The planets largest sporting event, the 2010 World Cup final, kicks off in South Africa this Friday.
It’s been four years since Italy hoisted the Jules Rimet Trophy in a match that ended with a red card for France’s Zinedine Zidane’s head butt to the center of Materazzi’s chest. Now it’s time for just one nation to rise above the best and claim their spot in the annals of world football history.
Tomorrow’s games will be the “first” of the tournament, but they will also be the culmination of 204 countries’ qualifying campaigns that began way back in 2007.
Let’s take a final look at the teams sorted by best of odds to win it all, and where their three-year campaign may end.
1. Spain +375 –After their glorious Euro 2008 victory and their perfect record of 10 wins from 10 games, which has contributed to a run of 44 matches with just one defeat. La Roja will be battling the world’s finest and are solid favorites to win it all.
2. Brazil +400 — Although Dunga’s squad is packed with star talent, the five-time World Cup winners stuttered their way through qualifying, losing two games and finishing only a point ahead of Chile and Paraguay. They will first have to fight their way out of a tough group and then conquer two continents on their way to a Finals appearance.
3. Argentina +650 – The squad will want to erase the memory of a sporadic qualifying campaign that required a last-game victory over Uruguay to advance to the big dance. With Lionel Messi and other stars in superb form, La Albiceleste should make a very deep run.
4. England +700 – With only a single defeat ruining a perfect qualifying run, the Three Lions have responded well to Fabio Capello’s hard-line regime. A healthy Wayne Rooney is a bonus for England to make an impressive charge to the semifinals.
5. Netherlands +900 – Another perfect qualifying record have gotten the Dutch back to the finals. But even with a squad loaded with talent, can they keep their edge without losing it? Twice a bridesmaid, but never a bride, and probably again with a quarterfinal exit.
6. Germany +1200 – Three time champions Germany had an excellent qualifying campaign that included defeating fellow European heavyweights Russia. However, with the multitude of injuries that includes the loss of captain Michael Ballack, I can’t see a wounded Germany making it beyond the quarterfinals.
7. Italy +1600 – The defending champions probably won’t repeat as champions, yet a favorable draw could take them farther than expected. They finished six points clear of the Republic of Ireland in their qualifying group, but had troubles along the way, suggesting a semifinals end.
8. France +2000 – Le Blues have appeared in two of the last three finals and boss Raymond Domenech is feeling the pressure to once again return to grab what slipped away by means of penalty shots in 2006. After qualifying via a playoff, and finishing second in the group behind Serbia, a semifinals appearance is a reality.
9. Portugal +2800 – Selecao das Quinas also needed a playoff to qualify, in their case after finishing second to Denmark. Twice beaten in the semis, and a squad beset by problems, can Cristiano Ronaldo take them further? If they survive the group round, I am afraid the round of 16 will be the end of the road.
10. Ivory Coast +5000– Their current FIFA ranking of 16th is their highest ever. Unbeaten in qualifying suggests the Elephants are the real deal. But without star striker Didier Drogba, their chances of emerging from the Group of Death are fading.
11. Serbia +5000 – Probably one of the most unpredictable sides. They could go deep or burn out early. They did however qualify ahead of France despite losing one match more. So a quarterfinal finish is foreseeable.
12. Mexico +8000 – After finishing one point behind the United States in qualification and suffering to three defeats in 10 games, El Tri’s consistency remains to be seen. In a tough group they will be hopeful to be battling both Uruguay and France to advance.
13. United States +8000 – The Stars and Stripes finished with top honors in their CONCACAF qualifying group, and then beat Mexico in the Gold Cup to qualify for the Confederations Cup, where they proved themselves by downing Spain 2-0 before losing to Brazil 3-2 in the final. They have reached the semifinals once before in 1990 and have their best shot at repeating that feat in South Africa this summer.
14. Chile +8000 – Finishing second to Brazil despite losing five of their 18 qualifiers, the Chileans are in good form and could make a quarterfinal run in their first World Cup appearance in 12 years.
15. Paraguay +10000– Although a bit shaky at times La Albirroja qualified comfortably after finishing above Argentina and Uruguay. After a 12-year absence, the side returned to World Cup action in 1998, and they’ve qualified for each of the Finals since. Don’t count them out as a knockout stage contender.
