Group favorites Brazil has qualified for 19 consecutive World Cups and has the most tournament wins with five. They are poised to make a deep run in South Africa, especially after having already experienced success on the same grounds last summer by winning the Confederations Cup final against the United States. The Samba Kings has amassed a total of 64 victories, 14 draws and 14 defeats in 92 games played, including a 19 game unbeaten streak between June 2008 and October 2009. Selecao head Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri, better known as Dunga, played for Brazil side in three editions of the global showpiece, and is fully aware that any outcome other than a sixth world crown will likely be considered a failure. This will be Dunga’s first coaching role in the World Cup. Many critics attacked his lack of experience, but after victories in the 2007 Copa America and the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009, along with an impressive qualifying run to South Africa, many of those criticisms have been quelled. A lot of the focus on Brazil’s 2010 World Cup squad fell on the absences of Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato. Although no one expected Pato to be in, a few held out hope for Ronaldinho. But as his form dipped so he did his chances of making the side. After the excess of the stars undermined Brazil’s Germany 2006 campaign, Dunga took over with the following philosophy – big names might win matches, but groups win titles. Still the Brazilians are stacked at every position and have a ton of superior talent, starting with Real Madrid superstar Kaka in the midfield and deadly attackers such as Luis Fabiano and Robinho at striker. Providing steady hands in between the pipes should Brazil’s tireless defense shut off for a second, will be Inter Milan goalkeeper Julio Cesar. Brazil finished their qualifying campaign on top of their group, after recording nine wins, seven draws and two defeats, clinching their South Africa berth with three match days to spare.
The odd makers have been generous to Portugal. After making it to the finals at UEFA EURO 2004 and then reaching the semifinals against France at Germany 2006, Selecao das Quinas have qualified for its fifth World Cup appearance. Portugal has put on many displays of fantastic football, but are yet to be awarded a major prize. The side is led by boss Carlos Queiroz, who is revered as the mastermind behind Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’. The Mozambican-born Queiroz has also served as an assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, as well as a short stint as head coach of Real Madrid. This is Queiroz’s second term as the senior national team coach. He first coached Selecao das Quinas from 1991 to 1993, but after a disappointing period during which he failed to lead them to either EURO 1992 or the 1994 FIFA World Cup, he was sacked. Now the 57-year old will get his chance to win back the hearts and minds of the Portuguese fans with a magical run to this year’s finals. He will have plenty of weapons starting with Real Madrid star–skipper Cristiano Ronaldo. The 2008 FIFA World Player played a subdued role in qualification, watching mainly from the sidelines with an ankle injury, but has been declared fit and will no doubt rise to the occasion at South Africa 2010. He will be aided by midfield stars Deco, Simao and Pepe, along with defensive talisman Ricardo Carvalho, and Paulo Ferreira of Chelsea Fame. With one win from their first five group qualifying matches the side found themselves in early jeopardy of missing out on the 2010 finals, but turned things around scoring eight goals without reply in their last four group qualifiers to earn a playoff with the dangerous Bosnians. Portugal made short work of the Balkan nation winning both at home and away to clinch a comfortable 2-0 aggregate victory over both legs and easily finished second overall to Denmark in group play of European qualifying.
The group’s sleeper, the Ivory Coast, may have the best chance for an African team to win the World Cup. But they sure didn’t get a lot of help in the draw. In 2006, the Elephants were drawn into a group alongside Argentina and the Netherlands. This time? They must have felt slightly undone when drawn into the ‘Group of Death’ alongside Brazil and Portugal. But even with the tough draw and some coaching turmoil, Côte d’Ivoire appears plenty capable of a deep run.
There has been a lot of shuffling and commotion on the Ivory Coast coaching staff. After short coaching stints from Guus Hiddink and Bernd Schuster, current head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was given the helm just months before the start of this year’s finals. This will be Eriksson’s third FIFA World Cup after leading England to the quarterfinals at both the 2002 and 2006 finals.
He will have at his disposal a pile of world-class international talent throughout the starting XI. Beginning with Chelsea striker Didier Drogba. Drogba has become one of the very best strikers on the planet, scoring 84 goals for Chelsea since moving to Stamford Bridge in 2004. His 37 goals across all competitions in 2010 were the best of his career, and vital in Chelsea’s double. He will be aided by fellow Blues teammate, Salomon Kalou, who despite criticism is still a potent striker. Other European stars include midfielder Yaya Toure of Arsenal and Sevilla’s Didier Zokora. They have more than 120 caps between them, and should help support Drogba and Kalou. The Côte d’Ivoire breezed through qualifying without losing a single match, running away with their final qualifying group ahead of Burkina Faso, Malawi and Guinea.
Lastly, North Korea is making its first World Cup appearance since its miraculous run going all the way to the last eight back in 1966. In the years that followed the government banned the team from traveling abroad following defeats to both Japan and South Korea in the qualifying stages for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. The squad returned to the international stage in 1999 but skipped the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, and failed to qualify for the 2006 tournament. After spending nearly three decades off the world stage, the Fightin’ IL’s have seen a recent rival, coming close to qualifying for Germany 2006 before successfully negotiating the road to South Africa 2010. While coach Kim Jong-Hun enjoyed great success during the qualifying rounds, he must have been disappointed to see his team drawn into the same group as Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast. The 53-year old guided the side back to the world stage and will now be expected to take his squad to the pinnacle of world football. Given his squad largely consists of domestic-based players lacking in international experience, he will have to rely on a strong defensive approach to keep the team within striking distance of low scoring matches. The side’s most notable international is Jong Tae-Se, a striker plying his trade in Japan. Aiding him will be 27-year-old captain Hong Yong-Jo from Russia’s FC Rostov fame. The two will form a solid attacking force for the Fightin’ IL’s. Rounding out the notables are Korean-based midfielder Mun In-Guk who makes the team tick, while keeper Ri Myong-Guk’s safe hands and agility can be relied upon between the sticks. Korea DPR seemingly came from nowhere to storm into the Asian Zone’s final round of qualifying, where they defied sizeable odds to take one of the continent’s four automatic spots at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.
As always the Brazilians will be the overall favorite, living up to the common quip about football –“The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it.” The last time Brazil did not win their Group outright was back in the 1978 World Cup. That year they finished the first round tied with Austria at four points apiece, with the Austrians given the edge because of more goals scored. But since that time the Brazilians have been unstoppable, posting an incredible 20-1-3 in Cup play. I expect that trend to continue as the Selecao march their way into this year’s finals with wins over North Korea and Portugal. The Portuguese will have to use all of their experience and expertise to get out of difficult Group G, with their opening match with Ivory Coast being the most critical. They should have enough to get by North Korea, but will most likely fall to Brazil. As strong as Portugal’s squad is, I am not sure they will make it out of the group stage, let alone win it all. Many have seemingly jumped off the Ivory Coast bandwagon after the last minute coaching change of Sven Goran Erikssson. What fans don’t seem to remember is that he took England to consecutive World Cup quarterfinals. As for the Elephants, their roster is in their prime and the time is now. With Portugal’s roster looking a bit shaky, the Ivory Coast definitely has the quality to reach the knockout stage. Finally, dreams of 1966 are sure to dance in the North Korean’s heads, but the Group G draw was about as bad as it could get for the Fightin’ IL’s. They could lose all three games. I look for a quick exit, where the only thing North Koreans’ can hope for — is doing better than South Korea.
Advancing: Brazil, Ivory Coast