Group G: Brazil, Ivory Coast, North Korea, Portugal
Our unmissable guide to the World Cup: Who will survive the group of death?
BRAZIL: FIFA RANKING 1, ODDS TO WIN 9/2
Brazil may be in their customary position, high up in the bookmakers' charts but any romantics closing their eyes and dreaming of a journey back to the early 1980s are doing just that – dreaming. Here we are in the second decade of the new millennium and the samba has been replaced by the sombre.
True, with players such as Kaka and – whisper the name at Eastlands – Robinho, there are magicians in the tradition of Zico, Socrates and Falcao. But they are surrounded by artisans such as Gilberto Silva, Felipe Melo and Elano. It used to be all about what Brazil could do; now the philosophy is as much centred around what the opposition shouldn't be allowed to do.
Not that this makes them less likely to win their sixth World Cup. Indeed, this inexorable shift from the poetic to the pragmatic can be traced back to 1982 and the greatest Brazilian team never to win the title. In the wake of that stunning, crushing loss to Italy, suddenly the succeeding became the thing in Brazil.
Fast forward 12 years to 1994 and a dour general called Dunga was carrying out the dour instructions of Mario Zagallo. It wasn't beautiful, but it was dutiful and once again Rio could stage one of its legendary beach parties. It was the Brazilian birthright to be the footballing world-beaters and so what if the expediency of efficiency had crushed the freedom of flair? Certainly, Dunga never let it worry him.
And he still doesn't, not even when the critics are lambasting him for snubbing the talents of Ronaldinho. After the disappointment of the 2006 finals – when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals – Dunga was employed on a mission and it didn't say on the brief that it had to be accomplished with the approval of the angels. He was ruthless in installing a new mindset based on discipline and savvy and was equally as ruthless in ensuring it paid instant dividends.
The Copa America was lifted in 2007, when Argentina played all the pretty stuff, and then followed the Confederations Cup last year. Meanwhile, qualification for South Africa was earned in similar style as Brazil topped the group with minimum fuss and minimum entertainment. There were some grumbles, there still are, but how do you moan when the results keep racking up?
To be fair, Brazil would be daft not to rely on their defence as in the goalkeeper Julio Cesar, the right-back Maicon and the centre-half Lucio there are three players without superior in their positions. Just consider that the Tottenham No 1, Heurelho Gomes, doesn't make the starting line-up and then figure how inappropriate the old joke about Brazilian keepers would now sound. That sums up the personality overhaul as neatly as any other evidence. Well, that and the fact that Dunga not only decided on his 23 before anyone else but seemingly also on his starting XI. The manager plainly wants them organised to the point of being robotic.
The roles are unequivocally defined. Much will depend on Maicon and also on Michel Bastos on the other flank. Brazil will rely heavily on the counter-attack and the wing-backs will be urged to get the ball forward with pace and accuracy. Then with Kaka, Robinho and Seville's clinical striker Luis Fabiano occupying the final third, the mix begins to look as irresistible as it is inevitable.
But then, the optimism must be tempered by the identity of the group opponents. If there is a "group of death" in these finals then here it is. Within five days, the much-vaunted Brazilian back four must come up against first Ivory Coast – with or without Didier Drogba – and then Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. Lucio, the captain and defensive lynchpin, will have his hands as full as his senses. Good job, therefore, that he has set a Brazilian benchmark in imperviousness. Lucio is the Dunga of his generation and those such as Jose Mourinho at Internazionale have rejoiced in this reincarnation. He has won just about every big trophy there is to win, including the World Cup in 2002 and, of course the Champions League last month. Dunga wasted no time in appointing him as his on-field leader, spotting a kindred spirit in both upbringing and maturity.
"Some people have said I resemble Dunga in his playing days in terms of behaviour on the pitch, especially because we both played in German football and were brought through by the same club in Brazil [Internacional]," says the former Bayern Munich favourite. "But I reckon that we just believe in hard work and discipline as a means of winning trophies in football."
And there it is in a Brazilian nutshell – the ethos that will fuel the drive to the immortal sextet. "To those who complain about style, I just say nothing is more beautiful than winning," adds Lucio. "This is the kind of spectacle we should be giving to the people."
