CAIRO: In group D, it is quite apparent that Portugal, alongside Mexico, will make it through to the second round. Both teams are superior to Iran and Angola in regard to their World Cup experience. Iran takes part for the third time after an eight year absence, while Angola is appearing in the competition for the first time.
The Mexican line of forwards led by Jared Borgetti, Ramon Morales and Jesus Arellano were capable of scoring 67 goals during the qualification, with Jared Borgetti topping the list of scorers in the North, Central American and Caribbean zone with 14 goals. The same applies to Portugal, which possesses a number of talented forwards, namely Pauleta, who topped Europe s list of top scorers with 11 goals, alongside Nuno Gomes, Held Postiga and Simao Sabrosa. Moreover, the Portuguese will be strongly determined to compensate their fans following their failure to win the European Championship on home turf, losing to Greece in the final.
It won t be an easy task for Italy to top group E, which included the Czech Republic, United States and Ghana. Since they finished runners-up in the European Championship in 2000, Italy has had dismal results. Four years ago they faced an abrupt exit at the hands of South Korea in the second round through a golden goal. Two years later, the team was eliminated during the first round in the European Championship due to goal differences. The experienced Marcello Lippi is coaching the team, allowing new blood in.
The Czech Republic, returning to the World Cup for the first time since 1990, will be looking forward to repeating the splendid performance of two years ago in the European Championship, where they finished third. The Czechs have a well-balanced team with experienced players at the peak of their careers, such as Jan Koller, Karel Poborsky and Pavel Nedved, in addition to top-class young players, namely Milan Baros and Tomas Rosicky.
The United States is expected to shine once again as they did four years ago, when they reached the quarterfinals and lost to Germany in a close match. The team is making their fifth appearance in the competition after leading their group in the qualifiers. For Ghana, an African nation with a great history in football, winning the African Nations Cup four times and twice triumphing as World Champions Under 17, the prospect of qualifying to the World Cup for the first time is a long-awaited dream that has finally come true. Despite a disappointing performance in the African Nations Cup earlier this year, the return of formidable key players Marc Essien and Sulley Ali Muntari can make all the difference for the Ghanaian team.
In group F is world champion Brazil, strongly expected to maintain their supremacy over the World Cup by winning the title for the sixth time. Rated as the first contender for the trophy, Brazil has all that it takes to achieve triumph. First, Carlos Alberto Parreira is a long experienced coach who guided the team to the trophy 12 years ago, alongside a star-studded team that has proven on many occasions throughout the last four years that they re capable of beating any team, anywhere. In 2004, they won the Copa America and became champions of their continent; a year later they were crowned as champions for the Fifa s Confederations Cup, beating host nation Germany in the semi-finals followed by a memorable victory against their arch-rivals Argentina in the final. Thus, first place will be granted to Brazil in this group.
As for the team that will accompany Brazil to the last 16, there will be tight competition between Croatia and Japan. Croatia, qualifying as top of their group and ending their campaign undefeated, will look forward to repeating their glory days of eight years ago in France when they finished third thanks to a gifted generation of players such Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker and Robert Jarni. Asian champions Japan, who have managed to qualify to the World Cup for the third consecutive time, will rely heavily on a solid talented midfield, constituted of Mitsuo Ogasawara, Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura and Shinji Ono. Australia, qualifying for their second ever World Cup, the first time also in Germany 32 years ago, will have to utilize the optimum experience of their stars playing in England namely Lucas Neill, Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka, Craig Moore and Harry Kewell.
In group G, France should come out on top. As a great football power, France still possesses many of Europe s current prolific stars, namely Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, and William Gallas, alongside veteran international stars such as Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira. The team is among the contenders for the title, unless the team suffers another surprising setback such as the one that happened four years ago, when the team faced a dismal first round exit. Two years later the team was ousted from the quarterfinals of the European Championships at the hands of Greece. For second place, South Korea and Switzerland will compete fiercely. South Korea, which finished fourth on its home turf four years ago, had many upsets through 2006, as they were ousted in the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup in 2004. Moreover, they lost twice and drew three times in 12 matches in the qualifiers, which resulted in the replacement of two head coaches. First, Portuguese Humberto Coelho was sacked and replaced by Dutch Jo Bonfrere, who was also replaced by the current Dutch coach Dick Advocaat. Switzerland, a team that had to qualify through the goal difference in a close play-off tie against Turkey, will consider a qualification to the next round as a notable achievement since the team hasn t featured in a World Cup since 1994, when they were ousted by Spain in the second round. Togo, which caused the biggest surprise in the African qualifiers, made it through for the first time without any proven achievements in African history. Notably, they qualified at the expense of Senegal former quarter-finalists. However, their bleak performance at the African Nations Cup earlier this year drew much concern about the team s real abilities.
Group H, which features Spain, Ukraine Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, is rather a hard group when it comes to foreseeing its outcome. Spain, a nation with a great history in terms of club football, has failed to win any international titles except in1964 when they were crowned European champions. Under the command of Luis Aragones, the team hasn t been defeated in any of the international games, winning six games and drawing the same number, guiding them to second place and later had to qualify through a play-off against Slovakia.
Ukraine were the black horse of the qualifiers, following impressive performances and emphatic results which saw them top a group that contains European champions Greece, Turkey, Denmark, Albania, Georgia and Kazakhstan. The actual strength lies in the line of forwards playing in Europe s top soccer leagues, namely Andriy Shevchenko, who recently joined Chelsea coming from A.C Milan, Andrey Voronin who plays his football for Bayern Leverkusan as well as Andriy Vorobey. Last but not least, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, with their accumulated experience at the World Cup during the last decade, should have the potential of making it out of the first round.
The World Cup has always been a competition that unveils the rising stars, where talented youngsters show their spectacular playing level to the whole world. We can easily recall the emergence of Pele in 1958, Maradona in 1982, Belgium s Enzo Scifo in 1986 and Michael Owen in 1998. In that regard, and for the first time Fifa will be giving an award to the best young player under the age of 21 through the Fifa s technical study group. Fans all over the world will be allowed to vote via the Internet. Among the potential candidates are Argentina s Lionel Messi, Portugal s Cristiano Ronaldo, Ecuador s Luis Valencia and Germany s Lukas Podolski.