ARGENTINA: FIFA RANKING 7, ODDS TO WIN 13/2
There is not a more tantalising team in the tournament, a more tantalising manager, or a more tantalising storyline. Argentina are many people's idea of the likely winners – and just as many people's idea of the likely train wrecks.
With Diego Maradona at the controls it is easy to understand this polarisation of the views. While there may be some argument whether he of the celestial mitt is the best or second best player ever to have connected toe with ball, there is no such debate over his managerial qualities. Perhaps his inadequacies are best summed up by the fact that in his first 19 months in charge he has tried out 107 players. And in this time Argentina have been beaten 6-1 in Bolivia.
Yes, Maradona somehow managed to take his nation to the brink of their greatest footballing humiliation. Not until the very last qualifying game was the South African berth assured. Anybody else but Maradona would have been dismissed. Instead the gaffer – who is actually a god – survived and told his critics to do unspeakable things. He had achieved what many believed had been impossible before and this recovered cocaine addict plainly thinks he can do so again. If Argentina win Maradona has vowed to run around Buenos Aires naked.
So what are the chances of this small fat man re-offending the sensibilities? What is the likelihood of the man, who just six years ago suffered a heart attack connected to his drugs misuse, completing the most sensational rehabilitation in sporting history? Well, he has the players and more pertinently the player. What makes the script that much more delicious is Lionel Messi's billing as Maradona's successor. Britain has seen quite enough of the Barcelona playmaker to shrug off the outrageousness of the claim. Here truly is another maestro with the world at his size eights.
But here's where it becomes complicated, where the blessed simplicity of his talent becomes all too tangled. Maradona has not yet used Messi (below) as he should be used – ie how Barcelona use Messi. He has been asked to play far deeper than at the Nou Camp and feels obliged to try too much, to do too much. One only has to look at his goal tallies for club (88 in 144 games) and country (13 in 44) to recognise the anomaly. Some trace the under-fulfilment back to the despair Messi felt when being ignored on the bench in the 2006 quarter-final against Germany. Others remind that he is only 22. Whatever the truth, there is no reason why this burgeoning genius should not grace the biggest stage this time around.
Whether it is a settled system he needs or a new system, Maradona must procure the most out of the World Player of the Year. How ironic it would be if Messi was let down in the same manner that another young countryman was almost three decades before. In 1982, everything was there in Spain waiting for Maradona. Except the structure. Argentina scraped through the group and were knocked out by Brazil in the second round.
Yet it is not just Messi in a squad being touted as Argentina's most gifted since 1978. Premier League fans know all about Javier Mascherano, Juan Sebastian Veron, Carlos Tevez, Gabriel Heinze while the Champions League observers will testify to the class of Walter Samuel and, of course, the Milito brothers, Diego and Gabriel. Yet they will scratch their heads over the exclusion of Esteban Cambiasso, if not Javier Zanetti. If the Inter midfielder genuinely isn't good enough to make his country's 23 then his country's 23 must be very good indeed. Particularly as Juan Roman Riquleme retired from international football last year after a disagreement with, you guessed it, Maradona.
And there's the crux of the Argentina conundrum. Can the camp survive five weeks of the craziness which seems inevitable to accompany Maradona? He is popular with the players, but there is friction between him and his management team and between him and the Argentine Football Association. The only chance this circus has of carrying it all off is if Maradona listens to his lieutenants and stays calm with the media. No firing of air pistols, no running over of cameramen. If some harmony can be achieved then the inspiration he will undoubtedly provide offers Argentina a chance. Their group is tricky without being ominous, meaning the momentum can be built. The concern will remain, however, that they are one Diego blow-out from elimination.
Perhaps it is written that Maradona will do as a manager in 2010 what he did as a player in 1986 and send his countryfolk back onto the streets to resume the worship of his name. Or maybe that is an absurd notion, manufactured in the romantic's mind. One thing appears certain. On a global level, Argentina will command more attention than any other team whenever and whoever they play. Maradona can be thanked for that. He has a habit of overshadowing World Cups.
Will waltz through the group stages with Maradona all smiles and Messi all fireworks. They will begin to look unstoppable... and then the Diego disaster will come. A series of mindless substitutions will trigger the in-fighting and they will leave South Africa as an unfulfilled rabble, probably in the quarters.
Previous best Winners twice (1978 & 1986). Finalists twice, have only failed to qualify once (1970) and failed to enter between 1938 and 1954.
