Intrigue eclipsed confusion as organizers divided the world’s best 32 soccer teams into eight groups Friday in Salvador, Brazil, to decide the final draw for World Cup 2014.
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke — with eight football legends and super model Fernanda Lima — chose color-coded plastic balls from the many numbered pots in what some called a convoluted process. There was even a "Pot X" to ensure no single continent dominated a group.
Still, none of that mattered as the teams emerged one by one. Nervewracked coaches watched the glitzy production from the audience and millions of breathless fans followed the live telecast.
Football fans the world over will now analyze the groupings, with some rejoicing at their clear paths to victory, while others have already given up the ghost. Sorry, American soccer fans, you might have drawn the shortest straw possible, with most pundits placing the United States squarely at the bottom of the "group of death."
The process set the first-round schedule, with teams in groups playing each other once in the first round. The best two from each group advance into the knockout stage.
Croatia gets the honor of kicking off the tournament June 12 against host Brazil in Group A at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo. The final comes a month later at the “cathedral of Brazilian football,” the iconic Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, on July 13.
Between those, there are many splendid storylines.
As it does every four years, talk after the draw turned quickly to the “group of death,” or the toughest of the eight. Only this year, it’s almost too difficult to pick a clear “GoD.”
Few teams would switch places with Uruguay, Costa Rica, England or Italy in Group D. Even fewer would be foolish enough to replace Germany, Portugal, Ghana or the United States in Group G.
Other drama could include a rematch of the 2010 final, when defending champion Spain faces Netherlands in Group B in the first week.
Here’s a closer look at each of the groups (with FIFA world rankings in parenthesis):
Group A: Brazil (10), Croatia (16), Mexico (20), Cameroon (51) As the host, Brazil qualified automatically so it might be difficult to peg how well the squad is playing six months from kickoff. Will that matter? Probably not. The five-time champions have never missed a tournament and, of course, have home-field advantage and a budding superstar named Neymar. They also defeated Spain 3-0 to win the Confederations Cup this year.
Croatia qualified with relative ease, dispatching tiny Iceland and lightweights Scotland, Wales and Macedonia. Yet, Croatia missed the 2010 event, couldn’t reach the knockout round in ’02 or ’06, and endured coaching turmoil this season. Mexico enters the tournament with its share of drama, needing a last-chance playoff to advance after changing coaches four times. Cameroon is lowest ranked, but shouldn’t be dismissed after a confident qualifying campaign. They might even weather the heat and humidity of a Brazilian summer better than most.
Who advances: Brazil and Cameroon
Group B: Spain (1), Netherlands (9), Chile (15), Australia (59) Are we witnessing a changing of the guard in Europe? Spain edged the Netherlands 1-0 to win the 2010 World Cup, and is two-time European champion. Yet, as the Spanish nurture young stars taking over from established veterans, the Dutch are surging.
Only Germany matched the Netherlands during an incredible qualifying campaign in Europe. They should give everyone headaches, including the world No. 1. Chile is a World Cup veteran, and this year’s squad is a high-scoring group that won five of its final six games. Only defensive concerns might temper expectations. Australia is the lowest-ranked team headed to Brazil, and unfortunate to draw into Group B.
Who advances: Spain, Netherlands
Group C: Colombia (4), Greece (12), Ivory Coast (17), Japan (48) A heady ranking and playing close to home, Colombia looked a formidable side during a difficult South American qualifying stage. While “Los Cafeteros” have never made an impression at a World Cup, they are currently ranked fourth in the world and are considered dangerous outsiders.
Defensive stalwarts Greece has never made it past the group stage in either of its two previous World Cup appearances, and finished behind rookies Bosnia-Herzegovina in Europe. Ivory Coast was unbeaten in qualifying but endured nervy moments in a playoff against Senegal. This is a third successive World Cup for the veteran-laden team, however. Very dangerous and impressive four years ago, and at the 2011 Asian Cup, Japan had little trouble in qualifying. It makes their world ranking deceptive.
