The World Cup is back, with host country Brazil kicking off the festivities on the pitch against Croatia at 4 p.m. Thursday. Group play, the first stage on the Cup schedule, runs through June 26. The top two teams from each of the eight groups earn their way into the single elimination tournament that will decide the champion on July 13.
Here’s a look at each group, as well as which teams are likely to make it out of group play.
Brazil (BRA) | Cameroon (CMR)
Croatia (CRO) | Mexico (MEX)
Brazil is the popular pick to win the World Cup — no surprise, given they have players like Neymar and David Luiz on their roster. It will be more interesting to see who joins the hosts in the next stage. Croatia and Mexico face off against one another on June 23 in a match that likely decides the Group A runner-up. As for Cameroon, don’t expect much.
Australia (AUS) | Chile (CHI)
Netherlands (NED) | Spain (ESP)
Spain, which is loaded with talent, figures to be the favorite in this pairing, and the Dutch are likely to join them. However, it would be a mistake to sleep on Chile, who could very well earn an edge with a strong showing against the Netherlands on June 23. The same can’t be said for the Aussies, who will struggle in this stacked group.
Colombia (COL) | Greece (GRE)
Ivory Coast (CIV) | Japan (JPN)
It would be a surprise if Colombia didn’t win this group outright, but the competition here is much more even than most of the other pairings. Didier Drogba and the Ivory Coast has a good chance of moving on, but Japan and Greece could make some waves.
Costa Rica (CRC) | England (ENG)
Italy (ITA) | Uruguay (URU)
Outside of Costa Rica earning a berth in the next stage, anything could happen here. Uruguay will need Luis Suarez’s knee to hold up if they hope to move on. If it does, then Saturday’s match between England and Italy could have a huge say in who takes second in this “group of death.”
Ecuador (ECU) | France (FRA)
Honduras (HON) | Switzerland (SUI)
The French ought to be playing beyond group play, and Honduras doesn’t have much business joining them. That leaves Ecuador and Switzerland duking it out for Group E’s other berth in the next round. The two will square off Sunday afternoon in match that likely will decide early on who else will represent the group in the knockout stage.
Argentina (ARG) | Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH)
Iran (IRN) | Nigeria (NGA)
Who’s going to follow Lionel Messi and Argentina into the next stage? It won’t be Iran; that’s for sure. It might be Nigeria, who are capable of forcing Bosnia-Herzegovina into an early exit in an upset. They meet on June 21, but odds are it will be Bosnia-Herzegovina moving on.
Germany (GER) | Ghana (GHA)
Portugal (POR) | United States (USA)
Sorry, fellow Americans. The U.S. isn’t long for this competition. A deep German team and Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal are going to make it out of group play, barring some unexpected upsets. In truth, Ghana has a great chance of assuring the U.S. of a last-place group finish when the two meet in their opener on Monday.
Algeria (ALG) | Belgium (BEL)
Russia (RUS) | South Korea (KOR)
Belgium, led by Eden Hazard, could be poised to turn heads in South America, and should be viewed as the favorite to win Group H. The Russians have it in them to make a run at first, but will likely have to settle for the runner-up slot. As for the other two, consider South Korea to be a long shot, and Algeria would need utter chaos to advance.