Killer fact Maradona has called up 107 players as manager. Argentina also has the worst disciplinary record in the Cup, with 88 cautions and 10 red cards in 64 games..
And the fans? The Albicelest fans are some of the most passionate in the world, donning their vintage blue and white strips from past tournaments and singing "Vamos vamos, Argentina" (let's go, let's go).
Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (age 23, AZ Alkmaar, 6), Mariano Andujar (26, Catania, 4), Diego Pozo (32, Colon, 3). Defenders: Gabriel Heinze (32, Marseilles, 64), Martin Demichelis (29, Bayern Munich, 25), Nicolas Otamendi (22, Velez Sarsfield, 7), Walter Samuel (32, Internazionale, 54), Clemente Rodriguez (28, Estudiantes de La Plata, 12), Nicolas Burdisso (29, Roma, 29), Ariel Garce (30, Colon, 4). Midfielders: Javier Mascherano (25, Liverpool, 57), Jonas Gutierrez (26, Newcastle United, 16), Angel Di Maria (22, Benfica, 8), Mario Bolatti (25, Fiorentina, 5), Juan Sebastian Veron (35, Estudiantes de le Plata, 70), Javier Pastore (20, Palermo, 1), Maxi Rodriguez (29, Liverpool, 36). Strikers: Lionel Messi (22, Barcelona, 44), Gonzalo Higuain (22, Real Madrid, 5), Carlos Tevez (25, Manchester City, 52), Sergio Aguero (22, Atletico Madrid, 21), Diego Milito (30, Internazionale, 20), Martin Palermo (36, Boca Juniors, 14).
GREECE: FIFA RANKING 13, ODDS TO WIN 200/1
On the face of it, King Otto's last stand seems likely to be nothing more than a typically belligerent farewell from the German who became a Greek god with the 150-1 underdogs' triumph at Euro 2004. But those who expect the old man to go without a whimper do not understand Otto Rehhagel – or the reasons for his enduring appeal in a nation which has recently lost all respect for officialdom.
Two things have remained constant about the 71-year-old who is expected to retire at the end of the finals. Rehhagel does not open up off the pitch or indeed on it. Guarded with the media, he is equally guarded with his rival attackers. It is why with an unashamed defensive formation his team will be a tough nut to crack.
But then, they boast little to no World Cup pedigree as this is only the second time the Greeks have qualified. Even when they were on top of Europe, they could not shake their qualifying mediocrity. This time around they showed all of Rehhagel's resolve to beat Ukraine in a play-off. That will give them confidence, as will the form of Theofanis Gekas (below).
No player scored more goals in the European groups than the Eintracht Frankfurt marksman; 10 from 12 games is some return. Gekas has the perfect poaching qualities for a team which relies so heavily on the counter-attack. Indeed, his predatory instincts were what made Portsmouth fans so frustrated when Paul Hart refused to give him a run at the end of 2008-09. Rehhagel has no such doubts about Gekas. And the striker returns the faith.
"We should build him a statute," Gekas said. "He inspired us, and it's fair to say that most of the time we are playing for him. Without him, we'd probably be back where we were before – in obscurity."
Can the famed "Ottocracy" pull off a coup again? Well, many of the players he trusts are ageing and may not have the stamina for a prolonged assault. Yet they surely are a decent bet to reach the knockout stages, particularly as they do not face Argentina until the last game.
In Liverpool's Sotirios Kyrgiakos they have a capable centre-half to underpin the rearguard effort while in captain, Giorgos Karagounis, there is creativity in midfield. Throw in the young talent of Sotiris Ninis and there is quality.
The fear is that they will be found short of both gas and quality.
Previous best Group stage (1994)
Killer fact The 2004 European champions have not managed a single goal at the World Cup finals - losing 4-0 to Argentina and Bulgaria and 2-0 to Nigeria in their three games.