Will be difficult to beat and with enough firepower up front difficult to keep out. A lot depends on the form of Kaka and Robinho, who have not enjoyed their best seasons. If they're on, Brazil could triumph yet again.
Previous best Winners five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 & 2002). Quadrennial favourites, the Samba Kings are the most successful nation in World Cup history and got to keep the Jules Rimet trophy in 1970 after becoming the first country to win the Cup three times.
Killer fact Have scored the most goals in finals history - 201 in 92 matches. Adriano scored number 200, against Japan in a group match four years ago. Have also never failed to qualify.
And the fans? This Brazilian team may be more defensive than tradition suggests, but their fans will be as extravagant as ever. The Brazilian faithful can be seen adorned with feathers, drums and whistles, covered in green and yellow paint and in constant carnival mood.
Goalkeepers: Julio Cesar (age 30, Internazionale, caps 48), Doni (30, Roma, 10), Heurelho Gomes (29, Tottenham Hotspur, 10). Defenders: Maicon (28, Internazionale, 57), Daniel Alves (27, Barcelona, 34), Michel Bastos (26, Lyons, 4), Gilberto (34, Cruzeiro, 32), Lucio (32, Internazionale, 90), Juan (31, Roma, 73), Luisao (29, Benfica, 41), Thiago Silva (25, Milan, 7). Midfielders: Gilberto Silva (33, Panathinaikos, 87), Felipe Melo (26, Fiorentina, 17), Ramires (23, Benfica, 11), Elano (28, Galatasaray, 42), Kaka (28, Real Madrid, 77), Julio Baptista (28, Roma, 46), Kleberson (30, Flamengo, 31), Josue (30, VfL Wolfsburg, 26). Strikers: Robinho (26, Manchester City, 74), Luis Fabiano (29, Sevilla, 37), Nilmar (25, Villarreal, 16), Grafite (31, VfL Wolfsburg, 3).
IVORY COAST: FIFA RANKING 27, ODDS TO WIN 40/1
If things had worked out differently in those secret Chelsea hotel room dealings all those years ago then Sven Goran Eriksson and Didier Drogba would have linked up brainpower with might sometime before this World Cup. But there they were on their way to South Africa and so the finals had yet another delicious sub-plot.
That all looks ruined now with Drogba's arm broken in their final warm-up match and the management desperate not to admit the inevitable. That is understandable. Drogba is a one-man wrecking machine who always appeared destined to crash around the game's biggest theatre. Furthermore, with Salomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboué and the Touré brothers, there was a supporting cast well capable of preparing the path for their leading man to storm centre stage.
Yes, it was all there for Eriksson, but now he faces the main challenge of his managerial career if he is to justify a £2m salary in a country where £3 is the average weekly wage.
First off there was the draw, a quite awful lottery for the Ivorians that rekindled so much foreboding from four years before. In Germany, they pulled Argentina and Holland from the hat, this time came Brazil and Portugal. Never mind "it could be you", in this part of western Africa they're saying "why is it always bloody us?" Put this rotten luck alongside the fact that Eriksson first got to work with his new men in late May and now Drogba, and then one can understand the scale of the task. The Ivorians have long been accused of being too individual and of containing too many egos and it will be interesting how the famous Sven soft soap treatment goes down in the dressing room.
The perceived wisdom was that they needed a hard man. They went into the African Cup of Nations in January as favourites and lasted only as long as the last eight. "Perhaps we were a bit too arrogant and over-confident," admitted defender Guy Demel.
But Eriksson should not be underestimated. He has reached the quarter-finals of the last two World Cups and the same stage will be the least of his ambitions. While the gameplan was inevitably to focus on establishing a supply line to the continent's best player, then at least in behind there is plenty to deny the opposition. Kolo Touré has not enjoyed the best season but has all the incentive he could ever wish for now. Of course, the same will be said of all the African sides, but there appears to be a certain wind of opportunity behind the Ivorians.
"Brazil and Portugal won't like playing against us as we have nothing to lose," pointed out Demel. "If we can survive the group stage it will give us confidence and then anything is possible." Does that apply if they are without Drogba? Probably not.
