With six months to go until the 2014 World Cup kicks off, plenty of questions remain. A panel of ESPN FC writers took on the task of asking -- and answering -- one each.
Gabriele Marcotti: Will the venues be ready?
Brazil’s organizing committee decided to spread the World Cup over twelve venues. It’s a big country and lots of areas would otherwise not be a part of it, so that’s fair enough.
But we already know that three of those stadiums -- Sao Paulo, Cuiaba and Curitiba -- won’t be delivered on time. The original deadline was Dec. 31, yet now we’re talking early March for the latter two and April for Sao Paulo.
This kind of thing seems to happen at every World Cup but two factors make this different. The first is that, with so much political pressure at stake, you always fear that corners might be cut. With two workers already having lost their lives at the Sao Paulo arena, that’s simply not acceptable.
The other factor is that with deadlines so tight, there may not be enough time to thoroughly test the logistics and infrastructure around the grounds. And, of course, that’s what makes you fear for the worst.
Sepp Blatter told Bloomberg that he’s “an optimist,” adding that “optimists live better and longer.” If he is optimistic that everything can get done on time AND be thoroughly tested, great. However, if he is optimistic that nothing will go wrong even if the grounds are not fully tested and ready, that is worrying.
This is one issue that needs to be resolved well before June 12.
Fernando Duarte: Can Brazil win the World Cup?
If the Selecao play like they did in the Confederations Cup, especially in the final against Spain, they will almost certainly win the tournament. To reach that level again, however, they need everything to work in their favour, starting with Neymar’s form.
Luiz Felipe Scolari will be hoping the Barcelona man reaches the end of the club season without injury and might even secretly hope the Catalans don’t go too far in the Champions League so the striker can report for national duty rested.
Brazil also need a No. 9 firing on all cylinders, so Fred’s recovery from injury is crucial. Another source of worry for Felipao is his captain, Thiago Silva, whose two seasons at PSG have been hampered by niggling thigh injuries.
Finally, there is the lack of an experienced goalkeeper who is able to step in if Julio Cesar remains merely training at Queens Park Rangers.
Despite these concerns, however, it is important to remember the disarray Brazil were in when Scolari took over in February. Since then, they have recovered their intimidation factor.
Sid Lowe: What shape will Spain be in?
In the summer of 2008, Spain played in the European championship. A year later they were at the Confederations Cup and the year after that it was the World Cup. In 2012 they played in the European championship and in 2013 they were at the Confederations Cup again. Next summer, it’s the World Cup.
2011 is the only non-competitive summer Spain have had off in seven years and even then they crossed the Atlantic to face the United States and Venezuela in friendlies. Recent struggles in such exhibitions -- Spain lost to South Africa in November -- have served as a warning, and fatigue is clearly a factor for Vicente del Bosque’s men.
This is not an old team but it has at times looked like a weary one, and there have been question marks over the fitness of key players; Xavi Hernandez in particular.
The good news is that Spain’s poor results have been mainly limited to friendlies, where motivation is clearly a problem; those games are an obligation, not an opportunity.
And look back at that list of summers again: Spain may have had little break but they have emerged from this six-year period as the finest national team in history.
Tim Vickery: Could Chile end Spain’s cycle?
Some feel that the 2014 World Cup might be a tournament too far for Spain. If so, then Chile could well be the team to bring an end to their reign.
If Spain are regressing, the Chileans are moving in the opposite direction. A young side that picked up valuable experience in South Africa are coming into their prime and the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal are promising no more. Now they are genuine world-class players, ready to prove that they are part of their country’s finest-ever team.
In 2010, Chile frightened Spain in group play, despite having a man sent off in the first half, and lost narrowly, 2-1. The signs are that the holders will find things even harder in Rio on June 18.
The two sides met in Switzerland in a friendly two months ago, when only a last-gasp Jesus Navas goal secured a 2-2 draw for Spain.
Points will be at stake the next time they meet and Chile are likely to have three of them already after kicking off their Group B campaign against Australia.
Spain, meanwhile, will have replayed the 2010 final against the Netherlands, a far more difficult encounter. The pressure, then, might be on them -- something that Jorge Sampaoli’s swashbuckling Chileans are well set up to exploit.
Roger Bennett: Does the United States have any chance in Group G?
Put simply, yes. My sense of confidence is based on this:
Ghana may have dumped the U.S. out of the last two World Cups, but one of Jurgen Klinsmann’s great strengths is that of a master motivator. He will relish the challenge of gaining a signature victory to differentiate his team from that of his immediate predecessors by defusing a Ghanaian spine that is ageing (Asamoah Gyan is now 28, Sulley Muntari is 29 and Michael Essien is 31.)
The Portugal game will be fought out in the jungle clime of Manaus, the Amazonian city that appears crazier, more humid and less football-friendly with every news story written about it. The more I read, the more I favor the United States. Few regions better prepare you to toil through eclectic weather conditions than CONCACAF with its smog, blistering heat, and arctic blizzards.
The third game will admittedly be a savage test. I don’t buy into the line that the Germans will already have qualified and so will field a “B-team.” Winning the whole tournament will only provide the German nation with a smidgen more joy than watching their squad humiliate Jurgen Klinsmann’s adopted team in Recife. Irrespective of the result, the U.S. will have at least four points, and the God of Goal Difference will decide whether they progress or depart.
