THE DISADVANTAGE of playing World Cup host, as Brazil will for the first time since losing the 1950 final to Uruguay in Rio: You don't have to play qualifiers, so you miss out on meaningful, high-intensity warmups. But the advantages—a guaranteed spot in the field and, consequently, the freedom to schedule matches and experiment with personnel—are much, much greater.
A year ago the Sele√ß√£o were ranked No. 22 in the world. A stretch of six games had yielded just one win. Their dynamic young goal scorer, Neymar, was playing in the domestic league and had yet to be tested on a major stage. But coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, back for a second stint after winning the Cup in 2002, was able to audition new talent—only two of his likely starters featured prominently in '10—and exhibit patience with no repercussions.
Things clicked as Brazil hosted the Confederations Cup last June. The back line of Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Marcelo ceded just three goals in five games. The offense produced 14 goals—four by Neymar—including three in the final win over Spain.
Now just about everyone on Brazil's 23-man roster plays for a Champions League--caliber club, including scorers Neymar at Barcelona, Paulinho at Tottenham and Oscar at Chelsea. (The rare exception: Fred, the Confed Cup's joint top scorer, stayed home at Fluminense and spent much of the past year injured, raising questions about whether he's the ideal 1 for Scolari's 4-2-3-1.)
Freed from the constraints of a qualifying schedule, the federation was able to pit that attacking squad against a year's worth of top teams; 17 of Brazil's last 20 opponents will participate in the World Cup.
The most relevant of Brazil's 13 wins in that stretch: a dominating 2--0 over Mexico 363 days before their scheduled Group A showdown. An early favorite in CONCACAF, El Tri snuck into this year's World Cup after a rocky campaign that featured four managers. Javier (Chicharito) Hernàndez is the Mexican name soccer fans know best, but the Manchester United forward struggled to score in qualifiers. Instead it was Oribe Peralta, a star for Santos Laguna last year, who led the charge with 10 goals. To advance, the team will need contributions from both, as well as a continued stability along a stellar five-man back. That formula worked in the 2012 London Olympics when Mexico upset Brazil 2--1 in the gold medal game—but that was two long years ago.
Brazil will open the tournament in S√£o Paulo against Croatia, another team that barely scraped its way in. Defensively sound, this outfit never scored more than twice in a qualifier. Any hope for an upset rides on the feet of crafty midfielders Ivan Rakitiƒá (12 goals and 10 assists with Sevilla this season) and Luka Modriƒá, who during Real Madrid's run to the Champions League title averaged nearly three interceptions. Forward Mario Mandzukiƒá, a 6'2" beast in the box for Bayern Munich, will miss the opener due to a sending-off late in qualification.
Long shot Cameroon is back for its seventh World Cup—more than any other African country—but there's little to suggest that this one will end any differently than the last four did, with first-round elimination. In 1998, 2002 and '10, at least, the Indomitable Lions had a young Samuel Eto'o. Now their alltime leading scorer is 33 and, based on his inconsistent play for Chelsea, considerably more domitable.
If there's a player capable of bringing back the glory days of 1998, when the Vatreni lost to host France in the semis, it's the Professor, whose nickname reflects skill beyond his 20 years. Kovaƒçiƒá's two seasons at Inter Milan have been up and down, but he has rare dribbling and playmaking talents, dropping deep in preparation for marauding attacks that could lift Croatia to the No. 2 spot in the group.
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ILLUSTRATIONS BY JASON LEE
AFP/GETTY IMAGES (KOVACIC)