Goalkeepers: Michalis Sifakis (age 25, Aris Salonika, 1), Alexandros Tzorvas (27, Panathinaikos, 6), Kostas Chalkias (36, PAOK Salonika, 27). Defenders: Giorgos Seitaridis (29, Panathinaikos, 67), Loukas Vintra (29, Panathinaikos, 27), Evangelos Moras (28, Bologna, 10), Socrates Papastathopoulos (21, Genoa, 10), Sotiris Kyrgiakos (30, Liverpool, 56), Avraam Papadopoulos (25, Olympiakos, 12), Vasilis Torosidis (24, Olympiakos, 25), Nikos Spiropoulos (26, Panathinaikos, 17), Stelios Malezas (25, PAOK Salonika, 0). Midfielders: Kostas Katsouranis (30, Panathinaikos, 67), Alexandros Tziolis (25, Siena, 17), Giorgos Karagounis (33, Panathinaikos, 91), Sotiris Ninis (20, Panathinaikos, 3), Christos Patsatzoglou (31, Omonia, 41), Sakis Prittas (31, Aris Salonika, 0). Strikers: Angelos Charisteas (30, Nuremberg, 82), Dimitris Salpigidis (28, Panathinaikos, 34), Pantelis Kapetanos (26, Steaua Bucharest, 1), Theofanis Gekas (30, Hertha Berlin, 46), Giorgos Samaras (25, Glasgow Celtic, 32).
NIGERIA: FIFA RANKING 21, ODDS TO WIN 125/1
It has become one of the World Cup's most damnable clichés. When the African sides unlock their potential then the rest of the tournament had better watch out. No country lives up to this underachievement more startlingly than Nigeria.
The Super Eagles are lucky to be flying into South Africa. On the last day of qualification they had all but given up. But the rank underdogs Mozambique defeated Tunisia and their own come-from-behind win over Kenya helped Nigeria squeeze through. With their cast it would be a crime if they hadn't advanced to their fourth finals in the last five.
Chelsea's John Obi Mikel, Everton's Ayegbeni Yakubu, Wolfsburg's Obafemi Martins... the list goes on. But there are deficiencies which the new manager, Lars Lagerback, will have to sort out if Nigeria are at the very least to emulate their second-round progression of 1994 and 1998.
The first is the shaky defence. Joseph Yobo is vital in this regard, but like Daniel Shittu at Bolton, the Everton man spent too much time on the bench last season. Thus, Mikel's anchor role takes on critical status. Yet there has been a dearth of creativity. With other burly midfielders such as Dynamo Kiev's Yusuf Ayila and Fulham's Dickson Etuhu, there is no shortage of muscle. But where is the trickery to unleash Martins, Yakubu, Kanu even? Sani Kaita has his moments, while at 19, Lukman Haruna is beginning to put some substance on the hype. The question is whether Lagerback, after just a handful of training sessions, can mould a coherent unit.
The Swede has the history and it was little surprise that, after sacking Shaibu Amodu for daring only to finish third in the Africa Cup of Nations, the Nigerian Football Federation chose him over Glenn Hoddle and Sven-Goran Eriksson. Lagerback may have failed to qualify with Sweden for this year's finals, but he had led them to the previous two.
Predictably, he has not been helped by some typically inept organisation. The Nigerian federation struggled to arrange friendlies – the last being a closed-doors affair against Colombia in Milton Keynes – and issued the ridiculous demand of a semi-final berth. "The NFF expects a brilliant outing in South Africa because we have the talents to achieve that," said the NFF president Sani Lulu. Lagerback will no doubt remind him that talent alone will not be nearly enough.
Cannot be strongly fancied. Their preparation has been awful and the mood in Nigeria is not good.
Previous best Second round twice (1994 & 1998). The Super Eagles have topped their group in two of their previous three tournaments.
Killer fact Have drawn Argentina in the group stages for the third time in the last four tournaments. They were beaten on both previous occasions.
And the fans? Super Eagles fans will be staying in the affordable Naija Fan Village, near Durban. Daily entertainment will be provided and the players will visit. Match days will turn into a sea of green and white.
Goalkeepers: Dele Aiyenugba (age 26, Bnei Yehuda, caps 8), Austin Ejide (26, Hapoel Petah Tikva, 18), Vincent Enyeama (27, Hapoel Tel Aviv, 53). Defenders: Dele Adeleye (21, Sparta Rotterdam, 5), Rabiu Afolabi (30, Red Bull Salzburg, 21), Elderson Echiejile (22, Stade Rennes, 10), Chidi Odiah (26, CSKA Moscow, 23), Danny Shittu (29, Bolton Wanderers, 25), Taye Taiwo (25, Marseilles, 40), Joseph Yobo (29, Everton, 65). Midfielders: Yusuf Ayila (27, Dynamo Kiev, 24), Dickson Etuhu (28, Fulham, 12), Sani Kaita (24, Alania Vladikavhaz, 19), Nwankwo Kanu (33, Portsmouth, 83), Haruna Lukman (20, Monaco, 2), John Obi Mikel (23, Chelsea, 30), Kalu Uche (27, Almeria, 20), John Utaka (28, Portsmouth, 44). Strikers: Yakubu Aiyegbeni (27, Everton, 48), Obafemi Martins (25, VfL Wolfsburg, 31), Obinna Nsofor (23, Malaga, 30), Chinedu Obasi (24, Hoffenheim, 12), Peter Odemwingie (28, Lokomotiv Moscow, 47).
