Thirty two teams are in the fray for the 19th World Cup. In this first part of team analysis, P. K. Ajith Kumar takes a look at 11 of them.
Of the 32 teams at the 2010 World Cup, North Korea is ranked the lowest by FIFA. At 106, the North Koreans are placed just 26 slots above India. And two of their preliminary round opponents in Group ‘G' are ranked No. 1 and 3 — Brazil and Portugal, respectively. The third team in the Group of Death, Ivory Coast, is ranked 27th. Indeed, the North Koreans would do very well to post even one win in South Africa.
Having said that, it is highly unlikely that any of their flamboyant rivals would take them lightly — for, this North Korean side is particularly strong in defence, and is largely unknown, as it hardly plays international matches. Besides, just a few of the players have had overseas exposure. This lack of experience could also work against the team in South Africa.
It is after 44 years that the North Koreans are playing in the World Cup. The last — and the only — time they played, in England in 1966, they became part of folklore; they shocked Italy in the preliminary round and led Portugal 3-0 in an unforgettable quarterfinal before losing 3-5.
The North Koreans booked their ticket to South Africa by holding Saudi Arabia to a goalless draw in their last match in Riyadh as they finished runner-up to South Korea in Group `B' (Asia zone). They conceded just seven goals in their 20 qualifying games. Goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk was one of the reasons for such a fine defensive record.
The North Koreans would struggle to match their Group ‘G' rivals in firepower. Their best bets for goals are the Japan-based Jong Tae-Se, nicknamed the Asian Wayne Rooney and Hong Yong-Jo, the FC Rostov (Russia) striker who scored four goals in as many qualifying games. Midfielders Mun In-Guk and An Yong Hak too can play key roles.Coach:IVORY COAST
Ivory Coast goes to South Africa as the first ever team from the African continent with any chance of winning the World Cup. But the chances of this hugely talented team making an exit in the first round are also pretty bright — for it is grouped with Brazil and Portugal, ranked No.1 and 3 in the world by FIFA, not to mention North Korea, a team capable of resolute defending.
The Ivorians could be pardoned if they feel the grouping has been cruel for the second time in a row; Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia & Montenegro were their opponents in the Group of Death in Germany, four years ago. They didn't make it to the knock-out phase then, but a victory in the last league encounter against Serbia & Montenegro gave them some memorable moments in their first ever World Cup.
The team has gained in confidence since then, and with nearly all the players employed by top European clubs, not even Brazil or Portugal can afford to relax for a moment. When Didier Drogba is playing on the other side, can any defence breathe easy?
The Chelsea striker, regarded as one of the finest in the world, is indeed the man who could make ‘ The Elephants' stampede over more fancied rivals. He has been a prolific scorer for his country too, with 43 goals from 66 games.
And Drogba is backed up by some superb players, like his teammate at Chelsea, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, the young Lille (France) striker nicknamed the African Messi, the Toure brothers Kolo (Manchester City) and Yaya (Barcelona), Didier Zokora (Sevilla), Emmanuel Eboue (Arsenal) and Arthur Boka (Stuttgart). This is indeed one of the better all-round teams at this World Cup.
The Ivorians had coasted comfortably through the Qualifiers, without losing a game, scoring 29 goals and conceding just six. The question is: would they author a fascinating tale in South Africa? If they get past Group ‘G', they very well can.Coach:AUSTRALIA
Australia is one of the world's great sporting nations. Few people are as passionate about sport as the Aussies, who were ecstatic when their football team scored their first ever World Cup goal, four years ago in Germany. The Socceroos actually played pretty well in 2006 as they reached the second round, where they were knocked out, heartbreakingly, by an injury time goal from the penalty spot by the eventual champion Italy. The fine show by Guus Hiddink's boys helped a proud nation erase its bad memories of its first World Cup in 1974 when the team failed to score.
In South Africa, Australia is fielding a team which is not very different from the last one in Germany, making it one of the most experienced sides in the competition. That also means it exactly isn't a very young side, with several players over 30.
But some of those men have shown, especially at the Qualifiers, that age has not withered them. The 37-year-old goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer was outstanding; in the second round of qualification, he conceded just one goal. The Aussies, playing in the Asian zone for the first time, conceded just four goals in their entire qualifying campaign.