No Drogba, no chance. It truly would be that big a blow for the Ivorians. The Chelsea striker is not only their main source of goals but also their main source of inspiration.
Previous best Group stage (2006). Failed to make seven successive tournaments before making it four years ago - where they found themselves in a group with Netherlands and Argentina.
Killer fact Only one of the Ivory Coast squad plays in his home country – goalkeeper Daniel Yeboah.
Goalkeepers: Boubacar Barry (age 30, Lokeren, caps 43), Aristides Zogbo (28, Maccabi Netanya, 6), Daniel Yeboah (25, ASEC Abidjan, 4). Defenders: Souleymane Bamba (25, Hibernian, 17), Arthur Boka (27, VfB Stuttgart, 54), Guy Demel (28, Hamburg SV, 20), Emmanuel Eboue (26, Arsenal, 51), Steve Gohouri (29, Wigan Athletic, 11), Siaka Tiene (28, Valenciennes, 53), Kolo Toure (29, Manchester City, 77), Benjamin Brou Angoua (23, Valenciennes, 7). Midfielders: Jean-Jacques Gosso Gosso (27, Monaco, 7), Abdelkader Keita (28, Galatasaray, 53), Emmanuel Kone (23, International Curtea Arges, 12), Gervinho (22, Lille, 14), Romaric (26, Sevilla, 39), Cheik Ismael Tiote (23, FC Twente, 9), Yaya Toure (26, Barcelona, 46), Didier Zokora (29, Sevilla, 79). Strikers: Aruna Dindane (29, Lekhwiya, 55), Seydou Doumbia (22, Young Boys Berne, 5), Didier Drogba (32, Chelsea, 67), Salomon Kalou (24, Chelsea, 28).
NORTH KOREA: FIFA RANKING 105, ODDS TO WIN 2,000/1
For reasons which really don't need explaining, not much is known about the North Koreans. There will be no fans of the lowest ranked side in the tournament in South Africa as their leader, Kim Jong-il, does not allow it. While there are reports of 1,000 Chinese cheerleaders being recruited, the support will be as spontaneous as much of North Korean life.
The only other time they qualified for the finals was in 1966 when they shocked Italy 1-0 before leading Portugal 3-0 in the quarter-final. Only the genius of Eusebio halted their progress.
Kim Jong-hun's team would be confident of defending a 3-0 lead against anyone. The problem is they will not score three goals. Not in one match. Not in three. If it is obvious to say a single point would be rated a success, it is not cruel to suggest that so, too, would a single goal. "While the global trend is attacking football, we stick to our defensive strategy, mainly because this best suits our players," says Kim, unashamedly.
Need to cause an even bigger shock than 1966 to emerge from the group. With Brazil providing a torrid opening, it won't happen.
Previous best Quarter-final (1966).
Killer fact Failed to make Mexico finals in 1970 after being disqualified during the qualifying rounds for refusing to play Israel.
Goalkeepers: Kim Myong-gil (age 25, Amrokgang, 11), Kim Myong-won (26, Amrokgang, 9), Ri Myong-guk (23, Pyongyang City, 29). Defenders: Cha Jong-hyok (24, Amrokgang, 32), Nam Song-chol (28, April 25, 42), Pak Chol-jin (24, Amrokgang, 35), Pak Nam-chol (21, Amrokgang, 12), Ri Jun-il (22, Sobaeksu, 27), Ri Kwang-chon (24, April 25, 41), Ri Kwang-hyok (22, Kyonggongop, 15). Midfielders: An Yong-hak (31, Omiya Ardija, 24), Ji Yun-nam (33, April 25, 22), Kim Kyong-il (21, Rimyongsu, 7), Kim Yong-jun (26, Pyongyang City, 53), Mun In-guk (31, April 25, 42), Ri Chol-myong (22, Pyongyang City, 13), Pak Nam-chol (24, April 25, 36), Pak Sung-hyok (20, Sobaeksu, 6). Strikers: An Chol-hyok (24, Rimyongsu, 15), Choe Kum-chol (23, April 25, 16), Hong Yong-jo (28, Rostov, 40), Jong Tae-se (26, Kawasaki Frontale, 21), Kim Kum-il (22, April 25, 12).
