Brazil will be carrying the weight of a nation

The Sports NetworkJune 9, 2014 

(SportsNetwork.com) - Expectations play a big role in sports. They can serve as a great motivator, inspiring a team to raise its level of play to meet a goal. Or they can be like an anchor, weighing a group down and preventing it from reaching its full potential.

At this summer's World Cup, no team will face greater expectations than Brazil. And it will be how well the hosts are able to deal with that pressure that determines whether they lift a record sixth World Cup trophy.

The 2014 World Cup marks the second time that Brazil will host soccer's biggest event, with the first coming in 1950.

That year, Brazil was a big favorite to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy, but the team was unable to deliver its first World Cup title after being upset by Uruguay in the final at the famed Maracana Stadium.

Since that crushing defeat, Brazil has won five World Cups, more than any other nation, but the sting of that loss 64 years ago is something that is still felt by Brazilians to this day.

The game of soccer may not have been invented in Brazil, but the South American nation has certainly placed its own unique imprint on the world's game with a style of play that has traditionally been very easy on the eye.

Brazil not only won matches, but did so with a distinct flare that garnered adoration from soccer fans all over the world.

The country holds itself in very high regard when it comes to its place in the soccer pecking order, so it would be unthinkable that Brazil could host two World Cups and not win either of them on home soil.

Six times in 19 World Cups the host nation has lifted the trophy, so if teams like Uruguay, Italy, England, Germany, Argentina and France can do it, then certainly Brazil should be able to join that list.

The pressure will not be lost on any of Brazil's 23 players or head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who was the last man to guide the Selecao to a World Cup triumph in 2002.

Yet for all the expectations that will placed on this Brazil team, midfielder Oscar knows how important it will be to manage those expectations and let the team's free-flowing brand of soccer shine through.

"What's important is to recognize our responsibilities and take them seriously as players, but not to let the pressure inhibit us," Oscar said. "When the whistle blows for kickoff, we have to make sure we let the joy in our football come through."

Brazil will enter the competition as the favorites to win the tournament due to the fact that it possesses world-class talent all over the field and also because the team will playing in front of a passionate fan base eager to erase those memories of 1950.

Neymar, Brazil's 22-year-old superstar forward, will feel the weight of those expectations more than any other player, and he figures to be one of the faces of this World Cup.

The Barcelona man made a splash at his first big tournament last summer by scoring four goals and helping Brazil to a dominant 3-0 win over Spain in the final of the Confederations Cup.

That tournament was merely a dress rehearsal for this summer, but it gave us a glimpse of a Brazil side that rose to the occasion under the watchful eye of a soccer-mad nation.

And that is why when the World Cup final is played at the Maracana this time around on July 13, Brazil will be able to exorcise those demons from 1950 and lift the World Cup trophy.

The following is a brief guide to the other 31 nations who will hope to ruin Brazil's World Cup party.

CONTENDERS (If Brazil slips up, these teams will be waiting)

ARGENTINA: Brazil's great rival would love nothing more than to spoil its World Cup party, and Argentina certainly has the attacking options to pull it off. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel Di Maria give Argentina one of the most formidable attacks in the tournament. But there are questions in defense that could prevent Alejandro Sabella's men from ending a 28-year World Cup drought.

GERMANY: One of the most balanced teams in Brazil, Germany will once again expect to make a deep run, but this time head coach Joachim Loew will be hopeful his team can take that final step. Germany has reached the semifinals in the last three World Cups, losing to Brazil in the 2002 final while third- place finishes followed in 2006 and 2010. Expect Germany to once again find itself in the last four, although a potential meeting with Brazil in the semifinals probably awaits.

SPAIN: The defending World Cup champions bring a deep and experienced squad to Brazil having won back-to-back European championships in addition to the World Cup in South Africa four years ago. The talent is there for Vicente del Bosque's team, but history is not on their side. The last time a nation won two successive World Cups was Brazil in 1958 and 1962, while no European nation has won the World Cup the previous seven times it was played in either North or South America.

WILD CARDS (A lucky break or two and these sides could be in the mix)

BELGIUM: Belgium returns to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years, and head coach Marc Wilmots brings with him a talented group of young players led by star winger Eden Hazard. Forward Romelu Lukaku is another bright young talent to watch, and Belgium was handed a great draw in Group H, which includes Russia, South Korea and Algeria. The team should have little trouble topping that group, but could find life difficult in the knockout round with some questions defensively as well as a lack of experience.

FRANCE: The loss of star winger Franck Ribery will hurt Les Bleus, but there is still enough talent on this side for a deep run to be possible. The draw has handed France a huge boost as the team should benefit from a weaker Group E that includes Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras. Barring a collapse, France should win the group and have a manageable round of 16 match, which at that point puts the team into the quarterfinals, where anything can happen.

ITALY: The Italians are a well-organized group that reached the final of Euro 2012 under head coach Cesare Prandelli. He will hope for a similar result this summer, although the Azzurri will be tested by a tough Group D that includes Uruguay, England and Costa Rica. If veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and 35-year-old midfielder Andrea Pirlo can turn back the clock, Italy could be dangerous.

