Nickname: Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers)
FIFA Ranking: 8 / Elo Ranking: 5
Qualified: CONEMBOL (S. America), 2nd Place
Appearance: 5th - Best Finish: Round of 16 (1990)
Head Coach: Jose Pekerman (ARG)
ROSTER BREAKDOWN: 2 Domestic, 7 Italy, 4 Argentina, 2 Portugal, 2 Spain, 3 France (including AS Monaco, Ligue 1), 1 Netherlands, 1 Germany, 1 Unattached
It shouldn't be shocking that Colombia qualified for the 2014 World Cup, but it's the way they did it, winning nine games and only allowing 13 goals, fewest in CONEMBOL qualifying. Big home wins over Uruguay (4-0) and Boliva (5-0) helped Colombia win five games out of eight at home, all via shutout.
PLAYER YOU SHOULD KNOW: Mario Yepes, DEF, Atalanta (ITA) - The 38-year old veteran defender and captain is one of only two players over the age of 30 on the roster (former Philadelphia Union keeper Faryd Mondragon at age 42 is the other). If Colombia is to make it out of the group, he's going to have to lead this young squad and keep the defense organized and stingy.
PLAYER WHO NEEDS TO BE HUGE: Teofilo Gutierrez, ST, River Plate (ARG) - With Radamel Falcao out due to injury, it will be Gutierrez who will be tasked with picking up the offense. Falcao netted nine times in qualifying, but Gutierrez wasn't far behind with six.
SEND OFF MATCHES
Draw 2-2 vs. Senegal, Win 3-0 vs. Jordan
It's surprising for many who remember how good Colombia was in the 90s that this is a team that hasn't qualified for a World Cup since 1998 and has only made it out of the group stage once before. The golden generation from the 90s, marred by drug money and the death of defender Andres Escobar has been rebuilt.
Colombia is young, extremely talented and would have been a bigger threat with Falcao healthy. As it stands, they can still get out of the group comfortably and probably have a good chance of winning. While the quarterfinals for such a young team might be a little ambitious, I wouldn't rule it out. This is one of several young teams that has a chance to make some noise not only in this tournament, but 2018 as well.
Nicknames: Ethniki (National), Piratiko (The Pirate Ship)
FIFA Ranking: 12 / Elo Ranking: 17
Qualified: UEFA (Europe) Group C 2nd Place, defeated Romania 4-2 in aggregate playoff
Appearance: 3rd - Best Finish: Group Stage (1994, 2010)
Head Coach: Fernando Santos (POR)
ROSTER BREAKDOWN: 9 Domestic, 6 Italy, 2 Spain, 2 England, 2 Turkey, 1 Germany, 1 Scotland
Greece had an identical record in qualifying as Bosnia and Herzegovina, both finishing with 8-1-1 records. But Greece finished runner up in the group on goal differential, not surprising given the prolific strike rate of the Bosnians who netted 30 times in 8 games compared to just 12 goals for the Greeks.
Drawn against Romania in the playoff round, Greece won the first game at home 3-1 before drawing the second leg at Romania 1-1 and securing just their third trip ever to the World Cup and also the first time the Greeks qualified for consecutive tournaments.
PLAYER YOU SHOULD KNOW: Giorgos Karagounis, MID, Fulham (ENG) - The all-time caps leader for the Greeks with 135, Karagounis will be tasked with dominating the midfield one last time for the Greeks. At age 37 this will likely be his last World Cup and for a team that doesn't score very often, limiting turnovers and maintaining possession will be the key.
PLAYERS WHO NEEDS TO BE HUGE: Greek Strikers - Giorgos Samaras, Kostas Mitroglou, Dimitris Salpingidis, Theofanis Gekas - This is not a team that scores much, so whatever chances they create have to find the back of the net. Three of these players have over 70 international caps, so the experience is there, just not the strike rate. Gekas leads the attacking corps with 24 goals in 72 appearances.
SEND OFF MATCHES
Draw 0-0 at Portugal, Draw 0-0 vs. Nigeria, Win 2-1 vs. Bolivia
I actually like Greece, they play a very hard-nosed, defense first style and they do it very well. But there is a reason this team has never been to the knockout stages at a World Cup, eventually you're going to be in a situation to score and you have to change your style. I have my doubts that this team will be able to get not only the results they need, but the goals necessary to advance on goal difference if they need it. I can see the Greeks very easily getting ousted on the wrong end of tiebreaker with four points on a 1-1-1 record.
IVORY COAST (CIV)
Nickname: The Elephants
FIFA Ranking: 21 / Elo Ranking: 21
Qualified: CAF (Africa) Group C 1st Place, defeated Senegal 4-2 in aggregate playoff
Appearance: 3rd - Best Finish: Group Stage (2006, 2010)
Head Coach: Sabri Lamouchi (FRA)
ROSTER BREAKDOWN: 1 Domestic, 5 France, 4 Germany, 4 EPL (England/Wales), 4 Turkey (1 currently unattached), 2 Switzerland, 1 Belgium, 1 Norway, 1 Italy
As the highest ranked team in Africa, Ivory Coast was placed into Pot A and drawn against Morocco, Tanzania and Gambia in the second round of CAF qualifying. The Ivory Coast went unbeated, going 4-0-2 and scoring 15 times to just 5 allowed, easily finishing top of the group with 14 points, five clear of second place Morocco.
