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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973348 Uruguay Uruguay World Cup

Participation: 1930, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1986, 1990, 2002 and 2010.


Key player: Luis Suárez (Liverpool).


History: La Celeste lifted the first World Cup on home soil in 1930 and promptly sat out the next two European-based editions in 1934 and 1938 due to travel considerations. Uruguay made its triumphant return in 1950 by claiming its second title in Brazil before following up with a fourth-place finish in Switzerland four years later. The subsequent years revealed the strain of keeping up at the highest levels with the country's small population base, but two more fourth-place finishes in 1970 and 2010 revealed a capability to succeed at the highest levels.


How they got here: Óscar Tabárez retained his post after the success in South Africa and watched his side muddle through South American qualifying for the second time in a row. The meandering middle portion of the campaign ultimately cost the Uruguayans a direct berth and relegated them to yet another intercontinental playoff to seal a place. A pair of professional displays against Jordan yielded a 5-0 victory on aggregate and yet another chance to thrive in the World Cup.


Expected finish: It isn't fair to expect another place in the final four with foundational pieces Diego Forlán and Diego Lugano on the wane. The strength of this side now rests disproportionately up front with Suárez and Edinson Cavani leading the side with their constant menace and steady supply of goals. Their incisiveness is ably supported through midfield, but the defense  might struggle against higher-quality opponents. A spot in the knockout stage represents a reasonable return for this outfit as currently comprised.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973347 Mexico Mexico World Cup

Participation: 1930, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1978, 1986, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Javier Hernández (Manchester United).


History: El Tri advances consistently from CONCACAF without making much of an impact on the world stage. The lengthy list of appearances has yielded two quarterfinal departures on home soil in 1970 and 1986 and a smattering of group stage and round of 16 exits in other adventures into deeper waters. The past five World Cup have all ended in similar fashion: claim one of the top two spots in group play, take the first flight home after falling at the first hurdle in knockout play.


How they got here: The consistency at the World Cup obscures the sometimes tumultuous path through the Hexagonal. El Tri embarked upon a particularly circuitous journey this time around with three managers somehow piloting the region's strongest squad on paper to fourth place courtesy of some last minute heroics from the United States on the final day. Newly-hired boss Miguel Herrera swept aside his inconsistent European-based players for the intercontinental playoff and used a squad filled with Liga MX stars to dispatch New Zealand 9-3 on aggregate and salvage a World Cup berth.


Expected finish: Herrera installed a 5-3-2 formation for the playoff against the All Whites and instructed his players to operate more directly through midfield. The tactical shift neatly dovetails with the counterattacking style required to succeed against more formidable competition. Herrera must integrate his European-based players to inject the necessary creativity, incisiveness and solidity. If all of those factors come together in time for next summer, then Mexico can reach the knockout stage for a sixth consecutive tournament.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973345 France France World Cup

Participation: 1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich).


History: Les Bleus acquired a deserved reputation as nearly men with a trio of third and fourth-place finishes prior to their breakthrough on home soil in 1998. Zinedine Zidane inspired his side to triumph over Brazil in the final and spurred a country onto the streets of Paris. He nearly carried his aging side to a second title in 2006, but the core of the group crumbled in short order after that point. The embarrassing voyage to South Africa merely underscored the need for fresh faces in the post-Zidane era.


How they got here: A journey through the playoffs appeared likely from the moment France landed alongside Spain in Group I. Pedro confirmed the likely route when he handed the World Cup holders a 1-0 victory at the Stade de France in March. The playoff draw popped out a rather more favorable date with Ukraine, but a dismal display in the away leg in Kiev left Didier Deschamps' side with a two-goal deficit to overturn in Saint-Denis. Mamadou Sakho scored twice to spark France to a 3-0 win on home soil to cinch a berth in Brazil.


Expected finish: Deschamps must procure consistent performances from a brittle squad comprised of aging mainstays, temperamental stars and untested performers at the highest level. Ribéry offers potential salvation every time he steps onto the field, but his powers alone cannot eradicate the lingering concerns about the suspect mentality of a group reliant on erratic figures like Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri. Any outcome from a group stage exit to a quarterfinal berth remains firmly on the table depending on how this side molds together.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973346 Portugal Portugal World Cup

Participation: 1966, 1986, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid).


History: In its first trip to the World Cup in 1966, Portugal leaned on Eusébio to reach the last four. It proved an aberration rather than a regular course of action with just one more World Cup trip booked until 2002. The emergence of a deeper and stronger crop of players marshaled by Fernando Couto, Rui Costa, Luis Figo and Pauleta guided the country onto the proper path and paved the way for the success to come. A fourth-place finish in Germany marked the high point, but the Portuguese have not missed a major tournament in this century.


How they got here: The kind draw in Group F placed importance on two factors: emerging from the pair of matches against Russia with four points and taking care of business against the lesser sides in the group. Portugal failed on both counts by merely holding serve against the Russians and throwing away points against Israel twice and Northern Ireland once. Those missteps condemned the Portuguese to a difficult playoff against Sweden, but Ronaldo somehow bested Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a thrilling 3-2 second leg triumph in Solna to seal a trip to Brazil.


