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2014 World Cup Preview

As 2013 comes to a close, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil looms closer. At the beginning of the year, the only country assured a spot was Brazil since they are the hosts.

In Africa, there were 52 teams that were fighting for five spots. The tournament to qualify consisted of a 24-country playoff of the lowest ranked countries that played two games, home and away. The 12 winners joined the top 28-ranked countries and split into ten groups of four. The ten winners of each group then played another playoff similar to the first round. The five winning teams qualify for the World Cup.

The five teams for Africa are the exact same as the last World Cup. South Africa was also in the field but weren’t part of the five teams from Africa since they were hosting the World Cup. In the final round, Ivory Coast beat Senegal, Nigeria beat Ethiopia, Cameroon beat Tunisia, Ghana beat Egypt, and Algeria beat Burkina Faso. The five winning nations will once again represent Africa in the World Cup.

The Asian qualifiers consisted of a field of 43 countries. The first leg consisted of the bottom 16 ranked countries that played a home and away playoff. The winners moved on to the second round that had the sixth to the twenty-seventh ranked countries along with the winners of the first round. The winners of the second round continued to the third round that split up the winners and the top five ranked countries into five groups of four. The top two teams from each group were then split into two groups. The top two teams of each group qualified automatically and the two third place teams played another home and away playoff. The winner of the playoff must win another home and away playoff game against a team from another continent in order to qualify.

The countries that qualified automatically by placing first and second in their group are Iran, North Korea, Japan, and Australia. North Korea, Japan, and Australia all qualified for the last World Cup as well. Uzbekistan and Jordan each placed third and played two playoff games. Jordan was the victor and needed to win an intercontinental playoff in order to advance.

In Oceania, there were 11 countries with a chance to play in the World Cup. The qualifying for the World Cup began with a four-team playoff of the four lowest ranked teams. The winner of that playoff joined the top seven teams, which then split into two groups of four. The top two teams in each group then became a single group and played another playoff.

Samoa won the first playoff and joined the top seven teams. In the two groups, the countries that advanced were Tahiti, New Caledonia, New Zealand, and the Solomon Islands. New Zealand won every game they played in that last playoff and got an opportunity to qualify for the World Cup for the second year in a row if they won an intercontinental playoff.

The South American qualifier is the same as it has been for the past few World Cups. The only difference for the 2014 qualifier is that Brazil didn’t participate since they are hosting the event. The nine other teams played two games against all the teams in a home and away playoff format. The top four advance automatically and the fifth place country needs to win an intercontinental playoff.

Automatically joining Brazil in the World Cup is Argentina, Columbia, Chile, and Ecuador. Argentina and Chile both qualified for the 2010 World Cup as well. The fifth place country, Uruguay, had a chance to qualify if they won an intercontinental playoff. This was the second straight time Uruguay needed to win a playoff to get into the World Cup after coming in fifth in qualifying for the last World Cup, too.

In North and Middle America and the Caribbean, known as CONCACAF,35 countries entered the qualifying tournament. The first round had the bottom ten ranked teams play a home and away playoff. The winners joined the seventh to twenty-fifth ranked teams and split into six groups of four. The winner of each group continues on along with the top six teams and split into three groups of four. The top two teams of each group then become a single group. The top three teams in the final group qualify automatically, and the fourth team gets an opportunity to qualify if they win an intercontinental playoff.

After the third round, the final six teams were the United States, Jamaica, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama. After playing the final games, the United States was top of the group, followed by Costa Rica and Honduras. Mexico was eliminated until late in the United States game when Graham Zusi scored and changed the goal differential, moving Mexico into fourth ahead of Panama. That meant that Mexico had a chance to qualify if they won an intercontinental playoff.

Europe is the most competitive conference with 53 entrants and 13 possible spots for countries to qualify. It is also the simplest to qualify. The teams are separated into eight groups of six and one group of five. Each team plays two games against the other teams in the group and the nine winners automatically qualify for the World Cup. The top eight second place teams are split and then play a playoff with the winner also qualifying for the World Cup.

