This is not a group of death by any stretch of the imagination, but there will be intrigue in the race for second.
Brazil: Win or lose, the hosts will be the most spectacular team of this tournament. Either they will win this tournament, reminding everyone what jogo bonito can be, or the pressure—and it’s hard to imagine any team entering a World Cup with this much pressure on them—will smash them into a thousand pieces.
The last time Brazil hosted a World Cup, it was 1950. The Seleção’s loss in the de-facto final left scars on the national heart that five titles and six decades haven’t fully masked. The nation enters this tournament with significant problems, as evidenced by the mass protests throughout the country. Even the beloved national team, even a victory in this World Cup, won’t be able to fix those problems, and the government will not be able to distract the public with those yellow shirts as they have in the past. In some ways, this year’s 23 have been given an impossible and thankless task. But if they can prevent it from becoming joyless, Brazil will win this tournament.
Croatia: Croatia’s sights will be significantly lower than Brazil’s, and their worst fears will be significantly less scary. Their hope here is simply to advance, and while they are not a powerhouse, they certainly have the ability to do so. You could make the argument that Croatia has produced more footballing talent than they reasonably should. A country of little more than 4 million, most of the national team plays in Europe’s top leagues. Luka Modric, playing for Real Madrid, is one of the best creative players in the world, and if Croatia is to reach their modest goals in this tournament, he will surely be a leading cause as to why.
Mexico: El Tri shares Brazil’s flair for the extreme: at their best, they are a solid international side that has advanced beyond the group stage (and no further) in five consecutive World Cups. But when they are bad, as they were for most of 2013, they are a shitshow. Four different managers presided over the team last year, and if not for American heroics, they wouldn’t even have made a qualification playoff against New Zealand. Under Miguel Herrera, they have achieved a modicum of stability, and they’ve yet to lose in seven matches, mostly friendlies, with him at the helm. And yet it’s possible that their best player is Carlos Vela, who scored 21 goals for Real Sociedad this season and yet wasn’t selected for the team. Nothing this team does in the group, short of beating Brazil, would surprise me.
Cameroon: The African side suffered the ignominy of being the first side eliminated from the 2010 World Cup, but it’s not unfeasible that they could advance from this group. The problem they face is that their two best players are Samuel Eto’o, who at 33ish is past his prime, and Alex Song, who hasn’t seen much playing time since moving to Barcelona.
The key player: Neymar, Brazil
Brazil’s advancement is not in doubt, but they are the only side that pose a threat in the knockout stages, and Neymar is their most important player. He is 22, but already the face of the team, and perhaps their most consistent goal-scoring threat. Last summer’s Confederations Cup was his coming out party before moving to Barcelona, but a World Cup is something different entirely. How will he handle that pressure, as the home side’s critical threat? If Brazil win, Neymar will likely have become a legend in the process.
What will happen: Brazil will win this group, the only question is whether they will have 7 or 9 points before entering the real challenge of the knockout stage. After that, it is very much in the grabs for the other three sides. I think Croatia has it in them to advance, at which point they will probably head home after the round of 16.