Expected finish: Ronaldo's brilliance ensures Portugal enters this tournament with hope of a deep run through the knockout stages. Portugal boss Paulo Bento has resources at his disposal with a strong back four and João Moutinho in midfield, but the dearth of alternatives in the final third and the uncertainty about Rui Patricio between the sticks creates some cause for concern. The end product could see Portugal match those fourth-place finishes from 1966 and 2006 with Ronaldo in irrepressible form, but a quarterfinal exit represents perhaps a more likely scenario.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973344 Croatia Croatia World Cup

Participation: 1998, 2002 and 2006.


Key player: Luka Modric (Real Madrid).


History: This narrow nation on the Adriatic Sea gained admission into FIFA and UEFA in 1993 after gaining independence from Yugoslavia. It took just five more years to make a first appearance at the World Cup. Davor Šuker earned Golden Boot honors and spearheaded his country's surprising third-place finish in France. The next two tournaments ended after the group stage as the core of the team evolved over that time period, but the failure to qualify for the first time in 2010 marked a low point for a team capable of finishing higher than third in a group topped by England and Ukraine.


How they got here: Former defensive stalwart Igor Štimac took charge from Slaven Bilic in time to lead a disappointing campaign through Group A. Everything looked well and truly on course until a home defeat to Scotland in June. The setback marked a turning point: Croatia failed to win its next three matches -- including a 1-0 defeat to Belgium in Zagreb in October -- and settled for a place in playoffs. Under-21 coach Niko Kovac replaced his former international teammate in time for the tie against Iceland and shepherded his side through the tricky assignment with a 2-0 victory on aggregate.


Expected finish: Kovac may have steered Croatia through to the World Cup, but he must embark upon the journey with the availability of top scorer Mario Mandžukic in some question after a red card in the second match against Iceland. If Mandžukic isn't available for two or more games during group play, then this otherwise competent and creative side could struggle to polish off its attacking moves and secure the goals required to grab a place in the knockout stage.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973343 Honduras Honduras World Cup

Participation: 1982 and 2010.


Key player: Roger Espínoza (Wigan Athletic).


History: Los Catrachos acquitted themselves well in their first World Cup foray in 1982 despite finishing bottom of their group and then waited 28 years for another chance to grace the tournament again. The second journey in South Africa ended a bit more abruptly with defeats to Chile and Spain and a draw with Switzerland.


How they got here: There were a few tense moments in the third round, but an 8-1 victory over Canada dispelled the lingering issues on the final day. Luis Fernando Suárez's outfit adhered to the fundamental tenets of the Hexagonal to claim one of the three guaranteed berths out of CONCACAF: focus on the home business first and then snatch points on the road to make the journey more comfortable. The unblemished record included a critical 1-0 victory over Costa Rica during the penultimate round to essentially secure qualification.


Expected finish: Suárez cobbled together a committed, resolute side greater than the sum of its individual parts to claim a World Cup berth. Espínoza strings everything together with his industrious link play in central midfield, but the pieces around him simply aren't sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of the group stage. With both goals and shutouts likely at a premium against more rigorous foes, Honduras will likely depart from Brazil after three matches.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973342 Ecuador Ecuador World Cup

Participation: 2002 and 2006.


Key player: Antonio Valencia (Manchester United).


History: The golden generation of Ecuadorian football secured the country's first World Cup berth in 2002. Álex Aguinaga, Agustin Delgado and Iván Hurtado are long gone now, but the fruits of their labors still linger. A second berth four years later consolidated the progress and established the expectations for the future. The failed efforts in the last cycle placed considerable emphasis on cinching a return this time around.


How they got here: Reinaldo Rueda's side somehow processed the traumatic passing of star striker Christian Benítez earlier this year and stuck to the task at hand to hold off Uruguay for the fourth and final automatic place. Jefferson Montero scored the decisive goal to dispatch the Uruguayans in Quito and essentially guarantee that spot back in October.


Expected finish: The prospect of competing in a World Cup on South American soil offers hope for a second-straight berth in the knockout stage. Rueda imposes a fairly conservative bent on a side that must rely more on structure than individual talent to fulfill its defensive obligations. Montero and Valencia pose the most pressing threats going forward with their direct, threatening runs, but Benítez's passing unfortunately stripped the side of its best finisher. If Felipe Caicedo can chip in with a goal or two or Montero offers a matchwinning display during group play, then Ecuador could replicate its success from eight years ago.


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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973340 Chile Chile World Cup

Participation: 1930, 1950, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1982, 1998 and 2010.


Key player: Alexis Sánchez (Barcelona).


History: There isn't an awful lot to process here aside from a third-place showing on home soil in 1962. The results before and after that Leonel Sanchez-inspired jaunt through the tournament properly reflect Chile's respectable, if somewhat undistinguished, place in world football for much of its existence: five departures at the first hurdle, two round of 16 exits in its past two appearances.


How they got here: Former Universidad de Chile boss Jorge Sampaoli assumed control after a wobbly start under Claudio Borghi and directed this side back on the path forged by mentor Marcelo Bielsa ahead of the 2010 World Cup. A run of six matches unbeaten -- five wins and a draw, no less -- to close out qualifying guaranteed a third-place finish in the table and a direct berth to Brazil.


