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World Cup first: Spain and Netherlands open play in a finals rematch

SoccerFIFA World CupCameroonPortugalArgentinaNetherlandsMajor League Soccer
World Cup finalists from 2010 get a rematch in first round of Brazil group play

Never before have the World Cup finalists met in the opening round of the succeeding tournament.

From the first-time-for-everything department, it's defending champion Spain versus runner-up Netherlands -- on just the second lap of the 4 1/2-week soccer marathon.

Spain, which carved out a 1-0 overtime win in 2010, brings in FIFA's No. 1 world ranking. As usual, the Spaniards will not send out a megastar along the lines of Argentina's Lionel Messi or Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, but their trademark depth makes them a serious threat to have another deep run in the tournament.

The Dutch have been hampered by injuries, none stranger than the one to their perennially ailing captain, Robin van Persie. The midfielder was hurt on a Brazilian beach Monday when a kitesurfer landed on him. He has been cleared to play but might be casting an eye toward the sky for a wayward parachutist.

The ultra-physical championship game four years ago produced 28 fouls. Time likely has healed all wounds, physical and emotional, but a rough rematch can be expected.

Day 2 commences with Mexico and Cameroon, two unlikely participants. The Mexicans, who have changed coaches with the frequency that others change bedsheets, barely qualified. Cameroon has reached its seventh World Cup, most of any African nation, but nearly boycotted over a dispute involving bonus payments. Players decided to board their plane to Brazil at the eleventh hour.

The team features forwards Samuel Eto'o, the tournament's highest paid player with a Russian club until he accepted a big-time pay cut to join Chelsea, and Fabrice Olinga, the World Cup's youngest player, having turned 18 last month.

Eto'o could afford to eschew the bonuses, but he has a history of standing in alliance with lesser-paid teammates. A players strike in 2011 over the same issue resulted in Eto'o being suspended by the federation for four games.

The triple-header concludes with Chile, the wise guys' pick to progress far into the bracket, against Australia, the longest of long shots.

Chilean standout Arturo Vidal is limping with a knee injury, so the schedule plays in his team's favor if they can rest the midfielder after building a lead.

Australia enters with the worst ranking and the best nickname (Socceroos). Nothing against MLS, but it speaks volumes when your premier player (midfielder Tim Cahill) hails from the mid-level American league. 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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