Schwarzer, the Fulham custodian with the experience of 14 seasons in the Premier League, and a formidable defence spearheaded by Everton centre back Lucas Neill could give trying moments for the forwards of Germany, Ghana and Serbia, Australia's rivals in Group ‘D'. A few others from this team also play in England and there are also players who are playing leagues in Germany, Holland, Turkey and China.
There are concerns about the scoring capabilities of the Socceroos though. But Tim Cahill, who has been a consistent scorer for Everton, Harry Kewell, the former Liverpool striker who now plays for Galatasaray in Turkey, the Blackburn Rovers midfielder Brett Emerton and Mark Bresciano, who recently moved to Saudi Arabia after playing in Italy for 10 years, can harry the rival defenders.Coach:HONDURAS
For a few months last year, Honduras had a dubious distinction: it was the world's only country with two presidents at the same time, following a military coup. Even in those hard times of constitutional crisis, the people of this Central American nation had something to cheer about: their national football team, which qualified for the World Cup, for the first time in 28 years.
Honduras had secured the ticket for South Africa in dramatic circumstances. It was an injury time goal by the United States against Costa Rica that clinched the berth for Honduras, on better goal difference, as it finished third in the CONCACAF zone.
The current Honduras team is rated as the best ever; it is also very experienced, with several key players aged over 30. Pitted in Group ‘H' along with Spain, Switzerland and Chile, it will have to play exceedingly — and unexpectedly — well if it wants to progress beyond the preliminary stage. Not that it is impossible, especially with the presence of men like Carlos Pavon, Wilson Palacios, David Suazo, Amado Guevara and Julio Leon.
The injury to Birmingham City striker Carlos Costly is a costly blow, though; he is replaced by a player with an equally fancy name, Georgie Welcome.
Honduras will look up to Pavon for goals, probably for one last time, as he is 36. He was the leading scorer for the team at the Qualifiers, with seven strikes. He is also the all-time highest scorer for Honduras, with 57 goals from 95 games.
That many members of the team, including Pavon, have the experience of competent league play in Europe, and elsewhere, should help Honduras in South Africa. Pavon became a teammate of David Beckham at Los Angeles Galaxy after stints in Italy and Spain, while Palacios, Maynor Figueroa, whose incredible goal from a 60-yard free-kick for Wigan versus Stoke has been viewed over 500,000 times on Youtube, and Hendry Thomas are all playing in the Premier League.Coach:GHANA
In 2005, Ghana won FIFA's award for the most improved team of the year. In 2006, it reached the second round on its World Cup debut in Germany, where it was the youngest side. Last October, it won the Under-20 World Cup, beating Brazil in the final. Ghana is indeed making swift progress.
The Black Stars could be one of the dark horses of this World Cup, despite being drawn in the tough Group ‘D', along with Germany, Serbia and Australia. They were the first African team to qualify for the first ever World Cup being staged on the African continent; making it with two games to spare. It is an experienced side too, and the starting XI could comprise entirely players from European clubs.
Ghana's talent is most evident in its midfield, where the star is Michael Essien. Bought by Chelsea for a record £26 million, he has proved he is worth every penny. His partners are two superb players from the Italian league, Sulley Muntari of Inter Milan and Stephen Appiah of Bologna.
Yes, the Black Stars have one of the best midfields in South Africa.
Ghana also has a solid-looking defence, where the mainstays are the two Premier League stars — John Mensah (Sunderland) and John Paintsil (Fulham). They could be joined in the back-line by the promising Samuel Inkoom, one of the stars of Ghana's successful campaign in the Under-20 World Cup.
The biggest star in that tournament was Dominic Adiyiah, the AC Milan striker who could be added to the forward-line, the weak link for Ghana in South Africa. The team must be hoping for Asamoah Gyan, who scored the fastest goal in the last World Cup, and Matthew Amoah to find the target more often.Coach:ALGERIA
Algerians still recall their country's maiden World Cup appearance with pride and indignation. Pride because Algeria made a stunning debut in 1982 on football's greatest stage, with sensational wins over Germany and Chile. Indignation because Germany scored a very convenient 1-0 victory over Austria; a result that took the two teams to the knock-out round, at the expense of Algeria.
The Algerians' suspicions about that last league game were shared by the rest of the football world too. Algeria failed to repeat the heroics in 1986, and then it disappeared.
Now, 24 years later, the Desert Foxes are back in the World Cup. And what a dramatic re-entry it was! The team beat arch rivals Egypt 1-0 in a play-off held in the neutral land of Sudan (the two teams had met twice earlier and won once each).
