By TIM FONTENAULT
Four years of longing and anticipation has come down to one day of painful impatience.
At long last, the World Cup begins Thursday. The United States does not play until Monday, there is going to be plenty of exciting soccer played before that.
The Group Stage draw set the stage for some incredibly enticing matchups. Of course, in Group G, the U.S. will begin with a rematch against Ghana before going up against Portugal and Germany, two old friends from 2002. However, Jurgen Klinsmann team will not be the only setting the stage for exciting matchups. Given that the United States is in the so-called “Group of Death,” the other groups might provide more joy for American fans anyways.
The excitement kicks off right away. Five-time champion Brazil gets things going right away as the host nation when they take on Croatia on Thursday. On Friday, the action really picks up as focus turns to Group B and a rematch of a recent World Cup Final.
Here are 10 enticing fixtures to watch that do not include the United States:
BRAZIL vs. CROATIA (June 12, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN)
All eyes will be on Sao Paolo Thursday afternoon, as A Seleção kick things off.
Brazil exited the World Cup earlier than they would have liked in 2006 and 2010, bowing out to France and the Netherlands, respectively, in the Quarterfinals. The four years since South Africa have had their share of failures, but this is a squad that is trending upwards once again, especially after winning last year’s Confederations Cup.
This will be the first World Cup match played in Brazil since 1950, when the Maracanã fell silent as Uruguay stunned the hosts.
The time has come for Neymar, the young superstar the world has drooled over since his Brazil debut against the United States in August 2010, is set for his first World Cup. Can the Barcelona man guide Brazil to its record sixth World Cup triumph?
MEXICO vs. CAMEROON (June 13, Noon ET, ESPN 2)
Thanks in part to Graham Zusi and the United States, Mexico made it to the World Cup after an abysmal Qualifying campaign. Their reward was a tricky group that includes the favorite/host, an always challenging dark horse and an African giant.
El Tri will open against Cameroon in Natal, and if Miguel Herrera’s men have any hope of advancing, three points against Samuel Eto’o and company would be a great start.
SPAIN vs. NETHERLANDS (June 13, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN)
FIFA obviously thought that watching Spain and the Netherlands go back and forth for 120 minutes in the classic 2010 Final was not enough, so we get to see 90 more minutes on the second day of the tournament in 2014.
Spain remains right were they were when the 2010 tournament began, No. 1 in the FIFA rankings. Meanwhile, the Netherlands, far from the same team that took the field that July night in South Africa, are down to 15th.
Still, it is a rematch of the most recent World Cup Final. That is the kind of thing one leaves work for.
ENGLAND vs. ITALY (June 14, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Nothing is cooler than Andrea Pirlo’s beard, but if something came close, it would be his confidence on a free kick or penalty kick, right Joe Hart?
England pushed Italy all the way to penalties the last time they met in a tournament, back in the Quarterfinals of the 2012 European Championship. Pirlo, of course, put Italy in control of that shootout, beating Joe Hart with a Panenka kick.
The Three Lions would obviously like revenge for that, but will they get it? Will Italy prove that 2010 was just an abnormality?
More importantly, will the pitch at Manaus be playable on Saturday?
ARGENTINA vs. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA (June 15, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The World Cup has been hosted in the Western Hemisphere seven times. Each time, a nation from the Western Hemisphere – more specifically from South America – has won the tournament.
Argentina have a chance to win the tournament, as they normally do, but success in the form of lifting the trophy has not happened since Diego Maradona led his country to glory in Mexico in 1986.
Lionel Messi, only 26 and considered by most to be the best player on the planet, has won everything at Barcelona: La Liga, the Champions League, Copa del Rey, the Club World Cup, every individual accolade imaginable. However, in nine years playing for Argentina, he has won nothing.
In fact, Argentina’s last major trophy (its last trophy of any kind) came back in 1993, when Gabriel Batistuta scored on either side of a Mexico penalty kick to win Copa America. The time is now for Messi and his Argentina side, but Bosnia could cause problems.
Bosnia is coming in to the World Cup with a lot of confidence and a chance to be a dark horse in the competition. He has missed a lot of sitters at Manchester City, but Edin Dzeko knows how to score when it counts.
GERMANY vs. PORTUGAL (June 16, Noon ET, ESPN)
Group G is obviously going to be an exciting group, and that is not just when the U.S. is on.
Germany and Portugal enter Brazil as the No. 2 and No. 4 teams in the FIFA rankings. The big issue for both, however, is whether or not injuries will mar them during the Group Stage.
Obviously, there have been concerns lately about Cristiano Ronaldo’s health, but the Portuguese captain seemed to put those concerns to rest during his side’s convincing win over Ireland. Meanwhile, Germany are forced to face this tournament without Marco Reus, who had been on fire until suffering a ligament tear in a friendly against Armenia.
Still, these are the two favorites to get out of the Group of Death. Does one have enough to take down the other in this group opener and better their position, or will there be a stalemate, giving the United States and Ghana a whiff of blood in the water?
COLOMBIA vs. IVORY COAST (June 19, Noon ET, ESPN)
Group C is not the most glamorous of groups, but it is interesting in the sense that all four teams could realistically progress. The Ivory Coast and Colombia, however, could be considered the favorites.
Colombia is an exciting prospect in this tournament, and fans of Serie A will be familiar with the team’s four most experienced defenders: Milan’s Cristian Zapata, Atalanta’s Mario Yepes and Napoli’s Pablo Armero and Juan Zúñiga. The Ivory Coast has firepower coming at them, however, chiefly in the form of superstars like Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure. That said, Drogba has declined in recent years and Toure is still uncertain for the Ivory Coast due to a hamstring injury.
This is fixture falls on the second match day in Group C, and with a group as unique as this one, both of these teams will be hoping to walk off the pitch with six points to brag about. Regardless of the result, it should pave the way into an exciting final day for the group.
SWITZERLAND vs. FRANCE (June 20, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Switzerland has had fun being the team that no one talks about, working its way up the world rankings without so much as a whisper.
The Swiss are going to challenge for the top spot in Group E, along with France. Meanwhile, Les Bleus have been far from dominant in recent years, and they are certainly not counted among the major favorites in Brazil.
Neither side that makes it out of Group E will be excited about the next round, should Argentina and Bosnia both progress, but the winner of this match should be in pole position to win the group, thus giving themselves a bit of momentum and confidence.
BELGIUM vs. RUSSIA (June 22, Noon ET, ABC)
Belgium has been the team on the rise since the last World Cup, with stars like Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen and Kevin Mirallas bursting on to the scene, while others, such as captain Vincent Kompany, took their game to new heights.
With the rise of these stars, Belgium is back at the World Cup for the first time since 2002. This time, they are considered a favorite by some, a contender by all.
They are paired in Group H with another nation that has not had a lot of success on the international stage but still knows how to pack a punch.
Russia’s stars are not in the spotlight as often as other country’s stars, considering the entire team plays in the Russian Premier League, but there are plenty of familiar names to soccer fans. Chief among them is Euro 2012 standout Alan Dzagoev. In front of him, Aleksandr Kerzhakov has developed a talent for putting the ball in the net.
A slight trend on this list has been matches that can impact the group standings, thus impacting the final bracket at the end of the Group Stage. This is another match that can have a big impact if Russia are able to beat the high-flying Belgians.
What do you think of these match-ups? Which matches are you most looking forward to see not including USMNT games?
Share your thoughts below.