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BRAZIL Name to know: Neymar. Sometimes the whole tournament feels like a coming-out party for the charismatic Barcelona star, who’s bringing his fancy footwork to the World Cup for the first time. If you don’t know Neymar yet, you soon will. Nice to know: Playing right into the Brazilian stereotype, 18 of the 23 players — from Fred and Hulk to Jo and Oscar — are identified by a single name. Need to know: The Samba Kings have the momentum (having triumphed at last year’s Confederations Cup), the attacking flair and, of course, the home-soil advantage that could very well see them crowned World Cup champions for a record sixth time.
CAMEROON Name to know: Samuel Eto’o. The 33-year-old, Cameroon’s all-time top scorer, has done it all in a decorated club career. Now he’ll be motivated to go one place he’s never been before: The World Cup knockout stage. Nice to know: While Roger Milla had one of the all-time great goal celebrations at the 1990 World Cup, Cameroon still has one of the all-time great team nicknames — the Indomitable Lions. Need to know: Cameroon — like Croatia and Mexico — needed a playoff to reach Brazil 2014. They’ll be relying on the veteran presence of players like Eto’o, Alex Song and Benoit Assou-Ekotto in what will likely be an entertaining battle for second place in this group.
CROATIA Name to know: Luka Modric. The 28-year-old was a big part of Real Madrid’s midfield as they marched to a record 10th European title this season; he’ll also be serving as the spark plug for his national team. Nice to know: Croatia’s trademark white-and-red checkerboard design has featured in every version of the team’s uniforms since they joined FIFA in 1993. Need to know: Croatia scraped into the tournament, beating tiny Iceland in a playoff in order to qualify. They’ll also miss star striker Mario Mandzukic for the tournament opener against Brazil due to suspension. But the nation has World Cup pedigree (finishing third in 1998) and plenty of motivation after missing out in 2010.
MEXICO Name to know: Javier Hernandez. The Manchester United striker, better known as Chicharito, is tied for third all-time in scoring for Mexico with 35 goals, and has solid support in what could be a dangerous Mexican attack. Nice to know: Hernandez’s father also played for Mexico’s national team, and was nicknamed Chicaro (“pea”) — hence, Hernandez is Chicharito (“little pea”). Need to know: Mexico looked dead in the water in 2013, going through four head coaches in a desperate attempt to make it through World Cup qualifying. But they did enough to survive, and after some encouraging recent results, can’t be overlooked in Group A.
AUSTRALIA Name to know: Tim Cahill. The 34-year-old, competing in his third World Cup, will provide much of the veteran leadership — and will also hope to break out his famous corner-flag punching-bag goal celebration at least once. Nice to know: Australia holds the record for the most lopsided victory in international soccer history, a 31-0 win over American Samoa back in 2001. Need to know: Australia comes into the competition in a bit of disarray, having fired former head coach Holger Osieck in October, just eight months before Brazil 2014. Not much is expected from a young Socceroos squad in a difficult group, but as Aussie speed skater Steven Bradbury taught the world in 2002, unlikely doesn’t mean impossible.
CHILE Name to know: Alexis Sanchez. The dynamic 25-year-old attacker has helped Barcelona claim multiple trophies since joining the club in 2011. He also scored twice at Wembley Stadium as Chile beat England 2-0 in a friendly on Nov. 15, 2013. Nice to know: Chile’s World Cup roster includes six players who featured on the team that finished third at the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, which was hosted in Canada. Need to know: Considered by many to be a dark-horse pick to make a deep run at the World Cup after a strong qualifying campaign, Chile will be severely tested in a difficult Group B. But if Sanchez and midfield stalwart Arturo Vidal play to their potential, the South Americans could turn some heads.
NETHERLANDS Name to know: Arjen Robben. The sight of the 30-year-old Bayern Munich star cutting in from the wing has terrified defenders across Europe during his club career — and could scare the world during this tournament. Nice to know: If you’ve ever said “ooh, nice move!” at a soccer game, chances are you witnessed a Cruyff turn, a dribbling trick made famous by Dutch legend Johan Cruyff. Need to know: After falling short in the World Cup final for the third time in 2010, the Oranje will be desperate for vengeance in what promises to be a classic rematch with Spain in the group stage. Could this be the year the Dutch finally reach the summit of the World Cup mountain?
