ITALY: FIFA RANKING 5, ODDS TO WIN 16-1
Sporting immortality beckons for Marcello Lippi. Should the veteran coach lead Italy to a fifth World Cup in the coming weeks, he would join fellow countryman Vittorio Pozzo as the only coach to have won the World Cup twice.
This was not a situation Lippi envisioned four years ago, when his Italy side beat France on penalties in Berlin to attain their fourth World Cup. Three days after the final, the former Juventus manager did not renew his contract with the Italian Football Federation and he walked off into retirement, anticipating a gentle life pursuing his hobby of deep-sea fishing along the Tuscan coast.
However, in June 2008 the call came again, after his successor Roberto Donadoni led the Azzurri to a disappointing performance at that summer's European Championship in Austria and Switzerland, in which they lost 3-0 to the Netherlands before losing to eventual winners Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals. Donadoni was sacked and the reliable Lippi returned to oversee Italy's defence of the World Cup, starting with a professional if unconvincing qualification campaign, in which they were unbeaten and ended up six points clear of the Republic of Ireland.
The chance to rewrite history is not lost on Lippi, who will retire for good after the tournament, to be replaced by Cesare Prandelli. "I've never dreamt about doing what Pozzo did but I am aware that it's a possibility in South Africa," said Lippi. "Of course if it's happened only once in almost 100 years it means that it's not an easy thing to achieve, but you can never say never." Lippi's record ensures he enjoys plenty of goodwill with the fanatical Italian public, but even he has found himself facing criticism over his selections recently, not least his loyalty to the core of players with whom he won the World Cup four years ago. In Lippi's defence, the cupboard is looking bare when it comes to alternatives. For example, Internazionale are the champions of Europe and Italy but they do not contribute a single player to the Italian squad.
Defender Fabio Cannavaro, Fifa's world player of the year in 2006, leads the side at the age of 36, and he will be joined by the likes of Gianluca Zambrotta (33), Mauro Camoranesi (33), Gennaro Gattuso (32), Andrea Pirlo (31) and Vincenzo Iaquinta (30) in what will be one of the oldest squads at the World Cup.
In preparation for the finals, Lippi succeeded in breaking Pozzo's record of 30 consecutive unbeaten games in charge of Italy. The run came to an end in London two games later, when Italy lost 2-0 to Brazil at the Emirates. The defeat was followed by a miserable trip to South Africa last summer for the Confederations Cup, when Italy went home after losing to Egypt and Brazil
Lippi immediately came under pressure to introduce youth to the side, but he refused, saying at the time: "I'm not letting go of my old boys. It's not as if Brazil or Spain have an average age far inferior to ours. I probably won't have them in the side when they are going grey, but for sure we will do far better than most with them at next year's World Cup."
Those words may yet come back to haunt him over the next month. No one thinks Italy will put up much of a defence of their World Cup, as although they were fortunate to be drawn in a relatively weak group, the seeding means they are projected to face European champions Spain at the quarter-final stage.
As ever, Italy's foundation is a strong defence. Gianluigi Buffon, who won his 100th cap last November, remains the foundation of the side, and in front of him he can expect to see a defence that includes Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Giorgio Chiellini and probably the inexperienced Christian Maggio of Napoli at right back.
In midfield, the Milan pair of Pirlo and Gattuso will be joined by the younger legs of Roma's uncompromising Daniele De Rossi (26), who missed most of the last World Cup when he was banned for four games for an elbow on Brian McBride of the US, and Juventus's versatile star Claudio Marchisio (24).
Lippi said recently that Marchisio could play behind the strikers because "he's the one with best movement off the ball". The front pairing is likely to be Alberto Gilardino of Fiorentina and Antonio Di Natale of Udinese.
Claims that the side are too old could yet prove to be the motivation Italy need. Zambrotta said from the squad's training camp in Sestrieres: "We don't have an old team. There are nine of us in the squad that won the World Cup four years ago, that's a good ratio. The current squad is a mix of youth who are enthusiastic to show what they can do and experienced players who want to do just as well, and win the World Cup in the process.
"Personally, I don't feel old and I'm really looking forward to the tournament. I still have plenty of juice in my legs and a lot to contribute to this team, just like a lot of my team-mates in their thirties."
Lippi's determination to stick with the old guard, however, means the growing unease at his tactics and selections will see him either return home a legend, having emulated Pozzo, or a total failure. As he said recently: "I know full well that if we lose in South Africa, they will massacre me."
