For a month--from June 11 to July 11--most of the world will focus on South Africa for the World Cup of football (soccer).
Thirty-two teams will vie for this supreme sporting honor; only one will win. Which will it be?
Well, there is a clear view based on the history of the event, which has been held 18 times previously (every four years since 1930, except for 1942 and 1946). The Rule--of who wins the Cup--has two forms:
1) The International Version: If the World Cup is in Europe, a European team wins; if it is not, a South American team wins.
2) The Brazilian Version: Brazil is the only team that has won the World Cup outside its own continent.
Version 2) is a little less specific, but it has no exceptions. Version 1) failed to hold true only once, in 1958, when Brazil won in Sweden. Either version would lead to the conclusion that a European team will not win this year's event, but then there has never been a World Cup in Africa before. So, will The Rule hold? The betting would be on "Yes", but a bit more solidly on Version 1).
The reason for the preference for that version is Argentina. In spite of a less-than-stellar performance by Argentina in the South American qualifications (the team finished fourth and did not clinch its spot until the final day of the round-robin), I would say without doubt that Argentina has the greatest collection of talent of any squad, led by the world's top player, Leonel Messi (who normally plays for Barcelona), and the hero of the recently-concluded European Champions League, Diego Millito (of Inter Milano). The team also has plenty of talent in midfield and a couple of tough cookies in defense; the only question mark about the squad is at goalie, where a young talent--23-year-old Sergio Romero of Dutch squad Alkmaar--is the leading candidate.
The real reason for doubting Argentina's team is their head coach, Diego Maradona. One of the top five talents of all time in the sport as a player, he has not impressed with his strategy, handling of players, or sideline poise.
Their highly likely finals opponent, Brazil, looks to have a solid, unspectacular team--not so much the beautiful game this year as a real tough opponent, one any other team would look to avoid. Brazil's coach Dunga was a long-time anchor of the national team, and the team seems to have been built from his stolid mold: a top goalie, a couple premier defenders (who can move skillfully to the attack), a couple well-known stars in midfield, and not much up front.
These two nations will expect nothing less than victory. I would say there are two more that have similar--if not fully justified--expectations: at least the semifinals, say. Those would be Spain--who broke a long history of underperformance with a brilliant win in the European championships two years ago--and the defending champions, Italy. Spain's level of talent is comparable to Argentina's, but their loss to the United States (!) in the Confederations Cup last year (one team representing each region) suggests the team is capable of excellence but may be unreliable--and since a string of four straight wins in elimination games against proven opponents is required, one would guess that's not quite enough. Italy's team will look pretty familiar to those who watched the World Cup four years ago in Germany, but they have mostly stood pat with their aging playmakers and key defenders since then, not showcasing and tempering new talent, something one would expect from a team trying to maintain dominance over time.
There's also one other problem for Italy and Spain, which leads to a discussion of the World Cup draw. There are eight groups of four teams each; two teams go forward from each group, then the rounds of 16, 8, 4, and 2 are all single-game eliminations. Each of the eight groups has a clear favorite. If Italy and Spain each win their groups, then their respective games in the round of 16, they would face each other in the quarterfinals. If one doesn't win its group, it's bound for the portion of the bracket where Brazil is expected to rule. So, it is absolutely certain that one--at least--of those four teams will not make the semifinals.
Fortunates, Unfortunates, Long-shots, and Also-Rans
One semifinal team--at least--must be from outside those four favorites. Three teams are group favorites in the top half of the draw--along with Argentina--and one of those is likely to make the semifinal (where it would be expected to meet up against Brazil). Those three teams--each of which, I would say, should normally be expected to consider making the quarterfinals a successful campaign--are England, France, and Germany. They are "the fortunates". England and France would remain in that quarter of the draw if they win their groups, Germany if it finishes second.
England's team has plenty of talent, headed by Manchester United's Rooney and Liverpool's Gerrard, and played well for coach Fabio Capello in the qualifications, but it has a bit of an on-field leadership issue: veteran David Beckham is out with an injury, and Chelsea's John Terry was ousted ("outed"?) as captain due to an extramarital affair he had with the ex-girlfriend of one of his teammates, Wayne Bridge. I would expect Rio Ferdinand to be the captain, but leadership could remain an issue.
France was runner-up four years ago, but its leader Zidane is long gone, and the team also looks to be suffering from a stand-pat approach. I like their midfielders Riberry and Malouda, more than their aging strikers Anelka and Henry. Their competition in the group stage is Mexico, Uruguay, and host South Africa; they may have just enough to handle those teams, but I don't expect much more.