SOUTH KOREA: FIFA RANKING 47, ODDS TO WIN 250/1
Undreamt-of success has its drawbacks. In 2002, the hosts South Korea reached the semi-finals of the World Cup and so began the impossible job of repeating the feat. Guus Hiddink's successors have spent too long in their brief tenures cursing his name.
There have been five in all, with the latest being a South Korean. Huh Jung-moo actually has been in charge for three years since his football association gave up on trying to face a foreign replacement for Mr Irreplaceable.
First Humberto Coelho from Portugal was entrusted and there followed three Dutchmen in Jo Bonfrere, Dick Advocaat and Pim Verbeek. Then when Gérard Houllier said "non" and Mick McCarthy said "nah", Huh got his chance. It is fair to say he finally took it with greater vigour than the fans greeted his appointment.
The 55-year-old, who will retire following these finals, has led the Koreans to their eighth consecutive finals, a run which makes them arguably Asia's most successful side. Huh did so with some style too, finishing four points clear of their neighbours from over the border. And even though, 2010 has so far not been so kind to the Taeguk Warriors – embarrassing 4-2 and 3-0 losses to Zambia and China respectively – there is some confidence they can advance through the group stages for the first time away from home.
"It is one of the toughest groups but we are confident we can complete our mission," Huh said. "After going through Asia's fierce qualifying campaign to reach the World Cup, the team is competition-hardened and by the time the tournament kicks off we will be ready to challenge all odds."
The odds of them living up to the heroics of eight years ago – when Michael Ballack eventually ended their dream with just 15 minutes left of their semi-final against Germany – do not really need quantifying. But Greece, their opening opponents, and Argentina and Nigeria will certainly not be taking them lightly.
In Manchester United's Park Ji-sung (below) they have a performer of the very top level while Bolton's Lee Chung-yong is a much feared winger. Put that duo in tandem with the Monaco marksman Park Chu-young and the quality is plainly there. Strength in depth is a problem, as revealed by the depression which greeted the late withdrawal due to injury of the central defender Kwak Tae-hwi.
Yet Hiddink built that famous South Korean gameplan around stamina and it could also be their biggest weapon this time around. "We finished semi-finalists in 2002 but, aside from this, we have never progressed beyond the group stage playing outside Asia," said Huh.
"So our first target is to reach the round of 16 and, should we make it, we will definitely strive to go one better."
Difficult to see them emerging from such a tough group regardless of the talents of the two Parks. Curtain-raiser with Greece could be a maker or breaker.
Previous best Fourth (2002). Beaten in first round in five tournaments before memorably making the semi-finals under Guus Hiddink on home soil eight years ago.
Killer fact Conceded 16 in their debut tournament in 1954.
Goalkeepers: Lee Woon-jae (age 27, Suwon, 129), Kim Young-kwang (26, Ulsan, 14), Jung Sung-ryong (25, Seongnam, 13). Defenders: Lee Young-pyo (33, Al Hilal, 112), Cha Du-ri (29, Freiburg, 44), Cho Yong-hyung (26, Jeju, 29), Oh Beom-seok (25, Ulsan, 35), Lee Jung-soo (30, Kashima, 23), Kim Hyung-il (26, Pohang, 2), Kang Min-soo (30, Suwon, 32), Kim Dong-jin (28, Ulsan, 28). Midfielders: Lee Chung-yong (21, Bolton Wanderers, 21), Park Ji-sung (29, Manchester United. 86), Kim Jung-woo (28, Gwangju, 55), Kim Jae-sung (26, Pohang, 7), Kim Bo-kyung (20, Oita Trinita, 6), Kim Nam-il (33, Tom Tomsk, 91), Ki Sung-yong (21, Celtic, 19). Strikers: Lee Dong-guk (31, Jeonbuk, 83), Lee Seung-ryul (21, FC Seoul, 5), Park Chu-young (24, Monaco, 39), Ahn Jung-Hwan (34, Dalian Shide, 69), Yeom Ki-hun (27, Suwon, 30).