Group A: The hosts with the most fortune
The draw could hardly have been kinder to the hosts, which is just as well, as the competition may have come four years too soon for a young squad. Jürgen Klinsmann has attracted criticism, not least from the legend that is Franz Beckenbauer, and there was widespread dismay after the 4-1 friendly defeat by Italy. But Chelsea's new signing Michael Ballack, the one undisputed world-class player in the squad, believes that result may prove useful in damping down expectation, which will be washed away altogether if Costa Rica are not beaten in Friday's opener. Later the same day Poland need a good win over Ecuador to build on the confidence of qualifying comfortably as runners-up to
England (who twice beat them 2-1). Otherwise Costa Rica, unlucky not to reach the second round four years ago, could have a say.
VERDICT: Home advantage is pronounced in World Cup history, and the three-times winners may need it. Jürgen Klinsmann was brought in after a poor Euro 2004 but serious doubts remain. The former striker has nurtured the prolific Polish-born Lukas Podolski to partner Miroslav Klose - Brazilian-born Kevin Kuranyi missed the cut. Problems lie in defence. New faces Per Mertesacker and Marcell Jansen are replacing a trusted old guard.
BEST SHOWING: Winners 1954, '74, '90
COACH: Jürgen Klinsmann
ACE PLAYER: Miroslav Klose
WILD CARD: David Odonkor
VERDICT: Los Ticos beat Scotland and Sweden in their first World Cup in 1990, and Turkey in their second in 2002, going out on goal difference after losing 5-2 to Brazil. Four years ago they were led by Alexandre Guimaraes, a veteran of Italia '90, who took over as the side struggled to qualify. He has returned, and they beat USA 3-0. Paulo Wanchope and Ronald Gomez lead the attack, and Gilberto Martinez is crucial in defence.
BEST SHOWING: Last 16 1990
COACH: Alexandre Guimaraes
ACE PLAYER: Paulo Wanchope
WILD CARD: Gabriel Badilla
VERDICT: The finest hour was next door in Germany in 1974, when Poland beat Brazil to finish third overall. They went to South Korea after missing three World Cups, and England were the only team to beat them in qualifying for this tournament as they scored 27 goals. Well stocked with goalkeepers, young midfielder Sebastian Mila vies with Miroslav Szymkowiak for attacking creativity. Maciej Zurawski and Grzegorz Rasiak will lead the line.
BEST SHOWING: Third place 1974, '82
COACH: Pawel Janas
ACE PLAYER: Sebastian Mila
WILD CARD: Pawel Brozek
VERDICT: Often seen as the poor relations of South American football, they reached their first World Cup in Japan four years ago. This time they brought in Colombian Luis Suarez, "El Professor", to replace Hernan Dario Gomez after a poor Copa America, and then beat Brazil and Argentina. The experience of Ulises De la Cruz, Ivan Hurtado and Agustin Delgado mixes with the youth of Christian Lara and Antonio Valencia.
BEST SHOWING: First round 2002
COACH: Luis Suarez
ACE PLAYER: Cristian Lara
WILD CARD: Cristian Mora
Group B: Crouch could test the Paraguayans
While European instinct is to assume that England and Sweden will progress, Paraguay should not be under-rated. Narrowly beaten in the second round at the past two tournaments, they know their way around and have an interesting blend of the old and young. Bayern Munich's striker Roque Santa Cruz, if fully fit, will form a threatening pairing with another Bundesliga regular, Nelson Haedo Valdez. The recent 2-2 draw in Norway showed the Paraguayans are vulnerable at set-pieces, which would make the likely absence of Peter Crouch look odd; Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic can also take advantage. The Swedes have not shown up well so far but are invariably difficult to beat - especially against England. Trinidad and Tobago, unlucky to lose to Wales last week, have plenty of experience but will struggle against power and pace.
