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World Cup 2014: Twelve Picks for an Investor's Dream Team


One dozen top FIFA World Cup teams profiled: What are their chances in Brazil? What's the top stock in each market?


The Super Bowl? Please. We navel-gazing Manhattanites gladly bought into the illusion that Gotham was the center of the solar system when New York (oh, all right -- New Jersey) hosted this year's gridiron extravaganza. Yet that match was watched by only 111 million people on a frozen February evening. Consider that approximately ten times as many will soon tune in to a World Cup final basked in Brazilian sunshine, and it quickly becomes clear fútbol -- not football -- is the only game in town.

The World Cup tournament began back in 1930, kicking off right alongside the Great Depression in a year S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX) shares tumbled 25.15%. Now the benchmark bourse stands atop a historic high, but through it all the planet's most popular sport has held public imagination in thrall. With the competition set to start, let's look at 12 top teams, along with a homegrown stock selection to accompany each. Go long on these equities by making money talk in the finest Andrés Cantor fashion, and you just might score an investment gooooaaaallll.

Who's on the investor's dream team? Click to jump ahead.

England (see below)


World Cup pedigree and prospects: England won the tournament on home turf in 1966, when captain Bobby Moore accepted the trophy from Her Majesty in one of the iconic images of swinging London. West Germany was vanquished in the final, leading local fans to taunt the Teutons about having triumphed in "Two World Wars and one World Cup." More recent showings have been insipid, however, and being drawn in the Amazonian heat offers no help. A sprinkling of exciting young talent, refreshingly unburdened by the excessive expectation of old, hints at a solid if unspectacular showing this time around. Potential quarter-finalists, but anything more would be an unexpected bonus.

Player to watch: Steven Gerrard. Liverpool, birthplace of The Beatles, is a breed apart, being called "the only foreign city in Britain" and "in the north of England but not of the north of England." It is hugely ironic, therefore, that Albion's hopes will rest squarely on the shoulders of this Liverpool legend, whose club may supply fully half of the national team's outfield in Brazil. Now very much the lion in winter at 34, Gerrard's calm head and experience could be crucial. The midfielder also offers an impressive range of passing skills, plus penalty-taking precision not normally associated with his countrymen. He has a decent World Cup pedigree, having scored the quickest goal of all group games in South Africa in finding the net after only four minutes against the USA.

Famous fútbol feat: Geoff Hirst's World Cup final hat trick is still unprecedented, and the indelible piece of commentary it inspired remains similarly unequaled almost half a century on.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? London's fittingly named "Footsie" 100 (INDEXFTSE:UKX) has barely budged this year, but the economy is suddenly outpacing almost all of its continental cousins. UK output recently increased for a 15th straight month and "austerity England" is starting to spend again. In its annual report released late last week, Christine Lagarde's International Monetary Fund said it "clearly under-estimated" Britain's recovery. Much of the credit for the rebound goes to the so-called "George Clooney of Central Bankers" Mark Carney. It is somehow fitting that the heartthrob governor, who has kept sterling sound as a pound, actually hails from Canada. Raheem Sterling, expected to be a breakout star of England's World Cup squad, was born in Jamaica, and London continues to attract unprecedented amounts of foreign capital. Not least in its red-hot residential sector, where exiled oligarchs pay eye-popping prices for prime property. As a result, there are fears of a new housing bubble building, and the delightfully named Ed Balls -- finance head in the former government whom regular Minyanville readers know all about -- recently warned of "the risks from an imbalanced [real estate] market where...demand is outstripping supply."

Stock to score with: The aforementioned England-USA game took place when the gulf between the two countries was especially wide after BP's (NYSE:BP) well disaster of two months earlier had sent the fabled "special relationship" up in smoke. And what should happen in that match, played when American environmentalists were all aflame over an oil spill? Why, destiny determined that an English goalie named Green should suffer a spill. (Truly, Steven Spielberg on opium couldn't conjure up some of the scripts soccer produces, which is why it is such a compelling sport.) Four years on and the British petroleum giant Margaret Thatcher brought to market in the '80s has indeed "got its life back." Shares are up about 20% in the past 12 months, and an already-rich dividend was recently raised. Compensation costs remain a concern, but have been manageable thus far, and first-quarter earnings beat analyst estimates.



