MATCHDAY PREVIEW – The FIFA World Cup™ returns to the Maracana on day four at Brazil 2014, when Argentina star Lionel Messi will make his tournament entrance at the same legendary venue. After a low-key season by his own stratospheric standards, the four-time FIFA Ballon d’Or winner is certain to come under close scrutiny. Will he cope with the pressure? Can he make the same instant impact as his rival and Barcelona team-mate Neymar, who racked up a pair of goals on opening day? Despite the late kick-off time for European audiences, the whole planet will be fascinated to watch the first impressions left by the man hoping to follow in Diego Maradona’s footsteps.
Elsewhere, two ambitious European sides are set to begin their respective bids. A World Cup winner in 1998, Didier Deschamps will be keen for his charges to start with a win against Honduras, though the former France captain is too experienced to underestimate a team still chasing a first finals win after six outings. Switzerland, meanwhile, topped their qualifying group and have announced their intention to at least match their best ever World Cup performance, a quarter-final spot in 1954. As for opponents Ecuador, they were the last CONMEBOL side to qualify and are desperate to pay homage to emblematic forward Christian ‘Chucho’ Benitez, who died tragically on 29 July aged 27.
Switzerland-Ecuador (Group E), Estadio Nacional, Brasilia, 13.00 (local time)
France-Honduras (Group E), Estadio Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre, 16.00 (local time)
Argentina-Bosnia and Herzegovina (Group F), Estadio do Maracana, 19.00 (local time)
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Stuttering starts: Since lifting the Trophy in 1998, France have regularly struggled to hit the ground running at World Cup finals. Beaten by Senegal in 2002, they could only manage a goalless stalemate with Switzerland in 2006 and repeated the result against Uruguay four years ago, failing to register in all three games. Moreover, Les Bleus are largely lacking in happy World Cup memories from Latin America, falling at the first hurdle in both their visits in 1930 and 1978, while they did not even qualify for the 1950 and 1962 editions.
Split personality: Ecuador performed almost like two different teams on the road to Brazil. La Tri defeated each of their rivals apart from Argentina in Quito, and held La Albiceleste to a draw, but it was a different story away from home – where they slipped to five defeats and drew their other three fixtures.
Modern take on a famous venue: Sixty-four years on from the trauma of the Maracanazo, Rio de Janeiro’s iconic stadium is ready to host seven World Cup games after undergoing an extensive makeover. Once the biggest ground in the world, capable of accommodating around 200,000 spectators back when fans could stand, the Maracana has been renovated for this tournament, taking on a new look faithful to the original design. Although the capacity has been reduced to 74,738 places, the Maracana retains all of its fabled aura, as Messi and Co will soon discover along with sole finals newcomers Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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They may not figure on many people’s lists of favourites, but Switzerland went into the World Cup Draw as a top seed, their FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and qualifying performances marking them out among the best teams in Europe. Always a tricky proposition for big-name sides, Die Nati nonetheless tend to toil against more modest opponents, as right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner recently explained to FIFA.com. “It’s something we really need to improve on,” he said. “I think Switzerland can give any big team a tough game. At the same time, the ‘smaller’ countries still feel they have a chance against us. We sometimes have trouble creating openings and forcing the pace, but we’re working on it.” The question is whether that work will pay off for the Swiss, currently ranked 16th, against an Ecuador team located 20 spots lower on the global ladder.
On this day
Poland began their superb 1974 World Cup run 40 years ago to the day, when they posted an eye-catching 3-2 victory against Argentina in Stuttgart. Kazimierz Deyna pulled the strings, but it was two-goal Grzegorz Lato and Andrzej Szarmach who buried the chances for the side that had won Olympic gold two years previously. Kazimierz Gorski’s men were a breath of fresh air in West Germany; they followed up their first match triumph by downing Haiti 7-0 and then overcoming a disillusioned Italy team 2-1 to finish top of their section. In the second round, Poland edged out Sweden 1-0 and Yugoslavia 2-1, before succumbing 1-0 to eventual champions West Germany in a hard-fought encounter played in terrible weather conditions. They picked themselves up in the match for third place, though, Lato sealing a 1-0 success against Brazil to finish as tournament top scorer on seven strikes, two ahead of five-goal compatriot Szarmach.
Play and win
“To win a FIFA World Cup, you need to be sharp, cool and cold-blooded. A bit of luck also helps!” So says Cafu, and the former Brazil captain ought to know, given that success coursed through his veins during his playing days. Still, it will take more than luck to prevail in the Castrol FIFA World Cup Predictor Challenge: instead, intuition, football knowledge and team analysis will all be key to coming out on top. So, start predicting and you could win some fabulous prizes!
“Prove to me you have what it takes to be a champion,” says Cafu, the two-time World Cup winner and Castrol ambassador throwing down the gauntlet to fans everywhere.
Honduras midfielder Mario Martinez tweeted upon Los Catrachos’ arrival in Porto Alegre.
“Now at Porto Alegre, ready and trusting in God that the best is coming, good chance to make history”