Expected finish: The recent revival under Sampaoli offers encouragement for a deep run in Brazil. Sampaoli's reliance on the 3-3-1-3 is a bit more pragmatic than Bielsa's take on the same discipline, but this side must thrive on its ability to place the opposition under pressure inside its own half. Sánchez and Arturo Vidal must excel to provide this side with the incisiveness to exploit the situations created and shield a rickety defensive shape. The engaging style of play should attract neutral support during the tournament and perhaps carry this side to a first quarterfinal appearance if everything unfolds according to plan.


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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973341 Spain Spain World Cup

Participation: 1934, 1950, 1962, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Andres Iniesta (Barcelona).


History: It is best to focus on the past half-decade. The systemic underachievement of the past isn't forgotten, but the past few years -- from the Euro 2008 onward -- represents a golden age among the very best in the history of the game. The march through South Africa and the triumph over the Netherlands in the final applied a gloss primed to endure for years to come.


How they got here: The holders proceeded through Group I with few worries despite the awkward presence of France in the five-team pot. Four points against the French -- including the vital away win at the Stade de France -- ensured top spot with three points to spare.


Expected finish: Spain will enter the fray as one of the favorites. Its ability to join Brazil (1958 and 1962) and Italy (1934 and 1938) as consecutive winners hinges on whether it can find a way to outwit the athletic and robust approach of its fellow contenders. The trademark sharpness in possession must endure with lingering and potentially fatal questions in defense creating vulnerabilities when the opposition counters. Whether this group -- perhaps just on the other side of its best with Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez not at their peaks -- can muster that panache again or pursue the necessary alternatives remains uncertain. A place in the last four represents a reasonable expectation for a team still among the best in the world.


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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973336 England England World Cup

Participation: 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United).


History: One shining moment on home soil in 1966 looms large over a procession of exits in the final eight or the final 16. Every subsequent team fails to stand up to Sir Alfred Ernest Ramsey's magical side and prompts withering criticism for its inability to do so. The last three tournaments -- quarterfinals in 2002 and 2006, round of 16 in 2010 -- portray a more accurate picture of the current landscape.


How they got here: Roy Hodgson's side received a forgiving draw in Group H and toiled through it nevertheless. The end product -- six wins, four draws and a one-point margin over second place Ukraine -- achieved the end goal without instilling much in the way of confidence.


Expected finish: Little evidence exists to suggest substantial improvement from previous tournaments. Hodgson's mundane, if solid, tactical approach to team-building, the lacking yard of pace in central defense and the suspect work in possession leave England a bit short against the very best sides. Rooney, however, remains a potential matchwinner in the right frame of mind. He will need ample support from elsewhere to muster the expected exit somewhere between the round of 16 and the quarterfinals.


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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973334 Argentina Argentina World Cup

Participation: 1930, 1934, 1952, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Lionel Messi (Barcelona).


History: Two-time winners and two-time losing finalists, Argentina is typically a lightning rod for controversy at the World Cup. The Videla regime may or may not have fixed the 1978 tournament on their home soil. Diego Maradona may or may not have been on drugs or performance enhancers when he led them to a second title in 1986. And those are just a few of the incidents and allegations that seem to forever surround this team. Since reaching three finals in four tournaments between 1978 and 1990, however, Argentina has failed to advance past the quarterfinals.


How they got here: Yes, the two-year CONMEBOL qualifying stage, consisting of a nine-team double-round robin, was devoid of the Brazilian hosts this year, but that doesn’t make Argentina’s finish at the top of the pile any less impressive. A 9-2-5 (W-D-L) record in South America’s daunting cauldrons with a region-best 35-15 scoring record is a great yield, given the tricky circumstances.


Expected Finish: Along with Brazil, Argentina probably fits into the second tier of favorites, one notch below Spain and Germany. Playing on their home continent will help. And no other country can boast the attacking weapons Argentina does, even without the ostracized Carlos Tevez. Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel di Maria form a fearsome fivesome of forwards. With a solid corps of midfielders and defenders, a semifinal berth should fall within the Albiceleste’s capabilities.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973337 South Korea South+Korea World Cup

Participation: 1954, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Ki Sung-Yueng (AS Roma).


History: Far and away Asia’s most successful team at the World Cup, South Korea hasn’t missed a World Cup since 1982. Certainly, they haven’t looked good every time out. It took them until their sixth World Cup appearance to even win a game, losing 10 of their first 14 contests on the world stage. But when they did, they went on a run into the semifinals in front of their home crowds back in 2002, perhaps still the most surprising run to the final four ever seen at the World Cup. Another round of 16 appearance in 2010 showed that the South Koreans were no one-hit wonders.


How they got here: But for a pair of losses to surprise qualifiers Iran, South Korea went undefeated in group A of the AFC fourth round, winning four and tying two. The South Koreans perhaps went through the motions a little bit, but then qualification has become practically automatic for them.


Expected finish: The generation that took the world by storm in 2002 has come and gone. Their successors don’t quite measure up. Ki and Lee Chung-Yong form a solid foundation to the midfield. Ji Dong-Wong is a serviceable forward. And unless they catch lightning in a bottle again, a group stage exit seems unavoidable.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973338 Australia Australia World Cup

Participation: 1974, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls).


