BELGILE That made-up word combines Belgium and Chile, two of the most popular sleeper picks among fùtbol enthusiasts. Belgian forward Eden Hazard and his club team Chelsea, made an appearance last summer at Lucas Oil Stadium. Chile’s headliner is Arturo Vidal, a world-class midfielder, though his status for the group stage is up in the air following recent knee surgery.
BRAZIL The only other time Brazil hosted in 1950, it lost 2-1 in the final to rival Uruguay before a reported crowd of at least 160,000 at Estádio do Maracanã. Paced by 22-year-old Neymar, it’s very possible the Seleção – tops among all nations with five World Cup championships – add a sixth before their home crowd this time around.
CRISTIANO RONALDO Depending on whom you fancy, it’s the Portuguese forward or Argentinian sensation Lionel Messi that deserves the title of World’s Best Footballer. Frankly, it’s been Ronaldo’s year as he was designated FIFA’s Player of the Year in January, scored 31 goals in 30 La Liga games and guided Real Madrid to a Champions League title. After failing to score in the 2010 world tournament, 2014 could be Ronaldo’s shining moment.
GHANA-GERMANY Assuming the Germans top Portugal in Group G’s opener and the U.S. wins or ties vs. Ghana, this is a pivotal game for the Americans. A win over the Fighting Ronaldos by Die Mannschaft seals up Group G, which leaves the Americans hoping they face Germany’s B squad June 26 with advancement to the Round of 16 on the line.
ITALY-URUGUAY Depending on England’s form, this game could decide the top seed in Group D. There are some unlikeable players on both teams. The Italians are known for their defense – though it has slipped a bit lately – and also their flair for controversy, whether it be repeated match fixing in the stateside leagues or their flair for flopping. Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez, one of the best players in the world, is no stranger to bad news himself. Suarez used his hand to block a sure Ghana goal in the 2010 World Cup quarters, has been accused of racially abusing an African-born French defender and appeared to bite an opposing player in a 2013 game. On the other hand, Suarez was named the Premier League’s Player of the Year this past season, scoring 31 goals in 33 games.
MEXICO After flirting with disaster during qualifying and naming its fourth coach in a little over a month in October, El Tri have been the model of inconsistency since winning the 2012 Olympic title. Yet, thanks to a favorable draw, they could be primed for advancement out of Group A alongside Brazil.
MICHAEL BRADLEY The son of the coach who led the Americans in 2010, Bradley is universally regarded as the team’s most important cog. Yes, Jozy Altidore needs to score, center backs Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron need to find common ground and keeper Tim Howard needs to play out of his mind. But, there’s a reason U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann has been experimenting with lineups lately – to find the best possible way for Bradley to influence the game with his playmaking and steady foot.
NETHERLANDS-SPAIN The schedule-makers blessed us with an early can’t-miss match on Friday by featuring a rematch of the 2010 World Cup Final won 1-0 by Spain. Netherlands boasts three preeminent forwards in Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, while Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, Xavi and the rest of La Furia Roja eye a repeat.
SERGIO AGUERO The 26-year-forward will be roommates with Lionel Messi (also 26), his much more ballyhooed counterpart at the top of Argentina’s attack, and should benefit from Messi being the primary object of opposing defense’s attention. But Agüero is a more than capable goal scorer – he’s scored in nearly half of his 316 career appearances for Independiente, Atlético Madrid and Manchester City – and adds another layer to Argentina’s frightening offense.
U.S. FINISH: Third, Group G. The group is simply to tough. The Americans’ tenuous defense is going to wilt against three good-to-great offensive clubs. I think they can manage draws against Ghana and Portugal, but failing to get a win will keep them from advancing. Klinsmann already has full immunity for a possible group-state exit, garnering an extension through 2018 and telling the press on multiple occasions that his squad is not yet capable of winning a World Cup. The heat will be on in 2018, and Klinsmann has to be hopeful youngsters like defender John Brooks, midfielder Julian Green, and defender DeAndre Yeldlin – players age 21 and younger who made this team over qualified veterans – are ready to carry the load in Russia four years from now.
GOLDEN BOOT WINNER: Lionel Messi, Argentina. Messi will steal Cristiano Ronaldo’s thunder by outscoring his La Liga rival and having Argentina advance further than Portugal.
TEAM CHAMPION: Argentina over Brazil. The poor Brazilians fall 3-2 and must suffer through a repeat of 1950, losing in the final in front of their home crowd to a South American rival. For the third straight World Cup, the Germans take bronze, downing Uruguay in the third-place match.