1. All On You, Brazil
The team enters every World Cup not just expected to at least make the final but also to win with a flair that makes men swoon and women dance. Pile on that being the host. Pile on the long ghost of Maracanazo, the upset loss to Uruguay in the Brazil-hosted 1950 World Cup. Top it with working-class protests of the money spent, venue preparation running behind schedule and visitors expecting the greatest party ever (or until the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil).
2. The Reign of Spain
Another triumph here would stamp the dominant winners of the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2008 and 2012 champs as the greatest national team ever. Any slippage could reveal itself quickly: Spain opens against 2010 World Cup runner-up and perennial power the Netherlands.
3. Messi’s Moment?
Put them all on the pitch in their primes and Argentina’s Lionel Messi might be the best player ever. But Pelé and Diego Maradona, the consensus two other contenders for that title, presented us signature greatness in World Cups. Messi? Not yet. The current game’s most dynamic finisher has one goal in eight World Cup matches. And the tournament’s quadrennial quality limits the performances on this stage. He will be 31 in 2018. Not ancient, but not young, either.
4. Surviving Death
There’s a Group of Death in every World Cup. Oh, goody! That appears to be Group G, which includes the United States, Germany, Portugal and Ghana. Each World Cup, a power nation that usually waltzes to the knockout stage trips in group play. Either the team falls or needs a dramatic third-game win to escape. Could that be world No. 2 Germany this year? And in Group D, will it be Uruguay, which is matched with Italy, England and poor Costa Rica?
5. English Speakers
Both the United States and England need to shrink trends. Despite soccer’s steady popularity rise in the United States, our results display mediocrity’s inconsistency. The Americans got to the knockout round in 1994, 2002 and ’10 but were three-strikes-and-out in 1998 and 2006. England is considered a soccer heavyweight but could topple like stereotypical British boxing heavy-weights. England comes in ranked No. 11 in the world and has only one semifinal appearance since its 1966 championship. After scraping into the knockout stage in 2010, England got dismissed 4-1 by Germany.