They should progress to the quarter-finals, but no further. Italy are seeded to meet Spain which will be a step too far for Lippi's old stagers.
Previous best Winners four times (1934, 1938, 1982 & 2006). Upset odds to win in Germany four years ago. Also finished runners-up in 1970 and 1994, losing both times to Brazil.
Killer fact Italy conceded just two goals during their World Cup-winning campaign in 2006 - one from the penalty spot (Zinedine Zidane in the final) and the other a (Cristian Zaccardo) own goal..
And the fans? Listen out for an interesting take on the White Stripes single "Seven Nation Army", which the disbelieving Azzurri support have adapted and made their own. Otherwise, they'll be urging the out-of-sorts team to repeat their 2006 win with cries of "Forza Italia!".
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (age 32, Juventus, caps 101), Morgan De Sanctis (33, Napoli, 3), Federico Marchetti (27, Cagliari, 4). Defenders: Salvatore Bocchetti (23, Genoa, 4), Leonardo Bonucci (23, Bari, 2), Fabio Cannavaro (36, Juventus, 133), Giorgio Chiellini (25, Juventus, 28), Domenico Criscito (23, Genoa, 6), Christian Maggio (28, Napoli, 4), Gianluca Zambrotta (33, Milan, 93). Midfielders: Mauro Camoranesi (33, Juventus, 53), Daniele De Rossi (26, Roma, 53), Gennaro Gattuso (32, Milan, 71), Claudio Marchisio (24, Juventus, 4), Riccardo Montolivo (25, Fiorentina, 12), Angelo Palombo (28, Sampdoria, 16), Simone Pepe (26, Udinese, 14), Andrea Pirlo (31, Milan, 66). Strikers: Antonio Di Natale (32, Udinese, 32), Alberto Gilardino (27, Fiorentina, 40), Vincenzo Iaquinta (30, Juventus, 36), Giampaolo Pazzini (25, Sampdoria, 7), Fabio Quagliarella (27, Napoli, 19).
PARAGUAY: FIFA RANKING 31, ODDS TO WIN 100-1
The anxiety about twisted ankles and broken metatarsals is rendered meaningless in Paraguay, whose leading scorer from qualification is recovering after being shot in the head. Salvador Cabanas, who scored six goals during Paraguay's successful qualifying campaign, was shot in January when he got involved in a row in the toilets of a nightclub in Mexico City, where he plays his club football. Surgeons have decided not to remove the bullet from his skull, and the 29-year-old still struggles to remember what he had for breakfast.
This terrible injury has overshadowed preparations for the World Cup. Nevertheless, they will expect to qualify for the knockout stages, although toppling world champions Italy from the top of the table may be beyond them.
Belief comes from their performance in qualification which started in explosive fashion. After 10 of their 18 games, Paraguay, under the guidance of Argentinian coach Gerardo Martino, topped the South American group with a six-point lead over Brazil thanks to seven wins and two draws.
They eventually finished third, which felt like an anticlimax despite claiming their highest points tally ever. Yet Paraguay's scalps during qualification included a 2-0 victory over five-time World Cup winners Brazil, a 1-0 triumph over Argentina, and a stunning 3-0 away victory over fellow World Cup finalists Chile.
These results and their confidence in Martino mean Paraguay believe they are capable of pulling off a shock or two. Defender Antolin Alcaraz, who will move to Wigan after the tournament, said a place in the semi-finals is an achievable goal. "Everyone in the country thinks we'll get past the round of 16," he said. "Hopes are high because the Paraguayan media sees our group as not very difficult, and we're expected to go through behind Italy. Making the last four is a possibility."
Despite the absence of Cabanas there is an embarrassment of riches up front. Manchester City's Roque Santa Cruz is the star name but he missed much of qualification with injury. Alongside him Nelson Haedo Valdez was the nation's second top scorer in qualifying, and they also boast Benfica's 6ft 4in striker Oscar Cardozo, whose willowy appearance has earned him the nickname the Bamboo Tree.
Must start well if they are to challenge for second place. However, the Europeans are likely to be too strong.
Previous best Second round twice (1998 & 2002)
Killer fact Paraguay qualified five points clear of Argentina for the 2010 finals, beating both Brazil and the Argentines in the process of finishing third in the group.
