For the longest time, Japan was an unremarkable team. They have gone to the last five World Cups but alternated between group stage and a Round of 16 eliminations. Solid but unspectacular, that was always the Japanese. And their track record in the last year is hardly different. Except that in their two most recent games, friendlies away against the Netherlands and Belgium, the Japanese suddenly passed their more fancied opponents off the park in a 2-2 draw and 3-2 win, respectively. With Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda running the show in midfield, the Samurai Blue could surprise a lot of people.
Getty ImagesAdam Pretty
While they’re a little thin defensively, the Black Stars have one of the deepest midfields in international soccer these days. Kevin-Prince Boateng, Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien, Kwadwo Asamoah and Andre Ayew are all studs there. Asamoah Gyan and Jordan Ayew, meanwhile, are fine forwards. In 2006, Ghana reached the Round of 16 of the World Cup. In 2010 it was the quarterfinals, before a Luis Suarez handball robbed them of a spot in the final four. They could conceivably get there this time around, provided they survive a tough group of Germany, Portugal and the United States.
AFP/Getty ImagesRODRIGO ARANGUA
You probably ought to be weary of anything or anyone touting the chances of Colombia at a World Cup. Recall that ahead of 1994, one Pele declared that the Cafeteros would win the whole thing. They never even made it out of the group stage. We’re not saying they’ll win the World Cup now. Just that even if they are without Radamel Falcao, the injured star striker, they’re a better team than they get credit for. In midfield, Fredy Guarin and James Rodriguez are some of the best in the world. Jackson Martinez is a decent replacement for Falcao. And if the latter makes it back in time, look out, because a group with Greece, the Côte d’Ivoire and Japan practically guarantees a spot in the knockout rounds.
AFP/Getty ImagesLUIS ACOSTA
We’re all pretty well aware that Belgium has produced an improbably fantastic generation that is rounding into its prime right about now -- Eden Hazard and Vicent Kompany and Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel and Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, oh my! Even so, the Red Devils, who haven’t been to a World Cup since 2002 -- when a wrongly disallowed goal by their current coach Marc Wilmots could have put them into the quarterfinals over Brazil -- might be further along than people think. They earned gutsy wins in Croatia and Serbia during qualifying, going undefeated over all 10 games.
The French have developed a funny rhythm at World Cups. They reached the semifinals in both 1982 and 1986, after not qualifying in 1970 and 1974 and only reaching the group stage in 1978. Then they failed to qualify for 1990 and 1994. In 1998, they won it. In 2002, they went out in the group stage. In 2006, they reached the final. And in 2010, they went out in the group stage again. It’s either all or nothing for France; a smashing success or an utter failure. Going by the pattern they have set, they should be due for another deep run. And in spite of needing a miracle 3-0 home win over Ukraine in the playoffs just to qualify, they certainly have the talent and depth for one.
Getty ImagesJean Catuffe
Overrated: Ivory Coast
On paper, the Elephants – African teams have the best nicknames, don’t they? – have an impressive team. Take their forward corps of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, Wilfried Bony, Seydou Doumbia and Lacina Traore alone. And behind them the Touré brothers, Yaya and Kolo, anchor the other lines. But from there on out the drop-off is rather steep. The truth is: this golden generation has never put it together. They crashed out in the group stage of each of the past two World Cups and haven’t managed to lift an African Cup of Nations, in spite of reaching the semifinals three out of the last five times.
Getty ImagesMike Hewitt
Mexico -- source of national glee among the United States men’s national team’s fans for their disastrous qualifying campaign. They were, in the end, the benefactors of Graham Zusi’s last-day, last-ditch equalizer against Panama, which sent Mexico into the playoffs with New Zealand. Funny thing about Mexico: they have been spectacularly successful at the youth level in recent years, winning trophies at the under-17 and under-20 World Cups and the Olympics, which is under-23. Yet the integration of those players into the senior team has been so fraught as to be comical. Expect nothing from them at this World Cup.
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Yes, Brazil are among the favorites, and we’re certainly not saying that they won’t have a successful tournament. We’re just saying their chances might not be as good as they are widely believed to be, even if they have an easy group stage draw in Mexico, Cameroon and Croatia. That said, this is a young and fairly inexperienced team. And while they romped to the Confederations Cup victory on home soil last summer – they also won it in 2005 and 2009 without winning the World Cup the next year – the pressure to win a sixth championship will be immense. And so many of the regulars will be World Cup rookies or first-time starters.
AFP/Getty ImagesFABRICE COFFRINI
The cycle is oh so familiar. A solid game or two and the English, egged on by their tabloid newspapers, get carried away with expectations for their Three Lions. Jingoism and nationalism run wild and they resume reminding everyone that they invented they game -- actually, they just codified it, but whatever. But as usual, this is hardly a team that will contend. The central defense and their goalkeeper are shaky. The midfield is questionable. And the offensive line will be overly reliant on Wayne Rooney, who is coming off an exhausting year at Manchester United. And a group with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica certainly doesn’t help them any.
AFP/Getty ImagesIAN KINGTON
It’s tempting to assume that Oranje is a contender just because they made it to the final the last time around. But this team has known a lot of upheaval since then. After the Dutch lost all three of their games in the group stage of Euro 2012, manager Bert van Marwijk was replaced by the old despot Louis van Gaal, who instituted a youth movement and returned to the “Dutch school.” Certainly, the soccer has been more attractive, and Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben are still world-class players. Wesley Sneijder have regressed considerably, and the rest of the team is very green and, Kevin Strootman excepted, not all that promising.