World Cup pedigree and prospects: After ending a 40-year absence from the tournament in 1990, Team USA has since qualified for seven successive competitions. The days when the sport was derided as "America's biggest babysitting servic" catering to children of suburban "soccer moms" are long gone. The kids have come of age and are nobody's pushovers. That said, Jurgen Klinsmann's team is highly unlikely to survive being drawn in the dreaded "Group of Death" alongside Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. USA's brutal travel schedule, involving a tournament-high 8,866-mile schlep across Brazil, is another unwelcome complication.

Player to watch: With forward Landon Donovan controversially left off the roster, all eyes will be on the other end of the field. Goalkeeper Tim Howard made his 100th appearance on Saturday, and continues his country's fine tradition in sports that allow handling. A colorful character who overcame Tourette syndrome, Howard kept 15 shutouts (or "clean sheets," as they say where he earns a living) for England's Everton in the season just ended. At 35 -- not especially ancient for a net minder -- his experience will be invaluable in marshaling a relatively unproven defense. Noted for razor-sharp reflexes along with the occasional expensive error.

Famous fútbol feat: Bandwagon-jumping Brooklyn hipsters no doubt maintain that "soccer" only arrived in America with Donovan's epic injury time-winner against Algeria four years ago, but connoisseurs of a certain age know otherwise. In the 1950 World Cup, also hosted by Brazil, a rag-tag team of American amateurs incredibly overcame the mighty England 1-0. So shocking was the score that many British newspapers believed it to be a wire services misprint and instead reported that the Mother Country had tanked the Yanks to the tune of 10-1.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? In contrast with the UK, the US stock market is faring far better than is its overall economy. Equities, fueled by the Fed's bond-buying binge, continue their inexorable ascent, yet the recovery, which officially entered its sixth year this month, remains remarkably sluggish. Only on Friday did we regain all of the lost jobs from the Great Recession, and many of the new positions are relatively underpaid and of questionable quality. Meanwhile, growth remains anemic.

Stock to score with: McDonald's (NYSE:MCD). Yes, yes -- I know. Picking a junk food giant for a tournament involving the planet's fittest people is a little ironic. But Mickey D's fellow Dow (INDEXDJX:.DJI) member Nike Inc (NYSE:NKE) just seemed a tad too obvious, so in the battle between blue chips, I went with French fries. Besides, the Golden Arches is one of the World Cup's eight official sponsors, and its new commercial for the finals is already the stuff of Madison Avenue legend. The company offers investors a comparatively plump yield, currently trades at a deep discount to industry competitors, and is embarking upon a three-year plan of returning $20 billion in cash to shareholders.



World Cup pedigree and prospects: You never know what you're quite going to get with the Gauls. France crashed out at the first hurdle as defending champions in 2002, made it all the way to the final when dismissed as no-hopers four years later, and saw a talented squad exit in last place amid infighting on the fields of South Africa. (Parisian philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre didn't know the half of it when he existentially opined, "In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.") This time the side only scraped in via a playoff, but a relatively easy group demands entry into the second round at least. The late injury-related withdrawal of flying winger Franck Ribéry -- born by the beaches of Normandy and ruled out on D-Day -- is a blow.

Player to watch: Paul Pogba is barely 21 but already commands central midfield with the authority of a grizzled veteran, as this weekend's enormous transfer fee rumors involving his services eloquently attest. The stamina and box-to-box engine that have made him one of the most coveted young talents in world of football will be especially invaluable in the heat of Brazil.