VERDICT: Strong hopes of a repeat of 1966 are fading fast as a nation awaits news of Wayne Rooney's foot, and hangs on Michael Owen's rusty fitness. Midfield dynamo Steven Gerrard seems set for a striking role in Sven Goran Eriksson's last stand as he tries to expunge the pain of defeat to Brazil in the quarter-finals four years ago. Teenage tiros Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott could make smash-and-grab raids from the bench, as will specialist beanpole Peter Crouch.
BEST SHOWING: Winners 1966
COACH: Sven Goran Eriksson
ACE PLAYER: Steven Gerrard
WILD CARD: Theo Walcott
VERDICT: The Albirroja were eliminated in the second round by a French golden goal in 1998, then a late German goal in 2002. But the side were ageing and Italian coach Cesare Maldini stepped down. Conceding as many as they scored in qualifying, they lost six times. Star striker Roque Santa Cruz is bedevilled by injury but Julio dos Santos and Edgar Barreto, who both played in the 2004 Olympic final, shine in midfield. Captain Carlos Gamarra, 35, is creaking, rather like his defence.
BEST SHOWING: Last 16 1986, '98, 2002
COACH: Anibal Ruiz
ACE PLAYER: Roque Santa Cruz
WILD CARD: Jose Montiel
Trinidad & Tobago
VERDICT: With a population of 1.3m, this is the smallest nation at the World Cup. The Soca Warriors won a play-off with Bahrain after coming fourth in their group, and will try to emulate Jamaica, who managed to beat Japan at France 98. They are well served by veterans Stern John, Shaka Hislop and Dwight Yorke, who came out of retirement to help them qualify. Dutchman Leo Beenhakker, the ex-Ajax and Real Madrid coach who took Holland to Italia 90, has been in charge for a year.
BEST SHOWING: Debutant
COACH: Leo Beenhakker
ACE PLAYER: Dwight Yorke
WILD CARD: Anthony Wolfe
VERDICT: Qualifying as a group runners-up, they won every game except for two defeats to Croatia. Henrik Larsson had been replaced as golden boy by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but the veteran striker was brought out of retirement by a national campaign and is still a big-game player, as the European Cup final showed. Freddie Ljungberg scored seven from midfield in qualifying. England beware for their last game: they have not beaten these perennial dark horses since 1968.
BEST SHOWING: Runners-up 1958
COACH: Lars Lagerback
ACE PLAYER: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
WILD CARD: Markus Rosenberg
Group C: Van Basten boys, Argentina's men
The nearest thing to a Group of Death will give Argentina and Holland little margin for error, so they must be on top of their game from the start. Serbia & Montenegro conceded only one goal in 10 qualifying matches and will provide robust opposition, which could make the Argentina game a particularly combustible affair. Ivory Coast, with every outfield player now at a European club, look the strongest of the African quintet and were unlucky to be dumped into such a group, in which Serbia were effectively third seeds. The Dutch, rebuilding after Euro 2004 under Marco van Basten, have a powerful front line of Dirk Kuyt, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Arjen Robben, but may be weaker defensively and vulnerable to Argentina's gifted midfield in the final match. Meeting Mexico or Portugal next is a real incentive to qualify.
VERDICT: The twice world champions made a premature exit in 2002. Now new captain Juan Pablo Sorin, Roberto Ayala and Hernan Crespo are ageing and Javier Zanetti was strangely left out. Javier Mascherano is crucial as defensive midfielder with Villarreal's Juan Roman Riquelme as playmaker. Teenager Lionel Messi provides hope of a young genius to bring back memories of Maradona but he is still recovering fitness.
BEST SHOWING: Winners 1978, '86
COACH: Jose Pekerman
ACE PLAYER: Juan Roman Riquelme
WILD CARD: Rodrigo Palacio
VERDICT: Having made it to the World Cup for the first time, the Elephants face a huge task to go further. But Frenchman Henri Michel does have a very impressive array of talent. Up front, the massive Didier Drogba partners the rapid Arouna Kone, with even Bonaventure Kalou in the hole - adventurous indeed. With Didier Zokora running the midfield and Kolo Touré marshalling the defence, they may prove the surprise package.