History: With just three appearances at the World Cup, the Australians have hardly any history there. And with two group stage eliminations, their legacy is virtually non-existent. They did reach the second round in Germany in 2006, in spite of going 1-1-1 in the group stage but were subsequently bounced by eventual champions Italy.


How they got here: Australia owes its place in Brazil as much to the weakness of its opposition in qualifying as it does to its own performances. They went an unremarkable 3-4-1 (W-D-L) scoring just 12 goals in eight games against Japan, Oman, Iraq and Jordan. But they comfortably reached one of the two automatic places in the fourth round of AFC qualifying’s Group B regardless, probably because Asia has too many spots.


Expected finish: There isn’t any sense in wasting much space or time in describing Australia’s chances. Simply put: they don’t have any. This ragtag bunch lacks the experience and talent to have even a prayer of making it out of its group -- whichever group that may be. It is still heavily reliant on its veterans and the 33-year-old Cahill in particular. Trouble is, those veterans are past their prime.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973335 Japan Japan World Cup

Pariticpation: 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow).


History: Amazingly, Japan didn’t introduce a professional soccer league until 1993, and consequently, it’s hardly surprising that they didn’t qualify for a World Cup until 1998. In 2002 and 2010, however, the Japanese reached the second round, quietly tracing a rather remarkable growth curve.


How they got here: Qualifying out of Asia has never been terribly hard for a half-decent national side, and Japan certainly proved to be that. Cruising through a group with Australia, Jordan, Oman and Iraq, the Japanese racked up points as easily as they did airmiles.


Expected finish: Japan enters the tournament as perhaps its biggest enigma. Losing all three of its games at the 2013 Confederations Cup, the Samurai Blue looked like a lot of Asian delegates have in recent decades: good enough to reach the World Cup, not good enough to compete there.


But a funny thing happened in their November friendlies. In two games on Belgian soil, Japan largely outplayed but tied the Netherlands 2-2 and then convincingly beat Belgium 3-2. Startling results both, against much more reputable sides. More stupefying still was the quality of possession soccer the Japanese were playing, considering that only Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Yuto Nagatomo truly belong at the international level. Look to Japan, then, to be the Cinderella story of the 2014 World Cup and reach the quarterfinals.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973339 Brazil Brazil World Cup

Participation: 1930, 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Neymar (Barcelona).


History: Brazil is the only country to have played in every single World Cup and the only team to have won it five times. The Selecao reached three consecutive finals from 1994 through 2002, winning the first and last of those. But in the three editions since then, they have crashed out in the quarterfinals, an unimaginable misfortune to befall this besotted soccer nation.


How they got here: The host team qualified automatically.


Expected finish: There is no ambiguity whatsoever about what is being demanded of the 11 lining up in the gold and green jerseys come June. The Brazilians expect Brazil to lift their sixth World Cup. Plain and simple. To make amends, in a sense, for 1950, when the only other World Cup on Brazilian soil was lost to Uruguay in the final -- a national tragedy long in the memory.


The task at hand, however, is much less straightforward. The pressure will be crippling, even more so than in 1950. And, more alarmingly, the talent might not be there. Certainly, Brazil won the Confederations Cup. But this is no vintage Brazilian side. Neymar will surely dazzle up front. But the rest of the team is young overall, suspect in some spots in the back, somewhat uncohesive in midfield, and lacking a consistent goal-scoring threat in attack. A semifinals elimination to either Spain or Germany is the most likely outcome.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976349 United States United+States World Cup

Participation: 1930, 1934, 1950, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Michael Bradley (AS Roma).


History: Back in 1930, a ragtag band of recently migrated Americans inexplicably reached the semifinals in the first-ever edition of the tournament. But the program hasn’t scaled those heights since. The quarterfinals run in 2002 stands as the modern high watermark, with the US stranding either in the group stage or round of 16 in every other appearance.


How they got here: The third qualifying stage was far more arduous than it should have been, given the weakness of the opposition. The hexagonal round started off inauspiciously, too, with a 2-1 road loss to Honduras and a revolt of sorts against head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his methods -- in the form of anonymous griping to Sporting News. But hard-fought results against Costa Rica and in Mexico put the campaign back on track and ultimately made for a comfortable qualification.


Expected finish: The requisite talent to reach the round of 16 is probably there -- but barely, a single injury to Bradley, say, or Clint Dempsey, could derail everything. The Americans will likely face a tough draw though, since they’re expected to be in a pot with the rest of North and Central America and Asia -- meaning they’ll miss out on the weaker opponents. Should they survive, they’ll be competitive in the next round. But there, too, their chances will largely be dictated by who they happen upon.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976351 Switzerland Switzerland World Cup

Participation: 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1994, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Gokhan Inler (Napoli).


History: There was a time when the Swiss had a good track record at the World Cup. Unfortunately for them, all of that pretty much went away after 1954. In 1934, 1938 and 1954 they reached the quarterfinals, but they haven’t been competitive on the world stage since. In five appearances starting in 1962, they’ve survived the group stage only twice, going home after the next game each other time.


