The World Cup features eight groups of four teams each. The teams in each group play each other once, with the top two from each group advancing to the round of 16 knockout stage. Here is a look at each group.
Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Overview: The match between host Brazil and Croatia will open the World Cup on Thursday in Sao Paulo. The five-time champions are boosted by their boisterous fans and confident following the Confederations Cup victory last year, but Brazil will be looking to do better than it did at the past two World Cups, when it was eliminated in the quarterfinals. After barely qualifying, Mexico hopes to finally get past the second round in Brazil. Cameroon hasn’t advanced past the group stage since 1990s. Croatia won’t have forward Mario Mandzukic, who was red-carded in a decisive qualifier against Iceland.
Player to watch
Samuel Eto’o, Cameroon
After reconsidering a decision to retire, Eto’o will be carrying Cameroon’s hopes of a surprising performance in Brazil. The striker, who will be 33 in Brazil, has been playing well with Chelsea.
Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Overview: Spain lost its opening match at the World Cup four years ago, but went on to beat the Netherlands 3-0 in the final. Those same two teams meet in one of the most anticipated opening matches. Spain has not lost a step as it vies to win a fourth major tournament in a row with a core squad likely playing its final World Cup. Netherlands is always a contender but was a flop at Euro 2012. The Dutch went unbeaten in World Cup qualifying. Chile is lurking, waiting to take advantage of any slip-up by Spain or the Netherlands. Australia has an inexperienced squad that is being groomed for the 2018 World Cup.
Player to watch
Robin van Persie, Netherlands
He must seize the opportunity after the Manchester United striker has scored only once at the past two major tournaments, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
Colombia, Greece, Japan, Ivory Coast
Overview: After the draw in December, Colombia was made an early favorite to advance from Group C. But that was before striker Radamel Falcao damaged ligaments in his left knee and was ruled out of the Cup. Greece coach Fernando Santos will step down after the Cup, but says he’s glad to help lift the country’s spirits after it endured four years of severe financial crisis. Japan will be looking for Keisuke Honda to provide a spark in Brazil, but the bleach-haired forward has had an unsettling time at AC Milan since joining this year from CSKA Moscow. Didier Drogba remains at the center of Ivory Coast’s hopes, despite turning 36 last month.