PREVIEW: Everything you need to know about the World Cup in one beautiful post

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It’s here! Well, sort of. The 2014 World Cup begins play on Thursday when Brazil and Croatia tangle at 4pm ET.

So let’s say you’ve just found us, or that your WC knowledge isn’t quite where you feel it needs to be heading into the tournament. Here’s every single thing we’ve had to say leading up to Brazil, beginning with our staff’s roundtablepicks and predictions, the top 20 moments in the history of the World Cup …

… and continuing through everything we’ve gone on all eight groups. It’s all linked up, below.

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP A 

FROM THE PREVIEW

The host country’s record since a Feb. 6, 2013 loss to England at Wembley? A shiny 16W-4D-1L. The clear favorites to become the fourth hosts to win the thing, Brazil will trot out a loaded team that arguably boasts a dozen of the top 20 players in the group.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. The home team rules. Brazil is vying to win the World Cup on home soil, and has the added benefit of this fact: they’d be a favorite for the tournament regardless of continent. Thirteen of 19 champions have won on their home continent.

2. No Super Mario… to start. Croatia star striker Mario Mandzukic will miss the opener against Brazil with a suspension picked up at the tail end of qualifying. It’s a significant disadvantage for the visitors.

3. El Tri is inconsitent. Mexico looked dominant against New Zealand in the qualifying playoff, but that was after needing every bit of Graham Zusi- and Aron Johannsson-fueled luck to make the playoff. Are they the team that’s posted back-to-back 1-0 losses to Portugal and Bosnia & Herzegovina, or are they the team that’s skunked Israel, Ecuador and South Korea?

DATES AND TIMES

Thursday, June 12 , 5 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Brazil vs. Croatia
Friday, June 13, 1 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Mexico vs. Cameroon

Tuesday, June 17, 4 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Brazil vs. Mexico
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – Cameroon vs. Croatia

Monday, June 23, 4 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Cameroon vs. Brazil
Monday, June 23, 4 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Croatia vs. Mexico

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Brazil
2. Croatia
3. Mexico
4. Cameroon

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP B

FROM THE PREVIEW

A loaded group with stars to burn — Arjen Robben doesn’t even make our Top Five players for the bunch — Group B should provide a bunch of terrific games. Australia is the afterthought of the four, but anything could happen and a Socceroos upset behind Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak would provide an even wilder card.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Spain is seeking out history, as they’ll look to pick up back-to-back World Cup titles with a European Championship sandwiched in the middle. We don’t always talk dynasties when it comes to international soccer, but this Spanish unit will be writing a new language if they come strong.

2. It’s getting Chile in here. South American nations are getting a lot of run leading up to the tournament, and Chile has loads of talent (especially if Arturo Vidal is ready to go). It wouldn’t be a shock to see them come out of the group and make a little noise.

3. What will the Dutch midfield do? Without the injured Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart, Netherlands will have to navigate a tough group with a depleted engine room. Names like Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are still there, though.

DATES AND TIMES

Friday, June 13, 4 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Spain vs. Netherlands
Friday, June 13, 7 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Chile vs. Australia

Wednesday, June 18, 1 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – Australia vs. Netherlands
Wednesday, June 18, 2 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Spain vs. Chile

Monday, June 23, 12 p.m. Eastern, Curitiba – Australia vs. Spain
Monday, June 23, 12 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Netherlands vs. Chile

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Spain
2. Chile
3. Netherlands
4. Australia

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP C

FROM THE PREVIEW

The upshot is a competitive group that provides a wide range of potentials, styles, experience, and stars, and with three teams taking suspected back lines into the tournament, we’ll likely see goals. Combine that with a parity among the group’s bottom three and you have a prescription for drama.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Colombia’s biggest star is out, but the team’s still favored to win this group. Radamel Falcao — the AS Monaco striker that can claim to be one of Europe’s best — couldn’t recover from his knee injury in time to play. Even without him, a talented attack featuring James Rodríguez, Teófilo Gutíerrez, Jackson Martínez, Adrián Ramos, and Carlos Bacca should have enough firepower to carry José Pekerman’s team to the top of the group.