Famous fútbol feat: Everyone remembers Zinedine Zidane losing his head in the 2006 final, a mad moment that the land of frogs legs later immortalized in bronze, but eight years before ZZ blew his top, he won the gold for France by twice employing his cranium for more productive purposes. Almost half an hour into a man-of-the-match performance for the hosts, Zidane powered a bullet header past the Brazilian goalkeeper. He repeated the trick from a corner on the opposite side only 18 minutes later, no mean accomplishment for a central midfielder. Cue the greatest scenes of jubilation seen in France since the Liberation, with this multicultural team taking the trophy for the first -- and so far, only -- time.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? For a country that gave us the word "entrepreneur," many of its most enterprising examples are decamping for foreign fields, looking to escape sclerotic growth rates and onerous public sector red tape. Indeed, not for nothing is London now known as "France's sixth largest city"; Nicolas Sarkozy even campaigned there in the last election. Unemployment remains at a record high, with 25% of the country's youth currently without work.

Stock to score with: In April the Internet erupted with news that the land of 35-hour workweeks had banned responding to office emails after six o'clock in the evening, but telecom titan Orange (NYSE:ORAN) makes money talk 24/7. Stock in France's largest phone company has surged 70% in the past year. A recent round of merger speculation in the mobile arena could provide additional upside. The firm also owns 50% of British wireless market leader Everything Everywhere.

NEXT PAGE: Holland


World Cup pedigree and prospects: Moving from Orange to Brilliant Orange, expect another June swoon this wedding season from the Netherlands, whose lot in life is to be always the bridesmaids at international level. Three times they have reached the World Cup final, only to fail on each occasion, most recently four years ago against Spain. The side reached its apotheosis in 1974 and 1978, imbued with the aesthetically exquisite "total football" philosophy of Rinus Michels, later voted coach of the century. Holland won nothing more than untold friends in losing successive deciders to hosts West Germany and Argentina. Temperament is always an issue, but the talent, especially in attack with stars such as skipper Robin Van Persie, remains unquestioned. Spain, although not the force of four years ago, represents a formidable test for the first match, but subsequent games against Australia and Chile should ensure comfortable passage to the second phase.

Player to watch: An early bout with testicular cancer left Arjen Robben looking preternaturally old but, even at 30, the Bayer Munich winger remains fleet-footed. His theatrics occasionally infuriate, yet the forward's crossing skills and powerful shooting are a constant threat. He scored one and made one in last week's warm-up match against Wales.

Famous fútbol feat: As befits the land of Rembrandt, the Dutch are remembered less for medals won than the works of art they create on a football field. The Johan "Cruyff turn" debuted at the 1974 tournament, and its capacity to astound is undimmed after four decades.

Milan's Marco van Basten did manage to twin breathtaking skill with tangible silverware in winning Holland's only major trophy to date, the 1988 European Championship. His geometry-defying clincher from the most impossible of angles in the final against the Soviet Union made a fool of Isaac Newton, never mind the opposing goalkeeper.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? While escaping the worst of the financial crisis that bedeviled Europe's Club Med countries, Holland did endure 24 months of recession. A severe housing downturn especially impacted this nation, whose relative lack of heavy industry has historically engendered an economic mindset akin to "rent collectors." Outside of Amsterdam cafes, times are hardly high in this Low Country, but the Dutch are gradually getting their fiscal house in order amid a better budget backdrop.

Stock to score with: Don't be fooled by their tree-hugging hippie shtick. Everyone's favorite beatniks Ben & Jerry's sold their ice cream empire for a cool $326 million cash at the earliest opportunity. They did so to a consumer products powerhouse whose bevy of household brands are owned by a corporate behemoth that many households have still never heard of. Unilever (NYSE:UN) stock hit a historic high only last month, and it also offers investors a plump payout ratio of about 3.44%. Their ubiquitous products include Alberto Culver, Axe, Brylcreem, Dove, Lipton, Vaseline, and VO5. The company just pocketed $2.15 billion for selling its Ragu and Bertolli pasta sauce.