The winners of the nine groups were Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, England, and Spain. The top eight second place teams are Greece, France, Portugal, Ukraine, Sweden, Iceland, Romania, and Croatia. The final qualification spots were taken when Greece beat Romania, France beat Ukraine, Portugal beat Sweden, and Croatia beat Iceland.

The international playoff games were the last games that decided the final two countries that would qualify for the World Cup. It was decided before the teams played that South America would play Asia and Oceania would play North America. Uruguay represented South America, Jordan represented Asia, New Zealand represented Oceania, and Mexico represented North America. Each matchup was a home and away playoff. Each playoff was won easily by the winners, Uruguay and Mexico, and they both qualify for the World Cup.

All 32 teams were finally decided, and on December 6, the brackets for the World Cup were drawn. All the teams were separated into four pots that randomly determine which group each country would play in. The 32 countries are split into eight groups of four for the World Cup. After playing each team in their group once, the top two teams are then inserted into a 16-team bracket to determine the World Cup Champions. Johnny Hilbert and I predicted how we thought the tournament would play out and our brackets are in this article.

Group A always has the host nation, so this group only really had three teams picked to be in it. Group A consists of Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, and Cameroon. I would honestly be shocked if Brazil does not come out of this group on top. Brazil has some of the most prolific players and arguably the best player in the world right now, Neymar Jr. As for the other three spots, I can see Croatia getting out of the group, but Mexico and Cameroon definitely have a fairly good shot too. Croatia is without one of it’s best players, Mario Mandžukić, in the first game it plays due to a red card in Croatia’s last qualifying game. The first game they play is against Brazil though, so Croatia had a slim chance of winning anyway. Cameroon is very quick, but I think the other teams in the group will overpower them. Mexico is the wildcard. If they play the way they did against New Zealand, they may have a shot of making the Round of 16. If they play like they did in CONCACAF qualifying, however, they may model their 2014 World Cup like Italy did in 2010, winning no games and coming in last in their group.

Group B was a very extreme coincidence. The finalists from the last World Cup in the same group provides a huge matchup for the third game of the tournament. In the group made up of Spain, the Netherlands, Chile, and Australia, Spain and the Netherlands are the teams that Johnny and I picked to make it out. However, we take different sides on who will make it out on top of the group. I took the Netherlands as the top seed, while Johnny took the last World Cup champs, Spain. I see the Netherlands-Spain game ending in a tie, then each team winning its next two games, but the Netherlands getting the top seed on goal differential. No matter what happens, one of them will have to play Brazil in the Round of 16. I do not see Chile or Australia making a big impact in this group, although one of them may have a chance to escape the group if the Netherlands repeats their Euros performance from 2012, losing all three games.

Group C is a relatively weak group compared to the rest of the field, comprised of Colombia, Greece, Côte d’Ivoire, and Japan. This group could have any four of the teams come out on top. Each country is led by their own superstars, Falcao for Colombia, Samaras and Mitroglou for Greece, Drogba for the Ivory Coast, and Honda for Japan. Japan proved how good they were in the 2010 World Cup, and were top in Asia in qualifying, which led me to give them the top seed in the group. Johnny disagreed and put the second place team in my bracket, Colombia, in the top spot in his bracket. Johnny’s second place team is the Ivory Coast, although if Greece can find the form they had in the 2004 Euros when they won it all, they could shock us both.

Group D has Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, and Italy, which makes it one of the most powerful groups of this tournament. Again Johnny and I picked the same two teams, but switched who would get first and second. I picked England to win the group with Italy coming in second, while he picked Italy to win and England to come in second. Uruguay is not a bad team though, and stands a very good chance to beat out England or Italy to make it to the next round. It will be interesting to see how England reacts after coming in second in their group in the last World Cup to the United States. I also don’t think Costa Rica stands a chance against three world power teams. They will most likely lose all three games and end up at the bottom of the group.

Group E has Switzerland, Ecuador, France, and Honduras. Switzerland and Honduras are matched up once again, since they were in the same group in the 2010 World Cup. France and Switzerland both look to be the countries that will advance out of the group. France nearly did not make it into this World Cup, just edging out Ukraine in their final qualifying game. Despite this, Johnny still believes in France and put them as the top seed in the group with Switzerland coming in second. I flipped those two teams around for my bracket, since Switzerland had such a strong qualifying campaign. Although Honduras is in two consecutive World Cups, I think they will also come out of the group in last place for the second consecutive World Cup too, leaving Ecuador to take third.

