the First Round five of those times. However they’ve never gone any further, not even when they hosted back in 1954. Nevertheless Switzerland has been playing very impressively lately. They especially did well in World Cup qualifying, taking their qualifying group in seven wins and three draws. Of the eighteen games they’ve played in the last year, they only lost one game and that was to South Korea. They’ve also proven themselves further by winning against Brazil in a game and tying Croatia. Chances are Brazil could be the stage for Switzerland’s best World Cup performance ever.

Ecuador-Ecuador (28)- Ecuador isn’t one of the more celebrated South American countries in football but it does have the ability to surprise many. Ecuador was able to finish second in the Group Stage back in 2006 and advance to the Round of 16 for the first time ever in only their second World Cup. Ecuador however has struggled at the Copa America and has not gone past Round 1 ever in this century. Ecuador did however have a setback last year when one of their best players Christian ‘Chucho’ Benitez died of a heart attack last year at 27. It was a struggle for the team as they saw him not only as a key player but as a friend. Ecuador did qualify for the World Cup finishing fourth in the South American qualifying pool. Ecuador’s play records include recent wins against Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and a tie against the Netherlands. This World Cup will define Ecuador even further.

France fixed-France (16)- If anyone were to answer who the seeded team of this group was in the draw, I’m sure they’d most likely pick France. With good reason: winners in 1998 and finalists in 2006. However France has a reputation of being an ‘all or nothing’ team as of late. In fact if you remember the 2010 World Cup, you may remember France had a terribly disappointing time that even cause the president of the French Football Federation to resign even before their last game in Group Stage. Since then, France has worked on rebuilding itself. They’ve done better but it didn’t come without difficulties. France lost to eventual winners Spain in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012. That led to the new coach being fired after just two years and being replaced by Didier Deschamps, captain of the World Cup-winning 1998 squad. France has had an up-and-down time in terms of play. For World Cup qualifying, the team finished second to defending World Cup holders Spain in their group and were delegated to a repechage round in which they were paired up against Ukraine. They first thought it would be easy since Ukraine has never won against France in their seven matches. This would be a surprise to France as Ukraine won their first repechage match 2-0 and would be Ukraine’s first win over France. France knew they would have to give Ukraine a hell of a game in the second match to qualify and a hell of a game is what they delivered, winning 3-0 and qualifying. Recent friendly play has been less stressful on France as they’ve beaten Netherlands 2-0 and Norway 4-0. However they’ve also lost to Uruguay 1-0 and Brazil 3-0. The latter is odd because France has a reputation of being Brazil’s ‘achilles heel’ especially at the World Cup. Whatever the scenario, France will have to prove their comeback in Brazil whether they’re ready or not.

Honduras-Honduras (30)- Honduras should be seen as a ‘little giant’ in football. This is their third World Cup and second in a row. However even though they are a rising team that has included making the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals the past three times, they’re still looking for that breakthrough moment at the World Cup. Being in this group makes their chances look next to impossible but you shouldn’t immediately dismiss them or their talent. They have a reputable coach in Colombian Luis Fernando Suarez who coached Ecuador to a Round of 16 finish in 2006. Although most of the lineup including top scorer Carlo Costly play for Honduran teams, They have Emilio Izaguirre who plays for Chelsea and four players who play for MLS teams. They’ve also given Mexico and the U.S.A. defeats in recent play and even tied Ecuador 2-2. So don’t count Honduras out. They may have their best World Cup ever in Brazil.

Okay, my prediction for the two advancers: France and Switzerland. However a surprise from Ecuador is possible.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

I like reviewing stadiums but I admit it does get kind of tiring. Fortunately I only have one to review and it’s a good one.

-PORTO ALEGRE : Estadio Beira-RioBeira

Year Opened: 1969

World Cup Capacity: 48, 849

World Cup Groups Hosting: B, E, F, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (G1 vs. H2)

This stadium has long been home to Porto Alegre’s team Sport Club Internacional. The stadium in recent years has undergone through restoration and developments for the World Cup. For one thing, the stadium received a metal  roof with appropriate drainage. Timeliness was a problem as the first FIFA test match had to be scrapped because of construction delays. Yes, even stadiums that already were in existence had problems with renovations. It was however ready for the second test event in February and should go off without a glitch during the World Cup.