2. No defense means more goals. With the exception of Greece, each team has weak at the back. That means the star-studed Ivorians and a technically and tactically astute Japan could join Colombia in making this one of the tournament’s highest scoring groups.

3. And those Ivorians are certainly star-studded. Didier Drogba is the most famous African soccer player in the world, and he might not be the best forward on his team. That’s because Cote d’Ivoire also have Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou, and Gervinho – players who combined for 41 goals in their European leagues this season. Add ingmidfielder Yaya Toure — the team’s best player — and you have less of a dark horse than the first page of a playbill.

DATES AND TIMES

Saturday, June 14 , 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Colombia vs. Greece
Saturday, June 14, 9 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Cote d’Ivoire vs. Japan

Thursday, June 19, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Colombia vs. Cote d’Ivoire
Thursday, June 19, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Japan vs. Greece

Tuesday, June 24, 4 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Japan vs. Colombia
Tuesday, June 24, 4 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Greece vs. Cote d’Ivoire

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Colombia
2. Cote d’Ivoire
3. Japan
4. Greece

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP D

FROM THE PREVIEW

One of the most difficult packs to predict at the 2014 World Cup, Group D has three teams who could finish first or tumble to third. Between England, Italy, and Uruguay, Group D’s contenders have seven World Cups and 10 world titles, a collection of honors that ensures one impressive résumé will be cast aside with the 15 other teams that fail to make the knockout round.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. This is not your typical England, in the sense that many of the stylistic elements (which usually depict a stoic if physically-capable team) aren’t present in this year’s Three Lions. Yeah, you still have two big reliable-types in central defense (Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, Everton’s Phil Jagielka), but you also have the skill of Adam Lallana, Wayne Rooney, and Raheem Sterling in attack, with Daniel Sturridge’s speed giving Roy Hodgson a new type of threat up top. England’s not even playing 4-4-2 anymore!

2. Andrea Pirlo’s last hurrah will also feature a passing of the torch, with Paris Saint-Germain’s Pirlo-to-be Marco Verratti a likely starter in Cesare Prandelli’s 4-5-1. While Pirlo’s signed a new deal with Juventus which will take him up to the next Euros, this will almost certainly be the 35-year-old’s final World Cup. As his generation’s quintessential deep-lying distributor, Pirlo’s last World Cup will be a talking point for the next generation of registas.

3. Luis Suárez’s health is really, really important, particularly considering the depth of this group. With a healthy Suárez, playing in South America, you could make a case for the Uruguayans as favorites. Without him, it will come down to how well the 35-year-old Diego Forlán (as well as Gastón Ramirez) link a deep central midfield with the team’s healthy scoring threat: Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani.

DATES AND TIMES

Saturday, June 14, 3 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Uruguay vs. Costa Rica
Saturday, June 14, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – England vs. Italy

Thursday, June 19, 3 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Uruguay vs. England
Friday, June 20, 12 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Italy vs. Costa Rica

Tuesday, June 24, 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Costa Rica vs. England
Tuesday, June 24, 12 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Italy vs. Uruguay

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Italy
2. Uruguay
3. England
4. Costa Rica

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP E

FROM THE PREVIEW

The Ecuadorians last four friendlies were against World Cup competition (a loss to Mexico, defeat of Australia and draws against England and the Netherlands). Can this, and the South American climate, help them escape the group?

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Anyone can emerge from this group. Even though France and Switzerland will be expected to go through, Ecuador will hope being close to home helps while Honduras is capable of making anyone’s lives miserable with their borderline play.

2. French rebound. Their last World Cup was probably among the most embarrassing for any true power in history, as in-fighting and bizarre stories crushed their dreams of glory. A younger unit may be able to harness great skill and energy, even without Franck Ribery.

3. All eyes on June 20. Every World Cup game packs import, but Switzerland versus France will, in all likelihood, be the one that decides who wins the group.

