By Jack Williams
This series first appeared in the World Cup Issue of 8by8mag, available now.
Japan: Keisuke Honda
A joy to watch with the ball at his feet, Honda, surprisingly, did not earn a call-up to the Japan squad until he was 21. After making up for lost time with vision and creativity, the No. 10, who was nicknamed The Emperor while playing in the Netherlands, now turns out for Italian giants A.C. Milan. His nation, the first team to qualify for the tournament, faces Colombia, Greece, and Ivory Coast.
Colombia: James Rodriguez
While many expected Radamel Falcao to be the one grabbing the headlines, it is widely acknowledged in Bogotá that 22-year-old Rodriguez is the one who makes Colombia tick. An incredibly well-rounded playmaker, Rodriguez, who moved to free-spending Monaco for around $60 million last summer, will be even more important with Falcao likely to miss the tournament through injury. Colombia will be expecting to qualify from a group that includes the Ivory Coast, Greece, and Japan.
Greece: Kostas Mitroglou
At the beginning of the season, things could not have been going better for 26-year-old Mitroglou: 14 goals in 12 league games for Olympiakos, the first Greek to score a Champions League hat trick, and three goals in Greece's two playoff games with Romania. But since a record-breaking $20 million move to Fulham, in January, the strong, natural goal scorer has been limited in matches. Athens will be hoping for Mitroglou to find form for a nation that has traditionally had a solid defense -- Greece conceded only four goals in their qualifying group.
Ivory Coast: Didier Zokora
The most capped Ivorian of all time, Zokora has been grittily breaking up play for Les Éléphants for more than a decade. The midfielder has only one international goal in more than nearly a century of appearances, and his presence in the center of the park helps shore up what is a swift, athletic team. Zokora's partnership with Yaya Touré makes for one of the most exciting, combative partnerships in the tournament.
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