16. Denmark +12500 – After winning six of 10 in qualifying the Danes are appearing in just their fourth World Cup finals. A very good squad, but can they compete with the likes of Brazil and Spain? They should make it interesting if the advance to the Round of 16.
17. Cameroon +12500– Runners-up in the last African Nations Cup, and FIFA’s highest-ranked African team, the Indomitable Lions reached a sixth Finals by topping a group of mediocre teams. They are disciplined and with a little determination, could make it to the semifinal round.
18. Ghana +12500– The four-time African champions return for just their second time to the world stage. They were hit hard with the loss of talisman Michael Essien and will most likely be happy to make it out of the group of death.
19. Uruguay +12500– The two-time winners needed a playoff with Costa Rica to advance after finishing fifth in qualifying with six defeats from 18 games. They will be a tough contender but must first get passed Mexico and France.
20. South Africa +15000– Although the host nation is ranked 20th by odds makers, they are the lowest-ranked team (86th) by FIFA in this year’s competition. Despite what the critics are saying, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s Bafana Bafana is not as pitiful as everyone expects. If they survive the group phase, they could ride the home crowd advantage beyond the round of 16.
21. Nigeria +15000– After missing Germany in 2006, and squeaking through qualifying, the Super Eagles will make their fourth World Cup appearance. They are a solid team, but lack the explosiveness it will take to get into the quarterfinals.
22. Australia +17500– The boys from down under secured one of the automatic qualification places by completing their qualifying run with an unbeaten record. With coach Pim Verbeek eyeing the quarterfinals, the Socceroos could be the shocker for an interesting Group D.
23. Greece +25000– The Euro 2004 winners scored 20 goals in 10 games during European qualifiers and finished second behind Switzerland in their group. That type of offensive power combined with Greece’s traditional staunch defense, should see them through to the quarterfinals.
24. Switzerland +30000– The Swiss are battle hardened after coming out of a tough group that featured the likes of Greece, Latvia and Israel. They are making their ninth Finals appearance, and with a strong backline and a creative midfield, will have to once again battle for the group’s final transfer spot.
25. South Korea +30000– Two-thousand and two semifinalist, the Taeguk Warriors booked their seventh successive Finals appearance by topping a group also featuring rivals and fellow qualifiers North Korea. The side lacks real firepower, and with an unlucky group draw, will make an early exit.
26. Slovakia +40000– Secured their first World Cup bid as an independent nation by topping a group featuring Slovenia and the Czech Republic. Just making the finals must feel like a huge accomplishment, and will most likely have to do for another four years.
27. Slovenia +50000– Making just their second appearance since gaining independence, Slovenia stunned powerhouses Russia in their two-legged playoff to qualify. The side’s success is a suffocating defense that has conceded just six goals in its past 12 competitive games. They have a solid core, but will fall short of making it out of the group behind England and the U.S.
28. Japan +60000– The Samurai Blue qualified comfortably after losing just one of their eight qualifiers to book their fourth successive appearance in a World Cup Finals. Their speed and discipline will make them interesting to watch, but their porous defense will provide them with an early exit.
29. Algeria +75000– The Desert Foxes survived a dramatic qualifying run as they defeated continent favorite Egypt 2-0 to set up a play-off between the sides, which the Algerians won 1-nil. This will be their first World Cup appearance since 1986 and they could find themselves in a battle with the Americans in the group stage.
30. Honduras +100000– Returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1982, the Catrachos edged out Costa Rica in qualifying after finishing level on points with them. An unlucky draw to Group H was their first sign of an early departure.
31. North Korea +200000– The Fightin’ IL’s are back in the Finals for the first time since 1966, and qualified after finishing second to rivals South Korea in their qualifying group. The only thing the North Koreans can hope for is finishing ahead of their neighbors to the South.
32. New Zealand +250000– The All Whites qualified for their first World Cup appearance since 1982, as sole Oceanic representatives after comfortably topping their group. The side has made hug improvements, but will have to wait until 2014 to reap any of the benefits.
There you have it, 32 teams battling for one title. I don’t think there have ever been so many teams who could do so well in a World Cup with a majority of the teams listed here being possible winners. The entire word will be watching on July 11, as 30 days of the most exciting soccer climaxes into a final match between Brazil and Spain, as the Samba Kings thrust their way to their sixth World Cup title.
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