NETHERLANDS: As a finalist at the 2010 World Cup, the Netherlands has to be considered a team capable of making another deep run despite its woeful performance at Euro 2012 that saw the team crash out in the group stage after three losses in three games. Head coach Louis van Gaal leads a talented group that includes attackers Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and veteran midfielder Wesley Sneijder. However, this is an aging group with players prone to injuries that also is questionable in defense, which could spell trouble in a group that includes Spain, Chile and Australia. The Dutch figure to be one of the more unpredictable sides in Brazil as they are just as likely to reach the quarterfinals as they are to go out in the group stage.

PORTUGAL: The hopes of Portugal rest squarely on the shoulders of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been battling a few injuries in the build up to the World Cup. If fully fit, Ronaldo is one of the most dynamic talents on the planet, and he will need to be if Portugal is to make another deep run at a major tournament. Over the past 10 years, Portugal has reached the final at Euro 2004 and the semifinals of the tournament in 2012, while making a run to the semifinals of the World Cup in 2006. With a tough Group G to navigate that includes Germany, Ghana and the United States, Ronaldo had better be in top form.

URUGUAY: As the team that beat Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final, Uruguay will once again be attempting to pull off a stunner. After reaching the semifinals in South Africa four years ago, Uruguay won the 2011 Copa America tournament and will benefit from the World Cup being played in South America. Like Italy, Uruguay's path through Group D won't be easy, and there are questions surrounding the health of star forward Luis Suarez, who underwent surgery on his knee last month. But if everything falls into place, it wouldn't be a shock to see Uruguay back in the semifinals.

PRETENDERS (These teams could make a little noise, but not too much)

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: Making its debut at the World Cup, Bosnia-Herzegovina won't be a threat to win the tournament, but the team should leave a favorable impression. Led by the scoring of Manchester City forward Edin Dzeko and playmaking talent of Roma midfielder Miralem Pjanic, Bosnia has a good chance to get out of Group F, which includes favorites Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. Getting into the second round would be a huge accomplishment for this team, and it is a goal that is quite reachable.

CHILE: Chile will benefit from the climate at this World Cup, and after reaching the knockout round in 2010, La Roja will be eager to return to the last 16 again this year. Alexis Sanchez leads the way offensively for Chile, while the team will get a huge boost if midfielder Arturo Vidal is fit. The Juventus standout is batting a knee injury, but if he is near 100 percent, he makes Chile a very live underdog.

COLOMBIA: Following an impressive CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying campaign that saw the team finish second behind Argentina, big things were expected of Colombia at the 2014 World Cup. However, the team was dealt a huge blow when star striker Radamel Falcao suffered a torn ACL while playing for Monaco in January. With Falcao, Colombia had the potential to make a deep run. Without him, the team should still have a good chance at advancing from an open Group C that includes the Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece.

CROATIA: Boasting a talented midfield duo in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic as well as a top forward in Mario Mandzukic, Croatia will be a tough opponent for any team. However, this side has made a habit of failing to live up to expectations at big tournaments, and a loss to Brazil in the opening match of the competition could leave them struggling to recover in Group A, which also includes Mexico and Cameroon.

ECUADOR: No team in this World Cup had a more uneven qualifying campaign than Ecuador. This side won seven of its eight qualifying matches in the high altitude of Quito, but failed to win any of its eight away fixtures. The side possesses some quality in wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero as well as forward Felipe Caicedo, and it will be helped by the climate and a friendly draw that saw the team grouped with France, Switzerland and Honduras.

ENGLAND: The Three Lions were poor four years ago as they were easily dismissed in the round of 16 by Germany, 4-1. And although manager Roy Hodgson brings a host of fresh faces to Brazil this summer, don't expect that result to improve. Among the new blood in the England side that could make a difference is Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley. But a tough draw that sees England in a group with Uruguay, Italy and Costa Rica could very well mean that England's tournament will be over after three games.

GHANA: With plenty of experience and talent in the midfield and a goal threat in forward Asamoah Gyan, Ghana will be attempting to reach the second round at the World Cup for a third successive time. Four years ago, the Black Stars came within a missed penalty kick of advancing to the semifinals, so there is real quality in this team. However, the goal of reaching the last 16 is a bit more difficult with Germany, Portugal and the United States standing in the way.

IVORY COAST: After appearing in the last two World Cups, the Ivory Coast comes to Brazil with a real chance at reaching the round of 16 for the first time. Midfielder Yaya Toure is one of the best players in the world at his position, while the Elephants have a deep group of attackers in Didier Drogba, Wilfried Bony and Gervinho. The side has been a disappointment in big competitions in recent years, but being drawn into a wide-open Group C along with Colombia, Japan and Greece and should help.

JAPAN: Much like the Ivory Coast, Japan's fate was greatly improved when the team was placed in Group C. Shinji Okazaki, Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda are strong attacking options on a team that can play an entertaining brand of soccer. Japan should have a good chance at reaching the knockout round for the third time in four World Cups, but could be undone by a shaky defense.

