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FIFA World Cup

 By Tim Vickery

The fight for the World Cup

Perhaps Japan will make the big Asian breakthrough. Maybe the young guns of Nigeria and Ghana, or the somewhat older ones of Ivory Coast, will show up strongly for Africa. The probability is, though, that the battle to win the 2014 World Cup will be largely restricted to the game's two traditional continents, Europe and South America.

Europe has come out on top in recent tournaments, providing both finalists in the last two World Cups. But South America showed interesting strength in depth last time round -- and now hosts the competition for the first time since 1978. A European team, of course, has never won the trophy on this side of the Atlantic.

The opening days of the competition throw up some fascinating early rounds in this inter-continental bout. Six South American teams are present in Brazil. Four of them get the tournament underway against European opposition; Brazil, of course, debut against Croatia, a match in which all the pressure is piled upon the hosts. Might Croatia's midfield be able to retain possession and frustrate the home team and fans on what is sure to be a tense occasion?

On Saturday, Greece might prove awkward opponents for Colombia in Group C. With the exception of veteran reserve goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, this is a Colombia squad that is entirely new to the pressures of the World Cup. Sometimes teams who lack this kind of experience can find the nerves of the opening game overwhelming. Canny and cautious, Greece are not opponents that Colombia would have hand-picked for such an occasion.

The problem of adapting quickly to the needs of the competition is one that preoccupies Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda. Four years ago he was in charge of a Honduras side who let their first two World Cup games pass them by and did not show their best football until the last group match, by which time it was too late.

Ecuador's build-up has been designed with the aim of coming quickly out of the blocks -- essential because their opening game against Switzerland looks like the key match of the group phase for both sides. The winner will have half a foot in the second round. The loser will need to get something from the match against the fast-improving French. Indeed, Sunday's meeting between Ecuador and Switzerland looks like the best-balanced of all the early clashes between Europe and South America.

Later that day Argentina take on Bosnia in Rio, where the Maracana stadium would appear to be the perfect setting for Lionel Messi to start the campaign that will surely stand as his definitive statement as an international player. For that one, it would be a real surprise if Europe were to come out on top -- but the Old Continent will have plenty more opportunities to put one over the South Americans.

Both Chile and Uruguay open up against non-European opposition (Australia and Costa Rica respectively). But then Chile have to face both the 2010 finalists, Spain and Holland, while Uruguay take on fellow former champions in England and Italy. Of course, the story of any World Cup is mainly told in its knockout matches.

But these group skirmishes should give us some indication of who is going to come out on top this time, Europe or South America.