DATES AND TIMES

Sunday, June 15 , 1 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Switzerland vs. Ecuador
Sunday, June 15, 4 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – France vs. Honduras

Friday, June 20, 3 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Switzerland vs. France
Friday, June 20, 6 p.m. Eastern, Curitiba – Honduras vs. Ecuador

Wednesday, June 25, 4 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – Honduras vs. Switzerland
Wednesday, June 25, 4 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Ecuador vs. France

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. France
2. Switzerland
3. Ecuador
4. Honduras

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP F

FROM THE PREVIEW

The Super Eagles would provide a significant upset were they to climb ahead of either BNH or Argentina, while a Top Two place for Iran would be among the biggest moments in World Cup history.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Kinda predictable? Our staff laid out its predictions for the group, which looked, well, exactly the same. Argentina is expected to walk through the group with Bosnia and Herzegovina a close second.

2. Messy Messi? Despite the constant high-fives and plaudits for his work with Barcelona, superstar striker Lionel Messi has received plenty of guff from Argentine fans. Can he deliver loads of goals, assists and wonder this time around?

3. Nigeria could be a wild card. Stephen Keshi’s squad has truckloads of talent, but lacks consistency. Even if its defense falters, the Super Eagles are capable of sending plenty of balls on goal. Could we see some big scorelines?

DATES AND TIMES

Sunday, June 15 , 7 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Argentina vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina
Monday, June 16, 4 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Iran vs. Nigeria

Saturday, June 21, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Argentina vs. Iran
Saturday, June 21, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Nigeria vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina

Wednesday, June 25, 12 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Nigeria vs. Argentina
Wednesday, June 25, 12 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Iran

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Argentina
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina
3. Nigeria
4. Iran

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP G

FROM THE PREVIEW

The argument against this being the Group of Death: There’s a pretty big drop off after the quartet’s top two, a drop you don’t see in Groups B and D. Ultimately, if there are no upsets, two teams that may not be among the best 16 in the world won’t make it to the second round …

That’s not a Group of Death, but it is a group of depth – a packet that could provide drama, particularly if Portugal isn’t at full strength when they face Germany on June 16.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Germany is ridiculously talented and has history on its side, making the final eight in every World Cup they’ve entered. Even with Borussia Dortmund star Marco Reus out, the front six is so deep that Mesut Özil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mario Götze didn’t start their team’s final pre-Cup friendly. Germany’s second XI team would have a good chance to make this tournament’s knockout round.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t healthy, and might not be for the entire tournament, thanks to tendinosis in his left knee. That’s not something that’s going to improve in the middle of a month-long competition. For a team that’s becoming increasingly, worryingly dependent on its star, Portugal may need more than a 75 percent Ronaldo to hold off the U.S. or Ghana.

3. After years of derision, the stereotypes could prove decisive for the U.S. in Brazil, just as the team’s fitness, speed, strength and physicality left it on the edge of the semifinals in 2002. For those deriding the U.S.’s technical qualities, those virtues are often cited euphemistically, yet they will be real factors as this tournament progresses. When the U.S. and Portugal descend on Manaus for game two, Jurgen Klinsmann’s emphasis on fitness could pay off.

DATES AND TIMES

Monday, June 16, 12 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Germany vs. Portugal
Monday, June 16, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Ghana vs. United States

Saturday, June 21, 3 p.m. Eastern,  Fortaleza – Germany vs. Ghana
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – United States vs. Portugal

Thursday, June 26, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Portugal vs. Ghana
Thursday, June 26, 12 p.m. Eastern, Recife – United States vs. Germany

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Germany
2. Portugal
3. United States
4. Ghana

-RF

MORE: United States player profiles … all of them

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP H

FROM THE PREVIEW

In terms of talent, there is no group at this year’s World Cup that sees such a huge gap between its leaders and the pack … [Belgium] will arrive in Brazil as one of the most talented teams on the planet. Only a lack of experience and notable results keeps the Belgians from being more than a dark horse.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Russia and South Korea may be looking forward, with the Koreans’ young squad and Russia’s upcoming hosting gig making both teams more viable in 2018. Without its captain (the injured Roman Shirokov), Russia may have trouble getting Aleksandr Kerzakhov onto the scoresheet, while Korea’s quality in the midfield may not make up for mistakes at the back.

2. Algeria are anonymous, but still dangerous, far more so than four years ago. With Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli in midfield, the Desert Foxes have a player whose quality could produce the goal Algeria couldn’t find in the 2010 tournament. Their central defense can be beaten with speed, but neither Russia nor South Korea may have the quality to exploit that weakness. It will still take an upset, but an Algerian team that lacks name stars could produce its first World Cup victory since 1982.