Group F is a diverse group, comprised of Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, and Nigeria. While both Johnny and I selected Argentina to come out of the group on top, we each picked different teams to finish in second place. Johnny took Nigeria while I picked Bosnia-Herzegovina. Despite the different selections, we both put our respective second place teams into the quarterfinals over the first place team from Group E. Although Nigeria’s team is stuffed with talent from some of the best teams in the world, I think Bosnia will overpower them with their impressive ball handling. As always from Asia, three good teams seem to get in as well as one team that is a little bit of a surprise. If they compare at all to North Korea, the surprise team from 2010, then I wouldn’t expect much from Iran.

The group that elicits the most buzz, especially here in the United States, is Group G, made up of, brace yourselves, Germany, Portugal, Ghana, and the United States. Fans of the U.S. were clutching their chests when the groups were selected, as getting out of that group is going to be a challenge for the Americans. While Johnny and I picked the same teams, there is quite a bit of bias going into our selections. Germany is the strongest team in the group by far, but neither of us could leave the United States behind, as they come in second place in each of our brackets. It is very likely that Ronaldo’s team—I mean, Portugal—or even Ghana will beat out the United States for the second place spot. Group G is especially tough since all four of the countries made it into the Round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup, which even had Ghana and the United States matched up. This group is very hard to predict, and only once the games are over will the dust settle on the arguments over who will make it out.

Finally, Group H, which is another weak group, made up of Belgium, Algeria, Russia, and South Korea. It is pretty clear that Belgium is the strongest team on paper thanks to their young talent, Romelu Lukaku, and the Belgians were the first seed in each of our brackets. Algeria is Johnny’s pick for the second place team, which strikes a nerve in me, as I think Algeria does not even deserve to be in the World Cup after their final qualifying game against Burkina Faso. The goal that punched the ticket for Algeria was scored by a player who was somehow not sent off after an insane tackle earlier in the game, that he only received a yellow card for. Putting that conflict aside, I picked Russia as my second place team. One person that will disagree with both Johnny and I is one of Prep’s exchange students from South Korea, Leo. He says that South Korea is going to win the group, and while I don’t know if I can see that happening, I think they definitely have a fair shot of coming in second.

Now that all the group round games are out of the way, the tournament is much easier to understand; just a simple 16-team bracket. The first place teams from Groups A, C, E, and G play the second place teams from B, D, F, and H on one side of the bracket, and on the other side the first place teams from B, D, F, and H play the second place teams from A, C, E, and G.

To see the picks Johnny and I made for the Round of 16, check out both of our brackets:

Hilbert's predictions (click for full size)

Hilbert’s predictions (click for full size)

Signorino's predictions (click for full size)

Signorino’s predictions (click for full size)

The quarterfinals is essentially the same as in every bracket, as is the semifinals. On my bracket, the four semifinalists are Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, and Argentina, while Johnny picked Brazil, Germany, Italy, and the United States.

As for the finals, we both picked two different teams to compete in the biggest game in soccer, and play for World Cup. In my bracket, I selected Brazil to face the Netherlands in the finals. And although it crushes me to do it to my favorite team, the Netherlands, I selected Brazil to hoist the trophy in front of their home crowd.

Johnny selected two different teams, and put Italy and Germany into the finals. I’m sure Italy hopes a player from the opposing team does not head-butt one of their players like in the last World Cup final they played in against France in 2006. Johnny does not see a repeat of 2006 either, as he picked Germany to beat the Italians and win the World Cup.

Although it is not pictured on our brackets, there is a third place game in the tournament as well. My third place game pits Germany against Argentina, in which I picked Germany to win their third consecutive third place game. Johnny’s third place game matched up Brazil against the United States, a rematch of the 2009 Confederations Cup final. He switched up the winner though, and picked the United States to claim the third place game in his bracket.

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