Brazil are already looking towards a last 16 clash with Spain or the Netherlands, and with Cameroon merely a shadow of their former selves, the back-up spot should be decided by a final-day shootout in Recife between a Croatia team which recently lost at home to Scotland, and a Mexico outfit which needed to win a play-off against New Zealand to qualify. It’s likely to rain, which could favour the Europeans.
Qualifiers: Brazil, Croatia
Never before have the finalists at the previous World Cup been grouped together in the next tournament, which bodes poorly for the other two teams in the group. Chile are no mugs, though, and their innovative 3-1-3-3 system proved altogether too much for England in last year’s Wembley friendly. If the Netherlands have adopted their well-known implosion mentality, the last group game could be an intriguing clash. Australia, though technically outclassed, are bound to be spirited and combative, especially when facing Spain’s irritating tiki-taka style.
Qualifiers: Spain, Chile
A football festival all its own, with teams ranging from the dourly physical (Greece) to the intermittently potent (Ivory Coast), the all-round talented (Colombia) and the neatly organisational (Japan). Greece, who limped into the finals having only scored 12 goals in 10 qualifying games, would seem to be least suited to the conditions, with an ageing squad facing humid tropical conditions for two of their three group games. The opening clash in rainy Recife between The Elephants and The Samurai could be telling.
Qualifiers: Colombia, Japan
A curly conundrum of a group with the only certainty being that Costa Rica will not be featuring in the next round. Even the professional pundits can’t separate the three remaining teams — Italy, Uruguay and England — and it may be that the shape and form of the group will be settled in the first match, when Italy meet England on a steamy, bug-infested night in the middle of the Amazon. The winner can start planning for the knock-out stage, and the loser can begin booking flights home and concocting excuses. A draw, and the imperative of blootering as many goals past Costa Rica comes into play, in case everyone draws with everyone else.
Qualifiers: England, Uruguay
France were truly awful in the last World Cup, under Mystic Raymond, and even with much the same squad, look rather better under the pragmatic Laurent Blanc. They are further buoyed by a clear passage to the last eight if they top the group, and the presence in the group of Honduras, who have never won a finals match. Switzerland and Ecuador are scheduled to battle for the runners-up spot and a last 16 clash with Argentina.
Qualifiers: France, Ecuador
Beating the Maldives 1-0 is poor preparation for taking on Lionel Messi and his Argentina powerhouse, and it seems likely that Iran will go home empty-handed from this group. Thus the runner-up spot will be up for grabs between the chaotic casserole of power, talent and disorganisation that is Nigeria, and a Bosnia side that is new to the finals but has talent from back to front.
Qualifiers: Argentina, Nigeria
The USA’s quest may be another victim of the Amazonian heat — if they can’t get anything from their Manaus clash with Portugal, then they are staring down the barrel, given that their third game is against Germany. Ghana make up the group, but even their free-scoring attack and impressive showing in 2010 hasn’t impressed the pundits at all.
Qualifiers: Germany, Portugal
Belgium will win this group comfortably, if matches are decided by hairstyle alone. They should have qualified by the time they play their final group game against South Korea, a team so poorly coiffed it suggests that each player is shortly to return to the Army reserve.
Also in the group are Russia, whose haircuts are a monument to the suppression of private enterprise, and Algeria, who did the only thing possible after losing a qualifier in a place called Ouagadougou, and shaved their heads.
Qualifiers: Belgium, Russia
When the UN pressures FIFA to throw Russia out of the tournament, there are various options for replacing them. The obvious ones include inviting Sweden, as the next nearest European team to qualifying or Ukraine, just to bolster FIFA’s democratic credentials.
We think it would be more interesting to make up a scratch team from players whose countries failed to qualify. How would they do? Look at the line-up:
Goalkeeper: Petr Cech (Chelsea & Czech Republic)
Defence: Ivanovic (Chelsea & Serbia); Subotic (Borussia Dortmund & Serbia); Agger (Liverpool & Denmark); Alaba (Bayern Munich & Austria)
Midfield: Eriksen (Spurs & Denmark); Jovetic (Man City & Montenegro); Mkhitaryan (Borussia Dortmund & Armenia)
Attack: Bale (Real Madrid & Wales); Ibrahimovic (PSG & Sweden); Lewandowsky (Borussia Dortmund & Poland)