World Cup pedigree and prospects: Whatever the country's assorted incarnations, the Soviets have historically tended to arrive Back in the USSR before the World Cup's first postcards have landed in the mailboxes of Moscow. It is an ignominious history that includes allowing an arthritic Roger Milla of Cameroon, at age 42, to score against it in 1994 for what remains the most geriatric goal ever in the finals. This time a formidable Belgium side, the dark-horse choice of many to win the trophy, block their path. Algeria and South Korea are more beatable opponents, but expect Russia to enjoy quite the quantum leap at the 2018 tournament. That's when it will be a controversial host, and referees -- fearing President Putin has ordered up either servings of radioactive sushi or an unfortunate accident in the bath for any official who doesn't toe the line -- are expected to be unusually generous to the home team.

Player to watch: Truth be told, a prosaic collection of Denisovs, Shirokovs, and Zhirkovs is unlikely to thrill in Brazil. Amid the mediocrity, CSKA Moscow playmaker Alan Dzagoev stands out. He won't turn 24 until next week, yet the Beslan-born midfielder already boasts an impressive pedigree, having been joint top goal scorer in Euro 2012.

Famous fútbol feat: Net, nyet? The second most analyzed film of the '60s, after Abraham Zapruder's in Dallas, also involved a contentious shot. With the World Cup final between England and Germany in extra time and on a knife edge at 2-2, Geoff Hirst hammered in an effort only to see it cannon back off the crossbar. Did it go in? That remains up for debate, although subsequent high-tech forensic analysis suggests not. Nevertheless, Azerbaijani linesman Tofik Bakhramov adjudged the ghost goal to be good, and England took the trophy.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? Russia's deathbed demographics do not augur well for a country called "Upper Volta with missiles." In May, Moscow's Micex Index (INDEXCF) jumped almost 10% for its best month in three years, but the crisis in Ukraine continues to weigh heavily on this extraction economy. The IMF expects growth of only 0.2% this year, a figure that could easily tip into a recessionary reading once sanctions start to bite.

Stock to score with: For investors, Russia is the Wild Wild West right now due to geopolitical risks, but energy giant Gazprom (OTCMKTS:OGZPY) remains one potentially lucrative option. The company just inked a 30-year, $400 billion deal with China that was the toast of the Wall Street Journal and, while the true benefits of that agreement are still several years away, America's much-touted shale boom is not about to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian energy any time soon. In the meantime, Putin's cronies continue to supply the continent with fully one-third of its natural gas needs.

NEXT PAGE: Germany


World Cup pedigree and prospects: Moving from Mother Russia to the Fatherland, Germany's outstanding World Cup record has seen it crowned champions on three occasions while four more times it failed only at the final hurdle. Yet since winning the European Championship via a sudden-death golden goal in Alan Greenspan's "irrationally exuberant" 1996, rigor mortis appears to have set in, with no senior silverware arriving in the intervening 18 years. The current crop play with far more panache than their ruthlessly disciplined predecessors of yore, having displayed a free-scoring style in qualifying, but some of the old resiliency has been lost. It should survive the Group of Death and, if fitness concerns over several key players abate, could go deep into the tournament. A fourth title would still be a surprise, however.

Player to watch: Now that the brilliant Brazilian Kaká has been benched -- and with due deference to our own DaMarcus Beasley and his fellow defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos of Greece -- Bastian Schweinsteiger has hands down the best name in the tournament. The Bayern Munich midfield general also possess a penchant for scoring spectacular goals and enjoyed an excellent World Cup in South Africa. At 29, his tactical nous will be critical in what is one of the tournament's younger teams.

Famous fútbol feat: The 1990 World Cup in Italy was a truly dreadful affair, culminating in the first two ever ejections in a final. That didn't concern West Germany, who celebrated that year's reunification by taking its third title to the dulcet tones of The Three Tenors' Nessun Dorma. In doing so, coach "Kaiser" Franz Beckenbauer became only the second player to emerge victorious as both a player and manager. There was a sense of inevitability to this Teutonic triumph, leading England's Gary Lineker to memorably remark, "Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win."

