CAMEROON: FIFA RANKING 19, ODDS TO WIN 100-1
Was it really 20 years ago that Roger Milla was doing his jig around the corner flag and Gary Lineker was pulling England back from the brink of their most ignominious exit? Was it really 20 years ago when everyone left Italy breathlessly declaring that it wouldn't be long before Cameroon and the rest of Africa were ruling Planet Football?
It certainly was, but here we are two decades later and the Indomitable Lions look all too easy to dominate. For many reasons those brave new world predictions haven't come to pass. Cameroon have failed to advance from the group stages since Italia '90 and here they are going into one of the easiest groups in South Africa fancied by few to make it to the second round. They struggled to qualify for the finals and are without a win in the last six games. Paul Le Guen plainly has it all to do.
What the former Rangers manager did not need was his captain and inspiration threatening to quit on the eve of the tournament. The legend that is Milla criticised the superstar that is Samuel Eto'o for not replicating his club form at international level, and it is fair to say that the Inter striker did not take it on the chin. Eto'o was sent off in a warm-up match against Portugal in which Le Guen had to pull him off the referee. His emotional state does not bode well.
Put simply, if Eto'o is off colour – or worse, off the roster – then it is likely to be yet another early exit for Cameroon. By common consent, the oft-ridiculed Le Guen pulled off a masterstroke when taking over five months ago and switching the armband from Alex Song, the Arsenal midfielder, to Eto'o. From ruins, the qualifying campaign was put back on track and suddenly the woeful showing at the African Cup of Nations was merely a bad memory.
Le Guen introduced his 4-3-3 formation and, although this made them look ever more shaky at the back, they recovered some of the attacking verve which made them so exciting to watch.
If Eto'o can be calmed down and brought back on side there are genuine possibilities of his side reaching the knock-out stages. While the Netherlands look booked in for first, second is anyone's. There is quality throughout the Lions' squad with the Tottenham pair of Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Sébastien Bassong, and Jean Makoun of Lyons, just three of the other players performing at the highest level. What a waste it would be if their chance was discarded on a fit of ego.
"The most important [thing] is to have Samuel Eto'o ready for the beginning of the World Cup," warned Le Guen. "It will be very difficult to get through this group stage, but I am hopeful. I say it again, we have a good team."
Could be anything, could be nothing. That may be up to Samuel Eto'o, if the great striker is able to regain his poise and his team ethic.
Previous best Quarter-finals (1990). Beat Argentina and, almost, England in 1990, with three group-stage exits since.
Killer fact Roger Milla was the oldest player to score in the finals against Russia in 1994, aged 42 years and 35 days.
Goalkeepers: Guy Roland N'Dy Assembe (age 24, Valenciennes, caps 1), Idriss Carlos Kameni (26, Espanyol, 58), Hamidou Souleymanou (36, Kayserispor, 40). Defenders: Benoit Assou-Ekotto (26, Tottenham Hotspur, 4), Sebastien Bassong (23, Tottenham Hotspur, 3), Gaetan Bong (22, Valenciennes, 0), Aurelien Chedjou (24, Lille, 8), Geremi Njitap (31, Ankaragucu, 109), Stephane Mbia (24, Marseilles, 29), Nicolas Nkoulou (20. Monaco, 6), Rigobert Song (33, Trabzonspor, 133). Midfielders: Achille Emana (27, Real Betis, 32), Enoh Eyong (24, Ajax, 12), Jean Makoun (27, Lyons, 49), Georges Mandjeck (21, Kaiserslautern, 4), Joel Matip (18, Schalke 04, 1), Landry Nguemo (24, Celtic, 17), Alexandre Song (22, Arsenal, 20). Strikers: Vincent Aboubakar (18, Coton Sport, 1), Eric Choupo-Moting (21, Nuremburg, 0) Samuel Eto'o (29, Inter Milan, 92), Mohamadou Idrissou (30, Freiburg, 28), Pierre Achille Webo (28, Real Mallorca, 34)
DENMARK: FIFA RANKING 36, ODDS TO WIN 150-1
There is a sense Denmark overachieved simply to arrive in South Africa, defeating Sweden home and away and beating Portugal to top their qualifying group. But to underestimate Morten Olsen's side would be a mistake. They might not feature any Laudrups or Schmeichels, but they do have that star player called momentum.