BEST SHOWING: Debutants
COACH: Henri Michel
ACE PLAYER: Didier Drogba
WILD CARD: Ndri Romaric
Serbia & Mont'gro
VERDICT: Playing as Yugoslavia until 2003, the Plavi forged their own identity by finishing top in qualifying ahead of Spain and conceding only one goal with a record seven straight clean sheets. Ilija Petkovic has yet to lose a competitive game in two years. He has nurtured young players such as Nemanja Vidic, Igor Duljaj and Zvonimir Vukic, while Mateja Kezman and Dejan Stankovic form a potent attacking force with the giant Nikola Zigic.
BEST SHOWING: Debutants
COACH: Ilija Petkovic
ACE PLAYER: Dejan Stankovic
WILD CARD: Dusan Basta
VERDICT: The Oranje's only major success was during Marco van Basten's heyday at Euro '88, in their arch enemy Germany's backyard. They missed the last World Cup but eased through a difficult qualifying pool this time, conceding three goals and scoring 27. Seasoned campaigners like Roy Makaay and Mark van Bommel play in their first World Cup with young stars such as Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. But this group will be tough.
BEST SHOWING: Runners-up 1974, '78
COACH: Marco van Basten
ACE PLAYER: Rafael van der Vaart
WILD CARD: Ryan Babel
Group D: Angola book date with their history
It is difficult to see beyond a second-round place for Mexico and Portugal, both of whom were delighted with another draw as easy as their qualifying sections. The Mexicans may be in a false position at fourth in Fifa's rankings, but that allows them to build confidence and some impressive statistics: 67 goals in 18 qualifying matches, 14 to Bolton's Jared Borgetti. Winners against Brazil at the Confederations Cup, they have been less successful against European opposition but will hope to have qualified before meeting Portugal on 21 June. The Portuguese under Luiz Felipe Scolari were also heavy scorers in an unbeaten qualifying campaign. Their main worry, until the knockout stage, is likely to be a volatile match against former colony Angola; the last meeting in 2001 was abandoned after four Angolans were sent off.
VERDICT: Ricardo Lavolpe's team scored more goals in qualifying than any other nation and beat the world champions on German soil last year. But they have never reached a quarter-final on foreign turf. A weak group gives them a chance. Striker Francisco Fonseca is the new darling to partner the prolific Jared Borgetti, while Rafael Marquez brings solidity in defence. Volatile Lavolpe is said to have placed six players under hypnosis.
BEST SHOWING: Quarter-finalists 1970, '86
COACH: Ricardo Lavolpe
ACE PLAYER: Jared Borgetti
WILD CARD: Andres Guardado
VERDICT: Germany will feel like a second home, since many of Iran's key players have plied their trade in the Bundesliga and there is a large expatriate population there. Ali Daei and Mehdi Mahdavikia are the sole survivors of France '98. Up front, Vahid Hashemian is vying with the ageing Daei, while Ali Karimi will provide midfield impetus after recovering from an ankle injury. But the authority of Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic is under threat.
BEST SHOWING: First round 1978, '98
COACH: Branko Ivankovic
ACE PLAYER: Ali Karimi
WILD CARD: Masoud Shojai
VERDICT: Qualification was a superb feat. The Black Antelopes have only played in three African Nations' Cups. Luis Oliveira Goncalves led the Under-20s to an African title in 2001 - Antonio Viana Mendonca and Pedro Manuel Mantorras stepped up - then recruited players who had fled the civil war. The strength lies in midfield with veteran Paulo Figueiredo and Andre Makanga. Up front, captain Fabrice Maieco Akwa and Mantorras are prolific.
BEST SHOWING: Debutants
COACH: Luis Oliveira Goncalves
ACE PLAYER: Paulo Figueiredo
WILD CARD: Edson Nobre
VERDICT: Remember Luiz Felipe Scolari? He won the cup with Brazil in 2002, while the remnants of the "golden generation" floundered. Defeat by Greece in the final of Euro 2004 on home soil was a major shock. But an impressive squad scored 35 goals and let in just five in an unbeaten qualifying campaign. Pauleta, with 11 in 12 games, now has more goals than Eusebio, 46. Luis Figo is back after retirement. It must be his last chance.
