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32 Nations, One World Champion

Global attention will be focused on South Africa. Here's what to watch for.

Lionel Messi hopes to lead Argentina to its first World Cup triumph since 1986. (Manu Fernandez/AP)
Lionel Messi hopes to lead Argentina to its first World Cup triumph since 1986. (Manu Fernandez/AP)Read more

Group A

South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France

No host nation has left the World Cup after the first round. South Africa doesn't want to set a precedent, but it's the weakest team in this group.

The team known as Bafana Bafana surely will get a rise from the local fans and the incessant sound from the blaring vuvuzelas, and it has quality players in midfielder Steven Pienaar and midfielder/defender Aaron Mokoena. It also has the toughest opening matchup possible in this group, against Mexico.

The Mexicans struggled early in CONCACAF qualifying, then came on when coach Javier Aguirre incorporated younger players. The best of those are forwards Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernandez, and Carlos Vela.

For Mexico to go far, it needs more reliability on defense in front of keeper Guillermo Ochoa.

Uruguay was the last team to qualify, and did so with offense. Forward Diego Forlan is an elite player, and running mate Luis Suarez isn't far behind. Traditionally, this is among the most rugged teams in any tournament.

France lost the 2006 final to Italy on penalty kicks. It would be a shocker for the aging French to get anywhere near the title game this time, despite having stars in revitalized midfielder Franck Ribery and forward Nicolas Anelka. If it comes down to hand balls, though, the French might be unbeatable. They got one from Thierry Henry in a critical qualifying win over Ireland.


South Africa vs. Mexico, 10 a.m., Friday, ESPN
Uruguay vs. France, 2:30 p.m., Friday, ESPN
South Africa vs. Uruguay, 2:30 p.m., June 16, ESPN
Mexico vs. France, 2:30 p.m., June 17, ESPN2
Mexico vs. Uruguay, 10 a.m., June 22, ESPN
France vs. South Africa, 10 a.m., June 22, ESPN2

Group B

Greece, South Korea, Nigeria, Argentina

The spotlight will glare on the world's best player, Argentina's Lionel Messi, and the nation's greatest soccer legend, Diego Maradona, now the coach. Maradona has yet to match his on-field brilliance with brainy sideline decisions.

The talent is there for the Argentines to go deep into the tournament they've won twice. Messi will have loads of help on attack from Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Diego Milito, and Carlos Tevez. In midfield, Javier Mascherano can be masterful.

Questions abound concerning the defense, though, after it struggled in qualifying. Still, there isn't a lot of danger on offense among the other three group members.

Nigeria normally would be the best bet to challenge the Albiceleste, but this is not the wild bunch that traditionally chucked aside defense while winning. Coach Lars Lagerback is conservative (to be kind), and captain Joseph Yobo is his mainstay on the back line.

South Korea has become a regular on the World Cup scene, but matching its run at home to the semifinals eight years ago could be the impossible dream. The Koreans will be fast and diligent, led by midfielders Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong, both English Premier League players.

Greece plays for 1-0 wins or draws and has little imagination. Still, the Ethniki won the 2004 European championship that way.


South Korea vs. Greece, 7:30 a.m., Saturday, ESPN
Argentina vs. Nigeria, 10 a.m., Saturday, ESPN
Argentina vs. South Korea, 7:30 a.m., June 17, ESPN
Nigeria vs. Greece, 10 a.m., June 17, ESPN
Nigeria vs. South Korea, 2:30 p.m., June 22, ESPN2
Greece vs. Argentina, 2:30 p.m., June 22, ESPN

Group C

England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia

A marquee matchup on the tournament's second day has the English against the Americans for only the second time in a World Cup. Guess who won the first match, in 1950? Yep, the Yanks.

While England has injury concerns and issues on defense and in goal, its players also are far more tested at the highest level. In striker Wayne Rooney, the English have a difference maker. If Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard perform for the national squad the way they do in the Premiership, England will prosper.