How they got here: Courtesy of a highly advantageous draw for their qualifying group, the Swiss faced no greater foe than Iceland on their road to Brazil. They took full advantage and went undefeated. They racked up so many wins, in fact, that they catapulted into the top-8 of the FIFA World Rankings. That gives them a seed for the World Cup, helping them avoid most all the really dangerous teams.


Expected finish: Switzerland are the owners of a pair of unlikely distinctions. Firstly, they actually lost a competitive game to Luxembourg in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Secondly, they beat Spain in their opening game of that tournament, stealing a 1-0 upset. It didn’t do them any good, going out of the tournament in three quick games anyway. And so will they at the 2014 edition in Brazil, seed or not.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976346 Russia Russia World Cup

Participation: 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994 and 2002.


Key player: Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow).


History: There are really two histories here. That of the Soviet Union, which is rich, including four straight quarterfinals appearances and one semifinals run from 1958 through 1970. And that of Russia, which is rather sparse: three failures to qualify and two group-stage exits.


How they got here: In a neck-and-neck race to the top spot in Group F of European qualifying with Portugal, Russia ultimately won out. They split their head-to-head games, so it all came down to the other games. While Portugal took three wins and a tie on the road to Russia’s two wins and a tie, the Russians were perfect at home whereas Portugal had to settle for two draws. In the end, a lone point made the difference and Russia qualified directly by winning the group.


Expected finish: This is a hard one to call. Two decades after Russia ceased to be such a mystery to the rest of the world, its soccer team remains an enigma. Certainly, it ought to be better for a country of its size, but then it does produce decent players. Still, they never quite seem to come together for the World Cup. Dzagoev is a marvelous playmaker on his day, but like most of the squad, he’s short on international experience. Of the Russian players called up in the last year, just one -- twice-capped Denis Cheryshev -- plays abroad, and that’s a real sticking point on the international scene.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976347 Netherlands Netherlands World Cup

Participation: 1934, 1938, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Robin van Persie (Manchester United).


History: The Dutch are said to be the best team to never have won the World Cup. Three lost finals suggest as much. They lost to home countries West Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978 -- reportedly beset by a skinny-dipping scandal and intimidation from the new Videla regime, respectively -- but revolutionized soccer with their high-movement and quick positional interchanging Total Football nonetheless. In 2010, a much more dour Dutch team lost to Spain, which played a descendent of Total Football.


How they got here: Since re-taking the reins, Louis van Gaal, who had infamously overseen the failed Dutch qualification for the 2002 World Cup, has instigated a youth movement and brought back the width and pressure of the Dutch school. To great effect, since Oranje was almost perfect in a fairly weak qualifying group, winning nine and drawing one of ten games with a goal difference of +29.


Expected finish: The Netherlands comes into this tournament as a bit of question mark. Certainly, the impression left in qualifying was unambiguous, but then this side may not yet be equipped to handle itself on the world stage. For this is a very young side -- especially in the back -- with just a few veterans like van Persie, Arjen Robben and either Rafael van der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder blended in. Expecting them to reach further than the quarterfinals or so this time around might be too much to ask.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976350 Nigeria Nigeria World Cup

Participation: 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2010.


Key player: John Obi Mikel (Chelsea).


History: The greatest generation of Nigerian players -- a group including Daniel Amokachi, Finidi George, Jay-Jay Okocha, Rashidi Yekini and current coach Stephen Keshi -- claimed the country's first World Cup berth in 1994 and led the Super Eagles to the round of 16. The evolving group replicated the knockout stage feat four years later in France. As the core aged and disintegrated, the results dipped accordingly. The past two appearances have yielded swift exits after three matches.


How they got here: Keshi emerged from the usual backroom wrangling to take control of the qualifying process. The trio of Kenya, Malawi and Namibia presented little threat to derail the ascent to the summit in Group F. It took minimal prodding to proceed through without a defeat and set up an altogether manageable playoff tie against Ethiopia. Emmanuel Emenike's double in Addis Ababa claimed to a 2-1 victory in the first leg and cleared the way for a 4-1 triumph on aggregate.


Expected finish: The safe path through qualifying masked some of the concerns about this group against more rigorous competition. Keshi somehow imparted his wisdom through the usual distractions in this fractious setup and molded together a solid unit without the top-end talent of the teams of those golden years. The increased emphasis on organization does little to instill faith about the rearguard actions against stronger opponents, while the direct play through midfield lacks the ideas often conjured in the past even when Emenike applies the finishing touch. A berth in the knockout stage would represent a good return for this group given those inherent limitations.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976348 Italy Italy World Cup

Participation: 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Andrea Pirlo (Juventus).


History: Italy is one of the giants of this tournament, having won it four times -- most recently in 2006 -- bested only by Brazil. They lifted the trophy the first two editions of it that they entered and have reached the semifinals six times in the last 11 World Cups. But that isn’t to say that Italy’s success is predictable. In two of the last three seasons, they didn’t even make the quarterfinals, going out in the round of 16 in 2002 and the group stage in 2010.


How they got here: Since the other contenders in Group B -- Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Armenia -- pretty much canceled each other out by splitting their head-to-head games fairly evenly, Italy could simply rise above the fray and qualify on autopilot, going undefeated with six wins and four ties.