And there you go. My take on Group E and another stadium. Hard to believe nine days to go. Hang tight.

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group D

It’s questionable which of the eight World Cup groups of this year should be called the ‘Group Of Death.’ Most people are saying it should be Group D, and with good reason. It consists of three countries that have won at least one World Cup and all three are still strong today. It’s a shame there will be at least one of those World Cup winners packing once all the Group Stage matches are done.

So here’s my rundown of the Group D teams:

Uruguay-Uruguay (6)- If any country has to be the comeback story of football, it’s Uruguay. Uruguay dominated football in the 1920’s and won the first ever World Cup in 1930. Uruguay also shocked home country Brazil in 1950 by beating them 2-1 in the Maracanazo, which I will write about in a later blog. Since then, Uruguay’s prowess withered over time. It was like their fourth-place finish in 1970 was the end of it all. It would take four more World Cup appearances where the highest they got was the Round of 16 before there was a turnabout in the last few years. And it was over at the 2010 World Cup where Uruguay sent the message they’re back with their fourth-place finish. Further success continued with a win at the 2011 Copa America, qualifying their under-23 team for the Olympic Games, and finishing fourth at last year’s Confederations Cup. They’ve also had good play in friendlies with wins against, Italy, France and Japan. Nevertheless they did struggle during World Cup qualifying during the first half. They just have to be together in Brazil if they want to write another chapter to their new legacy.

Costa Rica-Costa Rica (34)- Costa Rica seems like the odd one out in this group. The other three have won World Cups in the past and the furthest they ever made it was the Round of 16 back in 1990. Maybe so but Costa Rica can deliver. They have had wins against Mexico and the U.S. last year. They’ve had their notable losses too. Whatever the situation, this can be a good learning experience for Costa Rica. They’ve never won against any of their Group D rivals but win, lose or draw, this can provide excellent growth for the team. They have good guidance through Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto and have talented players like Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica’s top goalscorer Alvaro Saborio and rising newcomer Joel Campbell who plays for Arsenal. Don’t underestimate Costa Rica.

England fixed-England (11)- It’s always the same old story for the Three Lions. England often has the finest combined talent assembled for a football team no matter what tournament they enter. However they don’t always play like a functioning team and they often come up shorter than expected. And don’t get me started on penalty kicks. 2014 will define the TriLi’s even further. They have the goods to do well. They have an excellent coach in Roy Hodgson who took on England just two months before Euro 2012. They have top players like captain Steven Gerrard, vice-captain Frank Lampard, phenom Wayne Rooney and rising young star Jack Wilshere. Since Hodgson took over as coach, England has been impressive despite being ousted in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012 thanks to, you guessed it, penalty kicks. They’ve won or drew most of their matches. Even their losses– to Sweden, Chile and Germany–were not that big. So will England arrive here in Brazil? It will all be decided with the whole world in their wake.

Italy ficed-Italy (9)- The Azzuri are traditionally a stellar team. Only Brazil and Germany have finer World Cup legacies. However things really took a stump at World Cup 2010. They entered the tournament as the reigning Cup holders and left at the end of the Group Stage. The irony being they had the same coach that led them to win the 2006 World Cup. Italy has since hired Cesare Prandelli as their new coach and he has given them an excellent turn-around. The tournament where Cesare proved himself and the new Azzuri was Euro 2012. The Euro was won by Spain but Italy did make it to the finals. That was enough to send the  message that Italy was back and playing with the winning style the Azzuri has the reputation for. Italy also finished third at last year’s Confederations Cup and qualified for the World Cup easily. However Italy has shown some glitches in recent play. They beat Mexico and tied Germany but have lost to Argentina, Brazil and Spain. Italy is seeking redemption in 2014. No doubt they have the ability. It’s just a matter of them delivering.