SPAIN Name to know: Andres Iniesta. The midfield catalyst for both Spain and Barcelona, the 30-year-old scored the extra-time winner in the 2010 World Cup final. Nice to know: The Spanish team got their nickname, La Furia Roja, at the 1920 Summer Olympics, when the underdog side’s furious performance earned them a silver medal. Need to know: The reigning World Cup champs have dominated world soccer for nearly a decade with their tiki-taka style (which is all about fluid movement and retaining possession). While some have proclaimed the imminent end of Spain’s dominance, this is still a team loaded with weapons that could be on pace for another title.
COLOMBIA Name to know: James Rodriguez. Some have dubbed the youngster “the next Carlos Valderrama” (minus the wild hair), and the 22-year-old could prove to be one of this tournament’s breakout stars. Nice to know: File this one under “both catchy and accurate” — Colombia’s nickname is Los Cafeteros (i.e. “the coffee growers”). Need to know: The squad suffered a crushing blow when star striker Radamel Falcao was ruled out due to injury. But under head coach Jose Pekerman, who led Argentina to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2006, Colombia still sits in the top 10 in the world rankings, and remains a popular choice to top Group C.
IVORY COAST Name to know: Yaya Toure. The big, strong 31-year-old not only dominated the midfield all season long for Premier League champions Manchester City, he also popped in 20 goals — third most in the league. Nice to know: Don’t get confused if you read the name Gervinho — he’s Ivorian, not Brazilian (full name: Gervais Yao Kouassi). Need to know: After blazing through qualifying, Les Elephants enter the World Cup with high hopes for the third straight time. With a less difficult group than they faced in 2010 and talismanic Didier Drogba in his last World Cup, Ivory Coast will be hungry to finally live up to their potential on the grand stage.
GREECE Name to know: Georgios Samaras. The Greek national team doesn’t score very often — but Samaras does. He has a one-goal-per-three-games strike rate for legendary Scottish club Celtic since joining in 2008. Nice to know: Perhaps unsurprisingly, only four members of Greece’s World Cup team have last names that don’t end in the letter “s”. Need to know: Stingy defence and winning tight games remains a defining principle for Greece, who scored just 12 goals and conceded just four in 10 group-stage games in World Cup qualifying. It may not be the prettiest style — but when it works, it works.
JAPAN Name to know: Keisuke Honda. The blond-haired 27-year-old is eager to redeem himself after a tough season with AC Milan. If he’s fit, he can be one of the more dangerous players in the tournament. Nice to know: In 2011, Japan became the first Asian team to win a senior FIFA World Cup, when the country emerged victorious at the Women’s World Cup. Need to know: In their fifth straight World Cup appearance, Japan will be looking to build on a promising run to the Round of 16 in 2010. Veteran head coach Alberto Zaccheroni has led his team — a good mix of domestic- and foreign-based players — to a string of good results in the run-up to Brazil.
COSTA RICA Name to know: Bryan Ruiz. The 28-year-old striker performed well on loan to Dutch team PSV during the latter half of the 2013-14 season, and helped lead Costa Rica to a strong finish in World Cup qualifying. Nice to know: The team’s new national soccer stadium, which opened in 2011 at a cost of around $100 million, was funded entirely by the Chinese government. Need to know: Costa Rica’s already-faint hopes of advancing out of Group D took a devastating hit when star striker Alvaro Saborio was ruled out with a back injury. But Los Ticos play with pride, and could have a very important role to play in determining how the final group standings look.
ENGLAND Name to know: Wayne Rooney. His face has appeared in plenty of places, from the cover of video games to the infamous British tabloids. Now the 28-year-old striker will be squarely in the spotlight for the heavily scrutinized England team. Nice to know: Comedian Simon Brodkin nearly conned his way onto the team plane on Sunday — if England falters, expect punch lines about how he should have been on the squad. Need to know: Expectations always run high for the Three Lions when big tournaments come around, as the team desperately searches for its first World Cup since 1966. With a mix of hardened veterans and exciting youth, England could be a contender — or they could fail to make it out of a difficult Group D.
ITALY Name to know: Mario Balotelli. Controversy seems to follow the brash AC Milan striker wherever he goes; but at his first World Cup, the 23-year-old will aim to let his play do the talking. Nice to know: Balotelli was born Mario Barwuah before taking on the name of his Jewish-Italian foster parents, the Balotellis. Need to know: The Azzurri can be hit-and-miss: World Cup champs in 2006, a winless flameout in 2010; Euro finalists in 2012, a recent 1-1 draw with lowly Luxembourg. Italy will have grand ambitions under manager Cesare Prandelli — but which team will show up?
