Football pundits and gamblers aren’t hesitating to pick Brazil, the host of the 2014 World Cup, as the favorite for the World Cup Trophy on July 13.
However, the 16-team knockout phase, which is scheduled to start on June 29 after the two-week group stage, may pose a tough test for the “eternal favorite.”
If the Brazilian team advances to the round of 16, as is widely expected, it is likely to face Spain or the Netherlands from Group B.
Reigning champion Spain is the No. 1 team in the FIFA rankings, but the record between the two countries shows that the South Americans could have the edge over their European opponents.
Spain was blanked by Brazil 3-0 in the 2013 Confederations Cup final. The 2010 World Cup champion posted two wins, five losses and two draws against the Canary Corps in the nine times the two sides have faced each other.
For Brazil, the road to the quarterfinals may be bumpier if it has to face the Netherlands in the 16-team stage. The two countries have a head-to-head record of three wins, three losses and five draws. But in World Cup play, the Netherlands beat Brazil 2-1 in the quarterfinals in South Africa four years ago, going on to make the final.
In the group stage, Spain and the Netherlands are challenged by Chile, whose FIFA ranking is 14th. One of the 2010 finalists may end up going home after the first round.
If Brazil makes it to the quarterfinals, the South Americans could clash with one of three strong teams from Group D ― Italy, Uruguay or England ― or Colombia of Group C for a semifinal ticket.
If Colombia, the most highly favored in its group, defeats the Group D runner-up in the second and then meets Brazil in the quarterfinals, the game will be hard fought.
Colombia, eighth in the FIFA ranking, is regarded as a dark horse along with Bosnia and Herzegovina of Group F and Belgium of Group H.
The three teams have shown remarkable attacking power in qualifying.
If Italy tops Group D, there is a good chance it will face the Netherlands or Spain in the quarterfinals.
Before this scenario become reality, the Azzurri Corps has first to win grueling battles with football powerhouses England and Uruguay in the group stage. All of the three countries have experience claiming the Jules Rimet Trophy, although only Italy has won the World Cup since.
In contrast, the tournament draw was quite favorable for Argentina of Group F and Germany of Group G.
The two strong contenders are expected to have a relatively easy path to the semifinals, as long as they win in their respective groups.
Neither Argentina nor Germany, if they advance to the round of 16 as the best teams in their groups, will run into the Netherlands, Spain or any other highfliers before the semifinals.
Some observers cautiously predict that the Big Four will all eventually make it to the semifinals: Brazil versus Germany and Italy versus Argentina.
At issue is whether Italy or Germany will be able to break the tradition in place since 1962, of the champion being from the host region. The only exceptions after the 1958 Sweden World Cup have been the two tournaments held outside Europe and the Americas ― Korea-Japan in 2002 and South Africa in 2010.
By Kim Yon-se (firstname.lastname@example.org)