3. Belgium really are as dangerous as advertised, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be as good as their seed implies. Frankly, we don’t know. Europe’s World Cup qualifying is so watered down, teams can go the entire tournament without facing a credible threat, and given Belgium didn’t qualify for Euro 2012, we have no real idea how good they are as a team. We can look at names like Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, and Romelu Lukaku had gawk at their potential, but you need only look to Eden Hazard’s international record to see reason for caution. The Chelsea attacker has 52 goals over the last three years at club-level, but he’s only scored six times in 45 appearances for his country.

DATES AND TIMES

Tuesday, June 17, 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Belgium vs. Algeria
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Russia vs. South Korea

Sunday, June 22, 12 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Belgium vs. Russia
Sunday, June 22, 3 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – South Korea vs. Algeria

Thursday, June 26, 4 p.m. Eastern, Curitibia – Algeria vs. Russia
Thursday, June 26, 4 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – South Korea vs. Belgium

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Belgium
2. Russia
3. South Korea
4. Algeria

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H


While PSG has won the title, Areola’s playing for his future

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PARIS (AP) Although Paris Saint-Germain has easily won the French title, Alphonse Areola still has plenty to play for.

The next four games could be crucial in deciding whether PSG keeps the goalkeeper or tries to sign a big name in the transfer window, possibly Thibaut Courtois. The 25-year-old Areola is the same age as Courtois, but has nowhere near the international standing of the Chelsea keeper.

[ MORE: Turkey hands bid plans to UEFA for EURO 2024 ]

It is hard for Areola to stand out, however, in a team noted almost singularly for its attacking prowess. While PSG has already scored more than 100 league goals, and remains on course to reach 100 points this season, Areola has rarely been talked about.

The common perception is that PSG will thrash teams in the French league, so letting in a goal or two is irrelevant.

However, Areola has been one of PSG’s most consistent players this season, and last Sunday he made a personal record of eight saves in a 1-0 win at Bordeaux.

He was also one of the few PSG players to come through the loss to Real Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League with any credit. Without Areola’s shot-stopping, and particularly his bravery rushing off his line, the 5-2 aggregate loss would have been bigger.

With 104 goals, PSG’s attack is the best in the league by far and has netted 25 more than deposed champion Monaco.

But PSG’s defense is also the best and Areola has conceded only 21 goals in the 31 he has played. Although PSG has dominated most of those, losing only twice all season, he has still made on average four saves per game.

Having replaced Kevin Trapp as No. 1, Areola has missed only three league games all season. It represents a reversal for both.

When Trapp was signed by former coach Laurent Blanc in 2015-16, Areola went on loan to Spanish club Villarreal. He established himself as regular in Villarreal’s side and gained further experience in the Europa League. Spanish media were largely impressed by his consistency and his agility on the goal-line.

He returned to PSG and battled with Trapp for the starting position last season. But coach Unai Emery seemed unsure who he really preferred, with Trapp starting 24 games to Areola’s 14. PSG ended up losing the title to Monaco.

But the hierarchy is much clearer now and the error-prone Trapp, once hailed by Blanc for his passing out from goal, is the one expected to leave.

Areola has further incentive to do well with the World Cup coming up. He is challenging Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda to be France’s No. 2 behind Hugo Lloris in Russia. For now, Areola is a squad member but has yet to make an international appearance under coach Didier Deschamps.

But he has done well at every level for France, starting with the under-16s a decade ago. He got his first taste of international success when he helped France win the Under-20 World Cup in 2013.

While Paul Pogba was one of the stars of the tournament, Areola’s crowning moment came in the final itself. France drew 0-0 with Uruguay and he saved two shots in the penalty shootout. Prior to the shootout he had a word with France’s designated penalty takers, confidently telling them “do your job and I’ll do mine.”

With Emery almost certain to be replaced next season, it promises to be a frenetic offseason of buying and selling at the club.

But whoever replaces Emery should perhaps think twice before letting Areola leave. The Parisian-born Areola came through the youth ranks at PSG, as did center half Presnel Kimpembe and midfielder Adrien Rabiot.