BEST SHOWING: Third place 1966
COACH: Luiz Felipe Scolari
ACE PLAYER: Deco
WILD CARD: Ricardo Costa
Group E: Totti's mission: give Brazil a miss
Rather than merely qualifying, contenders here would ideally wish to finish top to avoid Brazil in the next round. So Italy, favourites to do so with their crop of half a dozen strikers and Francesco Totti fit again, cannot afford their usual slow start against Ghana tomorrow week and the United States five days later. Michael Essien's return will encourage his team after a poor African Nations' Cup. He and midfield partner Stephen Appiah also look the best source of goals. The US now have half their squad gaining experience in Europe, but can hardly hope to match the quarter-final appearance of 2002 and could end up bottom of the section. They start against the battle hardened Czech Republic, with several survivors from the Euro 96 final still going strong, though Vladimir Smicer has been forced to drop out.
VERDICT: Marcello Lippi is perceived as the man to make up for an acrimonious last World Cup and their abject failure at Euro 2004. He has cast off the Azzurri's ultra-defensive style and blooded 23 players. Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni have largely supplanted Alessandro del Piero and Christian Vieri up front. But doubts over the fitness of the pivotal and iconic Francesco Totti have cast a shadow, and the group runners-up will face Brazil.
BEST SHOWING: Winners 1934, '38, '82
COACH: Marcello Lippi
ACE PLAYER: Luca Toni
WILD CARD: Vincenzo Iaquinta
VERDICT: The Black Stars make their bow in a tough group. But Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien, Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Ali Muntari have wide European experience, the last three returning from injury after missing the African Nations Cup. Ratomir Dujkovic made 10 changes after a poor showing in Egypt - Eric Addo returns after eight years in the wilderness - and the striker Gyan is one of the many young prospects in the squad.
BEST SHOWING: Debutants
COACH: Ratomir Dujkovic
ACE PLAYER: Asamoah Gyan
WILD CARD: Razak Pimpong
VERDICT: An unlikely fifth place in May's Fifa world rankings is blamed on the easy pickings in Central America (Mexico are fourth). But in 2002 they did reach the quarter-finals before losing to Germany by a single goal. This time progress will be much harder. The potential is enormous in the future, the names are familiar and the likes of DaMarcus Beasley have shown that quality exists as well as quantity. But interest at home is still slight.
BEST SHOWING: Semi-finalists 1930
COACH: Bruce Arena
ACE PLAYER: DaMarcus Beasley
WILD CARD: Clint Dempsey
VERDICT: A first World Cup since splitting from Slovakia in 1993, despite all their European Championship success. But they needed a nail-biting play-off against Norway after missing out at the same stage last time. Many players are in their 30s but a strong squad feature Petr Cech in goal and Jan Koller up front. Talismanic Pavel Nedved is back from retirement, and amid plenty of familiar names is the youthful talent of Tomas Rosicky.
BEST SHOWING: Debutant
COACH: Karel Bruckner
ACE PLAYER: Pavel Nedved
WILD CARD: David Jarolim
Group F: Hiddink saddles his dark horses
The interest here would appear to be in who qualifies with Brazil, all three contenders claiming they can take second place. Croatia, with big support and plenty of experience of Germany (three players were born there) might feel they have the strongest case, but Australia are capable of edging them out of contention in Stuttgart on 22 June. Holding off Uruguay over two legs of a play-off before winning the penalty shoot-out demonstrated considerable nerve as well as illustrating the tactical ability of Guus Hiddink, a previous semi-finalist with South Korea and Holland. Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell, backed up by Tim Cahill and Brett Emerton in a team full of Premiership experience, can score the necessary goals for him. They need to get off on the right foot with a win against Japan, impressive against Germany last week.
