By Mike Woitalla
The world’s most successful World Cup nation finally gets to host again after 64 years. Croatia has the unenviable task facing Brazil in 2014 World Cup opener before Mexico and Cameroon take on the host in Group A.
Luiz Felipe Scolari, who coached Brazil to its last and fifth World Cup title in 2002, says he returned to the helm in 2012 because he was “100 percent sure” Brazil would win the World Cup it’s hosting. Whether the Selecao can handle the pressure to win it all is one thing, but it should have little problem winning a group that includes two teams -- Croatia and Mexico -- that needed playoffs to qualify – and Cameroon, lowest ranked of Africa’s five entrants. Mexico had a dismal qualifying campaign, but should will find its groove in time to make a sixth straight second-round appearance.
Our picks: 1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Croatia 4. Cameroon.
Group A Schedule
June 12 in Sao Paulo
Brazil vs. Croatia (ESPN, Univision/UDN 4 p.m. ET)
June 13 in Natal
Mexico vs. Cameroon (ESPN2, Univision/UDN noon ET)
June 17 in Fortaleza
Brazil vs. Mexico (ESPN, Univision/UDN 3 p.m. ET)
June 18 in Manaus
Cameroon vs. Croatia (ESPN, Univision/UDN 6 p.m. ET)
June 23 in Brasilia
Cameroon vs. Brazil (ESPN2, UniMas/Galavision 4 p.m. ET)
June 23 in Recife
Croatia vs. Mexico 4 p.m. (ESPN, Univision/UDN 4 p.m. ET)
Rosters: Brazil | Cameroon | Croatia | Mexico
MOST LIKELY TO SCORE. Since making his national team debut and scoring in a 2-0 win over the USA in 2010, Neymar has scored 31 goals in 48 games, including four at the 2013 Confederations Cup – the World Cup dress rehearsal that Brazil won. … Mexico’s Oribe Peralta scored 10 goals in qualifying play. … Mario Mandzukic led Croatia in scoring during the qualifying campaign and was Bayern Munich’s leading scorer in the Bundesliga-winning season with 18 goals. He'll miss the Brazil opener in Sao Paulo as he is suspended for the picking up a red card in Croatia's final playoff game against Iceland.
CROATIA’S BRAZILIAN. Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo moved to Croatia in 2001 at age 16 in 1999 after being spotted by Dinamo Zagreb scouts. In 2002 he became a Croatian citizen and he scored the goals that qualified Croatia for the 2008 European Championship. But he suffered a broken leg while playing for Arsenal from a brutal foul by Birmingham City’s Martin Taylor and missed Euro 2008. Croatia failed to qualify for South Africa 2010 and now Eduardo is headed to his first major tournament – hosted by his homeland. “My blood is Brazilian, but my heart is now Croatian.”
NOT SO INDOMITABLE LIONS. Cameron’s seventh World Cup appearance is the most of any African nation, but since the Roger Milla-inspired squad that reached the quarterfinals of Italy 1990 it has won just one game in their last four tournaments. Samuel Eto'o, 33, is the only player who played in the 1998 World Cup and will be going to Brazil 2014. He was the youngest player at 17 to play the 1998 finals in France and also played for the Indomitable Lions in 2002 and 2010.
CALI KIDS. Mexico includes two California natives. Miguel Ponce, a 2012 Olympic gold-medal winner, was born in Sacramento and moved to Tijuana as an infant. Isaac Brizuela was born in San Jose and moved to Jalisco at age 2.
Also: Brazil’s starting goalkeeper Julio Cesar joined MLS’s Toronto FC this season on loan after getting benched at Queens Park Rangers.
Off the Post
BANNED. Croatia arrives in Brazil without Josip Simunic, with 105 appearances its third most-capped player in history. The 36-year-old is serving a 10-game ban for grabbing a microphone after Croatia qualified with a win over Iceland and igniting a call-and-response chant made infamous by Croatia's pro-Nazi regime in World War II.