Second place should belong to the Americans, who must plug gaps on defense and are relying on several players - Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit - who might not be fully fit.

Rarely has the United States had the scoring prowess it brings to South Africa. Midfielders Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are peaking, and DaMarcus Beasley has made a terrific comeback from poor play and could become a starter again.

Slovenia is the smallest nation in the tournament, and pins big hopes on keeper Samir Handanovic and midfielder Robert Koren.

Algeria, the only Arab country to qualify, tends to get flustered when things go badly. To make things go well, Rafik Djebbour and Abdelkader Ghezzal must find their scoring touch.


England vs. United States, 2:30 p.m., Saturday, ABC Algeria vs. Slovenia, 7:30 a.m., Sunday, ESPN
United States vs. Slovenia, 10 a.m., June 18, ESPN
England vs. Algeria, 2:30 p.m., June 18, ESPN2
Slovenia vs. England, 10 a.m., June 23, ESPN2
United States vs. Algeria, 10 a.m., June 23, ESPN

Group D

Ghana, Serbia, Australia, Germany

This is as tough a group as you can get, and Ghana is operating without key midfielder Michael Essien, while Germany has a similar problem with midfield leader Michael Ballack sidelined.

Underestimating the Germans always is a mistake, as they proved two years ago at the European Championship by making the final. There certainly are holes, especially at keeper: Robert Enke committed suicide last November.

But there also are strengths, particularly on attack with the masterful Philipp Lahm, the powerful Lukas Podolski, and the opportunistic Miroslav Klose.

All three opponents could test the Germans, particularly the Serbs with their sometimes-impenetrable defense. Nemanja Vidic of Manchester United might be the best central defender in the world, and keeper Vladimir Stojkovic is top-notch. Now, can Serbia score enough to advance?

Minus Essien, who is injured, Ghana isn't as formidable but still appears better than it was in 2006, when it made the second round. A heavy load will be placed on forward Asamoah Gyan and midfielder Stephen Appiah of Bologna.

Australian keeper Mark Schwarzer excelled all season with Fulham. The Socceroos are experienced and don't get rattled.


Serbia vs. Ghana, 10 a.m. Sunday, ESPN
Germany vs. Australia, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, ABC Germany vs. Serbia, 7:30 a.m., June 18, ESPN
Australia vs. Ghana, 10 a.m., June 19, ESPN
Ghana vs. Germany, 2:30 p.m., June 23, ESPN
Australia vs. Serbia, 2:30 p.m., June 23, ESPN2

Group E

Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon

The Dutch should breeze here, but that's been said before, and they've gone on to struggle.

Few teams can match the Netherlands for creativity, and there's plenty of depth and star power. Arjen Robben (if he can stay free of injury), Robin van Persie (ditto), Dirk Kuyt, and Wesley Sneijder all are threats to lead the tournament in scoring.

But longtime goalkeeper Edwin van der Saar is gone, with Maarten Stekelenburg stepping in, a tough task for the Ajax keeper.

Denmark comes off a superb qualifying run and has some scoring power with Nicklas Bendtner, Jon Dahl Tomasson, and Dennis Rommedahl. Like the Dutch, the Danes have some worries in front of the net because keeper Thomas Sorensen has not played in a game since April 24, when he dislocated his right elbow.

For the Danes to elbow their way into the second round, a victory over Cameroon likely is the key. The not-so-Indomitable Lions haven't roared all that loudly on the international stage since their stunning World Cup performances in the 1990s and two African championships (2000 and 2002). They do have a world-class star in striker Samuel Eto'o.

Japan hasn't won a World Cup game outside its borders and probably won't get one this time.