URUGUAY Name to know: Luis Suarez. Will he or won’t he play? He tied the Premier League record in goals this season, but could be a non-factor at the World Cup as he recovers from knee surgery. Nice to know: Though they were largely a non-factor for much of the last 50 years, Uruguay has actually won the World Cup twice — including the first edition, in 1930. Need to know: Four years after a thrilling run to the World Cup semifinals, an organized Uruguay squad — which has Edinson Cavani to rely upon for goals even if Suarez is unavailable — has the talent and the historical motivation: The last time the World Cup was in Brazil, in 1950, Uruguay won it all.
ECUADOR Name to know: Antonio Valencia. While the 28-year-old has seen his playing time with Manchester United drop off due to inconsistency, he can be a difference-maker for Ecuador if he’s on form. Nice to know: Let no one say Ecuador has never won anything — the team claimed victory at the 1999 Canada Cup, a four-team tournament held in Edmonton. Need to know: Ecuador represents a bit of a wild card — the least favoured of the South American participants, they still possess the potential to cause problems for the other members of Group E.
FRANCE Name to know: Karim Benzema. Fresh off winning the UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid, the 26-year-old will be front and centre for a French team looking to reestablish itself as a legitimate contender. Nice to know: Enzo Fernandez, the 19-year-old son of French legend Zinedine Zidane, recently accepted a call-up to France’s under-19 national team. Need to know: The French team was in full self-destruct mode on and off the pitch at the 2010 World Cup. They just squeaked into the 2014 tournament, and will be missing star midfielder Franck Ribery, who has a back injury. Even so, the team has star power and can succeed — if they can actually work together.
HONDURAS Name to know: Carlo Costly. Though the 31-year-old has had a low-key club career by the standards of some other World Cup squads, he’s come up big for his nation when it’s counted. Nice to know: The team uniforms helpfully display the letter “H”, in case anyone watching happens to forget which team is which. Need to know: Los Catrachos have been to the World Cup just twice before, in 1982 and 2010, and are still searching for their first victory. While they are major underdogs to qualify for the knockout stages, their intensely passionate fan base will surely enjoy the journey, every step of the way.
SWITZERLAND Name to know: Xherdan Shaqiri. One of the game’s more exciting newcomers, the left-footed speedster brings a dangerous edge for both Bayern Munich and the Swiss national team. Nice to know: The delightfully-named Zurich-based Grasshopper Club is the most successful team in Swiss league history, with 27 championships. Need to know: The Swiss cruised through World Cup qualifying, undefeated in 10 games, and sit as one of the top-ranked teams on the planet. They were also the only team to beat Spain at the 2010 tournament, and have a defence and midfield stocked with experience. Their potential is real.
ARGENTINA Name to know: Lionel Messi. Considered by many to already be one of the greatest players of all time, the 26-year-old Barcelona superstar could permanently cement his legacy with a victory at the World Cup. Nice to know: Forward Gonzalo Higuain has an older brother, Federico, who signed as a designated player with MLS’s Columbus Crew back in 2012. Need to know: The top team in South American World Cup qualifying (though Brazil didn’t take part), Argentina are driven, deep and dangerous. They’re clear favourites to win Group F, but could fatigue after a long season come back to bite Messi and company?
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA Name to know: Edin Dzeko. Bosnia’s most famous player and all-time leading scorer, the 28-year-old has scored plenty of big goals for Manchester City in recent years. Could Bosnia’s first-ever World Cup goal be next on his resume? Nice to know: Bosnia is the fourth nation coming out of the former Yugoslavia to reach the World Cup, following Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. Need to know: The only World Cup debutante at this year’s tournament, Bosnia has made history just by qualifying — but they aren’t in Brazil just to be a fuzzy, feel-good story. The squad has plenty of international pedigree and a good chance at making the knockout round.
IRAN Name to know: Javad Nekounam. The experienced Iranian captain, who spent his prime years playing in Spain’s La Liga, brings a steady presence to the midfield — as well as some goalscoring pop. Nice to know: Azadi Stadium in Tehran is one of the largest soccer stadiums in the world, with a seating capacity of around 100,000. Need to know: Under former Portugal manager Carlos Queiroz, Iran ground out plenty of tight games during their World Cup qualifying campaign. If they hope to reach the World Cup knockout stage for the first time, they’ll likely need to grind out a few more.
NIGERIA Name to know: John Obi Mikel. The long-time Chelsea midfielder has had a tumultuous national-team career, missing the 2010 World Cup with injury. But he’ll be a powerful force in the centre of the park for Nigeria this time out. Nice to know: Nigeria is one of five World Cup countries whose flag consists only of three coloured vertical rectangles. Ivory Coast, Belgium, France and Italy are the others. Need to know: Though winless in their last two World Cup appearances, the Super Eagles come into Brazil riding an undefeated World Cup qualifying campaign and a championship at last year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama is capable of stealing a game — he held Argentina to just one goal in 2010.
