Picking Germany to survive the group stage of a World Cup has been among the surest bets in sports—like taking a No. 1 seed over a No. 16 in the NCAA tournament. The Mannschaft last failed to reach the knockout round in 1938, advancing in each of the following 14 tournaments in which it competed. Always possessing the right mix of veteran savvy and youthful verve (to go along with stellar goalkeeping), Germany is a perennial contender to win it all.
Then came last November, when No. 1 keeper Robert Enke committed suicide. In May his successor, René Adler, was ruled out of South Africa with a rib injury, and Simon Rolfes, a highly regarded defensive midfielder, was also dropped because of a knee injury. Finally, Portsmouth's Kevin-Prince Boateng, a former German youth international who changed allegiance to play for Ghana, took out German captain and midfield anchor Michael Ballack with a tackle in the FA Cup final. After torn ankle ligaments scuttled Ballack's World Cup, former national team manager Rudi Völler stated the obvious: "[Ballack] can't be replaced."
Now Germany, the model of stability, is fielding a raft of inexperienced replacements in what is, if not the Group of Death, the Group of Depth. Will its run come to an end?
Not likely. Coach Joachim Löw has some of the tournament's brightest talents: Stuttgart's Sami Khedira, 23, and Werder Bremen youngsters Mesut Özil and Marko Marin (both 21) will battle for the title of the World Cup's best young player. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, 24, might be the third choice, but he had a fine season for Schalke 04 and was favored by some (including legendary Germany keeper Oliver Kahn) over Adler. A repeat of the third-place finish from 2006 might be too much to ask given this team's youth and its thin back line, but the Mannschaft still has plenty to advance.
Ghana, a popular dark horse pick, will also arrive in South Africa minus a vital player: Michael Essien, the centerpiece of a midfield that included Inter Milan's Sulley Muntari and captain Stephen Appiah, is out with a knee injury. Like Ballack, Essien stars for Chelsea, and like Ballack, he can't be replaced. At times the Black Stars' midfield played as well as any in the world. With Essien sidelined, they will rely more on a few of the young players who helped Ghana win the 2009 U-20 World Cup. Some, like dynamic AC Milan striker Dominic Adiyiah, 20, have bright futures, but youth can be exposed at the World Cup.
In contrast Serbia, which easily won its qualifying group over France, is healthy, experienced and deep enough to make a serious run to the top of the group. Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic and 21-year-old Neven Subotic from Borussia Dortmund are stellar center backs. Inter Milan's Dejan Stankovic anchors the midfield, and towering 6'7" Valencia striker Nikola Zigic, 19, could have a breakout tournament. One big concern: Vladimir Stojkovic, the likely starter in goal, has had trouble finding a first-team job at the club level.