For the neutral, it is hugely satisfying to see Olsen back at the World Cup. After a decade at the helm, he remains hugely popular both at home and abroad despite failing to lead his side to either the last World Cup or the last European Championship. A fine player in his time, Olsen is a great servant and this is the stage on which he deserves to go out. The longest-serving of the 32 managers in the competition, he has agreed to stay on for another two years – but this must surely be his last World Cup.
Will it be a joyous farewell? Well, the group is not the most difficult and, if the games go with form, the Danes should make the knock-out stages. Olsen has a solid spine to his team, with a fair degree of creativity in the mix.
Goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen's class should require no explaining to any Premier league follower, while Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer are an excellent centre-half combination who Liverpool have long been rumoured to be keen on linking up at club level. In the middle, Christian Poulsen is the archetypal midfield general with the physique and the poise to hold his side together. His experience will be vital as alongside is Christian Eriksen, at 18 the youngest player in the finals and enticingly billed as "the new Laudrup".
Martin Jol, his manager at Ajax, has certainly been stunned by the progress of the skinny teenager and welcomed what some felt to be his premature advancement to the senior international team three months ago. Jol said of the attacking midfielder: "I have to be very wrong if he will not become a good, a very good or a top player." If Eriksen is as good as they say, then the star-name partnership up front will have few excuses for failing to deliver goals.
Nicklas Bendtner has never knowingly undersold his own talents and has declared his aim to become the tournament's top scorer. To achieve this loftiest of ambitions he will need Jon Dahl Tomasson to recover at least some of his past glory.
The 33-year-old has not scored for his country for two years, leading only one in three of Danish fans polled recently to say he should be in the starting line-up. He provides rather more than goals, however, and Olsen will be right to keep faith in his captain. His style is all about faith in the team and in the unit and if doubt exists outside... well, so much the better.
Must be second favourites to qualify - and if the strikers can click it could get even better for the Danes. Low expectations suit this tight squad perfectly.
Previous best Quarter-finals (1998). Overachieved in France but failed to match 1992 Euro success. Have also gone out twice in the second round.
Killer fact Veteran striker Jon Dahl Tomasson remains two goals away from breaking the Danes' all-time scoring record.
Goalkeepers: Thomas Sorensen (age 33, Stoke City, caps 86), Stephan Andersen (28, Brondby, 6), Jesper Christiansen (32, Copenhagen, 11). Defenders: William Kvist (25, Copenhagen, 13), Simon Kjaer (21, Palermo, 9), Lars Jacobsen (30, Blackburn Rovers, 30), Per Kroldrup (30, Fiorentina, 29), Daniel Agger (25, Liverpool, 31), Patrick Mtiliga (29, Malaga,3), Simon Poulsen (25, AZ Alkmaar, 4). Midfielders: Martin Jorgensen (34, Aarhus, 95), Christian Poulsen (30, Juventus, 73), Jakob Poulsen (26, Aarhus, 12), Dennis Rommedahl (31, Ajax, 95), Thomas Kahlenberg (27, VfL Wolfsburg, 31), Thomas Enevoldsen (22, Groningen, 5), Christian Eriksen (18, Ajax, 3), Mikkel Beckmann (26, Randers, 4), Daniel Jensen (30, Werder Bremen, 48), Jepser Gronkjaer (32, Copenhagen, 77). Strikers: Jon Dahl Tomasson (33, Feyenoord, 109), Soren Larsen (28, Duisburg, 18), Nicklas Bendtner (22, Arsenal, 32).
JAPAN: FIFA RANKING 45, ODDS T0 WIN 400-1
Takeshi Okada must know something the rest of the world doesn't when he says his Japan side have it well within their capabilities of reaching the last four. They might have been the first to book their place in the finals but surely this will not even begin to emulate the old truism about "first side in, last side out".
Saying that, their group does provide some hope of Japan matching their best World Cup showing, at home in 2002 when they made it to the second round. The trouble is the Blue Samurai have yet to win in the finals on foreign soil. To be frank, that should be their primary objective.
Okada has first-hand experience of how difficult that can be. He was the manager at France '98 when Japan lost all three of their group games. Then a sprightly 42-year-old, the former international defender resigned in disgrace. After a decade of foreign head coaches, he returned to the role when the Bosnian Ivica Osim suffered a stroke. To be fair, Okada hasn't had the worst second stint since, whatever the doom and gloom in the homeland might suggest. True, they looked anything but semi-final hopefuls when languishing behind China and South Korea in the East Asian Championships in January, and the 3-0 home defeat to a second-string Serbia outfit and more recently the 2-0 reversal to the South Koreans were the stuff of knee-jerk resignations. But in the bigger picture, qualification for South Africa was comfortably earned and this is where Okada should be judged. They showed how lively they can be in midfield and on the flanks in the first half of last week's friendly against England, where only two late own-goals denied them a much needed morale-booster.