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? Germany remains the economic engine of Europe, and its DAX (INDEXDB:DAX) touched 10,000 for the first time ever last week after Mario Draghi unveiled his monetary morphine from Frankfurt. Still, much like the national soccer side, some of the fabled efficiency of yesteryear is lacking. Industrial production has slowed of late, deflation is increasingly an issue, and the Crimean crisis represents an unwanted wild card.

Stock to score with: Athletic apparel outfit Adidas (OTCMKTS:ADDYY) is a giant in Europe, where generations of adolescent males in every country learn to spell its name using the mnemonic "All Day I Dream About Soccer." (Okay, that last word wasn't actually "soccer," but this is a respectable family publication.) Today Adidas is a global behemoth that generates $20 billion in annual revenue. Its most recent results were negatively impacted by currency issues, but the World Cup typically provides a big boost for a firm which will have its name emblazoned on the kit of nine countries including defending champions Spain. The company, which also owns Reebok and TaylorMade golf equipment, is expected to generate sales of 2 billion euros in the tournament. It started supplying the official ball back in 1970, and Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, an Adidas sponsor since the age of 18, will wear its F50 boots.



World Cup pedigree and prospects: A perennial soccer power, Italy dominated the global game during Auden's "low dishonest decade," emerging victorious under the gaze of an admiring Benito Mussolini in 1934 and 1938. It most recently held the trophy aloft eight years ago, in Berlin's remodeled Olympiastadion originally built by Hitler's architect Albert Speer. In between, the land shaped like a boot memorably overcame West Germany in Madrid's 1982 final. (Coincidentally or not, the biggest bull market in Wall Street history began in the same summer that the Azzurri triumphed in matador's back yard.) This current vintage lacks the iron clad catenaccio defense of days gone by, but in Mario Balotelli, an exciting attacking talent who is ironically allergic to grass, they have the firepower to go far, fitness and form permitting.

Player to watch: Andrea Pirlo may seem an unlikely candidate for glory, especially as he must do battle in Amazonian heat having just entered his 36th year. The peerless midfieldplaymaker is set for an Indian summer, however, with his passing ability and set-piece prowess carrying considerable threat. Like all the best players, he always seems to have extra time and space on the ball, as if operating in a zone of his own.

Famous fútbol feat: En route to its triumph in Spain 32 years ago, Italy overcame Brazil 3-2 in one of the competition's classic games. Grown men cried at that match, which is still recalled by millions as "the day football died." The result deprived a watching world of what was, by common consent, the greatest team never to lift the trophy. Defensive lapses ensured that the brilliant team of Zico and Socrates were ousted by Italy, whose own Paolo Rossi enjoyed a remarkable renaissance, with the hat-trick hero grabbing a spectacular shot at redemption after a two-year gambling ban.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? Rome's own Mr. Draghi may be the man of the moment in international markets, but his country's finances remain a mess. Some tentative signs of stabilization in Europe's third-largest economy and a double-digit percentage increase in the main stock market this year can't mask severe structural problems. Gross Domestic Product fell by 0.1% in the first quarter, while Italy's ever-growing debt burden stands at about 134% of GDP. Much of it is, admittedly, internally owned, but this will be of scant solace to the approximately 43% of young people who populate the nation's unemployment lines.

Stock to score with: Go on, be a Glasshole. Luxottica Group (NYSE:LUX), based in Europe's catwalk capital of Milan, hit an all-time high earlier this year after announcing a deal to design Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Glass devices. It is the world's largest eyewear company, and the company's $450 Oakley sunglasses allowed those rescued Chilean miners to see the light after 69 days in the dark. Luxottica, which owns Ray-Ban, LensCrafters, and Pearle Vision, can also boast considerable cash flow.

NEXT PAGE: Portugal


World Cup pedigree and prospects: Portugal is appearing in its sixth World Cup, and a third-place finish that the side making its tournament debut in 1966 achieved remains the country's best showing by some distance. Subsequent teams have flattered only to deceive, including a couple of ignominious early exits. This vintage, led by current world Footballer of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, should progress from a tough group, and can count upon a home-away-from-home atmosphere in Brazil. Portugal enjoyed an excellent Euro 2012 tourney, but aging legs are unlikely to take them beyond the quarterfinals.

