The greatest sporting event on the planet, the 2014 FIFA World Cup, begins Thursday in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with the host country and favorite, Brazil, taking on a competitive Croatian team. I believe this World Cup will leave many of the traditional powers in the sport vying for the world's most coveted trophy.
There will be a number of challenges for the competing teams, FIFA and the local organizing committee. This World Cup resembles the '94 Cup in the United States because the geographical distances between the Brazilian venues are great and the weather conditions (heat and humidity) will be challenging. The logistics and venue readiness are also of concern. It will require a perfectly coordinated effort by the Brazilians and FIFA to pull off the event in the fashion expected of a host country.
But the 2014 World Cup has the potential to become one of the greatest of all time. I believe we will see high-scoring games. There are an incredible group of attacking players in this tournament: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Lionel Messi (Argentina), Luis Suarez (Uruguay), Diego Costa (Spain), Edin Dzeko (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Wayne Rooney (England), Neymar (Brazil) and Robin Van Persie (Holland). We will also see the game's best midfielders: Xavi and Iniesta (Spain), Luka Modric (Croatia) and Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast), among others. Unfortunately, the tournament has lost two great attacking players due to injury, Franck Ribery (France) and Marco Reus (Germany), which could greatly impact their countries.
We should see the traditional powers from Europe (Germany, Spain, France and Italy) and South America (Brazil and Argentina) advance out of group play. Additionally, the African countries (Ivory Coast and Cameroon) will show well. This spells bad news for the CONCACAF, Asia and Oceania countries. If there is a long shot in this tournament, it will come from one of the South American countries (Colombia or Uruguay) and possibly Belgium.
Being a fan of the World Cup is a lot easier and a lot more fun than coaching in one. But having said that, I would do it all over again!
Now allow me to make my predictions:
I see Brazil winning Group A. The key game will be Cameroon-Mexico, with Cameroon surprisingly winning and ultimately advancing to the round of 16. In Group B, the opening matchup of Spain vs. Netherlands will set the tone. I see Spain prevailing, with Chile finishing second in group play. For me, Group C is predictable: Colombia and the Ivory Coast should advance. Group D is a tough one, and the opening game between England and Italy is the key match; I see Uruguay and Italy advancing. Groups E and F are predictable as well: I see Ecuador, France, Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina advancing into the round of 16.
Group G is among the most difficult to predict. Clearly, Germany should prevail. However, the opening games, Germany vs. Portugal and the U.S. vs. Ghana, are tough calls, and the winners should advance. That said, I see this group being decided on the last day of play (June 26).
I do see some advantages for the U.S. They start the competition late (June 16), allowing time to get acclimated to Brazil and get a feel for the competition, officiating, field, climatic conditions and the pace of games. They play arguably the weakest team (Ghana) first and the most difficult team (Germany) last. Portugal's strength is in question because of fitness issues with Ronaldo and Pepe. Meanwhile, the U.S. enters the tournament with improving play in the defensive end, and the team is injury-free and very fit.
For the U.S. to advance to the round of 16 it will need outstanding play from Tim Howard in goal, must score off of set pieces, play in low-scoring games and, in all honesty, must beat Ghana. I see the U.S. and Portugal fighting for the second position in the group, with Germany having already qualified to advance before it faces the U.S. In the end, I see the U.S. advancing with a total of five points (three points with a win over Ghana, plus two points for draws against Portugal and Germany), slightly edging out Portugal. Lastly, Belgium will win Group H, and I see Russia finishing second ahead of South Korea.
The round of 16 will be composed of teams from Europe (seven), South America (six), Africa (two) and CONCACAF (one), with Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal and England going home early.
The final standings in group play will determine the matchups right through to the finals on July 13. We could see Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain advancing to the semifinals, which would be an incredible climax to what could be the best World Cup of all time. In the end, I believe Brazil will prevail. Enjoy the World Cup!
Arena is general manager and coach of the Galaxy and was coach of the U.S. national team in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times