As it was, they proved in Austria they could cope without their veteran playmaker and former darling of Celtic Park, Shunsuke Nakamura. The dead-ball specialist is nursing an ankle injury and is a doubt for the finals. As his country's most famous footballer, his absence would be unthinkable to the fans, although there are others who could step into his boots as principal inspiration. Indeed, thanks to Nakamura's plight, Okada might just have fallen on a system that affords his defence the protection they need. Yuri Abe fitted in nicely as the holding midfielder; his presence allowed Keisuke Honda greater freedom.
Honda is identified by Okada as his key man. The attacking midfielder has been compared to Cristiano Ronaldo since coming to prominence with CSKA Moscow. Together with Takayuki Morimoto – the powerfully built striker who, just as predictably, has been compared to the other Ronaldo – they pose a lively and varied strike-force. England soon discovered that, but they were effectively let off. There can be no such profligacy against Denmark or Cameroon if they are to advance. No own goals, either.
Second is the best they can hope for in their group, regardless of their manager's ridiculous claims.
Previous best Second round (2002). Success on home soil eight years ago remains best showing, sandwiched between two group-stage exits.
Goalkeepers: Seigo Narazaki (age 34, Nagoya Grampus 8, caps 74), Eiji Kawashima (27, Kawasaki Frontale, 9), Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi (33, Jubilo Iwata, 116). Defenders: Yuji Nakazawa (32, Yokohama F-Marinos, 104), Marcus Tulio Tanaka (29, Nagoya Grampus 8, 38), Yasuyuki Konno (27, FC Tokyo, 36), Daiki Iwamasa (28, Kashima Antlers, 2), Yuichi Komano (28, Jubilo Iwata, 52), Yuto Nagatomo (23, FC Tokyo, 25), Atsuto Uchida (22, Kashima Antlers, 31). Midfielders: Shunsuke Nakamura (31, Yokohama F-Marinos, 96), Yasuhito Endo (30, Gamba Osaka, 93), Kengo Nakamura (29, Kawasaki Frontale, 46), Junichi Inamoto (30, Kawasaki Frontale, 79), Yuki Abe (28, Urawa Reds, 44), Makoto Hasebe (26, VfL Wolfsburg, 30), Keisuke Honda (23, CSKA Moscow, 14), Daisuke Matsui (29, Grenoble, 31). Strikers: Shinji Okazaki (24, Shimizu S-Pulse, 27), Keiji Tamada (30, Nagoya Grampus 8, 69), Yoshito Okubo (27, Vissel Kobe, 48), Takayuki Morimoto (22, Catania, 5), Kisho Yano (26, Albirex Niigata, 18).
NETHERLANDS: FIFA RANKING 4, ODDS TO WIN 10-1
Spain, as the footballing intelligentsia assures us, are overdue a World Cup trophy. No doubt, they are. But when it comes to being past their due date, the Spanish should stand in line behind the Netherlands. Every underachieving nation should.
Perhaps this is why the Dutch find themselves languishing below not only England, but also Argentina in the betting lists. There can be no other reason barring the past failures weighing them down so heavily to rank their chance so unevenly. If this were a horse race their odds would be far shorter. Indeed, such was their form in qualifying that many might even rank the Dutch as favourites.
Bert van Marwijk's men won all eight games in their group, scoring 17 goals and conceding just two. Their goals came from 11 different players. It may not be quite the "Total Football" of the 1970s, but it did look ominously complete. With players like Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie they have the quality, and with a settled 4-2-3-1 system they have the fluid formation. Now all they need is the belief to succeed where Johan Cruyff and Co failed so agonisingly.
Their back-to-back losing finals of 1974 and 1978 are evoked before every tournament (well, they weren't in 2002 as they somehow failed to qualify). Their legendary coach Rinus Michels might have given the world a tactical system to revolutionise the game but he couldn't give his country the thing it wanted most. The bitterness left by this non-fulfilment has plagued future squads, which have often collapsed under the resulting infighting. Everybody in this nation of philosophers has a view on how to capture the holy grail – and that is no atmosphere in which to command a dressing room. Question: Why should Van Marwijk fare any differently?