And now my prediction. I predict the two advancers from this group will be Uruguay and Italy.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

After doing three spotlights where I’ve spotlighted two stadiums, I can finally spotlight only one here. However it’s one of the biggest and will be a major stage here at the World Cup.

-BELO HORIZONTE : Estadio MineiraoBelo Horizonte

Year Opened: 1965

World Cup Capacity: 62,547

World Cup Groups Hosting: C, D, F, H

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (A1 vs. B2) & a semi-final

This is another of Brazil’s classic football stadiums. It was 25 years in the making and opened up in 1965. The stadium is considered one of the best football stadiums in the world. The stadium once held over 132,000 people for a soccer match back in 1997. Many other big soccer matches and big concerts have been held in the stadium. There was some redevelopment to the stadium in the years leading to the World Cup. Now fans can enjoy better access to the arena. The stadium was also one of the venues for the Confederations Cup. After the World Cup the stadium will return to being homes to Atletico Mineiro and Cruzeiro.

MEET THE MASCOT FULECO

Fuleco dancing with hosts at the World Cup Draw in December 2013.

Fuleco dancing at the World Cup Draw in December.

Since I only have one stadium to focus on, I thought I’d give a focus to the mascot. Normally choosing a mascot for a major sporting event is not an easy thing and it wouldn’t be an easy thing for the World Cup. Some like Striker in 1994 and Zakumi in 2010 were well-received. Some like Goleo in 2006 were questionable since the lion is representative not of Germany but more England and the Netherlands. And then there are even food-based mascots like Naranjito the Spanish orange from 1982 and Pique the jalapeno pepper from 1986.

Brazil went with a three-banded armadillo who camouflages himself as a soccer ball. Brazil held a vote on the mascot’s name and the most votes went for Fuleco: a mix of the words Ful–from Futebol (football)– and eco from Ecologia (ecology). The name should suit as Fuleco is representative of football spirit and is of an endangered species. Fuleco has a cheerful and appealing personality. He’s a proud, confident Brazilian armadillo. He does not talk but he’s very curious and extroverted, adventurous and loves to explore wherever he goes. Like all Brazilians, he has a big heart and is hospitable. Unlike his other armadillo friends, he’s very sociable. He loves to dance to music, especially Brazilian samba music, and likes keeping up to date with his family.

Brazil has given Fuleco a positive response. Within two days after Fuleco’s announcement, 89% of Brazil knew who Fuleco was. A recent survey of appeal revealed that Brazilians gave him average appeal score of 7.3 out of 10. Already he’s destined to be one of the best World Cup mascots ever.

And there you go. That’s my take on group D, another World Cup venue and the mascot Fuleco. More World Cup stuff to come.

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group C

Group C may look like a more relaxed group as compared to groups like Group B, Group D or Group G, but don’t be so quick to dismiss. There have been teams from nowhere that would come to surprise and finish high, if not win. Group C may come with one of those surprisers and it could be any of the four teams. All four have reputations of being ‘sleeping giants’ and it could be right here in Brazil where they finally arrive. Here’s my rundown:

Colombia-Colombia (5)- Colombia is one of many great teams who never had the change to deliver well at the World Cup. There was a period in the 90’s when they were one of the best teams in the world but during those three World Cups, they only made it past the Group Stage once and even then only got as far as the Round of 16. It’s a question of what it was: not all being together, political tension at the time, best players sidelined. We’ll never know. But now there’s a new Colombian team picking up where the previous one left off. They’re currently ranked in FIFA’s Top 5 and they’re hoping to deliver this time around. They have the players and the clout. They also have a good coach in Jose Pekerman who often selects players for a specific role rather than their profile. He was successful in coaching Argentina to the quarterfinals in 2006. They’ve even played well in recent games, tying Netherlands 0-0 and beating Belgium 2-0. Colombia can finally arrive on the World Cup scene here in Brazil.

