- Best finish: World Cup champions (1954, 1974, 1990)
- Appearances: 17
- Marquee player: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
- Oddsmakers say: 5/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
- How they got here: Finished first in European qualifying group
The skinny: Germany will be there near the end of the tournament because Germany is always there near the end of the tournament — any tournament. The Germans have an amazing capacity to perform no matter how poorly they play in the run-up to the World Cup. It doesn’t matter what issues they are facing with lineups or injuries, nor is it of any consequence what group they are seeded into. Germany will always be considered a favourite. This country is a factory that produces soccer players. Many of its top stars remain and play in their own country, making them familiar with each other and the style of play. That gives their national teams, at any age level, an advantage. Still, although Germany is always in the hunt for the major trophies, it has been a while since they’ve managed to win one. With the depth of talent, manager Joachim Loew is facing enormous pressure to do something great in this World Cup.Loew has opted to bring only healthy players to the tournament. Sami Khedira was fortunate. He got healthy quickly enough to be selected, but Mario Gomez of Fiorentina didn’t make the cut. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose are working to get healthy. Loew’s other worry is an out-of-form Mesut Osil. Loew also had late injury scares after naming his preliminary roster with goaltender Manuel Neuer and Phillip Lahm suffering worrisome injuries, but both will be healthy for the tournament. Loew and the Germans aren’t successful by accident. They always know when the time is right to take a risk by naming players who aren’t normally expected to make the roster — they did it with Osil four years ago. Germany injected a strong dose of youth into their World Cup squad by calling up talented Schalke 04 teenagers Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer. Along with 19-year-old Goretzka and 18-year-old Meyer, who had a spectacular debut season in the Bundesliga, Loew also selected Borussia Dortmund’s Erik Durm. Throw in players such as goaltender Neuer, the Germans’ undisputed No. 1, Bayern Munich midfielder Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze — another product of Germany's youth programs — Marco Reus, Andre Schurrle and others, and the Germans have an embarrassment of riches. They are fit and adaptable and if any European team is suited to win in South America, it’s Germany.
- Best finish: Third place (1966)
- Appearances: 5
- Marquee player: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
- Oddsmakers say: 28/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
- How they got here: Defeated Sweden 4-2 in two-game, total-game playoff
The skinny: Cristiano Ronaldo is the best soccer player in the world right now. As Ronaldo goes, so goes Portugal. He will carry the same weight on his shoulder that Diego Maradona carried whenever he wore the Argentinean colours. This is a solid Portugal squad that remains on the brink of winning a major title. But without Ronaldo’s magnificence, that title will not come. Can he withstand the pressure without blowing up? Ronaldo has always been a remarkable player, and with his great abilities also comes a remarkable temperament. He appears to have matured in recent years, worrying less about what is being done to him than what he can do to the opposition. He is a man on a mission. The debate on whether he or Lionel Messi rule the roost is moot at this point. Ronaldo is in great form. He scored all four of Portugal’s goals in its two-game total goal win over Sweden in World Cup qualifying playoffs. He’s scoring with Real Madrid. But it wouldn’t be a major tournament without some concerns. Ronaldo has some injury issues — he already had a problem with his thigh when tendinitis flared up in his left leg — but they won’t be enough to prevent him from playing. He could use some help, but he will need to carry the load because players such as Nani, Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles are capable, but not dominant. Nani has only made 12 appearances with Manchester United this year and has faded in recent injury-plagued seasons. Pepe can take some of the attacking pressure, but the Portuguese still lack a dangerous centre forward to occupy other defenders. A new addition to the national team is William Carvalho, a strong, young midfielder who could provide the Portuguese with the ability to stop the opposition in the midfield and send Ronaldo off the other way. Hope springs eternal for Portugal. It will feel at home in Brazil and the more comfortable and focused Ronaldo is, the more dangerous he becomes.
- Best finish: Quarterfinals (2010)
- Appearances: 2
- Marquee player: Asamoah Gyan (UAE Pro-League)
- Oddsmakers say: 200/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
- How they got here: Defeated Egypt 8-2 in two-game, total-goal playoff.
The skinny: It was 2010 in South Africa and Ghana was on the cusp of becoming the first African nation to move on to the World Cup semifinals. But in one of the most extraordinary endings in soccer history, Ghana saw that dream evaporate, saddening an entire continent.Ghana had a certain goal stopped by Uruguay’s Luis Saurez with a deliberate handball in the final minute of extra time. The ensuing penalty would be the last kick of the game. Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan’s penalty never found the net. It slammed off the crossbar. Ghana went on to lose the game on kicks from the penalty spot in a heartbreaking loss for the tournament and Africa. Whether Ghana can duplicate that type of fairy-tale effort in Brazil is open to debate. Asamoah is back and, at 25 he already has 59 caps. He was the Ghana Player of the Year in 2012 and 2013. Known as the Baby Jet, Gyan also has a music career. He is one of the team's most prolific strikers, with 39 goals from 77 internationals. He is one goal away from setting the country’s all-time scoring record. Midfielder David Accam has been in terrific form and will no doubt be a key to this club. The team has a combination of youth and experience with Ghana players who have developed their skill playing for clubs in major international leagues, including Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng. If there is an African team that might be ripe for a breakthrough, it could be this Ghana side. They continue to improve their World Cup credentials and experience with their run in South Africa. The big question mark for the Black Stars is defence and goaltending. Being in what many are calling the Group of Death, there is no room for error. And while Ghana is playing to redeem the nightmare of the Uruguay game, its group-mate the United States will be playing for revenge when the two teams meet. Ghana knocked the U.S. out of South Africa in 2010.
- Best finish: Third place (1930)
- Appearances: 9
- Marquee player: Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
- Oddsmakers say: 100/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
- How they got here: Finished first in CONCACAF qualifying group
The skinny: For many on the United States roster, this will be their last opportunity to make significant contributions on the World Cup stage. The biggest of them all would have been Landon Donovan, but coach Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t give him that chance. In a move that may define Klinsmann’s World Cup, he opted not to name the best-known American player to the squad. It was a stunning decision for soccer followers, causing great debate among teammates — not the greatest atmosphere for a team that will be playing in such a difficult group. It was a brave decision by Klinsmann, but it fits with his promise of remaking the United States so that it continues to grow and improve. The U.S. will still have many recognizable faces on the roster. Clint Dempsey is the captain and the top offensive player for the team with 36 goals in 106 caps and he’s been in great form with the Seattle Sounders. Michael Bradley may well be the most essential player to the success of the World Cup squad. No World Cup team can be successful without a midfield general and Bradley is the man for the United States. Look for young striker Julian Green to make a splash. He impressed many with his performance in earning a spot on the World Cup side. There are questions for the U.S., though: What has happened to Jozy Altidore? The young striker had a horrendous year in England. How will the United States defenders do against the likes of Ronaldo? Goaltender Tim Howard shouldn’t be a problem. At 35, he continues to play well in the English Premier League. But Klinsmann needs to worry about his backline. Stoke’s Geoff Cameron is having a good year, but the U.S. will need more than that. It named a number of players at the right-back position in the hopes someone can fill the biggest hole the team has. DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, John Brooks, Timothy Chandler, Omar Gonzalez et al must step up defensively. This is a team that has too many question marks. Will they be able to score and will the midfield generate enough offensive chances for forwards that miss too many chances? If the Americans can get out of this group, it will be a major accomplishment.