Four teams stand out as World Cup approaches
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If everything goes according to plan, the World Cup semifinals should include the host country and a five-time champion Brazil, which gave us samba soccer, another South American nation, Argentina, which boasts one of the game's best players, the premier team of Europe, Germany, and defending champion Spain.
As usual, the Brazilians face great expectations and pressure from their fans in a country in which everyone thinks he or she is a coach. The man expected to lead the way is Neymar, who is just coming into his own at age 22 despite a mediocre season at Barcelona. Brazil's Achilles' heel is its defense, including questions about whether goalkeeper Julio Cesar is up for the task.
Nothing less than a championship will suffice. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who guided Brazil to the 2002 title, replaced Mano Menezes, who "only" won silver at the 2012 Olympic Games.
When Brazil hosted the Cup in 1950, teams played in a round-robin final round. Entering the last game at Maracana Stadium against Uruguay, the hosts needed only a tie to win. The team enjoyed a 1-0 lead in the second half but squandered it when instructions from the coach to drop back on defense never reached key players and Uruguay equalized and eventually won, 2-1, sending the nation into mourning.
If the Brazilians win at Maracana on July 13, they will exorcise the ghosts of 1950 and earn an unprecedented sixth title.
It's now or never for Lionel Messi, one of the greatest club players. He has done it all, winning Champions League and La Liga titles with Barcelona. International glory has eluded him, though he was a key figure in the Argentines' qualifying run. Messi, who turns 27 on June 24, is in his prime, even after a subpar season by Messi standards. He is playing on his continent and he has a talented supporting cast in attackers Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and midfielder Javier Mascherano.
If the Argentines win for the third time, Messi no doubt will have sealed his place alongside the all-time greats.
The best European team, coached by Jurgen Klinsmann's former assistant coach, Joachim Low, has a well-balanced side with a lethal scoring punch in Thomas Muller, 24, the co-scoring champion in South Africa in 2010; 35-year-old Miroslav Klose, who needs two goals to surpass Brazilian great Ronaldo's career record of 15 World Cup goals; midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger; and steady goalkeeper Martin Neuer. Only injuries or bad luck will deny this team a spot in the semifinals.
If the Germans win for the fourth time, they will become the first Euro side to win a World Cup in seven tries in the Americas.
The defending champions have many fine players from Champions League champs Real Madrid (Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos), finalists Atletico Madrid (David Villa, who will play at NYC FC next year) and Barcelona (Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta). This competition probably will signal the end of a brilliant generation of players who have won the 2010 World Cup and 2008 and 2012 European championships.
If the Spaniards win, they will be considered one of the great national teams, placed in the same orbit as the Brazilian juggernaut that won three world championships in four attempts from 1958-70.