Goalkeepers: Justo Villar (age 32, Real Valladolid, caps 72), Aldo Bobadilla (34, Independiente Medellin, 19), Diego Barreto (28, Cerro Porteno, 3). Defenders: Denis Caniza (35, Leon, 97), Paulo Da Silva (30, Sunderland, 70), Claudio Morel (32, Boca Juniors, 27), Julio Cesar Caceres (30, Atletico Mineiro, 62), Carlos Bonet (32, Olimpia, 30), Dario Veron (30, Pumas UNAM, 28), Aureliano Torres (27, San Lorenzo, 28), Antolin Alcaraz (27, Wigan Athletic, 4). Midfielders: Edgar Barreto (25, Atalanta, 47), Cristian Riveros (27, Sunderland, 48), Jonathan Santana (28, VfL Wolfsburg, 23), Victor Caceres (25, Libertad, 26), Enrique Vera (31, LDU Quito, 27), Nestor Ortigoza (25, Argentinos Juniors, 5). Strikers: Roque Santa Cruz (28, Manchester City, 69), Nelson Haedo Valdez (26, Borussia Dortmund, 38), Lucas Barrios (25, Borussia Dortmund, 3), Oscar Cardozo (27, Benfica, 29), Edgar Benitez (22, Pachuca, 12), Rodolfo Gamarra (21, Libertad, 3).
SLOVAKIA: FIFA RANKING 34, 300-1
Qualification was doubly satisfying for Slovakia, for they did it at the expense of their closest rivals, the Czech Republic, the country in whose sporting shadow they have lived since the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
The task of establishing themselves as a footballing nation in their own right was made all the harder for Slovakia by Fifa's decision to assign the history, and the ranking points, of the former country to the Czech Republic. Slovakia had provided nine players in the Czechoslovakia team that won the European Championship in 1976, but they were forced to accept their role as junior partner in the split, and watch as the Czechs qualified for four European Championships, finishing runners-up at Euro 96, and made it through to the last World Cup finals in Germany.
The boot is on the other foot now, however. The divorced couple were drawn together in European Group Three, and Slovakia won 2-1 in Prague on their way to winning the group by two points.
Despite losing home and away to second-placed Slovenia, Slovakia won seven of their other eight fixtures. Their transformation from minnows to a well-drilled, talented side is due to the influence of coach Vladimir Weiss, who at the age of 45 will be the youngest of the 32 coaches in South Africa. He played 19 times for Czechoslovakia and 12 times for Slovakia before becoming a coach and working his way up to the national team job two years ago.
He has built his team around a core of talented young players, most notably the 22-year-old playmaker Marek Hamsik of Napoli. Hamsik is supported by Chelsea's Miroslav Stoch (20), who will be on a high after a wonderful season on loan with newly crowned Dutch champions FC Twente. The coach also picked his 20-year-old son Vladimir, who is on the books of Manchester City and spent the second half of last season on loan at Bolton Wanderers.
The form of goalkeeper Jan Mucha was one of the main reasons for Slovakia's successful qualification. The 27-year-old will be moving to Everton after the World Cup, after signing a pre-contract in January to move on a free transfer from Legia Warsaw. In front of him the defence relies on Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel alongside Jan Durica, who plays for German side Hannover 96. In attack the experienced Robert Vittek of Lille plays as a lone striker.
Unfortunately for Slovakia they will be without their most capped player, in defensive midfielder Miroslav Karhan, who was recalled by Weiss to play a key role in qualification but who has fallen victim to the recurrence of a long-standing Achilles injury.
Should have enough to overcome New Zealand and Paraguay to attain second place, but will probably then lose to Group E top seeds Netherlands.
Previous best n/a.
Killer fact Their first World Cup since becoming an independent nation, the Slovaks came under the umbrella of Czechoslovakia in previous tournaments (including runners-up in 1934 and 1962).
And the fans? More than 10,000 supporters turned up to see the World Cup trophy when it was paraded through the north-west town of Zilina.