Player to watch: In Ronaldo, who was named by his father after Ronald Reagan, Portugal has an incomparable player quite capable of "winning one for the Gipper" all on his own. The forward has a fabulous bag of tricks and is coming off another outstanding season for Europe's club kings Real Madrid. Portugal arrived in Brazil courtesy of a 4-0 aggregate route of Sweden in which Ronaldo grabbed all four goals. Niggling injuries to knee and thigh -- allegedly inflicted by a Ghanaian witch doctor named "Devil of Wednesday" -- may restrict his normally graceful movement.

Famous fútbol feat: Decades of subsequent deprivation have compelled North Koreans to eat grass, but back in '66 they could play a bit on it, too. In a quarterfinal for the ages, the Asian team took a three-goal lead inside 25 minutes, only for Portugal to eventually win an astonishing match 5-3. It did so on the back of four successive strikes from the great Eusébio. Portugal's Mozambique-born striker, who died earlier this year, won the tournament's Golden Boot as top scorer with nine goals. The "Black Pearl" was a true great, and rates just a touch below Pelé in the pantheon.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? "Feet first" best described Portugal's precarious financial position only a few years ago. Subsequent improvement has been fitful, and GDP contracted again in the first quarter. On the bright side, it did exit a bailout in May, and Moody's recently raised its sovereign rating to Ba2. That is still firmly in junk territory, however, and the country's net debt remains staggering.

Stock to score with: Portugal Telecom (NYSE:PT), the nation's largest such provider, is an established and liquid name that trades on the Big Board. The company is adding broadband customers, and its pay television unit has performed relatively well. Good growth prospects, especially in Africa, offer investors additional potential.



World Cup pedigree and prospects: Let's keep playing among the PIIGS, but move from first to last. Actually, on the fútbol field, although clearly not economically, Spain is second to none. The reigning champions have won an unprecedented three straight titles, with the 2010 World Cup sandwiched in between continental crowns captured in 2008 and 2012. What had historically been unwieldy cliques of underperforming players from Cataluña, Madrid, and the Basque country has gelled into the most formidable unit in world football over the past decade. The smart money says that this squad is past its pomp, and indeed the last team to successfully defend its title was Brazil way back in 1962. That no European side has ever won a World Cup staged on South American soil further suggests that this is where the dynasty dies. A team whose midfield alone boasts the luminous likes of Andrés Iniesta, David Silva, Juan Mata, Cesc Fábregas, and Xavi Hernandez can never be counted out, however.

Player to watch: Real Madrid's defensive midfielder Xabi Alonso is a metronomic presence for both club and country. His tempo-setting passing keeps the team ticking over and allows more celebrated individuals to shine further forward. This may be Alonso's international swansong after a career spanning 110 appearances. He's also capable of scoring the occasional long-range goal.

Famous fútbol feat: Considering that its 2010 tournament kicked off with a loss to lowly Switzerland, Spain proved an exceptionally quick learner in South Africa. Iniesta, after winning the final with his dramatic late shot, wheeled away in triumph to unveil a T-shirt honoring a colleague taken tragically too soon. Under the sport's arcane rules, the gesture preposterously earned him a caution, but that proved a small price to pay for such an emotional moment of glory.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? The eurozone's fourth-largest economy has successfully stopped the bleeding after a half-decade-long recession. Growth is good by the paltry standards of the region, and the government is readying a 6.3 billion-euro stimulus package. That said, almost six million people remain without work, a figure that football-loving Pope Francis has called "inhumane."

Stock to score with: Until two years ago this very week, Banco Santander (NYSE:SAN) was saddled with the most embarrassing stock symbol in all of finance. There is absolutely nothing shameful about the share-price performance since, with it up about 50% in the past 12 months alone. The balance sheet continues to strengthen, and at almost 8%, its payout ratio is among Europe's highest. First-quarter results came in ahead of consensus expectations amid higher net interest margins in the United Kingdom. Santander, one of the world's top-10 banks by market cap, also offers investors US exposure through its former Sovereign branch network and is a way to play increasing affluence in Latin America.

