FIFA World Cup 2010: Looking Out on The Horizon
'...And France are going to the World Cup Finals. Huge relief for Raymond Domenech...'
After his controversial handball set up William Gallas' undeserving extra-time winner in France's decisive second-leg World Cup qualifying knock-out match, Thierry Henry said he 'considered quitting' international football, after the FFF left him open to a barrage of invectives and vitriol in the international press and media.
Out in a North African cauldron otherwise known as Omdurman, Antar Yahia's stunning 40th minute strike saw Algeria progress at the expense of their opponents, bitter rivals Egypt, under the watchful eye of a 15,000-strong heavily armed and armoured security force.
Now that the dust begins to settle after the tempestuous final round of qualifiers, it is right to let bygones be bygones and focus on Soccer City, Johannesburg.
For it is here, on Friday, 11 June, 2010, South Africa will play host to their first World Cup finals, having beaten off competition from Morocco to host the prestigious and lucrative tournament after much deliberation among FIFA officials.
Since that glorious moment, back in Zurich on 15 May, 2004, there has been much negativity in the build-up to the tournament focusing on safety concerns and the country's inadequate infrastructure, resources, and footballing heritage.
South African authorities will be hoping that these prove to be without foundation, and will look to the tournament as a demonstration and celebration of the country's motto 'Unity in Diversity' after many years of hardship and suppression brought about by racial tension and political corruption.
In ten venues, over the course of one month, 32 national teams, largely a Who's Who of the most celebrated footballing names, with one or two surprise qualifiers thrown in for good measure, will compete for football's ultimate prize, the Jules Rimet Trophy.
Let's focus our attention on which teams and players will light up the sparkling stadium and make the fans party into the balmy African night...
Focus on Europe
With exception of Croatia, who were twice trounced by a resurgent England team, and Russia, who were edged out by Slovenia, all of Europe's greats will be making the trip south of the equator to pit their wits against some traditional foes and other lesser known challengers.
Many top ranking sides have star-studded squads.
Portugal will look to the most expensive player ever, Cristiano Ronaldo, to ignite their campaign. England will have plenty of quality and pace throughout their side, and France will hope to get their-ahem-hands on the trophy.
Elsewhere, Italy and Germany have the pedigree and know-how to repeat previous successes.
Arguably, the two-best equipped European teams, however, are the Netherlands and Spain.
Vicente Del Bosque's 'La Furia Roja' is a squad that makes even my greatest Championship Manager team of all-time resemble a hopeless bunch of amateurs.
Torres-if fit-and Villa are phenomenal goalscorers, Senna, Puyol, Albiol and Casillas form a very solid and intelligent base unit, and Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas are creative world-beaters.
Almost as impressive is Bert Van Marwijk's team, comprising a similar if slightly less dazzling and talented group of players.
No defenders will envy an afternoon chasing after the shadows of wingers Arjen Robben and Ibrahim Afellay, who have pace and skill in abundance. There will be few to match Dirk Kuyt's industry or Robin Van Persie's finishing skills. Edwin Van der Saar remains an imposing figure between the sticks.
Other qualifiers such as Denmark, Greece, and Slovenia will push hard for qualification from their prospective groups, but Serbia, Slovenia, and Switzerland may prove no more than whipping boys for the bigger fish.
Focus on Asia and Australasia
In 2002, the Korean Republic, with the help of some generous referees and vociferous home support, defied logic and defeated Portugal, Italy, and Spain to reach the semi-final stage under the masterful leadership of Guus Hiddink.
In 2006, Australia's 2-2 group match draw against Croatia ensured their progression to the last 16 at the expense of their more illustrious opponents. That they were only edged out 1-0 by eventual winners Italy was testament to their quality, passion and-again-the tactics of miracle worker Hiddink. Tim Cahill, Brett Emerton, and Harry Kewell all have the requisite talent and experience to engineer another upset next year.
Japan will make their fourth consecutive World Cup appearance after qualifying from the fourth and final round group in second place, behind Australia. However, they seem to lack quality, with only Celtic's Shinsuke Nakamura providing any real class in the team.
The Korean Republic, led by Man. Utd's Park Ji-Sung, are unlikely to repeat their 2002 feat, but have the potential to upset one of the bigger teams and will be seen as a banana skin to be avoided. Ji-Sung aside, Lee-Young Pyo, Seol Hi-Kyeon, the lively Lee Chung-Yong, and Cho Won-Hee also all have Premier League experience to call on.
Korea DPR only have two players, both relative unknowns, who play their football outside of Asia in competitive leagues. Having qualified just once before for this tournament, in 1966, they will be delighted with any points they can get.