Goalkeeper: Jan Mucha (age 27, Legia Warsaw, caps 14), Dusan Kuciak (25, Vaslui, 3), Dusan Pernis (25, Dundee United, 2). Defenders: Peter Pekarik (23, VfL Wolfsburg, 20), Martin Petras (30, Cesena, 38), Martin Skrtel (25, Liverpool, 38), Jan Durica (28, Lokomotiv Moscow, 36), Radoslav Zabavnik (29, Mainz, 43), Marek Cech (27, West Bromwich Albion, 39), Kornel Salata (25, Slovan Bratislava, 3). Midfielders: Kamil Kopunek (26, Spartak Trnava, 8), Jan Kozak (30, Timisoara, 23), Juraj Kucka (23, Sparta Prague, 6), Marek Sapara (27, Ankaragucu, 24), Marek Hamsik (22, Napoli, 31), Vladimir Weiss (20, Manchester City, 8), Miroslav Stoch (20, Chelsea, 11), Zdeno Strba (33, Skoda Xanthi, 20). Strikers: Stanislav Sestak (27, VfL Bochum, 30), Erik Jendrisek (23, Schalke 04, 14), Robert Vittek (28, Lille, 69), Martin Jakubko (30, Saturn Ramenskoye, 22), Filip Holosko (26, Besiktas, 37).
NEW ZEALAND: FIFA RANKING 78, ODDS TO WIN 2000-1
They are rank outsiders to qualify from Group F but the All Whites' recent win over Serbia proved they are at least worthy of their place at football's top table. Their route to the finals was the easiest of all 32 finalists (bar that of the automatic place given to the hosts South Africa), beating Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Bahrain, the latter in a play-off.
But, rather as Blackpool showed in reaching the Premier League through the play-offs last month, there is still a glimmer of hope for the underdog. And New Zealand are determined to defy the logic that says countries with modest resources cannot compete with the world's elite.
The All Whites have only a small pool of players to call upon, as the country has just one full-time professional side, Wellington Phoenix, who compete in the Australian A-League and provide a huge proportion of the players to the national team. The domestic league is semi-professional, and has been running for just five years.
The squad selected by coach Ricki Herbert contains six players based in England, including strikers Rory Fallon of Plymouth Argyle and Chris Wood of West Bromwich Albion, with the most notable being Ryan Nelsen of Blackburn Rovers. As you might expect, this is not a side based on flair and creativity. Herbert has to work with the players who are available and he has drilled them into a physical team based on strong defensive organisation and determination.
Some of their preparation was spent in Austria, where they trained at altitude but also practised playing against European opposition. The training went so well, in fact, that the minnows pulled off one of the greatest victories in their history when they beat the highly fancied Serbia 1-0 in a friendly in Klagenfurt.
Goalscorer Shane Smeltz admitted the victory, which was watched by scouts from their Group F opponents Slovakia, will mean the Kiwis are less likely to arrive as underrated make-weights in South Africa.
Smeltz said: "They [Slovakia spies] were in the stands watching us so they'll probably learn a few things. They probably would have thought Serbia would have won. But with us getting the right result and playing quite well during the game... they'll certainly have to rethink about how they're going to play us. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, but that's the way it is."
The element of surprise having been eliminated, New Zealand will have to rely on their hard work and team ethic seeing them through.
A point would be a major bonus, a win would be a wonderful achievement, but an early flight home is a near certainty.
Previous best Group stage (1982). Lost all three games in their only previous tournament - Spain '82 - scoring twice and conceding 12.
Killer fact Manager Ricki Herbert was a player for New Zealand when they played in the 1982 tournament, featuring as a central defender.
Goalkeepers: James Bannatyne (age 34, Team Wellington, caps 3), Glen Moss (27, Melbourne Victory, 15) Mark Paston (33, Wellington Phoenix, 22). Defenders: Andy Boyens (26, New York Red Bulls, 15), Tony Lochhead (28, Wellington Phoenix, 29), Ryan Nelsen (32, Blackburn Rovers, 40), Winston Reid (21, FC Midtjylland, 2), Ben Sigmund (29, Wellington Phoenix, 14), Tommy Smith (20, Ipswich Town, 3), Ivan Vicelich (33, Auckland City, 66). Midfielders: Andy Barron (29, Team Wellington, 11), Leo Bertos (28, Wellington Phoenix, 33), Jeremy Brockie (22, Newcastle Jets, 17), Tim Brown (29, Wellington Phoenix, 25), Jeremy Christie (27, Tampa Bay Rowdies, 21), Aaron Clapham (23, Canterbury United, 0), Simon Elliott (35, unattached, 62), Michael McGlinchey (23, Central Coast Mariners, 5), David Mulligan (28, unattached, 25). Strikers: Rory Fallon (28, Plymouth Argyle, 6), Chris Killen (28, Middlesbrough, 31), Shane Smeltz (28, Gold Coast United, 29), Chris Wood (18, West Bromwich Albion, 8).