Greece ficed-Greece (10)- This is one team whose prowess over the years has grown considerably. Their first World Cup was in 1994 and they were uninspiring: losing all three of their matches and scoring no goals while conceding ten. Things have really picked up for Greek football since. They were the surprise winners of Euro 2004. They returned to the World Cup and even though they didn’t advance past the Group Stage, they still had the benefit of winning a game: 2-1 against Nigeria. For 2014, they’re a top-ranked team in good hands with Portuguese coach Fernando Santos who has been very successful coaching in both Portugal and Greece. He guided Greece to the quarterfinals of Euro 2012 and to a consistent track record since, losing only to Bosnia-Hercegovina and South Korea. This is possibly Greece’s best team ever and there’s no better time than now for them to prove themselves.

Ivory Coast-Ivory Coast (21)- At every World Cup since 1986, there’s been at least one African country that advances past the Group Stage. Some have made it as far as the quarterfinals. Many have expected the Ivory Coast–or Cote d’Ivoire– to be that team but ‘The Elephants’ have played below expectations in their two World Cup appearances in 2006 and 2010. Even though they have Didier Drogba, one of the greatest African football players ever, he can’t be a one-man team. Nevertheless the team has been very consistent in recent years. Much from the help of French coach Sabri Lamouchi who has guided the team these past couple of years. They finished second in the African Cup of Nations in 2012 and even tied Belgium 2-2 in a friendly this year. Even at 36, Drogba still looks and plays strong and the team consists of other good talents like Manchester City star Yaya Toure and promising young gun Serge Aurier. This could finally be The Elephants’ year.

Japan-Japan (47)- No other nation has experienced increased growth of football in the last 20 years the way Japan has. It all started with the creation of the J League in 1993 when football really took off and helped Japan qualify for their first World Cup in 1998. They’ve qualified for every World Cup since even co-hosting in 2002 where they made it to the Round of 16 for the first time. Success continues for the Blue Samurais. They’re coached by Italian Alberto Zaccheroni They feature star players in the top European leagues including Keisuke Honda with AC Milan and Shinji Kagawa with Manchester United. From the first year Zaccheroni assumed the role of Japan’s coach, they won the 2011 Asian Cup. They’ve has mixed results in international play these past two years but have shown their strength trough ties against the Netherlands 2-2 and wins against France 1-0, Belgium 3-2, Ghana 3-1 and South Korea 2-1. They may rank low on FIFA’s chart but they could perform above expectations here.

Now my prediction for the two that will advance. It’s a toughie but I believe it will be Colombia and Greece that will advance.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

Now that I’m done all the stadiums that will just hold Group Stage, I’ll now be focusing on stadiums that will host matches in the knockout rounds. One is brand new while one is older and has a reputation. Both will be known for their capacity and features and are both expected to have sufficient post-World Cup use.

-RECIFE : Arena PernambucoPernambuco

Year Opened: 2013

World Cup Capacity: 46,154

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, D, G

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (D1 vs. C2)

Pernambuco is a new stadium that was built not just for the World Cup but for last year’s Confederations Cup too. Pernambuco is a new stadium not just built for the World Cup and for Recife to have a new football stadium but also to give a financial boost to a deprived area of the city. Plans for the surrounding area include a university campus, indoor arena, hotel and convention centre, plus commercial, business and residential units and a large entertainment complex with shopping centres, cinemas, bars and restaurants. The biggest feature of the stadium is its intent to be a ‘Green Arena’ relying on solar power and even serving the purpose of being a solar power plant to power 6,000 people when not used for game play and be part of the research and development of solar power in Brazil. Football club Nautico Capibaribe is expected to make this stadium home after the World Cup.

-FORTALEZA: Estadio CastelaoFBL-BRAZIL-WC2014-FORTALEZA-CASTELAO ARENA

Year Opened: 1973

World Cup Capacity: 67,037

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, D, G

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16 (B1 vs. A2) & one quarter-final

Castelao is one of the few stadiums at this year’s World Cup to go through two major renovation projects. The first came in 2000 and it was a three-stage project that lasted a year. Then once it was assigned as a hosting venue for the World Cup, it was given a twenty-month reconstruction project starting in March2011: a mere ten years after the first set of renovations were completed. Whatever the situation, Castelao was the first World Cup venue to be completed, back in December 2011. Castelao was one of the venues for last year’s Confederations Cup. Castelao Stadium has always been a venue that has hosted big events in the past. Castelao plans to continue to host major concerts and serve as host venue for Ceara and Fortaleza Sporting Clubs.

