After four unbearably long years, World Cup season returns and is coming to its spiritual home in Brazil. To preview this month-long celebration, here are my picks for what to expect at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. For each category, I first give an answer that is more on the obvious side, followed by a not-so-obvious answer that significantly less people are talking about. Finally, I give my predicted winner and break down why I see them hoisting the trophy at the Maracanã in Rio De Janeiro July 13.
Most impactful pre-tournament injury
Radamel Falcao: This World Cup has been plagued by injuries to big stars, but none are more influential than that of Radamel Falcao. Six months ago, Colombia were a dark horse candidate to go all the way in Brazil. Most everyone who thought this expected them to do it on Falcao's back. Before his big money move to AS Monaco, Falcao scored 34 goals for Atlético Madrid and was widely considered one of the world's top strikers. One torn ACL later, the Colombians will look for goals elsewhere. He almost made a comeback in time, but we at home will miss out on seeing one of the world's best on the world's best stage, and none are more disappointed than the Colombia faithful.
Marco Reus: The German international is slowly gaining more recognition for his outstanding play. Borussia Dortmund's last standing star—moment of silence for Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski's transfers to rival Bayern Munich—scored 16 goals and tallied 13 assists in league play, adding five goals and two assists in the Champions League. Germany's midfield is filled with some of the best in the game, so Reus' absence might be overlooked. However, Reus brings much more to the left flank compared to his replacement, Lukas Podolski. And Germany, who may replicate Spain's 2012 strikerless formation, will sorely miss Reus' proven goal-scoring.
Chile: How cruel the World Cup draw can be. Not only is Chile grouped with both finalists from the 2010 World Cup, if they finish second in Group B they will likely play Brazil and if they shock people and win the group, they likely await Italy, Uruguay or England (whoever finishes second in Group D). Regardless, the Chileans are a deceptively threatening team. Much attention is given to Barcelona's Alexis Sánchez, his flair on the ball and superb striking ability. Not as much attention goes to Arturo Vidal, the magician in midfield. Vidal, having won two straight championships in Italy with Juventus, is one of the brightest midfielders in the world. It remains to be seen how much time Vidal might miss for an injury. If he returns anywhere near his potential, manager Jorge Sampaoli gives Chile the guile and the belief to upset some of the tournament's favorites. Which they will have to do to stay alive in Brazil.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Do I love Bosnia and Herzegovina or do I love their story? Well, both. What's not to love about a country making its first World Cup appearance? Now add that this country nearly lost its life immediately after gaining it when a war erupted following their declaration of independence in the early 1990s. The wounds of the Bosnian War are still fresh—more than half of the squad left the country during or after the war as children, or were born elsewhere, according to The New York Times.
The Dragons have the underdog story to be the team that captivates the world, but they also have the on-field talent (and fortunate enough draw) to advance in the tournament. No, I do not expect them to beat Argentina in their opening game, but wins against Nigeria and Iran are realistic expectations. After that, a matchup against the Group E winner awaits, likely Switzerland or France. The Swiss are a young team that are not quite there yet and France are as hit or miss as they come (see 2010 World Cup debacle). Up the middle, the Bosnian spine is strong. Stoke City's Asmir Begovi? is a strong and reliable goalkeeper, A.S. Roma's Miralem Pjani? in an emerging free kick specialist and midfield maestro and up top Edin Džeko provided numerous crucial goals for Manchester City late in the season, enabling them to win the title. The world will fall in love with Bosnia and Herzegovina this summer.
Breakout player of the tournament
Ciro Immobile: Let's play a word association game. Italian striker? The first name that comes to mind is Mario Balotelli accompanied by the image of his flexing celebration against Germany at the UEFA European Championship semifinals in 2012. After the 2014 World Cup, soccer fans around the world will recognize Ciro Immobile, who quietly led Serie A in scoring with 22 goals for Torino and then moved to Borussia Dortmund this summer for an undisclosed fee. He can score goals in any way. In a recent Italy friendly against Brazilian club Fluminense, Immobile was involved on all five Azzurri goals—scoring three and assisting two. Balotelli's talent in undeniable, but manager Cesare Prandelli might favor and should reward Immobile's consistency with a spot in the starting 11, where he should dazzle this summer.
Miralem Pjanic: The Bosnians have the talent to earn a spot in the knockout stages, and much of that quietly comes from Miralem Pjanic controlling the game in midfield. Pjanic played a big role in A.S. Roma finishing second in Serie A, ended the season with six goals, six assists and a spot near the top of the league in chances created. His free kick is terrifying for opposing goalkeepers, and few things get you on the world's radar more than quality free kick goals during the World Cup. If the Bosnians do well this tournament, expect more and more people to buzz about Pjanic.
2018 will be their year
Belgium: Over the past few years, seeing the likes of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku swiftly develop into top English Premier League talents (with Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj on his way), Belgium have been talked about repeatedly as the team nobody is talking about. And rightfully so, with EPL captains Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) and Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal) steadfastly manning the center of defense in front of Thibaut Courtois, who is the best young goalkeeper in the game and recently won the La Liga title with Atlético Madrid.
