World Cup draw, group by group
Last time England was this hyped, it was upset by the U.S. Is another stunner up?
France given payback for not getting a seed, but Mexico or Uruguay could surprise
Group of Death is nasty; Group D a slug-fest; Group H a Spanish-speaker's dream
OK, so now we know who's playing who at the 2010 World Cup and we can look forward to seven months of predictions and handicapping (FULL DRAW). Just remember, all this will be meaningless once the first ball is kicked. Until then, here's a group-by-group breakdown after Friday's draw in Cape Town.
Group A: The screw job
Anybody who thought FIFA was somehow surreptitiously punishing France by not making it a top seed following Thierry Henry's "Hand of Gaul" shenanigans may conclude that Lady Luck speaks French. In most World Cups, the top seeds consist of seven heavyweights plus the host nation (unless the host nation is a heavyweight itself, as was the case four years ago). Ergo, if you're not seeded, you desperately want the host nation. Which is exactly what France got. And on paper at least, South Africa looks like the weakest host nation since the U.S. in 1994. In fact, with Uruguay capable of pulling a few surprises (A-list strike force in Luis Suárez and Diego Forlán, though not much else) and Mexico capable of kicking it up a notch, South Africa could become only the second host nation not to advance to the knockout phase.
Group B: Diego in wonderland
It's somehow appropriate that Diego Maradona, the most unpredictable and controversial manager in the draw, should see his Argentina side cast in a group which includes Nigeria, South Korea and Greece, three teams where you just don't know what you're going to get. The Super Eagles, a.k.a. Nigeria, are long on individual talent and short on cohesion and organization. On its day, Nigeria can beat anybody, but it can also suffer humiliating setbacks. South Korea's scalps in past tournaments include Spain and Italy, which about says it all. As for Greece, its rigid defensive, guts-and-glory style produced the Cinderella story of modern soccer, when it won the 2004 European Championship.
Group C: Shades of 1950?
The last time England was this hyped going into a World Cup was 1950, its first appearance in the world's biggest tournament. (Up until then, it had snubbed the competition, thinking it was "too easy.") It ended in tears, as England suffered a humiliating defeat to the U.S., thanks to Joe Gaetjens' goal. Sixty years later, the stage is set for what potentially could be another upset for the ages. Tiny Slovenia knows a thing or two about knocking off the big boys (it upset Russia to get this far), while Algeria has plenty of individual flair.
Group D: Muscle Beach
Germany has partially shed its stereotypical past of muscles, athleticism and discipline, but its squad remains physically the biggest side in the world. And in a clash of giants, fate put it in with three other physically gifted teams. Soccer may not be Australia's best sport, but the Socceroos show no fear when they step on the pitch. Serbia, overlooked by many, is a legitimate dark horse which, again, can match up physically with anyone. And, of course, Ghana's midfield of Steven Appiah, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien can beat you both RoboCop-style or by taking the Energizer Bunny route. Probably the second toughest group of them all.
Group E: Cultural clash
No group features as much variety as this one. Bert van Marwijk's Netherlands, despite winning every game in qualifying, can be maddeningly inconsistent, though its pretty, pass-oriented approach is always entertaining. Japan has plenty of speed but, Shunsuke Nakamura aside, is somewhat short in the creativity department. This Denmark side is a far cry from the gifted, high-energy outfits of years past, but nevertheless finds a way to grind out results with surprising efficiency. As for Cameroon, the sense is it will go as far as Samuel Eto'o can take it -- the Indomitable Lions aren't quite tamed yet.
Group F: Cream puffs aren't good for you
You would think Marcello Lippi, coach of the defending world champions, would be pleased with Italy's draw -- on paper, the threat posed by Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia looks rather flimsy. Yet he's already complaining that Italy performs best against big nations, when its back is against the wall. Some people are never happy. In fact, New Zealand, with just one guy, skipper Ryan Nelsen, playing in a top European league, looks like a doormat, while Slovakia's presence here is pure Disney fairytale. Paraguay did lead the South American qualifying group for a long time before falling away, but realistically, this looks like the weakest group of all.
Group G: The obligatory Group of Death
On the other hand, things couldn't possibly get much tougher than Group G. OK, North Korea is something of an unknown quantity, though it did very well in Asian qualifying and acquitted itself even better the last time it was at a World Cup, back in 1966. But Brazil needs no introduction: It's one of the top two sides in the world, hands down. And while Dunga's boys may be less about the jogo bonito than in years past, the Seleção remains the team to beat. Equally, Portugal, despite stuttering in qualifying, has plenty of quality and experience defensively. Plus it's got the small matter of Cristiano Ronaldo at the other end of the pitch. This was, along with France, the team from Pot 4 all the top seeds wanted to avoid. And to make matters even more fun, the fourth country in this group was the one everyone wanted to avoid from Pot 2: Ivory Coast. The Ivorians are stacked top to bottom, with the Touré brothers, Didier Zokora and, of course, Didier Drogba wreaking havoc up front.
Group H: Hablas español?
Three Spanish-speaking teams plus Switzerland, a country of polyglots. Spain, the game's biggest historic underachiever, is laughing all the way to the World Cup boasting stellar quality in every area of the pitch. Honduras has some quality individuals (Wilson Palacios, Maynor Figueroa), but realistically, looks overmatched. Chile was the little engine that could in qualifying, but this is the Big Show. Switzerland has a way of disappointing in big events and, frankly, there is no reason to believe this time will be any different.