PORTUGAL: FIFA RANKING 3, ODDS TO WIN 25/1
With Cristiano Ronaldo as captain, with enough quality team-mates to be inspired by his all-round brilliance, with a decent record in recent finals and with a Fifa world raking of three, Portugal should be one of the obvious favourites for the tournament. So why are they 28-1 and why are so many good judges tipping them to fall in the group stages? Say hello to Carlos Queiroz.
Premier League junkies will remember him as the assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson who apparently fell out with Roy Keane. His critics in Portugal claim he should never have risen any higher. Fair? Not if you are a follower of the black and white it isn't. Queiroz has only lost twice in his time in charge, a run which has taken them to their highest ranking. Impressive.
But then, is it? In this time, Portugal have not played any team ranked in the top 15 and came too close for missing out on South Africa. Too many draws forced them into second in a group they should have waltzed, and left them needing to beat Bosnia in a play-off. Remarkably, Ronaldo failed to score once during these qualifying stages, the theory being that Queiroz lacked the authority to introduce a structure to revolve around the best-paid footballer on the planet.
Certainly he has the talent at his disposal to mould whatever he likes. Even without Jose Bosingwa, the defence is just about strong enough with Ricardo Carvalho doing what he does for Chelsea. And creativity really shouldn't be a problem As well as Ronaldo there is Deco, Joao Moutinho, Simao and Nani. How is it possible to go on a sequence of three scoreless draws with all that firepower in their ranks? It is an anomaly Queiroz must address quickly as first up are the Ivory Coast. Even if Sven Goran Eriksson's management won't cause panic through their ranks, the Ivorian forward line surely will.
Plenty will be riding on Liedson to light up the scoreboard. The Sporting striker already has some important contributions on his CV, with three from seven since taking up Portuguese citizenship. Liedson will already have one eye on the showdown with his homeland of Brazil. But they will not be wanting to go into the standout encounter of the entire group stage needing anything but a bonus. Regardless of how confident Queiroz happens to be.
"When we take our chances consistently, we will be just about unbeatable," he said. "Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Liedson are exceptional goalscorers. In South Africa they will prove it."
Brave words from a gaffer who will be judged on their semi-final adventure of the last World Cup. What will constitute a failure? Well, if they advance as runners-up to the second round they will be likely to come across their neighbours Spain. Delicious for the neutral, ominous for the Portuguese. They probably would be happy enough to see it go to penalties. They have never lost a shoot-out. As England can testify.
The draw has not been kind to a side who like to feel their way into a tournament. The group of death could be followed by the second round of purgatory, should they finish second and Spain win their group. It would be tough to see them reach a quarter-final.
Previous best Third (1966). Won the third-place play-off in England in 1966 before losing at the same stage four years ago - to the hosts, Germany.
Killer fact He may be the world's most expensive player at £80m, but Cristiano Ronaldo has not scored an international goal since a Euro 2008 group game against Czech Republic.
Goalkeepers: Eduardo (age 27, Braga, caps 14), Daniel Fernandes (26, Iraklis, 2), Beto (28, Porto, 1). Defenders: Miguel (30, Valencia, 56), Paulo Ferreira (31, Chelsea, 61), Ricardo Carvalho (32, Chelsea, 62), Bruno Alves (28, Porto, 30), Rolando (24, Porto, 8), Ricardo Costa (29, Valencia, 8), Duda (29, Malaga, 15), Fabio Coentrao (22, Benfica, 3). Midfielders: Pedro Mendes (31, Sporting, 7), Pepe (27, Real Madrid, 24), Tiago (29, Atletico Madrid, 50), Deco (32, Chelsea, 73), Raul Meireles (27, Porto, 33), Miguel Veloso (24, Sporting, 11). Strikers: Simao Sabrosa (30, Atletico Madrid, 80), Danny (26, Zenit St Petersburg, 10), Liedson (32, Sporting, 9), Hugo Almeida (26, Werder Bremen, 25), Cristiano Ronaldo (25, Real Madrid, 71), Nani (23, Manchester United, 36).
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