GERMANY Name to know: Miroslav Klose. The German elder statesman — and only out-and-out striker on the team — will break the all-time record for World Cup goals if he can score twice in Brazil. Nice to know: The squad’s nickname — Die Mannschaft (“the team”) — can either be taken as a sign of confidence, or simply that trademark German efficiency. Need to know: Germany has injury concerns for a few of its stars, but remain prohibitive favourites in the apparent Group of Death. If the team can get solid performances across the field — and if Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller can repeat their breakthrough performances from South Africa 2010 — you’re looking at a potential champion.
GHANA Name to know: Asamoah Gyan. No player in the tournament is hungrier for redemption than Gyan, whose missed penalty kick cost Ghana a place in the semi-finals at the 2010 World Cup. Nice to know: For the second straight World Cup, the Boateng brothers will face off — Kevin-Prince plays for Ghana, while Jerome plays for Germany. (Germany won 1-0 four years ago.) Need to know: In 2010, the Black Stars went farther in the World Cup than any other African team in history. Many of the key performers from that run are back in 2014, with four more years of experience and four years’ worth of determination to extinguish memories of that heartbreaking exit.
PORTUGAL Name to know: Cristiano Ronaldo. The polarizing 29-year-old remains one of the most explosive players on the planet — though recent news of leg problems has raised troubling questions. Nice to know: In 80 years of play, the Portuguese league has been won by one of its “big three” teams — Benfica, Porto and Sporting — 78 times. Need to know: Portugal sits at No. 4 in the world rankings and has loads of potential, but the team has traditionally come up just short in the big competitions. Much will hinge on Ronaldo’s fitness, particularly in what could be the tournament’s most difficult group.
UNITED STATES Name to know: Michael Bradley. Fans in Toronto, Rome and across the U.S. know how effectively Bradley can control the midfield. Soon, the rest of the world will too. Nice to know: Not so nice for Americans, but interesting nonetheless — Ghana has knocked the U.S. out of both of the last two World Cups. Third time’s the charm? Need to know: Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann raised eyebrows with some roster decisions, such as the exclusion of Landon Donovan. The Americans will be cast as outsiders to advance, despite having shown plenty of capability to produce shocking results in the past 15 years.
ALGERIA Name to know: Madjid Bougherra. The veteran defender, who wears the captain’s armband, will be calling the shots for Algeria in what should be tightly contested games in Group H. Nice to know: Algeria had one of the most stunning World Cup debuts of all time, beating mighty West Germany in their first match of the 1982 tournament. Need to know: The top-ranked team in the African zone, Algeria comes in packed with young players who ply their trade for notable European clubs. Les Fennecs haven’t won a World Cup match since 1982, but came close four years ago, holding England 0-0. They have potential to surprise.
BELGIUM Name to know: Eden Hazard. Already a crucial part of a top Premier League side, the 23-year-old Chelsea striker is among the leaders of Belgium’s new “golden generation”. Nice to know: FIFA ruled that a recent game against Luxembourg be stricken from the official record, due to Belgium’s coach accidentally making one too many substitutions. Need to know: Favoured by many to make a definitive stamp on the tournament, Belgium are talented everywhere on the field, with solid defence and goalkeeping and an array of young options in the attack.
RUSSIA Name to know: Igor Akinfeev. Still just 28, the goalkeeper has been a star for CSKA Moscow for a decade, drawing comparisons to legendary Soviet-era ’keeper Lev Yashin. Nice to know: Russia is the only team at this year’s World Cup that has its entire roster playing in the country’s domestic league. Need to know: Four years ago, superstar manager Guus Hiddink couldn’t get Russia to the World Cup. Now, under well-travelled Fabio Capello (who was managing England in 2010), Russia look poised and prepared to put on a show, four years ahead of their own World Cup hosting duties.
SOUTH KOREA Name to know: Lee Chung-Yong. He burst onto the scene as a 21-year-old at the last World Cup; this time, he comes in with higher expectations after four years of sturdy service for Bolton Wanderers. Nice to know: In 2002, buoyed by raucous home support, South Korea became the first (and as yet, only) Asian team to reach the World Cup semi-finals. Need to know: The Taeguk Warriors are hardly on a roll, with wobbly form over the past 12 months and no true global stars. But since their remarkable run on home soil in 2002, South Korea has shown that when its players are firing on all cylinders, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.
IMAGE SOURCE: FIFA TEXT: DANIEL SQUIZZATO