Netherlands vs. Denmark, 7:30 a.m., Monday, ESPN
Japan vs. Cameroon, 10 a.m., Monday, ESPN
Netherlands vs. Japan, 7:30 a.m., June 19, ESPN
Denmark vs. Cameroon, 2:30 p.m., June 19, ABC Denmark vs. Japan, 2:30 p.m., June 24, ESPN
Cameroon vs. Netherlands, 2:30 p.m., June 24, ESPN2

Group F

Slovakia, New Zealand, Paraguay, Italy

Defending champion Italy has lots of familiar faces from the 2006 success, led by keeper Gianluigi Buffon and defender Fabio Cannavaro. Coach Marcello Lippi left the national team after the Azzurri won their fourth world title, but then returned and has displayed loyalty to many players. That could cost the Italians in the end, because just a modicum of youth has been injected into the squad. Still, the Italians are solid on the back line and have creativity in Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, and Alberto Gilardino.

Paraguay comes in hopeful that such key players as forwards Roque Santa Cruz, Lucas Barrios, and Oscar Cardozo are fit. This team needs offense to succeed, although keeper Justo Villar has extra incentive after getting hurt early in Paraguay's 2006 Cup opener and missing the rest of the event.

Slovakia has a father-son duo in coach Vladimir Weiss and midfielder Vladimir Weiss. It doesn't have a lot of scorers.

New Zealand might be the weakest team in the field, though it has two English leagues regulars in defender and captain Ryan Nelsen of Blackburn and striker Chris Killen of Middlesbrough.


Italy vs. Paraguay, 2:30 p.m., Monday, ESPN
New Zealand vs. Slovakia, 7:30 a.m., Tuesday, ESPN
Paraguay vs. Slovakia, 7:30 a.m., June 20, ESPN
Italy vs. New Zealand, 10 a.m., June 20, ESPN
Slovakia vs. Italy, 10 a.m., June 24, ESPN
Paraguay vs. New Zealand, 10 a.m., June 24, ESPN2

Group G

Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal

This is perhaps the most exciting group because of the scoring potential of Brazil, Ivory Coast, and Portugal, and the mystery of North Korea. Collectively they are this tournament's "Group of Death," and that handle is well-earned.

Although five-time world champion Brazil is not expected to bring the samba style of its classic teams to South Africa, Coach Dunga's squad is loaded with players who can score, including Kaka, Luis Fabiano, Robinho, and Nilmar. Still, their key players might be keeper Julio Cesar and defenders Maicon and Lucio.

The Ivorians' star scorer, Didier Drogba, has a broken arm. If they have Drogba and brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure, the Elephants probably are the top African team in the tournament. But the defense is suspect.

Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo, the 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year.

What do the North Koreans have? Who knows?


Ivory Coast vs. Portugal, 10 a.m., Tuesday, ESPN
Brazil vs. North Korea, 2:30 p.m., Tuesday, ESPN
Brazil vs. Ivory Coast, 2:30 p.m., June 20, ABC North Korea vs. Portugal, 7:30 a.m., June 20, ESPN
Portugal vs. Brazil, 10 a.m., June 25, ESPN
North Korea vs. Ivory Coast, 10 a.m., June 25, ESPN2

Group H

Chile, Honduras, Switzerland, Spain

European champion Spain rarely does well at the World Cup, but this is its best team ever, including stars Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Fernando Torres, and Iker Casillas. Despite recent injuries, it should glide through this bunch, although there are easier groups.

Chile and Honduras can score, but both also can struggle defensively. The Chileans had 32 goals in becoming the surprise team of South American qualifying. Honduras sneaked in during the final minutes of CONCACAF qualifying.

The Swiss showed little while cohosting Euros two years ago, but unlike Austria, at least they made the World Cup field.

Watch for a couple of Suazos who find the net with regularity: Chile's Huberto and Honduras' David. And don't take your eyes off the Spaniards, who play the Brazilian jogo bonito better than Brazil does these days.


Honduras vs. Chile, 7:30 a.m., June 16, ESPN
Spain vs. Switzerland, 10 a.m., June 16, ESPN
Switzerland vs. Chile, 10 a.m., June 21, ESPN
Spain vs. Honduras, 2:30 p.m., June 21, ESPN
Chile vs. Spain, 2:30 p.m., June 25, ESPN
Switzerland vs. Honduras, 2:30 p.m., June 25, ESPN2