Group A may be the most competitive of all the groups. France is the most talented team but struggled to qualify for the World Cup, only advancing because of a handball that wasn’t called against Ireland. Mexico isn’t as strong as in past years, but still is talented. South Africa will have a raucous home-field advantage.
Advance: France and Mexico
Argentina is the class of this group, lead by star Lionel Messi. The other three teams are similarly competitive but aren’t extremely talented. South Korea has the ability to make a deep run, as it did when hosting in 2002. Nigeria has the advantage of playing on its home continent. Greece should be happy to be in the World Cup, offering a morsel of distraction from the country’s domestic problems.
Advance: Argentina and Nigeria
England is the heavy favorite in this group, but its first game is against the United States, and the Americans could surprise the English. The United States also made last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup final in South Africa, beating then-No. 1 ranked Spain and giving Brazil all it could handle. Algeria is on its home continent, and Slovenia beat Russia to qualify, so both could be a surprise.
Advance: England and United States.
Germany, without leader Michael Ballack, holds a strong case for a deep run in the tournament. Australia switched to the Asian confederation for a more competitive qualifying campaign. Serbia is in the tournament for the first time as an independent nation. Ghana’s veteran-laden squad, mixed with youth who won the U-20 World Cup last year, could be a surprise.
Advance: Germany and Ghana
The Dutch are an offensive powerhouse. They rolled to an undefeated qualifying campaign and face a rather easy route past the group stages. Cameroon, one of the more hopeful African sides, has one of the world’s best players in Samuel Eto’o. Denmark won its European qualifying group, which included a strong Portugal team. Japan, a perennial Asian powerhouse, is expected to struggle in the group.
Advance: Netherlands and Cameroon
Reigning champion Italy didn’t lose a lot of players, but aged a lot, which is worrisome. In a confederation formerly dominated by Australia, New Zealand gets its first crack at the tourney in 28 years. Paraguay has been to four straight World Cups and past group stage twice. Slovakia will make its World Cup debut,and scored 22 goals in 10 matches in qualifying for the tournament.
Advance: Italy and Slovakia
Brazil, the World Cup’s most dominant team, is missing some of the biggest names in soccer. Ivory Coast might be playing without star Didier Drogba. Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo. North Korea is shrouded in secrecy. With three powerhouse teams, this group has been called the “Group of Death.”
Advance: Brazil and Portugal
Spain has arguably the most talented squad in the tournament and is a favorite to win the title. Chile finished second to Brazil in the always tough South American qualifying round. Honduras hopes for its first World Cup victory ever, after drawing two games in its 1982 appearance. The Swiss are young and inexperienced, after a deep run in 2006.
Advance: Spain and Chile
Semifinals: Netherlands vs. France and Argentina vs. Spain
Finals: Netherlands vs. Argentina
Argentina is one of the favorites, coached by all-time great Diego Maradona and has a ton of talent to make a deep run. Three strikers — including arguably the best player in the world, Messi — against the offensive powerhouse of the Dutch will lead to an exciting final, should the two teams meet. The Netherlands, despite being full of egos, is a team that has destroyed nearly everyone it’s encountered this year. They could let the battles within take them down early. Putting together a full run of complete soccer isn’t out of the realm of possibilities, and if that’s true they can win the whole thing.
—Compiled by Chris Vannini and Pat Evans