Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
With African footprints abound, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon further symbolize the continents rise to the upper echelons of world football. Considered a favorite along with perennial underachievers, the Netherlands, this group illustrates a variety of contrasting football landscapes. In one instance, the Samurai Blue from Japan, who were the first team to punch their ticket to South Africa, bring an impressive array of talent and accolades with them. Considered one of the most successful national teams in Asia, the Japanese will look to ride their streak of four successive World Cups with a new generation of players who mainly ply their trade in the homegrown J-League.
Along with the African and Asian representatives, the fusion of European sides Netherlands and Denmark round out the group. As mentioned above, the Dutch are known as underachievers. Considered a threat at the outset of major tournaments, the Oranje fail to live up to expectations, and this tournament may be no different. An injured Robin van Persie and an out of form Klaas-Jan Huntelaar represent the sides attacking options, but look for coach Bert van Marwijk to utilize other options to see Holland top the group. The Danes, back in the world spotlight after being absent at Euro 2008 and the 2006 World Cup, boast a myriad of world-class talent led by former AC Milan striker Jon Dahl Tomasson. The Danish Dynamite, under the tutelage of Morten Olsen, will look to explode out the gate and leave a mark after years away from the international scene. With an effective mix of youth and veteran presence, the Danes will push but ultimately fail to stun in South Africa.
Final Standings: Netherlands, Cameroon, Japan, Denmark
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
2006 winners Italy are the favorite for top spot in the group. After a poor showing at Euro 2008, under the tutelage of Roberto Donadoni, the Azzurri have reappointed Marcello Lippi, the man who led them to glory four years prior. With the core group of players remaining seemingly unchanged, with the likes of Fabio Cannavaro and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, La Nazionale will have to deal with the pressure of entering the showcase defending champions as well as a side who have seen recent struggles if they want to repeat and retain their crown.
Second spot in the group may belong to feisty South American side Paraguay. After a stellar qualifying campaign, which solidified the Albirrojas fourth consecutive finals appearance, the side will look to cement a round of 16 place after missing out in 2006, finishing third behind England and Sweden. Star players such as Manchester Citys Roque Santa Cruz and Real Valladolid goalkeeper Justo Villar will lead the side.
After a dominating qualifying run in the Oceania bracket, the All Whites from New Zealand make their first finals appearance in the World Cup since 1982. Regarded as the minnows of the tournament, many players in the side play their club football in the Australasian A-League. The side, however does include some players with top-tier footballing experience. The most prominent is mainstay and captain centre-back Ryan Nelsen, who plays for Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League. Looking to crack the squad is 18-year-old striker Chris Wood, who also has Premier League experience playing for West Bromwich Albion. Direct and physical, Ricki Herberts side remain unscathed by their moniker as minnows.
The final side in the group is Slovakia. Nicknamed Repre, the side finished qualifying as surprising winners in a group, which included Slovenia, Czech Republic and Northern Ireland. Competing in their first finals as an independent nation after participating in eight previous championships as a member of the former Czechoslovakia, the side will look to build on the momentous occasion with an impressive showing. With most of this side play their club football on foreign ground, their greatest influence of players will come from the German Bundesliga. Look for the side to finish in third spot.
Final Standings: Italy, Paraguay, Slovakia, New Zealand
Group G: Brazil, Korea DPR, Ivory Coast, Portugal
With only two spots guaranteed, this group may be the most difficult for bookkeepers and football fans to call. While Brazil are favoured to take top spot in this projected Group of Death, second spot in the group is the most intriguing. Firstly, however, to provide a fair assessment, one must look at each side individually, beginning with the five-time champions from South America.
A penchant for panache, the Selecao are once again showing the world their unique and incredibly talented brand of football. From Robinho to Kaka, the star-laden side head to South Africa as a favorite to win the entire tournament. Coach and former captain Dunga has reinvigorated the side, who go into the showcase as both Copa America and Confederations Cup title holders. The second side in the group is North Korea. An underdog from the outset, just punching their ticket to South Africa remains a great accomplishment. Known for pulling off one of the World Cups biggest upsets in history after beating Italy 1-0 and advancing to the quarterfinals in 1966, the North Koreans will look to once again rock the football landscape.
The third group is another African representative. The Elephants from Ivory Coast will be making their second successive World Cup appearance after debuting in 2006. As debutants, the side caused headaches for Argentina and Holland, and have since grown to become one of the continents most revered and talented sides. A glance at the squad list can attest to the talent throughout the squad, with many players already stars within their respective domestic sides. From Chelsea duo Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou to Manchester City defender Kolo Toure, look for the Elephants to push Portugal for second spot in the group.
The final group is Portugal. With many of their players being Brazilian-born, such as stalwarts Deco and Pepe, this plot adds to an already mouth-watering group. While the side had to punch their ticket via a play-off win over Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is no denying that the talent at coach Carlos Queirozs disposal is not just vast, but skilled as well. From Cristiano Ronaldo to Ricardo Carvalho, the side will look for their mix of youth and veterans to hold off a challenge from the Ivory Coast and advance to the round of 16. But while they are favoured by many to trump the Elephants and join Brazil in the second round, it is difficult to see them maintain a consistent level within the group stage.
Final Standings: Brazil, Ivory Coast, Portugal, Korea DPR
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
Euro 2008 winners Spain head into the tournament as another favorite to win it all. Under new boss Vicente Del Bosque, who took over for Luis Aragones, La Furia Roja is another side laden with stars at every position. From the dangerous striking duo of Fernando Torres and David Villa to midfield maestros Xavi and Andreas Iniesta, it is no wonder that the side comfortably cruised through qualification, maintaining a flawless record throughout. While they look to easily progress, they must remain humble and not take any opponent lightly.
Rounding out the European contingent in the competition is Switzerland. Keeping a low-profile, the Swiss are entering the group as long shots to progress, even if they managed a round of 16 finish in 2006. An abundance of youth may be the Helvetians ticket in exiling the ghosts of a forgettable appearance at Euro 2008, where the nation seemingly turned on the side. With support restored and a nation hungry to make amends, the Swiss will look to upend the chances of two South American sides looking for their time to shine.
After a twelve-year absence, Chile is back in the World Cup. Their first appearance since 1998, La Roja will want to show the world what they have been missing. Coach Marcelo Bielsa has turned the tide and has once again made the Chileans a football force in a continent dominated by Argentina and Brazil. The Chileans will look for Humberto Chupete Suazo to emphatically introduce his finishing skills to the world and continue his impressive run of form.
The final side in a group with plenty of Latin feel to it already is Honduras. Making their second-ever World Cup appearance, the Catracho have become a symbol of prosperity in a country rife with political problems. Considered a saviour by the nations citizens, coach Reinaldo Rueda has done exceptionally well to steer the Hondurans into South Africa. With stars like Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Wilson Palacios and former Toronto FC midfielder and captain Amado Guevara, this South American side will look to do better than their showing in Spain 1982, where they went winless.
With two continents represented by two different nations, the world will be treated to a diverse mix of footballing styles, tactics and skill sets. But in the end, look for the Swiss and Spain to progress.
Final Standings: Spain, Switzerland, Chile, Honduras
The groups are now set. The debates have begun. All that is left is to wait. On June 11, South Africa welcomes the world. The 19th edition of the World Cup will surely not disappoint. More than just a spectacle of sport, football has become an outlet for peace and equality in the world, and no matter whom you support, and even if you dont follow football at all, the showcase will have something for everyone.