Expected finish: After flaming out spectacularly in 2010, Italy decided it was finally time to rebuild and stop relying so heavily on the generation that won in 2006. With exciting young forwards Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy stepping into bigger roles and a strong supporting cast emerging, the return was immediate. Italy reached the final of Euro 2012, losing to Spain, and fell to the same team on penalties in the semifinals of the 2013 Confederations Cup. This team is on the ascent but not quite there yet. A quarterfinals exit is most probable.

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World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976345 Iran Iran World Cup

Participation: 1978, 1998 and 2006.


Key player: Ashkan Dejagah (Fulham).


History: Team Melli’s glory days are long since past, interrupted by the 1979 Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Despite having a long history with the sport -- Iran played its friest recognized international in 1941 -- Iran’s “golden era” was in the 1970s, when they won three Asian Cups from 1968-1976. They were unable to participate in the 1982 qualification process do to the regional unrest; then were disqualified in 1986 when they refused to play on neutral ground. Their three World Cup appearances have all ended the same way: with first-round exits.


How they got here: Iran finished top of their group to gain automatic entry. A 1-0 win over South Korea on the road on the final day gave them top slot. Team Melli only lost two games in the final round.


Expected finish: Iran is just happy to be here. Guided by Carlos Querioz and American Dan Gaspar, fans celebrated in the streets at making the trip to Brazil, but they shouldn’t book hotel stays much after the group stage. Star Dejagah is a crafty midfielder who also sums this side up: he has yet to fully make his mark at the highest level, and Team Melli is likely to follow suit.

Bilal Hussein - AP Images
World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973314 Ghana Ghana World Cup

Participation: 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Asamoah Gyan (Al-Ain).


History: Ghana lifted the Cup of Nations on four occasions before it graced the World Cup for the first time back in 2006. The first campaign in Germany included safe passage through a group with Czech Republic, Italy and the United States and a round of 16 defeat to Brazil. The return trip four years later reached even greater heights by opening knockout play with a triumph over the Americans before suffering a narrow quarterfinal defeat to Uruguay on penalties.


How they got here: Cup of Nations winners Zambia offered the primary opposition in Group D. Ghana handled its task appropriately by splitting the two fixtures against the Zambians -- including the vital final day victory on home soil -- and sweeping its fixtures against Lesotho and Sudan. The triumph placed the Black Stars into the playoff draw for a third straight berth. A dangerous tie against Egypt emerged from the pot, but a rampant 6-1 first leg victory in Kumasi guaranteed safe progress even with a second leg defeat in Cairo.


Expected finish: This unit isn't quite as formidable as the previous two sides with Gyan now plying his trade in the Middle East and Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari past the peak of their powers. Despite those concerns, the fundamental principles -- brisk and powerful movement through midfield to tear apart the opposition with Kwadwo Asamoah, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Gyan all prominently involved -- still linger. If the defense can hold up under intense scrutiny, then Ghana could reach the knockout stage for a third consecutive tournament and push for a place in the last eight.

Louafi Larbi - Action Images/Reuters
World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976344 Greece Greece World Cup

Participation: 1994 and 2010.


Key player: Kostas Mitroglou (Olympiakos).


History: Democracy, math, astronomy, philosophy, architecture, theatre and soccer? Not a whole lot to be honest. Greece didn’t make it to a World Cup until 1994, after 12 failed qualifying campaigns. And in the USA, they lost all three games by a combined 10-0 score. In 2010, they won their first game, but lost the other two and went home after the group stage anyway.


How they got here: Slowly, tediously and defensively, the Greeks have but one tactical mindset: defend like hell and hope for an 89th-minute breakaway. That’s how they fluked their way to the Euro 2004 trophy, after all. Greece ended level on points with Bosnia and Herzegovina in Group G. They posted an 8-1-1 record, in spite of scoring just 12 times in 10 qualifiers -- including two games against laughable Liechtenstein. That’s because they conceded just four goals, tied for the fewest in Europe. Bosnia had a better goal difference, so Greece was relegated into the playoffs. Against Romania, they suddenly began scoring, winning 4-2 on aggregate.


Expected finish: They will surely crash out in the first round, having won no glory. They will be remembered only for the immeasurable boredom they inflicted on the viewers of their games.

World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973311 Germany Germany World Cup

Participation: 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich).


History: The Germans -- or, once upon a time, the West Germans -- have won three World Cups, which only two other countries have done. They’ve reached seven World Cup finals, which only one other country has done. And they’ve made it into the semifinals 12 times, which no other country has done. So, yeah, Germany is good at World Cupping.


How they got here: Predictably, Die Mannschaft ran like clockwork during qualifying, scoring 36 goals, the most in the final phases world-wide. Germany, after all, has never failed to qualify for a World Cup. They easily won nine of ten games in a fairly demanding group, which also included solid opponents like Sweden, Ireland and Austria. The only glitch came in the fourth game of their qualifying campaign, on Oct. 16, 2012, when they allowed the Swedes to come back from a four-goal deficit in the final half hour of the game to tie it 4-4.


Expected finish: A swashbuckling band of technicians plays exciting and winning soccer and are entering their prime. In Mesut Ozil, Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze and oh so many others, Germany has the midfield depth to match anybody’s. And yes, that includes Spain. Consequently, anything less than a spot in the final will be a disappointment. Don’t be surprised if Germany lifts its fourth World Cup.

