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World Cup Preview: Young Gods and Groups of Death

Who will be the breakout stars of Brazil, and which nations will survive the Group Stage?

Paul Pogba Juventus

Paul Pogba

Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

The 2014 World Cup kicks off Thursday, and over the next month, you will thrill to the on-field exploits of Ronaldo, Messi, Rooney and Neymar. But six months from now, what’s going to stick in your brain aren’t the bright flashes from some of the biggest egos on the planet, but rather, the sparks of shocking brilliance from the sport’s great unknowns, the moments that make you rewind the DVR and ask “Who the hell is that guy, and how the hell did he do that?

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As Rolling Stone continues its countdown to the Cup, we’ve put together a list of five young players who could be destined for big things in Brazil – and the ego boost that comes with it – plus a handy cheat sheet of what you can expect from the Group Stage. Who will rise to the top, and who will go home early? We’ve got a few ideas …

Who Will Be The Breakout Stars?

Paul Pogba, France

The French midfielder is only 21, yet he’s got the vision and skills of a fully developed footy wizard. How good is he? A couple years ago, Manchester United let him go for free to Italy’s Juventus; now they’re reportedly considering dropping $100 million to bring him back. Look for him to toy with defenders and knock in a wondergoal or two. You’ll also want to keep an eye on his scoring celebrations. Dude ain’t modest.

William Carvalho, Portugal

True, it’s tough to stand out in the Portuguese team if your name isn’t Ronaldo, and especially so if you play defensive midfield — but watch this guy. He’ll run the middle of the pitch, picking-off passes and spraying the ball around to set up attacks (read: pass it to Ronaldo or to someone else who will pass it to Ronaldo.) He plays for Sporting Lisbon, but by the end of the summer will surely have signed to one of big clubs you can easily watch every weekend. This will be his coming out party.

Romelu Lukaku, Belgium

He’s been something of an itinerant goal machine in the English Premier League for the past two seasons, on loan from Chelsea first to West Brom (17 goals) and then Everton (15 goals). He’s part of a golden generation of Belgian players that have English bookmakers Paddy Power giving Belgium better odds to win the World Cup than France, Italy or England.

Raheem Sterling, England

A speedy, crafty winger, Sterling tore it up at Liverpool last season, and though he’s still got a lot of rough edge to him (he got a straight red during a friendly last week), he’ll bring some guile to an England side that’ll need to rack up goals to get through a tough group. Also, he’s 19. What were you doing when you were 19? Other than not being a big deal at the World Cup?

Koke, Spain

Two syllables, just like ‘cocaine’ without the ‘n.’ He plays his club soccer with the bruising Atlético Madrid side that finished on top of the Spanish league and made it to the Champions League final this year, and is being positioned as the next big midfield thing on a team known for big midfield things. He’s not an automatic starter, but he’ll light it up when he’s on the pitch with crafty passes and a never-say-die determination.

Who Will Survive The Group Stage?

Group A: Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico

It’s Brazil and everybody else. Second place is a toss-up between Croatia and Mexico. Both sides are good enough to advance, even if neither had an especially glorious trip through the qualification rounds. If we go on sheer garishness of kit, then Croatia edges out Mexico. If we go on passion and proximity, then Mexico it is.

Group B: Australia, Chile, Netherlands, Spain

Group of death? Group of death. Spain beat Netherlands 1-0 in the 2010 Final, and are favored to top the group, which is vital: the second-place team here takes on the first-place finisher in Group A (that’s gonna be Brazil) in the first knockout match. That, uh, honor will go to Spain, with the Netherlands following in 2nd. But, like the Wu-Tang Clan, Chile is nothing to fuck with, and could pull off an upset. Australia, however, is going to have its pants pulled down in front of the world three times.

Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan

Colombia is without star Radamel Falcao, which isn’t to say they’re a one-man team, but losing one of the world’s best forwards will be a tough challenge to overcome. Ivory Coast, meanwhile, is a powerful side with an aging (if still potent) frontman in Didier Drogba, not to mention a trove of muscle behind him. We’ll take them to top the group, with Colombia coming in second. Japan’s got some spoiler potential, but they and Greece won’t have enough to advance.

Group D: Costa Rica, England, Italy, Uruguay

The second (of arguably three) Groups of Death. Italy and England will start things off sleepily with a nil-nil draw. Uruguay will beat up Costa Rica (though, to be fair, the other sides will, too). England-Uruguay will be the match to watch; they’ll be duking it out for second behind the Italians. Also, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez has a less-than-sterling reputation in England, where he plays his club football with Liverpool and has made a name for himself as a diving, racist cannibal. So based on karma alone, we’re taking England to go through in the second spot.

Group E: Ecuador, France, Honduras, Switzerland

France will make easy work of this group, unless they get all French again. Both Ecuador and Switzerland will battle for second, but the Swiss, rather than melting like so much delicious chocolate in the hot Brazilian sun (sorry, couldn’t resist), are going to eek out a victory over Ecuador and go through. Honduras, bless ’em, will leave bottom of the group with no points.

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria

Argentina could send its players out half-drunk and they’d still plow through undefeated. The battle for second place will be one to watch; Nigeria’s Super Eagles experienced early World Cup success, but haven’t advanced out of the Group Stage since 1998. This is Bosnia-Herzegovina’s first trip to the World Cup, which is what’s going to give them the juju to power through to the knockout round. Iran? We still want our drone back.

 Group G: Germany, Ghana, Portugal, United States

The other other Group of Death. Sorry, U.S., but this is where the party ends. Germany, being comprised of Germans, will make clean, efficient work of its group matches, winning all three. Portugal is a great side that, believe it or not, is more than the sum of Cristiano Ronaldo. Ghana will continue to torment the U.S., but at least this time, the two will go down together, leaving Portugal to take the second spot.

Group H: Algeria, Belgium, South Korea, Russia

Belgium is the heavy favorite to finish first in the dark-horse group, and they will, easily. On paper (and at the bookmaker), Russia looks stronger, but South Korea has that drive that just makes you want to get behind them — plus a dangerous attacker in Son Heung-min. It’ll be tricky and Russia will put up a sturdy fight, but South Korea will nick second place.

 Tomorrow: Who will win the 2014 FIFA World Cup? It might not be who you think …

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