Tournament favorites Brazil lead the way after an impressive qualifying campaign, while Costa Rica, Serbia and Switzerland will be playing for second place.
Brazil are tournament favorites along with Germany, thanks to an impressive qualifying campaign in which they were comfortably the best national side in South America. Led by talisman Neymar, their first 11 is packed with stars, particularly in the final third. The only team to qualify for every World Cup in history, Brazil are looking for redemption after their humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-final.
Costa Rica, Serbia and Switzerland will be playing for second place. They all performed well in qualifying – though Switzerland had to come through a play-off–and no one will be a pushover.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER?
Neymar (Brazil): €204.8m* ($241.8m)
*According to CIES Football Observatory
ONE TO WATCH?
Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
After being relegated from the English Premier League with Stoke City, Shaqiri has made it clear he’ll be moving on and the World Cup is the perfect chance to impress potential suitors. Still only 26, the attacking midfielder is mercurial but an undoubted game-changer when in the mood. Fond of cutting in off the right wing to wave his wand of a left foot, Shaqiri scored a hattrick during Switzerland’s 2014 World Cup finals campaign. For Switzerland to progress from the group, Shaqiri will need to be at his creative best.
COACH TO KEEP AN EYE ON?
Tasked with rebuilding hope in the national team after their chastening exit in 2014, Tite has done an excellent job. He took charge in 2016, with Brazil 6th in the South America qualifiers, apparently still suffering a hangover from their World Cup disaster. Ten wins and two draws later however, and Brazil had comfortably finished top and are now among the favorites to lift the trophy in July. Tite has plenty of top-class players at his disposal but also the enormous pressure of an expectant nation on his shoulders. The former Corinthians coach is a keen student of the game – he took a year’s sabbatical to study soccer – and has the charisma and tactical nous to change a game if Brazil aren’t firing.
In a group with famously-neutral Switzerland and Costa Rica, the largest country in the world with no army? Nothing to worry about here.
Brazil’s iconic yellow shirts and blue shorts always catch the eye, but Switzerland’s creative home shirt runs it close with a pattern reflecting the country’s mountains.
MATCH ADVERTISERS WILL BE SCRAMBLING FOR?
No offense to the other teams, but the three group matches Brazil are involved in will attract the biggest audiences and hence most dollars.
WORLD CUP NERDS ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO…
Brazil. The Seleção maintained their record of being the only team to qualify for every World Cup tournament (21). They have the most titles (5), most wins (70) and most goals in a final (5, 1958) among their records. But they also have the most red cards of all time (11) and, after 2014, the biggest losing margin by a World Cup host nation. Whatever happens, Brazil will be record-breakers again.
A tight battle for second place. Costa Rica reached the quarter-finals last time and have Real Madrid’s Keylor Navas in goal. Switzerland didn’t lose a match at Euro 2016 (excluding penalties) and Serbia lost only once in qualifying and have a solid spine with plenty of big game experience.
Brazil to get thrashed as they did in 2014. They might not win the tournament, but a collapse like that against Germany was surely a one-off.
WILL ANY OF THEM WIN IT?
Much of the talk is about Brazil but it was also that way before the 2014 tournament. Their defense has improved but losing right-back Dani Alves – and his 107-caps of experience – to injury was a big blow. But the midfield shield is strong if unspectacular and in attack the trio of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus is capable of tormenting the toughest defences. If Neymar is firing at full fitness, and those three can work together effectively, Brazil have a real chance at a 6th World Cup trophy.