Star-studded sides like PSG often import their best players and fans are happy to see them arrive, because it shows ambition. But they nevertheless identify more closely with homegrown talents such as Areola.

More AP Ligue 1 coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/Ligue1

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

Infantino has ‘full confidence’ in Samoura amid ethics issue

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ZURICH (AP) FIFA President Gianni Infantino says he retains “full confidence” in secretary general Fatma Samoura after an attempt to embroil her in an ethics investigation.

[ MORE: Turkey hands in bid plans to UEFA for 2024 EUROs ]

Samoura has expressed irritation at “totally ridiculous and baseless” claims she broke FIFA rules by not declaring an alleged conflict of interest in the 2026 World Cup bidding contest.

FIFA has not specified the exact nature of the complaint or the progress of any ethics investigation after it was alleged she was a relative of former Senegal player El Hadji Diouf, who is an ambassador for Morocco’s bid.

Samoura insisted on Wednesday the former Liverpool forward “is not a member of my family and therefore everything is crystal clear.”

FIFA’s top administrator received a public show of support from Infantino.

“I can confirm my full confidence in Fatma Samoura to lead the FIFA administration,” Infantino said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday.

The former United Nations official was hired by Infantino in 2016 months after he was elected as Sepp Blatter’s successor.

Morocco is due to take on a joint bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico in the June 13 vote for the 2026 World Cup host.

Photo: Flamengo supporter tattoos club jersey on body

MAURÍCIO DOS ANJOS VIA VICE
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A supporter in Brazil has taken fandom to a whole new level with a piece of body art that shows his devotion to the club.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

Maurício dos Anjos, a passionate Flamengo fan, has been a life-long supporter of the Rio de Janeiro-based club, and has the tattoo to prove it.

While it may look like body paint, Dos Anjos has a tattoo on the upper-half of his body depicting the Flamengo jersey, and it’s pretty awesome.

“People ask me if I don’t find it strange that I’m always wearing a Flamengo shirt. And I just don’t,” dos Anjos told VICE. “To me, it’s normal. But it doesn’t seem like anyone I talk to about it actually dislikes my tattoo.”

In total, Dos Anjos says the body work took over 90 hours and 30 sessions to complete the tattoo.

Has the perception of MLS really changed?

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When David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles back in 2007 his presence changed the complexion of Major League Soccer for all the right reasons, and the perception of the growing league changed.

[ MORE: Go behind the scenes at NYCFC’s new training facility ]

Over the years, MLS has strived to move into the upper-echelon of the global game, in an attempt to compete with the likes of the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, but naysayers still indicate to this day that the United States’ top flight lacks the quality of the aforementioned.

Phrases like “retirement league” and “uninspired” have been used to describe MLS in the past, particularly when it comes to the league’s willingness to spend boatloads of cash on notable players well past their prime.

Examples such as Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Rafael Marquez have at times dampened the perception of MLS due to the lack of quality on the pitch from those players, along with several others that had previously boasted extensive resumes.

Now, we’re at a time where MLS has picked up its scouting, with clubs focused more on younger, more skilled talents from South America and Europe.

That has led to major signings over the past several years, such as Ezequiel Barco, Miguel Almiron, Diego Rossi and Jesus Medina, to name a few.

Has that changed the overall complexion of MLS though?

On Thursday, Kevin De Bruyne‘s agent, Patrick de Koster, suggested in an interview that the Belgium international would likely “finish” his career in MLS.

“For now, he’s very happy at this club,” De Koster said. “We always look what the best solution for the player, both financially and football wise. Kevin’s future? I can see him finish at Los Angeles.”

This comes on the heels of a 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining the LA Galaxy in a move that has sent shockwaves across the league and the world because of the Swede’s great presence on a global scale.

It’s not to say that players like Ibrahimovic, or previous signings like David Villa and Didier Drogba cannot help the overall growth of MLS, because they certainly bring an awareness to the matches and draw attention to their respective clubs.

However, the long-term viability of MLS has been and will continue to be sustained on youth players succeeding in the league, as well as being able to draw promising young talents into the top flight of the U.S.