Anyone following the run-up to the World Cup has no doubt become familiar with the issues surrounding it — the broad protests that have swept Brazil over the last year, the cost of the event, and the international challenges facing FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, over its administering of both this Cup and those in the future. But there is still a soccer tournament to be played, and for all of the ills around the way the World Cup is put on, the actual tournament is one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
Everyone has become familiar with the World Cup’s group of favorites — Brazil, Argentina, defending champion Spain, and Germany. And much has been written about the drama surrounding the United States men’s national team, from the exclusion of American icon Landon Donovan to the team’s treacherous position in one of the Cup’s toughest groups. But outside of those five teams, there are 27 others who bring interesting players and stories of their own to Brazil. Here are some of the teams that will make up the fabric of this World Cup — the first played on South American soil in more than a half-century — and will be worth watching even if most of them have little chance of lifting the trophy a month from now:
Bosnia-Herzegovina is the only first-time participant in this World Cup, and Brazil will mark the squad’s first ever appearance in a major tournament after narrow qualifying misses for both Euro 2008 and Euro 2012. The first-time qualifiers shouldn’t be slept on, though: they’ve been ranked as high as 21st in the world in Elo rankings (they’re currently 25th), and in a Group G that is wide open after favorites Argentina, there is no reason this team can’t be better than Iran and Nigeria and move into the knockout stage.
Bosnia comes into the World Cup off of a solid qualifying run that saw them dismantle fellow qualifiers Greece, and they’ve since earned warm-up wins over both Ivory Coast and Mexico, two other sides that are hoping to advance to the knockout stages in Brazil. When everything works, Bosnia looks potent, like when they took an easy 2-0 lead over the United States last August. But the still-improving defense can go awry and it all look ugly in a hurry, like when that lead evaporated to four straight American goals. But Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko and an attack-minded midfield gives Bosnia strength up front, and it has a chance to make its first trip to the World Cup a memorable one.
2. Ivory Coast
Ivory Coast didn’t qualify for its first World Cup until 2006, which came while the country was embroiled in a bitter civil war. Upon qualifying, Didier Drogba, the most iconic Ivorian soccer player on the planet, appealed to the warring sides for peace. “Football might not have ended the war, but it did show Ivorians the possibilities of peace,” Daniel Stelly wrote of the moment last year. The national team has since returned to the World Cup in 2010 and again this year. After tough draws in its first two trips, Les Elephantes landed in a more welcoming group this time: in Group C with Colombia, Greece, and Japan, Ivory Coast has a reasonable hope of advancing to the knockout stages for the first time.
There is one rather large reason that chance is even better than it looks: Ivory Coast boasts one the world’s best players in Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure, a box-to-box nightmare for opposing teams who is also coming off the best year of his professional career. For evidence of the full-field threat Toure poses, watch this, which came in the 93rd minute of City’s championship-capping win over Aston Villa:
Toure isn’t by himself. Drogba is aging but still had a fine season for Turkish club Galatasary, and together with Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony and AS Roma’s Gervinho, he gives Ivory Coast plenty of striking options up front. This is Ivory Coast’s third World Cup and its best chance to make noise at one. And with Ghana stuck in one of the tournament’s toughest groups and Cameroon far from the Indomitable Lions they once were, the orange-clad Elephantes may be the African team best poised to make a run. Even if they don’t, the opportunity to see Toure try to put the country on his back is one fans shouldn’t miss.
Switzerland pulled off one of the shocking wins of the 2010 World Cup, knocking off eventual champion Spain in the first group stage match. This time, the Swiss come in as one of the Cup’s eight seeded teams, and they have more to prove to the rest of the world than any of the other seven. Switzerland earned that seed by virtue of ranking seventh in FIFA’s much-ridiculed rankings, and hardly anyone believes this team is a legit threat to go deep in the tournament. Switzerland beat Brazil in a 2013 friendly, but other than that, its roster of wins isn’t exactly eye-popping, and its World Cup qualifying group was hardly a murderer’s row of European contenders. That said, Switzerland walked through the final qualifying stages without a loss, an impressive touch no matter the opponents.