Belgium, on paper, can certainly win the World Cup. However, Belgium will be attending for the first time since 2002. Only Daniel Van Buyten and Timmy Simons return for another go at the trophy. Their lack of big tournament exposure as a team is what leaves me saying they stand a much better chance contending for Russia's World Cup in 2018 and the UEFA European Championship in 2016. Hazard is 23, Lukaku is 21, Januzaj is 19, Kompany and Vermaelen are 28, and Courtois is 22. In order to succeed you must fail first. Belgium will be quite the force when experience is added to their arsenal.
Switzerland: People scratched their head when they saw the Swiss in the World Cup's Pot 1 along with Brazil, Spain, Germany and the rest. They made it there by finishing undefeated in their qualification group, albeit a weak one—Iceland and Slovenia finished second and third respectively. Switzerland are a good side, but Bayern Munich's Xherdan Shaqiri, 22, will likely lead this tournament's fourth youngest team (25.6 year old average) to more success at the next World Cup. Still expect them to cause problems and perhaps top France in the group, but not to make much noise in the knockout rounds.
Who Will Win
Spain: No team had ever won three major international tournaments in a row, but in 2012 Spain did just that after slamming Italy in the UEFA European Championship final. Now we enter a whole new realm of uncharted territory, and Spain, like Christopher Columbus for Spanish leaders in 1492, will be the ones venturing where no other team has before—a fourth straight major trophy.
Starting at the back, Real Madrid's Iker Casillas has won everything for club and country. He has saved World Cup penalties and he has hoisted Champions League trophies. In 2012, San Iker was widely regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world. Over the past few years, his relationship with Real Madrid has been in flux as he lost the league starting job to Diego López. However, Casillas remained between the posts for their Champions League campaign, one that saw Real Madrid at long last earn La Décima—their record tenth Champions League trophy. Some may question his reliability, but for this tournament I will remain faithful to San Iker once more.
When Spain won the World Cup in 2010, they allowed two goals—in seven games. This time around, they will have more reliability at full back, with Jordi Alba being a premier left back and both César Azpilicueta and Juanfran having stellar club seasons in 2013-'14. Some have questioned Spain's central defense. Gerard Piqué has been unlucky with his own goals this season and Sergio Ramos probably gets sent off in more games than he finishes. That being said, at the top of their respective games the two have the potential to be as solid a back pairing as any in Brazil this summer. And Pique is has a child with Shakira, so that must count for something.
Spain's midfield needs no introduction. If Spain go with their 4-3-3 formation, the three roaming the middle of the field are the best in the business. Xavi Hernández, 34, and a true passing maestro, has one more great tournament left in him. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets both also excel at Spain's tiki-taka style of keeping possession. On the attacking side, Andrés Iniesta has been widely regarded as the world's third best player, behind Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. If manager Vicente del Bosque chooses to have David Silva on the other flank, he will be selecting a creative playmaker to can dribble around entire teams and find his teammates in the smallest of windows. With this lineup, del Bosque still has world class players on his bench, like Cesc Fàbregas, Koke, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and Pedro. Not bad.
What tips the scale for Spain is the addition of Diego Costa. Having to pick between two of the tournament's favorites, Costa chose to play for Spain despite also being able to play for Brazil, where he was born. It looks all but certain Costa will end up moving to Chelsea this summer, but the former Atlético Madrid striker tallied 27 goals in 35 La Liga appearances this season. If healthy, which is as big an if as there gets, Costa can challenge for the Golden Boot given all the playmakers surrounding him. A striker like Costa gives Spain the edge they need to win the World Cup.
Picking a winner of the World Cup is like picking a winner of the March Madness. It is not always about who is the best team, but who can be the best over these seven games. The team I trust the most to get this done has to be Spain. And what a feat it would be if La Furia Roja could win their fourth major tournament in a row.
Italy: The Italians have the make of a team that can stay in every single game they play. They are strong defensively and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is a winner. Andrea Pirlo is a magician in midfield and has the supporting cast that gives him freedom to work that magic. Mario Balotelli is as talented as strikers come, but Ciro Immobile has become a scoring machine. Having that many threats in a tournament like the World Cup spells trouble for opposing teams.
They have an extremely tough draw going into a group with Uruguay, England and Costa Rica. The Azzurri will also likely have to face Spain or Brazil if they make it to the quarterfinals. Italy lost to Spain in the Confederations Cup on penalty kicks and made it to the final of the 2012 European Championship. They have the players to make it far in the tournament, but Italy also play as a team as well as any other in the world. When it comes tournament time, that is always dangerous. Italy have what it takes to make it far in Brazil.
No matter what happens, if all this is spot on or way off, I could not be more ready for what this next month will bring. It's World Cup time.
Jonah is a junior majoring in journalism and psychology. If you have any questions about anything related to soccer, or if you just want to tell Jonah how excited you are for the World Cup or how wrong his predictions are, email firstname.lastname@example.org.