NEXT PAGE: Colombia


World Cup pedigree and prospects: Intermittent finalists appearing in their first tournament for 16 years, an inexperienced Colombia team pushed Argentina all the way for top spot in qualification. Official FIFA rankings, admittedly a notoriously unreliable guide, rate this team the planet's fifth best side. Goalkeeper David Ospina possesses an extremely safe pair of hands, and a relatively undemanding group that includes Greece and Japan makes the second round a distinct probability. The loss of world-class attacker Radamel Falcao, out since January with a serious knee injury, suggests that, alas, the second round may be the summit of its ambitions.

Player to watch: In the absence of Falcao, his Monaco teammate James Rodríguez will shoulder a bigger burden as the fulcrum of the side. Still only 22, the versatile midfielder chips in with several assists and can also play out on the wing. He is able to turn the trajectory of the play with a well-timed swivel of the hips, and, as Barranquilla-born Shakira -- herself married to a soccer star -- can attest, they don't lie.

Famous fútbol feat: Infamous, in this instance. The 1994 Colombian World Cup team arrived in America as the choice of many experts, Pelé included, to win the entire tournament. A celebrated 5-0 thrashing of Argentina in Buenos Aires the previous September heralded its arrival on the world stage. Colombia exploded onto the scene lead by captain Carlos Valderrama, whose hair resembled a burst sofa. Eccentric goalkeeper René Higuita, later to perfect the "scorpion save," combined flair and excellence in equal measure. Yet it all ended in tragedy when Andrés Escobar inadvertently put through his own goal in a loss to Team USA. In a surreal episode straight out of Gabriel García Márquez, Escobar (no relation to notorious drug kingpin Carlos) would soon pay for the mistake with his life.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? A supremely steady Eddie in a notoriously unstable region, Colombia's growth rate is forecast to flirt with 5% this year. There has been a dramatic reduction in drug-related violence since the bad old days of Escobar, with the guerrilla group FARC having been largely defanged. Indeed, such is the booming economy that on Friday, Colombia's central bank increased a key interest rate to 3.75% in an effort to ward off incipient inflation.

Stock to score with: Big Board-listed Bancolombia (NYSE:CIB), based in Medellín where The Two Escobars each met a violent end, reported better-than-expected earnings in May. A share issue earlier this year was massively oversubscribed amid intense retail interest, and Zacks recently raised its rating on the financial firm. Investing in the company would be one way to participate in Colombia's rising consumer class, although let's not sugarcoat it: A bank that does business in El Salvador -- which was once bonkers enough to go to war over a soccer game -- may not be the safest equity for Peoria's proverbial widows and orphans.

NEXT PAGE: Argentina


World Cup pedigree and prospects: Twice winners, first on home soil while the military junta's Dirty War raged in 1978 and again in Mexico eight years later, lead by the brilliance of Diego Maradona. Argentina has been crying out for a title ever since, and how it would love to do so in the enemy territory of Brazil. Its Group F opponents should present few problems for a midfield superbly marshaled by Javier Mascherano, with Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero providing a stellar supporting cast to the peerless Lionel Messi up front. Yet the back line of the tournament's oldest team is a weak link that skilled opponents can profitably exploit.

Player to watch: It is the rare sportsman who makes the cover of The Economist, but Messi really is one of a kind. Standing a mere 5'7″ and nicknamed La Pulga ("The Flea"), the Argentina captain is a giant among pygmies on the pitch. A four-time World Footballer of the Year, the Barcelona superstar is Argentina's record marksman and has an equally unerring eye for a well-placed pass to teammates. Messi was particularly prolific in quantification, hitting the net 10 times. He will turn 27 during the tournament, and this is surely his time to shine.