Well, he did win the 2002 Uefa Cup with Feyenoord, which might not sound much when put alongside the achievements of his countryman Guus Hiddink. Yet it was the Rotterdam club's first trophy since 1974. In truth, there were no great celebrations when the one-time capped midfielder was appointed successor to Marco van Basten in the wake of the latest flop, a quarter-final exit at the hands of Hiddink's Russia at Euro 2008. But quietly and very unflappably, Van Marwijk has won around the public. He has lost just once in 19 matches in charge and in this time has created an assuredness and stability not recognised in many years. And he did not use an iron fist to do so.
"Irritation is OK," said the 58-year-old earlier this year when quizzed on how he would maintain the squad harmony. "It makes a team sharp. Just as long as it doesn't work negatively."
It is fair to say that Van Marwijk has caused irritation in some quarters despite his impressive start. Real Madrid's popular midfielder Rafael van der Vaart is anything but certain of a starting place while he resisted the romance of calling up the fit-again Ruud van Nistelrooy. Instead, he has done the job his way, ignoring the advice of certain players.
It is somewhat incredible that someone such as Van Persie can ignore the nation's history of player power gone wrong and openly express his desire to lead an attacking force including the rest of the so-called "Famous Four" – Robben, Sneijder and Van der Vaart. But Van Marwijk doesn't seem bothered. He knows that if this Dutch side has a weakness it is in defence and is happy enough to forsake what some see as their creative potential to plug a few gaps. So the tireless and selfless Dirk Kuyt may well be preferred.
If he is, then Van Marwijk will and should expect no mutiny. If there is, then he has an enforcer to help him in the camp. Mark van Bommel just happens to be his son-in-law and when he took over Van Marwijk's first call was to his daughter's home to talk her husband out of retirement. It was the most astute of moves. Van Bommel had fallen out with Van Basten and retired prematurely. Although the Dutch did not miss the red mist which was prone to descend over the Bayern Munich midfielder, they missed his physicality. Van Marwijk needed a hard man. And conveniently there was one around the family table.
Van Bommel is the cog that can make it all work. He can be the difference for a side who have been together for a few championships and whose time seems nigh. Van Persie is coming in fresh while Sneijder and Robben were the stars of the last European season. The only blot on the landscape – apart from that shaky back four – is a projected quarter-final with Brazil. Van Bommel will be up for it, while Van Marwijk will simply shrug his shoulders. Being Oranje to him, is all about the future.
Should have few problems in the group and the way seems set for a quarter-final with Brazil. The Dutch have the quality to fear no one.
Previous best Finalists twice (1974 & 1978). Consecutive final defeats in the 1970s remain the best showing. Also finished fourth in France '98.
Killer fact The most successful team never to win the World Cup.
And the fans? An audience-pleasing mass of oranje. The cloggers will be in South Africa in force - 10,000 are expected and Dutch camping company De Oranjecamping has booked 85 per cent of camping vehicles in the country.
Goalkeepers: Maarten Stekelenburg (age 27, Ajax, caps 26), Sander Boschker (39, FC Twente, 1 ), Michel Vorm (26, Utrecht, 4). Defenders: Khalid Boulahrouz (28, VfB Stuttgart, 29), Edson Braafheid (27, Glasgow Celtic, 6), Giovanni van Bronckhorst (35, Feyenoord, 98), John Heitinga (26, Everton, 53), Joris Mathijsen (30, SV Hamburg, 55), Andre Ooijer (35, PSV Eindhoven, 53), Gregory van der Wiel (22, Ajax, 9). Midfielders: Ibrahim Afellay (24, PSV Eindhoven, 22), Mark van Bommel (33, Bayern Munich, 55), Nigel de Jong (25, Manchester City, 41), Stijn Schaars (26, AZ Alkmaar, 12), Wesley Sneijder (25, Internazionale, 60), Rafael van der Vaart (27, Real Madrid, 77), Demy de Zeeuw (27, Ajax, 24). Strikers: Ryan Babel (23, Liverpool, 39), Eljero Elia (23, SV Hamburg, 8), Klaas Jan Huntelaar (26, Milan, 31), Dirk Kuyt (29, Liverpool, 62), Robin van Persie (26, Arsenal, 43), Arjen Robben (26, Bayern Munich, 46).