VERDICT: "Our problem is we can fill every position with at least four outstanding players," said Carlos Alberto Parreira, coach of the five-times winners. Some problem. Ronaldo's fitness is scarce cause for worry with Ronaldinho, Kaka, Adriano and Robinho as striking options. But Parreira, who won the cup at USA 94, is criticised for conservatism. And Brazil have only won once in Europe, in 1958.
BEST SHOWING: Winners 1958, '62, '70,
COACH: Carlos Alberto Parreira
ACE PLAYER: Ronaldinho
WILD CARD: Fred
ODDS: 9-4 favourites
VERDICT: Since almost reaching the final in their first World Cup in 1998, they have struggled with the burden of expectation. Last time they beat Italy but lost to Ecuador. Zlatko Kranjcar has developed a strong work ethic to make up for a lack of stars. Dado Prso is relied on to score, and Anthony Seric and Niko Kranjcar, the coach's son, are a threat in midfield. They conceded only five goals and were unbeaten in a tough qualifying group.
BEST SHOWING: Third place 1998
COACH: Zlatko Kranjcar
ACE PLAYER: Darijo Srna
WILD CARD: Luka Modric
VERDICT: The Socceroos' first appearance since 1974, after losing four play-offs. They went through after beating Uruguay on penalties. In last year's Confederations Cup they conceded 10 goals and lost all three group games. Then alchemist Guus Hiddink took charge, after leading Holland and South Korea to successive semi-finals. And the Premiership's Mark Schwarzer, Harry Kewell, Brett Emerton and Mark Viduka are all proven players.
BEST SHOWING: First round 1974
COACH: Guus Hiddink
ACE PLAYER: Mark Viduka
WILD CARD: Josh Kennedy
VERDICT: Japan reached the second round on home soil four years ago before losing to Turkey, who came third overall. Brazil legend Zico is in charge and led them to victory in the 2004 Asian Cup. They were the first to qualify for Germany. Shunsuke Nakamura is a key player in midfield while Hidetoshi Nakata remains influential in his third tournament. Playing Brazil in the final game may actually help, since they should have qualified by then.
BEST SHOWING: Last 16 2002
ACE PLAYER: Shunsuke Nakamura
WILD CARD: Seiichiro Maki
Group G: Henry hopes for redemption days
After the lamentable effort four years ago, predicting great things for France is fraught. Thierry Henry says they were exhausted in 2002, though there have been unsettling signs again: Henry criticising the Paris crowd after a laboured win over Mexico, the goalkeepers rowing, and Ludovic Giuly of Barcelona understandably bewildered by his omission. But after scraping through the "group of draws" the French have been fortunate again and should win the section. Switzerland held them twice in qualifying before dismissing Turkey and are optimistic of making the second round. The key game will be their final one, against South Korea, who have not progressed since the heroics at home last time. On foreign ground the Koreans have yet to win in 14 World Cup games. They should at least break the duck against Togo.
VERDICT: After winning France '98 and Euro 2000, a disastrous, goalless showing in South Korea brought many retirements but Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele slowly returned last year in a qualifying campaign almost as tortuous as 1990 and '94. Raymond Domenech took over an inexperienced squad after Euro 2004. He says: "Caution and ambition are the key words." At least Thierry Henry should score this time.
BEST SHOWING: Winners 1998
COACH: Raymond Domenech
ACE PLAYER: Thierry Henry
WILD CARD: Franck Ribéry
VERDICT: A youth system aimed at hosting Euro 2008 bloomed early. Optimism is high after surviving a hard qualifying pool and edging past Turkey in a fiery play-off. Kobi Kuhn brought in his former Under-21s such as Alex Frei, who has 23 goals in 42 games, and Ricardo Cabanas, who replaces Hakan Yakin. Philippe Senderos and Tranquillo Barnetta are from an even younger generation. They held France to two draws in qualifying.
