Editor's note: After four years and hundreds of games, 32 soccer teams have begun to battle for the championship of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. With one match already in the books (South Africa tied Mexico, 1-1), we want to offer this excerpt from our World Cup coverage. For much, much more, see the feature in the Chris Noth Cigar Aficionado, on newsstands now.
South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
This is one of the most equally matched groups, and any of the four teams could advance to the Round of 16. France, winners of the '98 World Cup, will ride winger Franck Ribéry as Les Bleus go through. New manger Javier Aguirre helped Mexico find their form in the late stages of qualifying so expect them to move on as well.
Argentina, Nigeria, Korea Republic, Greece
Legend Diego Maradona helms Argentina and although few believe he can be an effective coach, the South American side possesses too much talent to fall in the first round. Second place is up for grabs, but the Super Eagles of Nigeria will slip past Greece's defensive wall and '02 semifinalist, Korea Republic.
England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia
The world expects England and the U.S. to advance with ease. Both will, but the task is more difficult than those unfamiliar with Algeria and Slovenia (read: virtually everyone) anticipate. The latter two squads don't boast the household names of the Americans or the Three Lions, but they battled through tremendously difficult circumstances to qualify and have earned their spot in the final 32.
Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Only the strong will survive the so-called "Muscle Group." The foursome features some of the tournament's most physically imposing teams. The brutally efficient Germans should finish first, while the winner of the June 13 Serbia—Ghana match will place second. Take Serbia, but don't bet the house.
Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Can the Dutch finally break through and win on the world's biggest stage? The 1974 and 1978 runners up will advance for the seventh straight time. Cameroon will battle Denmark for the final spot with Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner and Wolfsburg's Thomas Kahlenberg leading their European side into the Round of 16.
Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Traditionally, Italy starts poorly but wins their group (and often challenges for the trophy). The Vladimir Weiss father-son (coach-player) combo might have enough to help Slovakia to the promised land, but Paraguay's the pick if star Salvador Cabañas can return after being shot in the head outside a Mexico City bar in January. New Zealand will be happy to score a goal.
Brazil, Korea DPR, Côte d'Ivoire, Portugal
Courtesy of WikimediaThe wonderfully skilled Kaká hopes to lead his Brazilian squad to its 6th World Cup championship.
Korea DPR has no chance, but the other three teams could challenge late into the tournament. But first, they have to advance. Brazil is the favorite, while Côte d'Ivoire will make up for a disappointing showing in the African Cup of Nations and ride a friendly crowd to the second round.
Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
La Furia Roja will contend for the title and shouldn't struggle getting out of Group H. The Swiss are always strong defensively, but Chile and dark horse Honduras feature enough attacking prowess to penetrate their backline. Most will pick the South Americans to proceed into the knockout stage, but their neighbor to the north, Honduras, will slip through.
Our Predicted Winner
Spain waited 44 years between winning the European Nations Cup in 1964 and their second major trophy, the '08 European Championship. The country's next success will arrive much sooner. Just two years after hoisting the European crown, La Furia Roja will leave South Africa with their first World Cup.
From top to bottom, Vicente del Bosque's squad is loaded. Despite checking in at less than six feet tall, Real Madrid's Iker Casillas can lay claim to being the world's best shot-stopper in net. Of course, opponents struggle even to reach the goalie since Carles Puyol and his defensive mates shut down most attacking forays. The team conceded exactly half a goal a game during their 10 qualifying matches.
The midfield is even more impressive. To whit, Cesc Fàbregas—the playmaking general at Arsenal, one of the best clubs in the world—sits on the bench. Think John Stockton replacing Magic Johnson on the 1992 Dream Team. (Spain's reserves could beat some sides at the World Cup.) Xavi and Andrés Iniesta dominate the middle of the pitch and control the game like a pair of puppet masters, feeding the striking partners David Villa and Fernando Torres. Spain can score in bunches, netting nearly three goals per game in European qualifying matches.
The team also has the advantage of being familiar with South Africa. They participated in the '09 Confederations Cup and although the Americans snapped their record 35-match winning streak, they won't be surprised by the unique conditions. Vuvuzelas? Been there, done that. The World Cup will be the second one played during the winter (Argentina 1978) and temperatures will dip into the 30s. In other words: cold. But the Spanish know the drill and their talent will shine through.
Spain isn't a bold pick, but it's the correct one.