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2010: An African odyssey

Taking an early look at the contenders for next Cup

Posted: Tuesday July 11, 2006 11:43AM; Updated: Tuesday July 11, 2006 12:51PM
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I don't like predictions. With the best of intentions, it's extremely difficult and there is always some moron who goes back to point out what an idiot you are when you get it wrong. (A minority of Celtic fans continue to circulate a column I wrote for this website some six years ago in which my predictions went spectacularly awry.)

You can imagine, then, my delight when my editor asked me to draw up some imaginary Power Rankings for the next World Cup, in South Africa in 2010. I have no idea what I'm having for dinner tonight, so you can guess how easy it is to predict what the Nigerian back four will look like in four freaking years!

That said, here is my early, early attempt at sorting out the contenders.

2010 World Cup Power Rankings
Rank Country
OK, it's a no-brainer. Brazil is always good. The really good news is that Roberto Carlos and Cafu will be so old in four years that they won't be on the team. Juan and Lúcio will be in their early 30s, which means the green-and-gold will have a solid base. Ronaldinho, Kaká and Adriano will all be hitting their peak, Robinho will have a place in the side and there won't be a Ronaldo controversy because he won't be around. Instead, we may be raving about Kerlon and Rafael Sóbis.
Picking these guys makes me feel like one of those lab rats that always go for the cheese and get shocked. But how do you overlook the fact that the entire team could be back? By then, Fernando Torres may have harnessed his immense talent, Cesc Fŕbregas might have continued his steady progress and Carles Puyol will be ready to do his Fabio Cannavaro impression. Yes, this team could be downright scary in South Africa.
Leo Messi, Carlos Tévez, Sergio Agüero, Pablo Aimar, maybe even Juan Román Riquelme -- are you kidding me? Plus, Javier Mascherano will have another four years' experience under his belt, which means he'll have definitively supplanted France's Claude Makélélé as the king of the unsung heroes. The loss of Roberto Ayala (and possibly Juan Pablo Sorín) at the back should be manageable if Gonzalo Rodríguez returns to full strength and Gabriel Heinze sticks around. The only question mark is whether Argentina can find a big center forward to replace Hernán Crespo.
Gary Neville and David Beckham are likely to be the only significant losses (and their significance is debatable). It will be an aging team, but one that has been together for a long time. This will likely be their last roll of the dice, and with a fit, happy and somewhat more mature Wayne Rooney, England will be a contender. Heck, by then, hopefully, some of us will even have seen Theo Walcott play.
The world champions will look mighty different. Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Marco Materazzi, Luca Toni, Francesco Totti and Mauro Camoranesi won't be around. Possibly, neither will Gianluca Zambrotta or Rino Gattuso. Yet Gigi Buffon will continue between the sticks, which means Italy will always have an outside shot. The big question is whether it can somehow find a way to rehabilitate the outrageously gifted (and frustratingly erratic) Antonio Cassano.
Praising Jürgen Klinsmann's "young team" became a bit of a cliché in Germany, particularly since the likes of Jens Lehmann, Michael Ballack and Bernd Schneider are anything but young and won't be back. Then again, Lukas Podolski will have matured and, perhaps, Piotr Trochowski will have gone to the next level. The back four should all return, and Timo Hildebrand should be ready to take over in goal.
I know it's risky to make predictions about a team that didn't even qualify for '06, but the Super Eagles remain a pipeline for talent. If Obafemi Martins continues to develop and John Obi Mikel lives up to the hype, Nigeria will contend. Provided, of course, it doesn't self-destruct in qualifying, as it did this time around.
If Marco van Basten (assuming he's still around) can find a way to be a little less dogmatic, the Oranje will look pretty good. Finding replacements for Phillip Cocu and Mark van Bommel is less problematic than it sounds, and by then Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie will be in their prime. Let's just hope the coach remembers to bring Klaas-Jan Huntelaar along and the likes of Urby Emanuelson and Ibrahim Afellay find a spot in the side.
First, the good news. Raymond Domenech will be gone, as will Fabien Barthez. Now, the bad news: So will Lilian Thuram, Claude Makélélé, Patrick Vieira, Willy Sagnol and, of course, Zinedine Zidane. It will, however, be Thierry Henry's swan song and, given France's record at the Under-21 level, you can be sure the squad will be bolstered somewhat at the back and in midfield (look out for Jeremy Toulalan and Yoann Gourcuff).
United States
A tricky one to call. Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope, Kasey Keller and (probably) Pablo Mastroeni will need to be replaced. There are kids in the pipeline who can do it, but, just as important, the younger players on this team (Oguchi Onyewu, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley above all) need to grow into the leadership roles vacated by those who won't be around. Eddie Johnson should be able to pick up some of the slack up front. Oh, and by then perhaps the world will have a better sense of just why everyone got so excited over Freddy Adu a few years ago.