The gloom that engulfed Brazil after the 7-1 debacle against Germany in the 2014 World Cup has lifted.
Brazil was the first team to clinch qualification for Russia and had memorable wins on the way, including a 3-0 success over Argentina in the same Mineirao stadium of the 2014 semifinal humiliation.
It took the appointment of Tite in September 2016 to revive Brazil. Under his helm, there have been 13 wins, three draws and only one loss — in a friendly against Argentina.
KEY PLAYER: Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain) — Should be at the peak of his game aged 26 in Russia, the forward will have his best chance to overthrow Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in best player awards if Brazil wins.
COACH: Adenor Bacchi — Universally known as Tite, he turned Brazil from flop to favourites. Forget Dunga’s muscular 2014 World Cup team that depended heavily on Neymar. Brazil is now about organization and flair.
Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarterfinals are a realistic goal.
Don’t call it a golden generation, but the Swiss have a core of players from the 2009 Under-17 world champion team and a depth of tournament experience.
However, those World Cup and European Championship adventures ended, at best, in the Round of 16. Switzerland last won a World Cup knockout game in 1954, and that was just in a group playoff as the host nation.
Critics can pick holes in how the Swiss qualified: Nine straight wins in a weak group, and a playoff against Northern Ireland decided by a dubious penalty call.
A well-balanced team has seemed to need a high-class central defender and reliable scorer. In Basel’s Manuel Akanji, it might have found that defender.
KEY PLAYER: Valon Behrami (Udinese) — Going to his fourth straight World Cup in the elder statesman role for a young squad, speaking all of Switzerland’s three main languages. His absence weighed heavily in the group-deciding loss at Portugal.
COACH: Vladimir Petkovic — The unheralded Bosnian coach now seems to have grown into the role three years after succeeding two-time Champions League winner Ottmar Hitzfeld.
The tiny Central American country reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup four years ago, losing to the Netherlands on a penalty shootout.
This will be Costa Rica’s fifth World Cup appearance, impressive for a country with a population just under 5 million. Bryan Ruiz is the main attacking threat, while Celso Borges of is a midfield linchpin.
Still, November friendlies were hardly encouraging, with a 5-0 thrashing by Spain and a 1-0 loss to Hungary.
KEY PLAYER: Keylor Navas (Real Madrid) — Probably the best-known player in the squad, the goalkeeper’s strong showing in Brazil secured a move to Madrid in 2014.
COACH: Oscar Ramirez — Former midfielder took over after Paulo Wanchope resigned after a post-match fight.
Serbia cruised through its qualifying group to return to the World Cup final tournament after eight years, the second time since becoming an independent nation in 2006.
The skilful squad scored the most goals — 20 — in the group with Aleksandar Mitrovic the best scorer with six goals, leaving behind Ireland, Wales and Austria.
Just their fans travelling to Russia to support their team should behave, after FIFA fined the Serbian soccer federation 160,000 Swiss francs ($160,000) for incidents involving fans at World Cup qualifying games.
Slavoljub Muslin was removed as coach despite the successful qualifying campaign, with Mladen Krstajic placed in temporary command.
KEY PLAYER: Captain Branislav Ivanovic (Zenit St. Petersburg) — Defensive experience from a stellar career for Chelsea used to anchor the defence. Played all ten World Cup qualifiers
COACH: To be appointed.