While England, one of the frontrunners for the title, and the United States are the favourites to advance to the second round from Group ‘C', the North Africans are no pushovers in South Africa. They have a young side and boast of some talented men experienced in the European league.
Algeria's solid defence revolves around the reliable trio of Madjid Bougherra, Nadir Belhadj and Antar Yahia, who became a national hero when he scored that goal — the most precious for his country in over two decades — against Egypt in Sudan. The midfield looks even better, with the presence of players such as Karim Ziani — perhaps the most dangerous man in the side with his ability to create chances for others and himself — Yazid Mansouri, Mourad Meghni and Hassan Yebda. Veteran Rafik Saifi and Abdelkader Ghezzal could be the two men Algeria will be fielding up front.
One of the good things about this team is that it has players like Ziani and Belhadj who are adept at different positions. A bad thing is that it has a miserable record playing away from home, something it will want to set right in this World Cup played on its own continent.Coach:CHILE
Chile is sometimes called the land of poets. How appropriate then that this young Chilean team in South Africa is capable of creating poetry on a football ground. Chile is undoubtedly one of the most attractive sides in this World Cup. It tries to attack all the time and plays the game with that distinct Latin American flair, perhaps better than some of the more famous teams at present.
It is after a gap of 12 years that the Chileans are appearing on football's biggest stage. And they had qualified from the tough South American zone in great style too — finishing just a point behind Brazil. In the Qualifiers, they actually won more games than all other teams and scored 32 goals, but they also conceded 22 — yes, they have to defend better if they want to do more than just entertain in South Africa.
The Chileans certainly have the ammunition to advance from Group ‘H' that also features Spain, one of the frontrunners for the title, Switzerland and Honduras. In Alexis Sanchez, the 21-year-old who can wreak havoc on the right wing, Humberto Suazo, the top-scorer with 10 goals in the South American qualifiers, and Matias Fernandez, who won the South American Player of the Year award in 2006, they have one of the sharpest attacks in South Africa. They will be backed in the midfield by quality players like Jorge Valdivia and Carlos Carmona.
This is the eighth time that the Chileans are playing in a World Cup finals; they were there in the first one, in 1930 when just 13 teams competed in Uruguay. Their best effort was in 1962 when they finished third, at home.
In their last World Cup, in 1998, they had made the second round, after holding Italy 2-2, but were sent home by Brazil, 4-1.
They are expected to do better this time around, not just because they are ranked 15th in the world.Coach:DENMARK
When we think of Denmark, we think of World Cup, 1986. The Danish Dynamites dazzled in Mexico, as they made a stunning World Cup debut, winning all their three games in the preliminary round. They routed two-time champion Uruguay 6-1 and stunned Germany 2-0; in the second round they led by a goal before Spain spanked them 5-1.
That team played an entertaining, high quality attacking game, riding on the brilliance of men like Michael Laudrup and Praben Elkjaer. The only thing common between the Danish Dynamites and the present team is coach Morten Olsen, who had captained the 1986 dream team.
Olsen's Eleven may lack the flair of the Dynamites, but it still is an excellent team, as it proved in the Qualifiers.
Denmark came through from a difficult European zone, beating Portugal and Sweden.
The Danes have a tough draw in South Africa too, in Group E, where they have to face the Netherlands, Cameroon and Japan.
They would be hoping to sneak ahead of Cameroon and maintain their fine record in the World Cup — they advanced to the knock-out stage in each of their three previous appearances and in 1998 reached the quarterfinals.
The Danes conceded just five goals while qualifying, thanks largely to goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, who has been under the Danish bar for over a decade. And with a strong backline backing him, this wall may not be that easy to penetrate in South Africa.
Daniel Agger of Liverpool, Lars Jacobsen of Blackburn Rovers and Simon Kjaer of Palermo lend solidity to the defence, while the midfield too oozes class, with the likes of the temperamental Chrisitan Poulsen of Juventus, Daniel Jensen of Werder Bremen and Dennis Rommedahl of Ajax. The attack will be led by skipper Jon Dahl Tomasson and Nicklas Bendtner, the 22-year-old Arsenal striker who could be the team's dangerman. And there is Soren Larsen, the substitute who was the team's top-scorer, with five goals, in the Qualifiers.Coach:GREECE
The Greeks produced arguably the greatest upset in a major football tournament when they won the European Championship in 2004, after beginning their campaign as rank outsiders with odds of 100-1. They beat host Portugal (twice), France and the Czech Republic to script one of the most incredible tales in sport.