Another surprise inclusion in the tournament is New Zealand. Yes, we are talking about the football-not rugby-World Cup! Captained by Blackburn stalwart Ryan Nelsen, they will struggle to score goals, but may prove tricky to break down defensively.
Focus on Africa
Led by "The Leg Breaker," Aaron Mokoena, hosts Bafana Bafana recently led Spain by one goal to nil in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, eventually losing the match in extra time. In the semi-final, they were only defeated by Brazil courtesy of a late free-kick.
The tournament showed that, despite their no-show at the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations-where they failed to trouble the scorers all tournament-they will at least be competitive come June next year, which will be vital to maintain the vibrancy of the local supporters.
Algeria withstood a barrage of abuse from Egyptian supporters to become the penultimate team to qualify for the tournament.
In Nadir Belhadj and Khamel Ghilas, they have two players whose skill, pace and ability to adapt to the rigours of the English Premier League have won them much praise. Their victories over the Ivory Coast and Egypt in qualifying is proof that they are here on merit.
Ever-improving Cameroon and Tottenham pair Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Sebastien Bassong will form a solid foundation, from which Arsenal's Alexandre Song and Lyon's Jean Makoun can feed goal machine Samuel Eto'o, whose form in front of goal will be vital for the colorfully named Indomitable Lions.
The strongest African team on paper will be the Ivory Coast, whose Abidjan football academy continues to produce world-class players on a shoestring budget. All football connoisseurs are familiar with household names Drogba, Kalou, Toure, and Zokora.
Other hugely promising players to look out for are Lillois Gervinho and Seville midfielder Romaric. Anything less than qualification will not be good enough, provided that the team is not pooled in a "Group of Death," as was the case in Germany.
There is little to add about Ghana, whose lack of firepower will be decisive, and Nigeria, whose youth and pace will provide entertainment, but little cutting edge.
Both are likely to provide an ephemeral presence in the tournament.
Focus on South America
Maradona here, Maradona there-he seems to be everywhere.
Whether it's winding up Terry Butcher before his first international match as Argentina coach, having his possessions confiscated for tax reasons by Neapolitan police, or berating the media with appallingly phallic and crass language for having the audacity to point his evident shortcomings as coach.
That Argentina needed a last-gasp goal from a washed-up 36-year-old "fringe player"-a term that I have loosely coined given the involvement of more than 70 players during the team's qualifying campaign-says to me that they will need a miracle to have an impact in South Africa. Maradona was capable of them as a player, he is not as a coach.
During their mammoth 18-match journey thus far, Brazil lost just twice. Their comfortable 1-0 friendly win recently over England is a more reliable indicator of their level than the fact that they finished one point clear of Chile and Paraguay.
Unlike Chile and Paraguay, who both have some interesting players and who will provide an unusual if not overly complicated test for the bigger teams, Brazil have world-class quality in every department, from their inspirational defender and captain Lucio, to midfield dynamite Kaka, to mercurial Manc Robinho.
They will enter the tournaments as favourites, and deservedly so.
Uruguay, twice champions in the distant past, struggled to overcome a weak Costa Rica side in the CONMEBOL-CONCACAF play-off. They will find out quickly that they are out of their depth, despite the offensive intelligence of Diego Forlan.
Focus on Central and North America
Together with Asia and Australasia, this region is the least likely to provide a World Cup winner.
The only team that has the potential to achieve this feat is Mexico, for who Tottenham misfit Giovani Dos Santos has been in phenomenal form.
A team that is full of trickery, Mexico nevertheless lost out to the USA in the final regional standings. Defeats to the USA, Honduras and even minnows El Salvador showed that the team does not travel well. Their progression will depend on the inadequacy of their opponents and goals galore from Dos Santos and Arsenal's prodigy Carlos Vela.
David Beckham's venture in US football has undoubtedly raised the profile of American "soccer;" his insistence on playing for AC Milan in the close season highlights the need for a more competitive domestic league.
Strong in goal and upfront, where stalwarts Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan have found competition in the form of youngster Jozy Altidore, the US totally lack quality in midfield, where many matches can be lost or won.
Honduras have done well to qualify for next year, and their World Cup charge will be lead by the most prominent of plural Palacioses, Tottenham's midfield engine Wilson. David Suazo will provide a touch of class and finery upfront, but probably to no avail.
The Winners and Losers
Most Likely to Win: BRAZIL
Most Likely to Upset: CHILE
Most Likely to Be Upset: ARGENTINA
Most Likely to be Humbled: KOREA DPR
Most Likely Golden Boot: FERNANDO TORRES
Most Likely to Cause Trouble: MARADONA
Biggest Winners: NEW ZEALAND
Biggest Loser: MARADONA