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Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Brazil... is one of the favourites to go
all the way to the final so it's no sur-
prise that few expect the hosts to face
difficulties in the group stage. The five-
time champions have reached the sec-
ond round every time since 1970, and
after escaping some more traditional
opponents in the draw, it should be
able to avoid a major surprise in its
group this time.
Mexico... After just barely qualifying,
Mexico hopes to finally get past the
second round in Brazil.
Mexico has reached the quarterfinals
only twice, at home in 1970 and 1986.
The Mexicans have never played
Cameroon at the World Cup, and it had
only one match against Croatia (a 1-0
group win in 2002). It hasn't had good
fortune against Brazil, losing all three
matches (1950, '54 and '62). It also lost
to the Brazilians in the group stage of
the Confederations Cup last year.
Cameroon... Samuel Eto'o will be
back at the World Cup carrying
Cameroon's hopes of a surprising per-
formance in Brazil.
Cameroon hasn't advanced past the
group stage since 1990, when it be-
came the first African team to reach
Croatia... Croatia coach Niko Kovac
won't have forward Mario Mandzukic,
who was red-carded in a decisive quali-
fier against Iceland. Kovac also knows
he will be without defender Josip
Simunic, who was banned for 10
games by FIFA for leading fans in a pro-
Nazi chant after the Iceland match in
Back at the World Cup after not qual-
ifying in 2010, Croatia will play its sec-
ond match against Cameroon and then
close out group play against Mexico.
Australia, Holland, Spain, Chile
Spain... With Brazil a potential oppo-
nent in the round of 16, no team can af-
ford a poor start in Group B.
Spain has not lost a step as it vies to
win a fourth straight major tourna-
ment with a core squad that is likely
playing its final World Cup.
Spain's schedule is perhaps the
toughest, as it follows up its match
against the Netherlands by playing
Chile on June 18 at the Maracana Sta-
dium in Rio de Janeiro.
"We'll have to be ready from Day 1,"
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said
after the draw.
Spain finishes group play against
Australia, where anything but a victory
would be a shock.
Holland... Now led by coach Louis van
Gaal, the Netherlands is always a con-
tender but goes into the World Cup on
the heels of flopping at Euro 2012.
The Dutch went unbeaten in World
Cup qualifying, winning nine of their 10
games after Bert van Marwijk's exit
following the poor performance in
Poland and Ukraine.
Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben
continue to spark the Oranje, but Van
Persie must seize the opportunity after
the Manchester United striker has
scored only once at the last two major
tournaments, the 2010 World Cup and
Chile... is stronger and more danger-
ous than four years ago, when it also
met Spain in group play before being
eliminated by Brazil in the last 16.
This time around, the South Ameri-
cans are lurking, waiting to take advan-
tage of any slip-up by either Spain or
Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal and
Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez will
be the key players for Chile, which has
steadied under coach Jorge Sampaoli
since he took over two years ago.
Australia... All three group con-
tenders know victory against Australia
will be crucial to advancing. Australia is
well aware, too.
Australia won one of its group games
in South Africa four years ago, but will
find it difficult to repeat that feat with
an inexperienced squad that is being
groomed for the 2018 World Cup in
Colombia, Greece, Japan, Ivory Coast
Colombia... After the draw in Decem-
ber, Colombia was made an early
favourite to advance from Group C. But
that was before Colombia striker
Radamel Falcao damaged ligaments in
his left knee in a French Cup game
against an amateur team.
The "Coffee Growers" from Colombia
rolled through qualifying, even routing
Uruguay 4-0 on their way to earning
30 points from 16 matches.
Falcao sealed qualification with two
late goals against Chile, coming from
behind for a 3-3 home draw.
Pekerman's opening match is against
Greece, Europe's defensive stalwarts
who conceded only four goals in 10
Greece... coach Fernando Santos will
step down after the World Cup, but
says he's glad to help lift the country's
spirits after it endured four years of se-
vere financial crisis.
Santos has stuck with striker Kostas
Mitroglou despite his troubled move to
Premier League club Fulham but had to
drop defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos,
who has missed matches at Schalke
for 13 months due to a knee injury.
Greece captain Giorgos Karagounis
remains motivator-in-chief at age 37,
playing in eight qualifiers and both
playoffs to reach a record 132 appear-
ances for the national team.
Japan... will be looking for Keisuke
Honda to provide a spark in Brazil, but
the bleach-haired forward has had an
unsettling time at AC Milan since join-
ing this year from CSKA Moscow.
Honda scored an injury-time penalty
against Australia to make Japan the
first team to qualify for this year's
tournament, leading coach Alberto Zac-
cheroni to promise that his team was
ready to "surprise the world."
Ivory Coast... Didier Drogba remains
at the centre of Ivory Coast's hopes,
despite turning 36 last month.
The Ivorians qualified comfortably
under French coach Sabri Lamouchi,
and were further relieved to avoid a
tough draw this time around.
They faced Argentina and the
Netherlands in 2006, and Brazil and
Portugal at the last World Cup --- fin-
ishing third both times. If Ivory Coast
makes it through this year, there will be
not let up in the round of 16 with the
team likely to face a former World Cup
winner in either Italy, England or
England, Uruguay, Costa
Italy's intentions will likely
depend on the wavering
ways of talented forward
Mario Balotelli, whose mood
swings often get him into
trouble both on and off the
But Balotelli averages
about a goal every two
matches in Serie A and with
the national team, and no-
body seems to have a better
handle on him than Italy
coach Cesare Prandelli. If the
CONTINUED ON PG 20
Luis Felipe Scolari ... Brazil coach.
man ... has
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