Famous fútbol feat: They say this is a team game, yet in '86, Diego Maradona came close to rendering all 21 other players redundant every time he played. A famous photo of him taking on over half the Belgium outfield single-handedly four years earlier offered a hint of the glories to come. That picture can be purchased on eBay Inc (NASDAQ:EBAY) for about 850 bucks, but the memories Maradona gave us in Mexico are utterly priceless.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? Not just down at heel -- "Down at heel. Looking out of the window. Staying out of the sun," in the words of Evita. They say Argentines are Italians who speak Spanish and want to be British, but Buenos Aires has suffered the same troubles as the two PIIGS without enjoying any of England's financial recovery. Another peso crisis reminiscent of the early aughts devaluation saw foreign capital shrink, while China's slowdown hurt commodity exports. In the ultimate ignominy, the country's economic mismanagement is such that Argentina may soon be forced to import beef. On the bright side, a debt repayment plan was just announced after 13 years of default, and the main stock market is up about 40% in 2014.

Stock to score with: Speaking of eBay, Mercadolibre (NASDAQ:MELI) is often called Latin America's equivalent. JPMorgan (NYSE:JPM) raised its recommendation on the Buenos Aires-based online auctioneer only last month. Analysts wrote in a note that "[the region's] e-commerce has substantial growth potential," and characterized the company's fundamentals as "very positive."



World Cup pedigree and prospects: Record five-time winners, host Brazil hasn't lost a competitive match on home soil since 1975. Last year it won the Confederations Cup, a traditional tune-up for the tournament, by beating Spain in the final. The likes of David Luiz, Dani Alves, Paulinho, and Oscar all ooze quality, even if a traditional emphasis on attack does leave occasional gaps at the back. It is no wonder that the samba boys have been made favorites by the bookmakers. (And Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), although economists at the "great vampire squid" can't hold a candle to the predictive powers of Paul the Octopus, even as he now sadly sleeps with the fishes.) Still, the "Soccernomics" of a World Cup that cost up to $18 billion -- and tragically killed eight construction workers -- haven't gone over at all well with many in this fútbol-crazed country.

Player to watch: If he can avoid Wall Street's dreaded cover curse, Messi's Barcelona teammate Neymar could take the games by storm. A supremely gifted 22-year-old striker who plays with all the flair we expect of his countrymen, the golden boy of Brazilian football boasts 31 goals in only 49 appearances for the national team.

Famous fútbol feat: Too many to mention, but the 1970 Brazilians truly were a thing of beauty. They made the game come alive in the first tournament to be broadcast in glorious Technicolor. Even the team's near misses were exquisite, with it needing the "save of the century" to deny Pelé, while the same player also came close to scoring from fully 50 yards out. But boy, could they finish. Carlos Alberto's goal in the final against Italy, the last act of a famous 4-1 win, is enshrined in the pantheon of the game's greats.

Economy -- on its toes or down at heel? It's all relative, of course. Compared to the dreaded banana-republic-dictatorship days of the 1970s, lady luck is smiling on Latin America's largest country. Brazil's unemployment rate, at a record low of 4.9% in April, would make America blush. Yet the sense of gloom is pervasive, with annual inflation surging to 6.37%, growth averaging only 2% over the past three years, and S&P having cut the country's credit rating in March. Although the World Cup is expected to generate approximately $11.1 billion in spending, a persistent drop in commodity costs hints at longer-term malaise. This BRIC -- a term coined by an avid football follower -- has suddenly hit a wall.

Stock to score with: During happier times, over the course of one heady week in late 2007, Brazil was awarded the World Cup and its state-owned energy powerhouse Petrobras (NYSE:PBR) announced a multibillion-barrel oil find. Shares swiftly rose to a record but have since fallen sharply in the wake of acute mismanagement and a corruption scandal. This offers investors an opportunity to buy a quality company that currently trades at a steep 35% discount to its 15-year average. Shares have lately shown signs of life, and Petrobras stock should start to benefit as earnings comparisons increasingly ease.
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