Germany has been reliable over the years, especially since unification, as a team that can make the quarters and possibly more. That being said, I don't like the look of this outfit much: their captain, Chelsea's Ballack, is out with an injury, and their key striker Klose hasn't been close to his best this year (sorry). Of the eight group favorites, I'd say their chances are the weakest (though I'd still expect them to get through).
Two teams that had unfortunate draws are Netherlands and Portugal. The Dutch have been extremely strong in qualification and are loaded with talent, but their perennial nemesis in the World Cup is Brazil, and they are destined to meet in the quarterfinals unless there is some surprise. Portugal, starring Cristiano Ronaldo but with plenty of supporting talent, has it even worse: Brazil is in their group. If they survive that and finish second (not a sure thing--see below), they would end up in the quarter of the bracket with Italy and Spain, but if they are playing well they could conceivably survive that and make it through to a semifinal against Argentina. The Lusitanians' recent performances suggest none of that will happen.
Leading the list of longshots are the leaders from the North America/Caribbean region, the US and Mexico. The estadunidenses have a marquee first match with England, but the key game for the US is probably the one with Slovenia, a typical, dangerous mid-level European team with no stars but good team chemistry. I would expect US to finish second in their group, putting them in a round of 16 match with Germany. Or, maybe not: there seems always to be one national team from the Balkans that overperforms, and this year's choice looks to me to be Serbia, who I would pick to finish first in Germany's group, and maybe to make the quarterfinals. Like the US, Mexico should finish second and end up in a bracket location near US, probably doomed to a matchup against Argentina.
Next to mention are Chile and Paraguay, both of which finished ahead of Argentina in the South American qualifications (!), but which seem fated to face Brazil and Netherlands in the round of 16, unless they can pull off an upset in their first-round matches against, respectively, Spain and Italy.
One of the key story lines will be the fates of the six African teams, playing for the first time ever in their home continent, feeling both more pride and more pressure than ever before. Ghana has been strong in regional competition but will be missing their top player, Chelsea's Michael Essien. The Ivory Coast will be potent with Chelsea's striker tandem of Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba, but they are a bit unfortunate to be in the group with both Brazil and Portugal. The African teams whose chances to advance seem best are Nigeria, in Argentina's group, and Cameroon, in Netherlands' one. Algeria could surprise in one or more of its games with England, the US, and Slovenia, but I don't expect them to advance. South Africa has a couple good players but wouldn't be in the competition were it not the host.
The Asian teams performed great when the World Cup was in South Korea and Japan eight years ago and didn't show for the one in Germany--expect the same kind of disappointment. Australia has an outside chance to advance, in a fairly even group with Ghana, Serbia, and Germany. New Zealand, not so much. Other European teams with decent chances to advance are Denmark and Greece, but I like their group competitors Cameroon and Nigeria better under the circumstances. All nations should be respected for making it to the tournament, even North Korea, probably doomed to three one-sided losses and no future return visits to the Cup.
Although the expected outlines of the tournament may seem apparent, a single first-round surprise could change things dramatically. I will pick up the preview after the first-round games, when the shape of the remaining matchups will be determined.
Five Key First-Round Matches
(Date of game, and start time in US Eastern time zone. We're not counting England-US--6/12, at 2:30 p.m.--which should be entertaining but not too consequential: Either should be able to survive a loss.)
Chile vs. Spain(6/25, 2:30 p.m.) Chile should not be discounted. This is one of the games from the third and final set of the first round, so its significance will depend partly on both teams' winning their first two. If so, it will be a serious test for Spain, and the loser would likely face Brazil in the next round, so there will be plenty of incentive.
US vs. Slovenia(6/18, 10 a.m.) Not of cosmic significance, but it will be crucial if the US loses to England. If by some chance we beat the Southeastern Brits, substitute the Slovenia-England match (6/23, 10 a.m.) for this one as being especially significant.
Greece vs. Nigeria(6/17, 10 a.m.) This should determine second place in Argentina's group; the winner might have a real shot in the round of 16, probably against France.
Portugal vs. Ivory Coast(6/15, 10 a.m.) An early game which will show us the quality of both teams. If Portugal wins this one, the match with Brazil (6/25, 10 a.m.) could become crucial: if Portugal were to win its group, Italy and Spain could suddenly see the Brazilians coming over to mess with "their" quarter of the bracket. If this one goes to Cote d'Ivoire, though, the Portuguese could be headed for yet another embarrassing first-round elimination.
Germany vs. Serbia(6/18, 7:30 a.m.)Australia and Ghana could also affect the group's outcome, but this game will likely determine who will face England and the US in the round of 16.