And there you have it. My take on Group C and two more stadiums reviewed. Five more groups and six more stadiums to go.

World Cup 2014 Preview: Group A

Those of you that have known my writing over the years have  known that when I do soccer blogging of major events, I do a rundown of the teams that will be competing. Some of you may have guessed I’d be doing it again for the World Cup, and you are right. However I’m doing a separate blog for each of the eight Group Stage groups. So much to preview, so little space. With this being my first blog of the upcoming World Cup, then it’s no question the first blog will be done on Group A. For the record, my summary of  the teams will be done in their drawn World Cup order rather than their FIFA ranking of May 2014. FIFA ranking of that month will appear in brackets.

GROUP A:

Brazil-Brazil (4)-No other country has as much of a football legacy as Brazil. Brazil is the only country that can boast competing at all nineteen past World Cups and the only country to have won the World Cup five. The World Cup arena has been an excellent showcase of Brazilian football at its best and it has inspired the world around. However we’ve also seen Brazil choke at times, especially in recent competitions. Just ask France. They’re known as Brazil’s ‘achilles heel’ and have handed Brazil some surprising defeats including the 1998 world Cup final and the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal. In both cases, Brazil was the defending World Cup holder. Brazil’s recent chokes were more humbling as they choked to the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinal and at the 2011 Copa America, they lost their quarterfinal in what was Brazil’s worst-ever Copa America performance.

Brazil can’t take any chances at this World Cup more than any World Cup. They’re the host country and all the world expects them to win. They especially want to rid their compatriots of the 1950 ‘Maracanazo,’ which I will talk about in another blog. Yes, Brazil may have won the World Cup more than any other country but of the eight countries that have won the World Cup, Brazil and Spain are the only ones to fail to do so as host country. Brazil hopes to end this ignominy this time around. After their Copa America debacle, they sacked their coach in favor of Luiz Felipe Scolari who helped coach Brazil to its last World Cup in 2002. The return to Scolari has paid off as Brazil won last year’s Confederation Cup defeating reigning World Cup holders Spain 3-0. Since the return of Scolari, Brazil’s overall record has been excellent losing only twice: to England and Switzerland. No doubt they’ll face huge pressure but the Confederations Cup proved that Brazil is back in action and ready to deliver.

Croatia ficed-Croatia (20)- If you were to do a pound-for-pound rational of football teams, Croatia should rank amongst the top. Croatia is one of only two countries in FIFA’s current Top 20 with a population of less than 5 million . Uruguay being the only other country. Ever since their independence in 1991, Croatia has proved itself a formidable force in football, especially at the 1998 World Cup where they finished third. However that was the last World Cup where they even advanced past the Group Stage. 2002 and 2006 appearances didn’t pan out and a failure to qualify in 2010 almost made the Vatreni’s glory a thing of the past. However Croatia is looking to mount a comeback. In 2012, they signed on a new president in Davor Suker, himself a former great as the top goalscorer at the 1998 World Cup. The role of manager was replaced by former team captain Niko Kovac. The team successfully qualified for the World Cup. They also have a good mix of talent from veterans like Darijo Srna and Luka Modric and fresh young talents like Dejan Lovren and Mateo Kovacic. Croatia is one country that’s very capable of causing a surprise.

Mexico-Mexico (19)- Mexico is without a doubt the best team in the CONCACAF as far as legacy goes. No other North American team has qualified for the World Cup as often. However its greatness has appeared to have alluded them in the past couple of years. They failed to advance past the Group Stage of last year’s Confederations Cup, they lost to Panama in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup and almost missed  qualifying for the World Cup in a qualifier against Costa Rica where they trailed 1-0 after 80 minutes. Two goals in the last 10 minutes kept them alive where they’d go on to beat New Zealand for the wildcard berth. Mexico has made efforts to make their near-loss to Costa Rica a thing of the past. They have not lost a game since but they have come across some tight ties like a scoreless draw against Nigeria and even a 2-2 tie against the US last month. Mexico hopes to be ready for Brazil. Miguel Herrera is one tough coach who favors home grown talent over talent from European leagues. That could be the factor that could either spell success or failure. Only the World Cup stage will decide that.

