Lionel Messi's Argentina look formidable, Spain tick the boxes, hosts Brazil are contenders and even England have a chance
If you have spent any time in Brazil, you will understand why Ronaldo summed it up recently as "football for us is more than five stars on a shirt, it is a lifestyle". It is everywhere. The beaches are floodlit so games can go on until the early hours. Goalposts rise from the sand as far as the eye can see. And it does not take long watching the kids from the favelas to realise there is one thing they consider mandatory here from a very early age. A good first touch. It is the perfect setting.
Yes, Brazil has its problems in the buildup to these finals and they are not trying to pretend anything else. Yet there is still something magical about what to expect from 12 June to 13 July at the home of jogo bonito. Just look at Argentina's forward line: Messi, Agüero, Lavezzi, Higuaín. Or consider some of the other superstars who will be illuminating the Maracanã, Arena Amazonia, Estádio Nacional and all the other venues. Ronaldo, Robben, Ribéry … and that's just the Rs. Maybe even Rooney will turn up this time.
It will not be straightforward, for any of the European teams. This is the seventh time the tournament has been staged in South America and on the previous six occasions it has been won by a team from the same continent. Twice by Brazil, twice Uruguay and twice Argentina.
Roy Hodgson, asked why this was the case, talked about it not just being the heat and humidity. "It's the grass as well," he said. "It doesn't bounce in the way we're used to." The Football Association has brought in its own turf specialist to try to recreate what to expect at their training ground. An official request has gone in to establish if the grass will be cut the same length at every stadium. The first thing England really need to know is that the teams who take care of the ball, and spend less energy chasing to get it back, will inevitably go the furthest in these conditions.
Spain tick an awful lot of the boxes as they set about defending the trophy before the inevitable break-up of the Xavi Hernández-Andrés Iniesta double act. There have surely never been two other players in history who have passed the ball to one another with greater regularity (or accuracy). But Xavi is 34 and Iniesta has just turned 30. This will be their final hurrah together in this competition.
Can Spain repeat their success of 2010? They are in a difficult group, alongside Holland, Chile and Australia, but no one should discount them when you stop to think about the list of players – among them Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, David de Gea, Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Arbeloa, Isco, Carles Puyol and David Villa – who have been left out of Vicente del Bosque's squad or were fretting for their place. They also have Diego Costa now, so it would be a surprise if there is a return to the 4-6-0 formation that formed part of their successful Euro 2012 campaign. Costa's defection, after winning two caps for Brazil in March last year, threatens serious repercussions for the host nation when the one thing they clearly lack is a centre-forward.
Neymar offers a certain amount of fantasia but the 22-year-old has had an erratic season at Barcelona and there is too much reliance on him to carry the national team on his slight shoulders. Otherwise, the onus is on Fred, who has a decent scoring record for Fluminense but was whistled when England played at the Maracanã last June. The backup is Jô – once of Manchester City – and look out for Bernard, a wide player Luiz Felipe Scolari has described as having "joy in the legs". A nice quote even if a trio of Fred, Jô and Bernard sounds more like a cribbage night with the Rotary Club than three names to inspire fear among the world's best defences.
Argentina look the better bet. Carlos Tevez would walk into most teams yet he does not get into Alejandro Sabella's squad and the bottom line is that if Lionel Messi plays at his best, this team will be close to unstoppable. It is an if because it has not always happened for Messi in the colours of La Albiceleste but he turns 27 the day before Argentina's final game in Group F against Nigeria and if he really wants to be revered in the same way as Diego Maradona, the only thing that really goes against him is that he has never sprinkled his stardust over a World Cup. He has the opportunity to bury the argument. And Messi, on top form, has the gifts to win the tournament almost by himself.
Portugal only squeaked in via the play-offs and will do well to get through a group featuring Germany, Ghana and USA, even with Cristiano Ronaldo in their midst. Germany and Holland always deserve to be taken seriously – neither team lost a single game in qualification – and a talented Belgium should be good fun to watch.
Yet if there is a dark horse in Brazil, it is probably one of the South American nations. Think back to the way Chile outplayed England at Wembley in November. Or consider the dangers a fit Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani will pose Uruguay's opponents. One certainty: Suárez, should he recover from surgery in time, will be absolutely determined to put one over on England, just for starters.
The draw has clearly not been kind for England but at least this time expectations are mostly realistic. No one, in tabloidese, is roaring "We're gonna win it" and everyone, deep down, knew where Greg Dyke, the FA chairman, was coming from with that infamous slit-throat gesture at the World Cup draw.
Hodgson will be better prepared this time, however. He was parachuted into the England job with barely six weeks to prepare for Euro 2012 and had to muddle together a squad when an entire XI were missing through injury. He now has a structure to his team and the basis of a plan. More than anything, he has shown he can move away from the "dark age" tactics and his reputation as a rigid 4-4-2 man.
All the same, the opening game against Italy automatically conjures up memories of what happened in Ukraine two years ago and a couple of things in particular. First, Andrea Pirlo doing the Panenka penalty on the gurning, arms-flapping, Grobbelaar-impersonating Joe Hart, a moment of beauty that was missing only the words: "Ciao, bambino". And, second, the statistic that revealed England's most successful pass completion came from Hart, with 18 goal-kicks up the pitch to Andy Carroll, a second-half substitute. What a sorry story that told of England's performance.
This England will need to show more refinement if they are to overcome the difficulties of Group D. That in itself would constitute success of sorts but, equally, there is no point being defeatist purely for the sake of it.
Hodgson has not said England can win it but, then again, he hasn't said they can't either. It's a long shot – OK, a very long shot – but it would be nice to think that the good players in England's squad can show that is what they are: good players. It is when they underperform that it jars so much. Though we have said all that before, of course.