WHILE GROUP G is widely accepted as the proverbial Group of Death, C is the Group of Life: Every team is strong enough to advance. Likewise, every team has flaws that could impede it.
After a 1-1-1 start to World Cup qualifying, Colombia replaced coach Leonel √Ålvarez with José Pékerman, who in 2006 took his native Argentina to the quarterfinals. Over the next 24 months Pékerman coaxed brilliant performances out of his players—particularly striker Radamel Falcao, who had nine goals—lifting Los Cafeteros to No. 4 in the world rankings (they were No. 36 one month before he arrived) and reviving memories of their golden generation of the 1990s, when a Carlos Valderrama--led squad qualified for three World Cups.
Then, in January, Falcao tore his left ACL. He raced to recover but was ultimately left off the 23-man roster that Colombia submitted at the last minute. Gone is the player who produced 61 goals over his last three club seasons. Instead Colombia will have to rely on scorers Juan Cuadrado and Jackson Martínez, who, while dangerous, are not as deadly as a full-strength Falcao.
Japan will keep up the pressure too, particularly through the attacking-midfield block of its 4-2-3-1. Playmaker Keisuke Honda and midfielder Shinji Kagawa are well-known internationally—the former from his two goals at World Cup 2010, the latter from his integral role on Manchester United's Premier League--winning side of '13. But Shinji Okazaki, on the left, should not be overlooked. After moving from Stuttgart to Mainz last summer, he had a career year, scoring 15 Bundesliga goals and breaking Kagawa's record for a Japanese player in Germany. Okazaki's ability to read the game and make runs into soft defensive spaces gives him a star quality, and his work rate means he often plays 90 minutes a match.
Under Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni, who led AC Milan to Serie A glory in 1999, Japan defeated Australia to win the 2011 Asian Cup and earn an invitation to the '13 Confederations Cup—but the latter tournament, also in Brazil, exposed the Samurai Blue defensively. They proved incapable of blunting the attacks of Brazil, Mexico and especially Italy, which rallied to beat them 4--3.
Unlike Colombia and Japan, Greece makes its reputation in the defensive third of the field. Fernando Santos's squad plays a 4-3-3 that becomes a stout 4-4-1-1 outside of possession, sitting back and waiting for opportunities to counterattack. Embodying the team's ethos is disciplined, hardworking midfielder Giorgos Karagounis, one of just two holdovers from the surprising Euro 2004 champions. In 12 qualifiers the Greeks conceded just six goals, beating Romania 4--2 on aggregate to earn a spot in Brazil. But take note: Greece's four goals in that home-and-away playoff represented a third of its total in 10 earlier qualifiers; that's how hot and (mostly) cold this offense runs.
Africa's highest-ranked team, Ivory Coast, has struggled in competitions outside the continent, and while its aging stars continue to shine for European clubs, midfielders Yaya Touré and Didier Zokora, and forwards Gervinho, Wilfried Bony and Didier Drogba, can't seem to find the same form on the international stage. That inconsistency means Les Éléphants could just as easily advance as play three matches and go home.
The Portuguese League's leading scorer hasn't had to carry Colombia; he has only eight goals in 26 international matches. But given striker Radamel Falcao's absence, it's imperative that Martínez match his form for Porto (20 goals in 2013--14). If that's not enough, Cha Cha Cha—so-called for his moves—will be playing to impress Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, Premier League powers that are said to be scouting him.
GQ FC: A GUIDE TO GROUP C STYLE AND CELEBRATIONS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JASON LEE
YUSUKE NAKANISHI/AFLO/ZUMAPRESS.COM (KAGAWA)
Shinji Kagawa, JPN
GABRIEL ROSSI/GETTY IMAGES (MARTINEZ)