Raphael Honigstein: Who starts up front for Germany vs. Portugal?
Privately, the German FA has expressed relief about the national team’s late start -- June 16 -- in Brazil because it gives them more time to organise.
However, Miroslav Klose will be less pleased: at 36 years and seven days, the Lazio striker will be even older than anticipated when Portugal come calling in Salvador. Despite hardly featuring in 2013, the veteran is still considered Joachim Loew’s preferred centre-forward, thanks to his technical ability and clever link-up play.
Of his rivals, Mario Gomez hasn’t been able to help his cause due to an injury-ravaged season at Fiorentina, and it’s hard to predict what form the former Bayern striker will be in next year.
There’s also a chance that Loew will play without a recognised centre-forward altogether, with either Mario Goetze or Marco Reus starting as a “false nine” to stretch a Portugal defence that is very physical but not that mobile.
But the Germany manager will not only be guided by tactical considerations. The match takes place in the hot, humid northwest of Brazil at 1 p.m. local time.
Germany might not be at their fluid best in these conditions and chances could well be at a premium. Going with a target man, who is also efficient in front of goal, might make more sense in Salvador. Good old Klose could well turn out the biggest beneficiary of the draw, after all.
John Brewin: Veterans' last stand or a new generation for England?
The last time England turned up to a major tournament and failed to make it from the group stage was Euro 2000.
That disastrous campaign led to the clear-out of an ageing squad and the blooding of a “golden generation” that promised much, delivered not enough, but whose achievements would be at the outer limits of sensible ambition for this campaign.
Roy Hodgson has already promised counterattacking football in Brazil, and most read that as a defensive approach.
The manager also seems reluctant to let go of his veterans. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole are the remainder of that post-2000 influx. Brazil is their last stand, but will Hodgson cut the cord before or after the tournament?
Gerrard is the captain, so that seems unlikely. Lampard is in his probable final season at Chelsea and has not impressed in recent internationals. Cole cannot get a game at Stamford Bridge but Leighton Baines‘ falterings in last month’s friendlies mean he remains the favourite to start against Italy on June 14 in Manaus.
Climatic conditions will not favour the elder players but playing kids such as Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw and exposing them too early may scar the next generation. Most suspect -- know, in fact -- that Hodgson will favour experience.
James Horncastle: Do Italy fear the so-called group of death?
It all depends on whether you think they are in one. Groups B and G look just as difficult, and it could have been worse; the doomsday scenario had Italy with Brazil, Holland and the United States. Still, Cesare Prandelli got what he wanted: a tough group to focus the minds.
As far as the Azzurri coach is concerned, it's not who Italy face that scares him, but where and when. The conditions are the most fearsome opponent, and this will impact on his squad selection.
Prandelli has said he wants 23 athletes in Brazil and that might mean no place for the huffing and puffing Antonio Cassano. Luxury players will miss out.
Instead Prandelli will probably look to Alessandro Diamanti while also giving Italy wings by choosing hard-runners who get busy and to the by-line, such as Lorenzo Insigne and Alessio Cerci. Will other countries follow the same line of thinking when deciding who to take to Brazil?
Firdose Moonda: Will all of Africa aim for continental success?
Given that no African nation has ever made it to the semifinals of a World Cup, it is natural that continental supporters will be anxious to see that change.
Should that happen, they probably will not mind which of the big five gets that far but, until it becomes clearer who is on which path, national rivalries will remain in full force.
The three likeliest countries are probably Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast. Although Ghana have the toughest group, there seems to be no excuse why any of these three will not advance to the knockout round.
The Black Stars carry the greatest hopes because of their performance at the 2010 World Cup, when they were a Luis Suarez handball away from the last four.
Meanwhile, Nigeria command respect as continental champions and the Ivory Coast’s golden generation will be tipped to finally come good on the biggest stage.
Towards Cameroon and Algeria, fans are likely to be less expectant. The Indomitable Lions are the African side that has made the most appearances at the World Cup but are known for mercurial showings while the least is probably expected of Algeria, who were forgettable in 2010.
Of course, that may only serve as motivation for them to spring a surprise this time.
John Duerden: Will Shinji Kagawa’s club situation affect Japan?
This season was supposed to be the big one for Shinji Kagawa in the Premier League. After a solid debut campaign with Manchester United, the playmaker was ready to shine under David Moyes. Yet to date the Japanese star has started just five league games and completed the full 90 minutes in just one.
While his club situation may improve, it may not and that is something to concern Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni. The Samurai Blue can make a major impact in Brazil but only if their big guns are at their best, and while Kagawa plays on the left for the national team, his understanding and combination play with Keisuke Honda -- who himself is set to leave CSKA Moscow for AC Milan in January -- is crucial.
In October friendly defeats at the hands of Serbia and Belarus, Kagawa looked out of sorts, although he was much improved in the draw with the Netherlands and win in Belgium the following month. It was an up-and-down set of performances that have mirrored his stop-and-start season in England.
At this rate, Kagawa is unlikely to be tired next summer, but the form he is in remains to be seen.