MEXICO: After a terrible qualifying campaign, Mexico is hoping for a fresh start in Brazil under head coach Miguel Herrera, who was the fourth different coach El Tri used to get through qualifying. Mexico has advanced beyond the group stage in each of the past five World Cups, but that will be tested this summer in a group with Brazil, Croatia and Cameroon. Mexico should have a slight edge on Croatia in the race for second place in the group based on its pedigree, but any success the team has could be tied to forward Oribe Peralta.

RUSSIA: Fabio Capello is back at the World Cup as head coach of Russia after a terrible tournament as England boss four years ago. And there is reason to be optimistic that Russia can advance to the second round under the Italian after being drawn into Group H along with Belgium, South Korea and Algeria. Striker Aleksandr Kokorin will lead the attack with help from Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Kerzhakov. And after topping its UEFA qualifying group ahead of Portugal, there is reason to believe that Russia has a great chance at finishing second in its group.

SWITZERLAND: The Swiss bring a stout defense and a group of talented young attackers to Brazil which could lead to an appearance in the second round. Switzerland has allowed just one goal in its last seven games in World Cup play, but a lack of offense has prevented the side from going very far. This time, head coach Ottmar Hitzfeld hopes his attacking group of Xherdan Shaqiri, Valentin Stocker, Granit Xhaka and Josip Drmic has the answer. Group E, which consists of France, Ecuador and Honduras, should provide the Swiss with every opportunity to get to the next round.

UNITED STATES: After losing to Ghana in the round of 16 in South Africa, the appointment of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann brought a breath of fresh air to U.S. soccer. But the German faces a huge task in helping the Americans return to the knockout round after his side was drawn with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. Klinsmann has talented veterans in goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfielder Michael Bradley and forward Clint Dempsey, but the group offers little room for error for a relatively young American side.

THANKS FOR STOPPING BY (It figures to be three games and out for these teams)

ALGERIA: Despite being drawn into a relatively weak Group H, Algeria doesn't figure to have enough quality to advance ahead of Russia or South Korea. The Desert Foxes are making their second straight appearance at a World Cup, and that will have to be enough for the African nation.

AUSTRALIA: The Socceroos figure to be headed home quickly after being drawn into a group with Spain, the Netherlands and Chile. The team finds itself in a bit of a transition at the moment and if the side earns a point it would be a big surprise.

CAMEROON: After being bounced from the World Cup in the group stage in each of the past four tournaments, another swift exit looks likely for the Indomitable Lions. Cameroon will once again rely on the scoring of 33-year-old striker Samuel Eto'o, and even if he is in good form it probably won't be enough. Cameroon will be attempting to finish in second place in Group A, but Croatia and Mexico both possess superior talent.

COSTA RICA: Following a strong qualifying campaign in the CONCACAF region, Costa Rica was done no favors by being thrown into Group D along with Uruguay, Italy and England. The team also saw one of its top attacking options, Alvaro Saborio, go down in training before the World Cup, ruling him out. Costa Rica doesn't figure to collect many points in this group, but the Ticos also won't be pushovers and could very well steal a point or two along the way.

GREECE: The 2004 European champions have struggled to live up to that success over the past 10 years, and despite a favorable draw along with Colombia, Ivory Coast and Japan, don't expect too much from the Greeks. The team is never an easy proposition and is tough to break down, but an overall lack of quality will catch up with them and prevent the side from advancing to the next round.

HONDURAS: Head coach Luis Fernando Suarez will have one goal in mind when he brings his team to Brazil and that is to record its first-ever World Cup win. This nation has earned three draws from its two World Cup appearances, and although Group E is not exactly daunting with France, Switzerland and Ecuador, a win may still be too much to ask. Honduras yielded just three goals in three games in South Africa, and figures to once again defend well. However, it is likely the team could once again be shutout in three games, as it was four years ago.

IRAN: Iran is making its fourth appearance at the World Cup and is led by an experienced coach in Carlos Queiroz. The team finished ahead of South Korea in World Cup qualifying, which was a surprise, but don't expect too much in Brazil as Iran will probably leave after losing all three of its group-stage games against Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria.

NIGERIA: The African champions are a tough team that possess some talented players in midfielder John Obi Mikel and forward Victor Moses. However, they come into Brazil having gone winless in the past two World Cups, and will not be favored to advance from Group F. Argentina is the clear favorite, and while Iran should give Nigeria the chance to win a game, Bosnia is expected to finish second. A disappointing outing at last summer's Confederations Cup also doesn't inspire confidence.

SOUTH KOREA: Looking to make its third appearance in the knockout round in four World Cups, South Korea brings a young team to Brazil that is coming off a poor qualifying campaign. South Korea finished second in its group four years ago to reach the next round, but this team is not as strong as the 2010 addition. Belgium will be heavy favorites to win Group H, while Algeria should provide the Koreans with a chance to collect points. However, Russia figures to finish second ahead of a Korean team that seems to be in a transitional phase.

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