The 2010 World Cup will be the first on the African continent and experts are already placing their bets on two favorites, Brazil and Spain. While those two teams are on top of most lists, could there be any surprises? How will the group stages shake out and who will end up on top?
Let’s see what we can find out.
Winner - France
Runner-up – Uruguay
Host South Africa truly has an unfortunate draw. While the team has performed better recently, it still isn’t quite ready for the task of overpowering any of the other three teams it will face. Mexico, who struggled severely in the beginning stages of their qualifying campaign, might be the closest match for South Africa; but in the end, Mexico has a lot more depth, experience, and ability than the host side. Some may even consider Mexico on par with, and possibly better than Uruguay, but their lackluster results in qualifying against inferior teams makes Uruguay more likely to advance. Finally, despite France’s off-field problems, they are still one of the most gifted teams on the continent. If media and legal troubles don’t derail the Blues’ focus, only their coach can. The French made some questionable decisions during squad selection, including leaving Patrick Viera out, and French coach Raymond Domenech is not beloved by the French fans, for good reason. Perhaps Domenech knows something the world does not, but France only made it to this year’s Cup via a handball against Ireland, which is demonstrative of their current state of play.
Winner - Argentina
Runner-up – Nigeria
Argentina could be one of the world’s best teams, but for some reason the squad has not quite clicked. Prodigal striker Lionel Messi has yet to replicate his club form on the international scene, but that won’t stop the South Americans from progressing out of Group B. Next in line to advance is Nigeria’s Super Eagles, who will take advantage of playing on their home continent. A home field advantage is, on average, worth three-quarters of a goal every game. That extra boost should be enough to push Nigeria ahead of the next best team in the group, Greece. The Greeks qualified after a playoff with Ukraine, but they came from a relatively tight UEFA qualifying group, which surely prepared them well for this tournament. Greece, however, failed to match the quality of their Euro 2004 victory in 2008, making that triumph seem even more unlikely with time. Unfortunately, even with South Korea’s rising international stars, the team itself is still quite inconsistent. They’ve beaten teams like the Ivory Coast, but have also lost to weaker Asian sides recently. The duel between Greece and South Korea for third place will become much more important if Nigeria or Argentina stumble in their early outings.
Winner - England
Runner-up – United States
One of the most anticipated opening matches of the tournament will be held between England and the USA. England undoubtedly is the favorite to take the group, but the US could give them a run for their money in the opening match. England should advance fairly comfortably with new coach Fabio Capello, while the USA will be struggling to fill gaps in the lineup caused by injuries. One thing to keep in mind is that, based on history, when England has a good qualifying campaign they usually under perform in the tournament. England’s qualifying record was 9-0-1. Slovenia is no pushover – they beat Russia to qualify for the finals – and could easily spring a surprise if the USA or England falters. They do not get the edge due to their relatively inexperienced squad, but they could give the USA a very scary run to advance. Algeria is not to be overlooked either. Home continent advantage and a victory over Egypt to qualify make the Algerians a dangerous side. Inconsistency is the main detractor for the Desert Foxes, though. This is Algeria’s first World Cup since 1986 and that lack of experience could prove decisive.
Winner – Germany
Runner-up – Ghana
Germany is the favorite to advance over neck-and-neck competitors Serbia and Ghana. Despite the news that Germany lost captain Michael Ballack to an ankle injury in the FA Cup final, the team still has plenty of depth at midfield and plays very efficiently under coach Joachim Low. They had a tremendous run in 2006, proving that the home field advantage is certainly alive and well in international soccer. Ghana had an impressive performance in the 2006 World Cup and gets the slight edge over Serbia with the home continent advantage. Serbia, though, has excellent players and the team performed very well throughout qualifying. In the end, the nod has to go to the Black Stars with a midfield containing Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. The Australians, while a solid Pacific side, only have extensive experience against weaker teams. Defense will be Australia’s chance of pulling off a surprise in a group that should be very tightly fought behind Germany.
Winner – Netherlands
Runner-up - Cameroon
One of the more attractive choices for the overall winner, the Netherlands, resides in Group E. The Dutch have a massive amount of depth in their side, with plenty of options at the striking, midfield, and defensive positions. Their strong defense will come in handy against Cameroon’s attacking star Samuel Eto’o, whose scoring ability has Cameroon favored to advance. Denmark, while a solid team, still does not have the depth and skill that the Netherlands does, nor do they have a dominant goal scorer like Cameroon. The younger players on the Danish squad have some distance to cover before they make a regular impact while the older players are starting to fade. Japan typically fares well against its own region but has yet to make an impact against other federations. Japan doesn’t have a great change of advancing in this tournament, especially up against Holland and Cameroon.
Winner – Italy
Runner-up – Paraguay
Defending champions Italy was handed a fantastic draw with little by way of danger. Paraguay should be Italy’s toughest adversary in the group, but the Azzurri’s historical ability to get that extra spark in the World Cup should take them to the top. Paraguay qualified from an increasingly difficult South American pool without needing a playoff win to advance. South Africa 2010 will be the country’s fourth consecutive World Cup and the defensive strength of the side should see them through. Slovakia was somewhat of a surprise qualifier with a decent record in their group, advancing over Poland and the Czech Republic. The team truly lacks significant top-drawer depth though, and shouldn’t pose much of a problem in their first World Cup appearance as a sole nation. New Zealand is one of the more unlikely teams to do much of anything in the summer’s tournament. The Kiwis have recently lost matches to other less-recognizable soccer teams, and that will do them no good as they square off against some of the finest from Europe and South America.
Winner – Brazil
Runner-up – Portugal
Brazil is a common favorite for the tournament as a whole, let alone the “group of death.” The draw pits three tremendous teams against one another, yet only two will survive. While Brazil will have to work for it, they have the depth, experience, and talent to make it through as the group winners. Portugal is no slouch either, though. The team has performed consistently better over the past year than the other option to progress, Ivory Coast. Portugal came through a fairly difficult qualifying path, only making the finals via the playoffs, but the talent on the team is unmistakable. Ivory Coast is a popular choice among African teams to take the Cup, but they did lose in the African Nations Cup. The European and South American teams are still too strong to allow the Ivories through. North Korea must not feel good at all with this draw. Their plane tickets home are probably already booked. This is a team that relies on its defense to get it through competitions, but they will be up against three of the most prolific attacking forces in the world. With no counter-attack threat they probably won’t be able to compete.
Winner – Spain
Runner-up – Chile
The tournament’s second favorite resides in Group H. Spain should easily advance as winners of the group. They are ranked No. 2 in the world according to FIFA and are the current European champions. Spain won everything on their way to the finals, but did have quite a stumble in the Confederations Cup in losing to the USA. Still, the team should easily advance this summer. Switzerland and Chile are a virtual toss up to follow Spain, but Chile gets the edge by way of their more difficult qualifying campaign. This team topped Argentina in qualifying from the CONMEBOL federation and finished second only to Brazil through the process. Switzerland is improving quickly and has a chance to advance, but they don’t stack up to the Chileans on paper. Honduras should be happy they qualified. With players like Wilson Palacios and Carlos Pavon, the team should provide plenty of exciting soccer, but they will probably fall short of the second round.