Switzerland’s luck continued to Brazil: a road to the knockout stage could be much tougher than France, Ecuador, and Honduras, and it’s possible the easy draw could extend into the round of 16, where if things break right, they could face Bosnia or Nigeria. This draw, as Deadspin’s Billy Haisley called it, is “definitive proof that God is Swiss.”
Still, this team has a bunch of young talent, especially in Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri. Belgium has become everyone’s favorite European Cinderella, but with a draw like this, Switzerland could prove its skeptics wrong and steal that role instead.
After the World Cup draw, it would have been a major stretch to put Colombia in any discussion about teams that are “under the radar,” especially compared to continent-mates Chile. Los Cafeteros had just finished a second-place qualifying campaign, were ranked in the top 10 internationally, and had drawn, in Ivory Coast, Greece, and Japan, a fairly easy trip to the knockout rounds. But in January, Colombia lost star striker Radamel Falcao to a devastating knee injury, and since then it has lost its status as a sexy outsider pick to contend for the World Cup too.
Still, this is a good team, one that can both score (less so without Falcao) and defend. They probably can’t win the whole thing, but there’s still a lot of potential here for both exciting soccer and a feel-good story. The last time Colombia entered a World Cup feeling this good was 1994, when the Coffee Growers were in the middle of their Golden Generation and went on an undefeated run through South American qualifying. Colombia won just one game in the group stage, then went out early in the 1998 World Cup too.
The Golden Generation went out with a bang by winning the 2001 Copa America, but Colombian soccer went dark after that. This is the first time the country has qualified for the Cup since. Colombia is a heavy favorite to win Group C. That would line them up with a tough round of 16 match, but it would also give them a chance to do what the Golden Generation never did: move into the World Cup quarterfinals or beyond.
By now you might have figured out that while there are harder groups than Group C. But there might not be one more fascinating. It’s wide open, with Colombia’s injuries and Ivory Coast’s potential. And then there’s Japan, a team that has shown enough skill to beat Belgium and tie the Netherlands…and yet has managed to also lose to Serbia and Belarus.
In AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa, Japan has two verifiable top-level talents in the midfield, and Kagawa is coming to Brazil with at least a little something to prove to the world. After two successful club years at Borussia Dortmund, Kagawa hasn’t translated as well to Manchester United and the Premier League over the last two — he didn’t notch a single goal in 18 appearances for United this year. But when these two are on and Japan plays well, Samurai Blue can challenge some of the world’s best teams, as they did in a thrilling 4-3 loss to Italy at last year’s Confederations Cup. Anything can happen in this group, and Japan will go into it trying to log its second consecutive trip to the round of 16.
6. The Overlooked Europeans
What to make of England, Italy, and France, three teams that roll off the tongue when talking about big soccer nations but are also flying into the World Cup without the attention of Germany, Spain, or even Belgium? Every guess is as good as every other. England, France, and Italy together produced more off-field drama during the 2010 World Cup than they found success on it. The French players walked off the practice field. France and Italy combined to amass just three total points in the group stages. England, meanwhile, barely made it out of a weak group, faced an odd solo mutiny attempt from former captain John Terry, and were trounced out of the Cup by Germany.
But there are signs of hope for all three. France’s shot at making a deep run took a big hit when Franck Ribery went out with a back injury, but Les Bleus are in a weak group and could draw a relatively weak round of 16 opponent, and with their talent the French can still make noise. Italy, for some reason, is being ignored as an actual contender to win the whole thing, which is doesn’t make a ton of sense given the talent on its roster and the fact that they were runners-up in the last major tournament in which they played, Euro 2012. England is stuck in a group with both Italy and Uruguay and is a third-favorite to advance, but there’s still more talent on this Three Lions team than it’s getting credit for.
All three of these teams could make something happen. But the skepticism is understood. With the foul taste of 2010 still lingering, would it be totally shocking if they all disappointed? Probably not.