Cameroon-Cameroon (50)- Older people may remember Cameroon as the team that came from nowhere in 1990 to win 1-0 against defending champions Argentina. Cameroon charmed the world that year by reaching the quarterfinals and becoming the first African team to do so. However their glory appears to be a thing of the past. Cameroon has not advanced past the Group Stage since. This time around doesn’t show too much promise. They do have a German coach, Volker Finke, and have good talent in Samuel Eto’o and Alex Song but they do face a heavy battle in group play. Already this year, they’ve had mixed results with a 5-1 loss to Portugal and a 2-0 win against Macedonia. Nevertheless it’s too soon to judge. I’ve seen teams where nothing was expected of them and they’d advance far.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

This is a new feature. This is where I get to focus on the various stadia that are hosting the World Cup. I figure the arenas are worth talking about. Brazil has twelve stadia that will facilitate for the World Cup: seven just opened within the past year. The crazy thing is how the Group Stage play is organized. Usually in most cases at a World Cup, the country would have organized certain Group Stage groups playing at a set stage of stadiums. In Brazil’s case, a country with twelve stadiums may have three stadiums in cities close to each other to host the Group Stage games of two groups. Division that simple. Brazil has done it weird. All twelve of the stadiums will hold four Group Stage matches but they will be matches for four different groups. Additionally, all six of the Group Stage games for each individual group will be played in six different stadiums, and not all will be that close by. That will mean a lot of traveling around for the 32 teams, especially in a country of over 3 million square miles.

It’s confusing but hopefully it won’t interfere with the play as badly as the vuvuzelas did at the last World Cup. As for stadiums, Brazil has twelve good stadiums. Five are old and traditional but renovated in time. Seven are new built especially for the sake of hosting the World Cup. Here I’ll give you my first taste of my Stadium Spotlight. Note that each stadium I show in my Stadium Spotlight feature will be a stadium that will contest Group Stage matches for each respective group. These two I will focus on will host Group Stage matches in Group A. So without further ado, here are the two stadiums in focus:

-NATAL: Estadio das DunasDunas

Year Opened: 2014

World Cup Capacity: 42,086

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, C, D, G

One of seven new stadiums built especially for this World Cup, the most unique thing of the stadium is definitely the roof. While Brazil had made headlines with difficulties of building and completing stadiums in time for the World Cup, this stadium however earned praises from FIFA not just for the stadium itself but for development of areas surrounding the stadium which I will talk about later. This stadium finished in good time and officially opened this January. After the World Cup, the stadium capacity is to be extended to 45,000 seats and to be the stage of home games for both the America Futebol Clube and ABC Futebol Clube. The area surrounding the stadium has planned a shopping centre, commercial buildings, hotels of international standard and an artificial lake.

-MANAUS: Arena AmazoniaAmazonia

Year Opened: 2014

World Cup Capacity: 42,374

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, D, E, G

There was some criticism from England’s manager Roy Hodgson about Manaus hosting World Cup matches. He should watch his tongue as England will be playing the very first World Cup match of his group there, against Italy. This was one new stadium that actually was under question whether it would be ready for the World Cup. The stadium has been completed and was officially opened in March. The stadium has a full capacity of 46,000 and is to be the host stadium of Nacional FC after the World Cup, replacing the now-demolished Vivaldao Stadium.

And there you go. My first preview of the World Cup teams and stadiums. As for predictions, I’ll just settle for predicting the two countries that will advance past the Group Stage right now, and I predict it will be Brazil and Croatia.

Seven more groups and ten more stadiums to review before World Cup 2014 starts. Stay tuned for more.