Who advances: Colombia, Ivory Coast
Group D: Uruguay (6), Costa Rica (31), England (13), Italy (7) A difficult team to analyze, Uruguay struggled to advance from South America after winning the 2011 Copa America. La Celeste also reached the semifinals four years ago, and they’re playing near home. Costa Rica finished second behind the United States in the final CONCACAF qualifying group to return to the World Cup after missing South Africa in 2010.
Europe is abuzz with England and Italy playing their first game in the Amazon city of Manaus. England came through qualifying unbeaten, scoring 31 goals, but rarely has expectation surrounding the team been lower. There are questions, as there seems to be every year, about goaltending. Euro 2012 runners-up, Italy cruised through qualifying unbeaten to reach a 14th consecutive World Cup.
Who qualifies: Uruguay, Italy
Group E: Switzerland (8), Ecuador (23), France (19), Honduras (41) The Swiss qualified for the finals from probably the weakest European group, finishing top despite ties with Cyprus and Iceland. Ecuador qualified for a third World Cup after finishing ahead of Uruguay on goal difference in South America. Yet, they didn’t win away from their high-altitude home base in Quito.
France seemed set to miss a major tournament for the first time in two decades when they lost 2-0 in Ukraine in the first leg of a European playoff, but regrouped in an impressive 3-0 rematch victory. Will it be enough to make them forget recent troubles? Honduras took advantage of a struggling Mexico in qualifying. The Central American nation of little more than 8 million people is through to a third World Cup, and second in a row.
Who qualifies: Ecuador, Honduras
Group F: Argentina (3), Bosnia-Herzegovina (21), Iran (45), Nigeria (36) Argentina is likely thanking the soccer gods for this favorable grouping. They cruised through South America, topping the group and losing just twice, including a final match after qualification had been secured. Bosnia will be the only team in Brazil making their World Cup finals debut. They qualified easily after netting 30 goals in 10 games.
Relatively unknown, this year’s Iranian squad is tops from Asia though features many players with little international seasoning. Finishing ahead of a polished South Korean squad is likely Iran’s highlight heading to the World Cup. Nigeria may have the best chance of all the African sides heading to Brazil. The Super Eagles won the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year.
Who qualifies: Argentina, Nigeria
Group G: Germany (2), Portugal (5), Ghana (24), USA (14) One of the world’s best teams will not advance, and neither will the United States, from the group of death. Germany cruised through qualifying, dropping just two points and scoring 36 goals in 10 games. The three-time world champions have a wealth of attacking options. Portugal boasts one of the world’s best players in Cristiano Ronaldo, but lacks depth after that. Will a shared language and colonial heritage help or hurt the Portuguese?
Ghana qualified for a third consecutive World Cup by beating difficult Egypt in the African playoffs. The Black Stars reached the quarter-finals in South Africa four years ago before losing on penalties to Uruguay. The US draws the most difficult schedule, and will have to play their best ever soccer to advance. On their side is Jurgen Klinsmann, a former German superstar who also coached the team before taking the US job.
Who advances: Germany, Ghana
Group H: Belgium (11), Algeria (26), Russia (22), South Korea (54) Belgium stormed through Europe, and draws a favorable group here. The Red Devils didn’t lose a game in Europe, and the squad is full of players starring in Europe’s leading leagues. Still, the team hasn’t reached a World Cup since 2002. Algeria has never reached a World Cup knockout phase in four previous attempts, and struggled in the African Cup this year.
Impressive in European qualifying ahead of Portugal, Russia is led by veteran coach Fabio Capello with stingy defense and goalkeeping. Once thought to be poised to break through for Asian teams, South Korea needed goal difference to escape ahead of minnow Uzbekistan. It will be up to new coach Hong Myung-Bo to remind his squad of its former glory and a fourth-place result in 2002 at home.
Who advances: Belgium, Russia