World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976342 Côte d'Ivoire C%26ocirc%3Bte+d%27Ivoire World Cup

Participation: 2006 and 2010.


Key player: Didier Drogba (Galatasaray).


History: Drogba carried his war-torn country to a first World Cup berth in 2006 after years of frustrating failures. The journey proved more fulfilling than its culmination after a first-round exit in Germany. The same scenario -- a decent run through the perilous African qualifying process followed by a horrific group stage draw -- unfolded in South Africa four years later. Brazil and Portugal advanced at the Ivoiriens' expense despite a final day victory over North Korea.


How they got here: The initial assignment in Group C posed few problems for the Ivoiriens with Gambia, Morocco and Tanzania all dispatched rather easily. Sabri Lamouchi's side entered the playoffs as the top ranked side on the continent and received a tricky tie against Senegal as its scant reward. A comprehensive 3-1 victory in Abidjan ultimately produced a straightforward 4-2 victory on aggregate to seal a third consecutive berth.


Expected finish: Most of the same problems from the first two appearances will hinder the efforts in Brazil. This outfit remains a formidable side with pace and power through midfield and several potent options to lead the line up front. The integral cogs -- Drogba, the Touré brothers and Didier Zokora -- are perhaps past their best at the international level, though. It will fall on the next generation -- led by ex-Chelsea winger Salomon Kalou -- to solve the potential issues at the back and supply the necessary support elsewhere. The pieces exist for a run to the quarterfinals in the last stand for the core of this side, but the circumstances may dictate a more hasty departure.

Mike Hewitt - Getty Images
World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973312 Costa Rica Costa+Rica World Cup

Participation: 1990, 2002 and 2006.


Key player: Bryan Ruíz (Fulham).


History: Los Ticos qualified for their first World Cup by winning the CONCACAF Championship in 1989 and stunned international observers by advancing to the round of 16 with victories over Scotland and Sweden in group play. Bora Milutinovic's side promptly crashed out to Czechoslovakia at that point and watched the progress promptly disintegrate over the ensuing period. It took another 12 years to return to the tournament under 1990 veteran Alexandre Guimarães. The former international oversaw two group stage defeats in 2002 and 2006 before his adopted country missed out four years later.


How they got here: Costa Rica advanced from a weak third round qualifying group to earn yet another spot in the Hexagonal. A poor start in the first two matches in Panama and the United States raised questions about the road ahead, but Jorge Luis Pinto's side went unbeaten in its next six outings to dispel those concerns and secure a place in Brazil. A last day victory over Mexico nearly knocked El Tri out and moved the Ticos into second place in the final table.


Expected finish: The lofty finish in CONCACAF obscures more modest prospects for the ensuing Brazilian excursion. Pinto fashioned a compact and resolute side to muddle through qualifying against limited opposition. Most of the impetus comes from Ruíz and Joel Campbell in support of veteran target man Álvaro Saborío. Those three players can produce goals if given the opportunity, but they likely will not receive the necessary supply from a midfield unsuited to a higher standard. The defensive shape cannot withstand rigorous inquisition, either. Expect another early exit instead of a repeat of those heroics from 1990.

Juan Carlos Ulate - Action Images/Reuters
World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976343 Colombia Colombia World Cup

Participation: 1962, 1990, 1994 and 1998.


Key player: Radamel Falcao (AS Monaco.).


History: Colombia’s history at the World Cup is one of tragedy. This proud soccer nation has made it to the big tournament just four times. Its halcyon was to come in the 1990s, when a talented bunch, masterminded by the golden afro-ed Carlos Valderrama, was expected to do big things. But in 1990, the round of 16 was the end destination. Still, by 1994, their rampant form in qualifying made them one of the favorites in the USA. Two losses in the group stage -- one of them to the US on an own goal -- saw them eliminated early. After the tournament, Andres Escobar, scorer of that own goal, was murdered by a drug cartel, reportedly for his gaffe.


How they got here: For the first time in four attempts, Colombia has made it out of South America’s grueling CONMEBOL qualifying group, a two-year-long 16-game slog. Certainly, it helped that Brazil qualified automatically and so didn’t participate, but finishing second, just two points behind Argentina, is a strong credential heading into next summer all the same.


Expected finish: Striker Falcao is perhaps the best in the world at what he does. And the talent surrounding him isn’t half bad -- midfielders Juan Cuadrado and James Rodriguez in particular. A deeper run isn’t out of the question, but a round of 16 elimination is more likely.

John Vizcaino - Action Images/Reuters
World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973313 Cameroon Cameroon World Cup

Participation: 1982, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2010.


Key player: Samuel Eto'o (Chelsea).


History: Cameroon announced its arrival on the world stage by registering three draws in its debut back in 1982. Roger Milla featured prominently in those efforts and stuck around eight years later to guide the Indomitable Lions to a surprising quarterfinal berth in Italy eight years later. Milla scored again in his third World Cup appearance at the age of 42, but his side crashed out at the first hurdle in the United States nevertheless. A new generation assumed the mantle without replicating the success as Cameroon failed to progress in 1998, 2002 and 2010.