Still the highest ranked team in Africa going into the third round, Ivory Coast was one of the five higher ranked group winners drawn against one of the five lower ranked teams from the second round. Ivory Coast drew 66th ranked Senegal, second lowest team ahead of only Ethiopia (93rd). Ivory Coast won the first leg at home 3-1 and secured a 1-1 draw in the second leg thanks to a stoppage time goal from Saloman Kalou.
PLAYERS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Yaya Toure, MID, Manchester City (ENG) / Kolo Toure, DEF, Liverpool (ENG) - You'll be hearing the name Toure a lot when the Ivory Coast plays, and not just because there are two of them. The prolific brothers who play in the EPL will make up the spine of the Elephants formation, giving them a solid force in the middle of the field.
PLAYER WHO NEEDS TO BE HUGE: GK Boubacar Barry, Lokeren (BEL) - The veteran keeper has 80 caps in his international career. The other two guys on the roster, have one each. The 34-year old could be the difference between the knockout stages or another early trip home.
SEND OFF MATCHES
Loss 1-2 vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Win 2-1 vs. El Salvador
In a fairly wide open group for second place, the Ivory Coast seems to be the team that is best suited to make it out of the group. They have probably the most dangerous group of attackers in players like Didier Drogba and Wilfred Bony and capable defenders in the Toure's and Didier Zokora. They might not be built to make it far in the knockout stages, but they'll absolutely cause problems within their own group.
FIFA Ranking: 46 / Elo Ranking: 25
Qualified: AFC (Asia) Fourth Round Group A 1st Place
Appearance: 5th - Best Finish: Round of 16 (2002 as hosts, 2010)
Head Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni (ITA)
ROSTER BREAKDOWN: 11 Domestic, 7 Germany, 2 Italy, 2 England, 1 Belgium
Japan actually struggled in the third round of AFC qualifying when they finished second to Uzbekistan in Group C, an alarming result for the top ranked team in Asia at the time. Japan rebounded to have a solid fourth round, topping a group including Australia, Jordan, Oman and Iraq with a 5W-1L-2D record and scoring 16 goals in those eight games.
PLAYER YOU SHOULD KNOW: Shinji Kagawa, ST/MID, Manchester United (ENG) - The versatile playmaker can do it all in the attacking half. Odds are he'll be deployed somewhere in the midfield, either as a withdrawn striker or out on the wings, but not matter where he is on the field, he's a threat to create or score from just about anywhere.
PLAYER WHO NEEDS TO BE HUGE: Shinji Okazaki, ST, Mainz 05 (GER) - Okazaki was Japan's leading scorer in qualification, netting twice in an 8-0 blowout of Tajikistan, and had eight goals overall. If he's paired with Keisuke Honda up top, the duo will have to work together to get Japan back to the knockout stages.
SEND OFF MATCHES
Win vs. Cyprus 1-0, Win vs, Costa Rica 3-1, Win vs. Zambia 4-3
I think it's a down year for Asian teams, and I wouldn't be shocked if none of them make the knockout stages in 2014. But if there's one team that can it will be Japan, they have the best draw and the most talent in the region. They're also fairly young and experienced on the international level, with most of their top players entering their primes in their mid-to-late twenties. If this team is going to make a shock run, this would be the year to do it, but their defense is going to have to stop a couple of talented teams in order for that to happen.
June 14 - Colombia vs. Greece, ABC, 12PM EST, Belo Horizonte
June 14 - Ivory Coast vs. Japan, ESPN, 9PM EST, Recife
June 19 - Colombia vs. Ivory Coast, ESPN, 12PM EST, Brasilia
June 19 - Japan vs. Greece, ESPN, 6PM EST, Natal
June 24 - Japan vs. Colombia, ESPN, 4PM EST, Cuiaba
June 24 - Greece vs. Ivory Coast, ESPN2, 4PM EST, Fortazela
BEST/MOST IMPORTANT GAME - Japan vs. Ivory Coast - Not only do I think this game will be fun to watch, but I think the winner, if there is one, is going to the knockout round. I'd give the Ivory Coast the edge in this, mostly because of the Toure's, but Japan has the players to get out wide and not attack directly up the middle. Not usually a tactics guy, but I'm really interested and curious as to how this one will play out.
PREDICTIONS: 1) Colombia 2) Ivory Coast 3) Japan 4) Greece
This is one of the more wide open groups and but I envision two likely scenarios. I think Colombia advances and Greece does not. The order certainly is not clear, but the reason I have Japan in third is not just their matchup with the Ivory Coast, but also Greece. I think it will be difficult for Japan to break through the stingy Greek defense, giving them another game where they're likely to drop points. Of course, there could be a lot of draws in this one as well, any wins will be at a premium and two positive results and four points could be enough to get out of this group in second place.