BEST SHOWING: Quarter-finals 1934, '38, '54
COACH: Kobi Kuhn
ACE PLAYER: Alex Frei
WILD CARD: Xavier Margairaz
VERDICT: Four years ago they were the first Asian team to reach a semi-final, under Guus Hiddink on home soil. Yet South Korea have never won a match abroad in five other World Cups. Jo Bonfrere, who led Nigeria to the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, revived flagging fortunes to qualify. Now another Dutchman, Dick Advocaat, is unearthing younger players like Park Chu-Young to support the heroic generation of 2002.
BEST SHOWING: Fourth place 2002
COACH: Dick Advocaat
ACE PLAYER: Park Chu-Young
WILD CARD: Lee Ho
VERDICT: The Sparrow Hawks are a little known quantity. Having supplanted Senegal at the World Cup, they failed to pick up a point at the African Nations' Cup. Emmanuel Adebayor was the continent's leading scorer in qualifying with 11 goals while captain Jean-Paul Yaovi Abalo was a rock in defence. In February the popular coach Stephen Keshi was replaced by German Otto Pfister, who has managed six African countries already.
BEST SHOWING: Debutants
COACH: Otto Pfister
ACE PLAYER: Emmanuel Adebayor
WILD CARD: Junior Senaya
Group H: Aragones on a limb and a prayer
Luis Aragones, the controversial Spanish coach, has gone out on a limb in suggesting that this really is the time for his country to progress beyond the quarter-finals for the first time since 1950. They certainly ought to win the group and a second-round tie against anyone other than France. It should be exciting football too, with Xabi Alonso (if fit), Cesc Fabregas and possibly Jose Antonio Reyes in a 4-3-3 behind Luis Garcia, Fernando Torres (Atletico Madrid) and David Villa (Valencia). Fernando Morientes is not required and Raul will probably be no more than a substitute. Ukraine ought to mark their first finals by going through, as long as Andriy Shevchenko, under a stronger spotlight than ever following his move to Chelsea, stays fit to lead a squad lacking other big names. Tunisia will be more of a threat than Saudi Arabia.
VERDICT: It's about time they did well, just so we can stop saying that they never do. They lost to South Korea in the quarter-finals last time after Fernando Morientes' goal was bizarrely disallowed. As usual, they bring a resplendent squad, and the controversial Luis Aragones will try to unify a team often containing disparate parts. Prodigies such as Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta could exorcise the ghosts of the past.
BEST SHOWING: Fourth place 1950
COACH: Luis Aragones
ACE PLAYER: Fernando Torres
WILD CARD: Andres Iniesta
VERDICT: Having failed to reach the last two World Cups after falling in successive play-offs, this is their first attempt since gaining independence. Oleg Blokhin took over in 2003, and a talented squad won a tricky qualifying pool. Andriy Shevchenko is the star, but Andriy Voronin and Andriy Vorobei are also big threats up front. Keeper Oleksander Shovkovsky has performed heroics, and his recovery from a shoulder injury could be crucial.
BEST SHOWING: Debutants
COACH: Oleg Blokhin
ACE PLAYER: Andriy Shevchenko
WILD CARD: Oleg Gusiev
VERDICT: Roger Lemerre led France to victory in Euro 2000 but was sacked after the 2002 débâcle. He soon persuaded the Brazilian Francileudo dos Santos to take Tunisian nationality and the striker top-scored as the Carthage Eagles won the African Nations' Cup at home in 2004. Ziad Jaziri, Adel Chadli and captain Hatem Trabelsi are key elements. Tunisia are now the only African side to reach the World Cup finals three times in a row.
BEST SHOWING: First round 1978, '98, 2002
COACH: Roger Lemerre
ACE PLAYER: Francileudo dos Santos
WILD CARD: Issam Jomaa
VERDICT: The Falcons in 2002: no goals, no points, an 8-0 thrashing. Argentinian Gabriel Calderon was brought in, and they scored 24 goals and conceded two to top their group ahead of South Korea. Centre-back Hamad Al Montashari is Asian Player of the Year. The retired Sami Al Jaber returns for his fourth World Cup.
BEST SHOWING: Last 16 1994
COACH: Marcos Paqueta
ACE PLAYER: Yasser Al Qahtani
WILD CARD: Saad Al Harthi