How they got here: The draw threw Cameroon into a perilous Group I assignment with Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Togo. Everything proceeded according to the usual pattern -- win at home, lose on the road -- until the Togolese succumbed to administrative errors in June to turn a 2-0 defeat in Lomé into a 3-0 forfeit. The extra points ensured a final day victory over Libya booked a playoff place. A scoreless draw in Tunisia set the stage for Cameroon to qualify with an impressive 4-1 victory in Yaoundé last month.


Expected finish: Volker Finke's outfit remains a side best suited to soak up pressure and strike quickly on the counter. The fine defensive record during qualifying offers hope for the group stage assignment, but this pedestrian unit might buckle when placed under more severe scrutiny. The dearth of creativity in midfield heaps pressure on Eto'o and Pierré Webo to convert the few chances conjured during the course of a match. If the Cameroonians can counter precisely, then they could catch a team or two by surprise. Otherwise, it looks like three matches and out.

STRINGER/AFP - Getty Images
World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976642 Bosnia and Herzegovina Bosnia+and+Herzegovina World Cup

Participation: First time entry.


Key player: Edin Dzeko (Manchester City).


History: None. Bosnia and Herzegovina won its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992 and then descended into a bloody civil war. They didn’t get around to entering a World Cup qualifying tournament until the 1998 edition. Terrible at first, they gradually improved and reached the playoffs for 2010. They fell to Portugal there, the same country that would foil them in the playoffs for Euro 2012, again keeping Bosnia and Herzegovina out of its first major tournament.


How they got here: With much experience won from previous qualifying campaigns, Bosnia finally figured it out this time around, winning UEFA’s fairly meek group G with an 8-1-1 record. Greece posted the same record -- although they’d lost to Bosnia 3-1 in Zenica after tying 0-0 in Piraeus -- but Bosnia’s goal difference was 16 points better, since they had scored 18 more times.


Expected finsh: The Bosnians, more than anything, are a great story, overcoming so much bloodshed and division to forge a cohesive team out of three once warring factions. Together, they have helped to heal a fractured country. And their golden generation of forwards Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, midfielders Miralem Pjanic and Senad Lulic and goalkeeper Asmir Begovic is maturing to their peaks. But for all the goodwill this team will foster, a spot in the knockout stages is likely out of their reach. The depth simply isn’t there for bigger ambitions to be manifested.

Jamie McDonald - Getty Images
World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31973310 Belgium Belgium World Cup

Participation: 1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002.


Key Player: Eden Hazard (Chelsea).


History: After a brief halcyon era in the 1980s, when a Belgian golden generation placed fourth at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, a period of respectability followed in the 1990s. After being denied a perfectly good Marc Wilmots goal in the round of 16 against Brazil at the 2002 World Cup, eventually inducing their 2-0 loss, they never made it back onto the world stage.


How they got here: After several frustrated campaigns, this band of prodigies put it all together and went undefeated in qualifying, winning all five of their games on the road. In 10 games, they conceded just four goals in a tough group that also included Croatia and Serbia.


Expected finish: No other country can boast anywhere near as much young talent as Belgium does, in spite of only being the size of Maryland and counting just 11 million citizens -- Hazard and Vincent Kompany and Marouane Fellaine and Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke and Kevin De Bruyne and on and on and on. In spite of their age, they are already an outsider for the title, boasting more than enough talent in every line to match up with just about anybody the World Cup can throw at them. But they are also internationally inexperienced, meaning a quarterfinal showing would be a fine result.

Tony O'Brien - Action Images/Reuters
World Cup 194 43 2014 World Cup - Stars and Team Previews 31976638 Algeria Algeria World Cup

Participation: 1982, 1986 and 2010.


Key player: Sofiane Feghouli (Valencia).


History: Algeria took its World Cup bow with a stunning 2-1 victory over West Germany in 1982. A second victory over Chile in Group 2 should have resulted in a berth in the second round-robin stage, but the West Germans and the Austrians played out their final group game to ensure both sides progressed on goal difference in the wake of a 1-0 West German win. The return trip four years later did not match those exploits with just a solitary draw against Northern Ireland to show for three group matches. It took another 24 years to cinch a third appearance, but that excursion also ended abruptly after group play.


How they got here: Vahid Halilhodžic steered the Fennec Foxes through a manageable Group H assignment with a minimum of fuss. Five wins from six matches pulled the Algerians well clear ahead of Benin, Mali and Rwanda in the final accounting. The success against modest opposition earned a seeded berth in the playoffs and a two-legged tie against Burkina Faso. It proved considerably harder to dispatch the Burkinabé after a 3-2 defeat in Ouagadougou to open the series, but captain Madjid Bougherra's goal in the return match in Blida helped book a second straight berth.


Expected finish: This team returns to the World Cup in a stronger position than four years ago. A few of the notable holdovers from that excursion -- Bougherra, Rafik Djebbour, Carl Medjani and Hassan Yebda -- provide a link from the past to a promising future. Halilhodžic placed significant faith in the next generation to round out the side with more incisiveness. If that trio finds its footing earlier than expected, then the Algerians could stun an unsuspecting foe or two along the way before heading home after group play.

Louafi Larbi - Action Images/Reuters
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