Cut to South Africa, 2010. Greece is ranked No. 12 in the world and is one of the more experienced squads in this World Cup; it has a few players from Euro 2004 and also has the same coach, but it will have to overcome some tough opponents in the preliminary round itself to make any progress. It cannot be easy in Group ‘B' against Argentina, Nigeria and South Korea.
Greece wasn't that impressive in the Qualifiers, as it made heavy weather of securing the ticket for South Africa from a European group that contained teams like Moldova, Latvia and Luxembourg. It qualified after a 1-0 victory in the play-off against Ukraine.
And it is only the second time in their history that the Greeks have reached the World Cup finals. The first time was in 1994 and it was a tournament they would rather want to forget — they lost all their games, conceded 10 goals and scored none. They can only get better in South Africa. And they are not going to concede that many goals, for their strength is defence, where Liverpool's towering Sotiros Kyrgiakos is the key man.
There is quality in the midfield too, in the form of Giorgos Karagounis, the captain who was one of the chief architects of the Euro triumph in 2004 and Kostas Katsouranis. Theofanis Gekas is the main striker and he was in fine form in the Qualifiers, top-scoring in the European zone with 10 goals. He is likely to be paired with Georgios Samaras, the 6 ft 4 in tall striker of Celtic.Coach:CAMEROON
Cameroon's Indomitable Lions have had some roaring victories at the World Cup. They have easily been the best African team in the planet's greatest football competition and the expectations are particularly high this time around about a very talented side led by that brilliant Inter Milan striker called Samuel Eto'o. It would be interesting to see if they can emulate the exploits of the 1990 team, which reached the quarterfinals, the first from their continent to do so. Cameroon had caused the biggest upset in World Cup history when it beat defending champion Argentina in the opening match in Italy and went on to top the group that had also Romania and the Soviet Union.
After playing in every World Cup since their debut in 1982, the Indomitable Lions missed out on the last one in Germany. But a change of coaches in the middle of the qualifying campaign brought in a change of fortunes for them, as they booked their place in South Africa with a 2-0 win against Morocco. Eto'o scored the second of those goals, his ninth in 11 qualifying games.
While Eto'o is very much their super hero, there is an excellent supporting cast too in this well-balanced squad, which pumped in 23 goals in 12 games and conceded just four in the qualifying rounds. Goalkeeper Carlos Kameni is among the best in the business and the strong defence features Geremi Njitap, Rigobert Song, Nicolos N'Koulou and Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
There is no shortage of talent in the midfield either, with men like Alexandre Song, Jean Makoun, Stephane Mbia and Landry N'Guemo around. Pierre Webo and Achille Emana will give company to Eto'o in the forward-line. Indeed, this team with its nice blend of experience and youth is among those to watch out for in this World Cup.Coach:JAPAN
The Japanese were the first to book the flight tickets for South Africa. They can well be among the first to book the return tickets as well. Not because they are weak but because they are drawn with the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon in Group ‘E'.
Japan, the champion in three of the last five AFC Asian Cups, qualified for its fourth successive World Cup, with two games to spare. Not even the introduction of Australia into the Asian zone troubled the team much, though it was beaten by the new entrant in the away game Down Under, after playing a goalless draw at home. Only once in its three World Cups has the Blue Samurai been able to make a mark. That was in 2002 when it co-hosted the tournament with South Korea. Victories against Russia and Tunisia took it to the second round, where it was beaten by Turkey, the surprise third-place winner.
In 1998 the Japanese lost all their three games and in 2006 lost two and drew one. Given such a backdrop, the football world was surprised when the Japanese coach Takeshi Okada announced his aim was a place in the semifinal (he didn't downgrade the target even after the World Cup draw was made).
That goal looks a bit too optimistic for this side, despite the presence of some quality players like the two fine left-footed midfielders, Shunsuke Nakamura and Keisuke Honda. Yasuhito Endo, the Asian Footballer of the Year, and Makoto Hasebe make the midfield stronger.
The promising Shinji Okazaki, who has scored 16 goals from 25 games for Japan, Keiji Tamada and Yoshito Okubo are the options up front. Skipper Yuji Nakazawa, a veteran of 102 internationals, and Marcus Tulio Tanaka are the men to beat in defence. It is unlikely that the three big guns in the group will take this Japanese team lightly.Coach:
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