Samba hard to beat but it takes two to tango

Yes it's winter and yes it's at altitude but expect the Latin Americans to reach the final at the most socially significant of all World Cups
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There have been politically important World Cups, such as those in Mussolini's Italy in 1934, and the Argentinian junta's of 1978; and humanitarian ones in Chile (1962) and Mexico (1986) after both countries had been struck by devastating earthquakes.

Now comes the most socially significant of all. Africa finally gets to stage the greatest tournament in the world's most popular sport, a privilege denied four years ago after some unsavoury voting shenanigans but now only five days away. South Africa has spent £3.5 billion to prove that it is a modern nation forged out of hideous racial division. As with every World Cup or Olympic Games, one of the buzzwords is "legacy" but that can wait five weeks. For now the country, indeed the whole proud continent, just wants to enjoy the occasion.

Many fans from all corners of the world have undoubtedly been put off by the price of accommodation and flights as well as the crazy system of each team playing its group games in a different venue, often at opposite ends of this vast country. The Independent on Sunday's accommodation in a Johannesburg suburb quadruples in price from Tuesday onwards.

Despite initially slow ticket sales, the percentage accounted for is nevertheless now 95 per cent, which with the high capacity of most grounds, means the host country can claim to have sold more individual seats than any tournament other than 1994 in the United States.

The other unusual aspect to the finals is a geographical one, this being the first winter World Cup since Argentina. Judging from afternoon temperatures at England's training camp 85 miles north-west of Johannesburg, (22 C yesterday), this may be less of a factor than expected for all matches except the evening games, kicking off at 8.30pm local time. Having sweated through this week's training sessions, England will be grateful that Saturday's opening game is a night match.

They have found it difficult after only a couple of training sessions to judge the effect of the elevated altitude that affects seven of the 10 grounds; the two in Johannesburg are at more than 5,000 feet, Rustenburg, Bloemfontein, Polokwane and Pretoria not much less. That will have an effect on the flight of the ball, yet another new one with which Adidas have afflicted the competition's goalkeepers, most of whom have already had plenty to say about it. Unfair as it is, the goals will fly in – almost literally – and the disappointing rate of 2.29 per game in Germany, the second lowest in history, should be beaten. Northern European teams, if properly prepared for altitude, ought to be playing at something close to their normal fierce pace and viewers the world over in love with Premier League football may therefore find the competition an enjoyable one.

It is supposed to be the tournament in which an African country progress further than ever before; in other words beyond the quarter-final places achieved by Cameroon (1990) and Senegal (2002). Prospects of that have been diminished, however, by the injuries to the Chelsea pair Didier Drogba (below) and Michael Essien, seriously handicapping Ivory Coast and Ghana respectively, the two best of the continent's six challengers.

South African fans may support all the African sides, their deafening vuvuzelas spurring them on and probably irritating television viewers as well as opposing players and coaches (many of whom struggled to make themselves heard at the Confederations Cup last year). It is still quite conceivable that all half-dozen sides could be eliminated at the group stage.

That would be unfortunate, not least because a tournament always loses something when the host country go out. Bafana Bafana would become the first home team not to progress to the second stage, a remarkable statistic emphasising the advantages that accrue. They are not in good shape and will do well to avoid an opening defeat on Friday against Mexico, who have just followed their unlucky 3-1 defeat by England with a deserved 2-1 win over Italy.

The Mexicans suddenly look good for a second-round place and should take with them not Diego Forlan's Uruguay but France, who could have faced any of the eight seeds, only to be drawn in Group A with by far the weakest in South Africa. That group aside, it is possible to see the other seven seeded sides all progressing not only into the knockout stage but to the quarter-finals, which would give one of the strongest fields ever at that stage. On that basis, the four matches would be France or Mexico against England; Germany versus Argentina, Holland against Brazil and Italy versus Spain.

Of course, football rarely runs that smoothly. The fancied sides can start slowly, finish as runners-up instead of winning their section and then face unexpectedly tough opposition; if for instance England or Germany slip up and come second, they would meet in the round of 16, a stage at which at least one penalty shoot-out generally occurs, with all the unpredictability that involves (except when Germany take part, and win it).

Should the two old enemies both win their groups, England will play either Australia, Ghana or Serbia, depending on who accompanies the Germans out of the most evenly balanced four-handed group. If Essien's injury has hindered Ghana, then either the solid Serbs or Australia, with Tim Cahill in midfield and Mark Schwarzer in goal, would be the beneficiaries.

Germany's impressive coach, Joachim Löw, has reduced the average age of the beaten finalists at Euro 2008 and packed the squad with six strikers, reflecting not so much strength in depth as an uncertainty about which of them are capable of coming up with goals at the highest level.

It is difficult to see past Argentina in Group B, where Nigeria, Greece and South Korea, captained by Park Ji-Sung, will have a tight tussle for the second qualifying position and a tie against the winners of the France-Mexico section. Surprisingly to Europeans, Lionel Messi is not the hero in his native country that he is in Barcelona, where he emigrated at a young age, occasionally displaying a perceived lack of enthusiasm for the national side since then. If his relationship with Diego Maradona – as volatile a coach as he was a player – really is chipped, then it could crack under the sort of pressure that a World Cup brings. If not, the 1978 and 1986 winners could go all the way to the final.

What an occasion that would be against, yes, England – dubbed the Falklands Final no doubt – or, more likely, the detested Brazil. The Brazilians have left out Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato in coach Dunga's most pragmatic manner, yet still boast some awesome talent. They look stronger at the back than normal and certainly good enough to leave Portugal, their former colonial masters, and Sven Goran Eriksson's Ivory Coast, minus Drogba, playing for second place and an unenviable second-round meeting with Spain.

If the groups and the next round ran to something like form, Brazil would find themselves with an intriguing contest against Holland in the quarter-final, which would be no sort of pushover. The other country normally mentioned as contenders, holders Italy, may be found to rely more on resolution and reputation than pure ability. Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand should be overcome without undue stress, but a quarter-final against the European champions Spain could be a step too far.

How about Brazil meeting Argentina in a South American passion play of a final, after victories over England and Spain respectively?

It's official – referees can be characters

Rupert Rowling

Massimo Busacca: The Swiss businessman courted controversy twice in quick succession officiating in the Qatari league. Days after being suspended for an obscene gesture towards fans, he was caught on camera urinating on the pitch during a game. He could wait no longer and relieved himself on the edge of the penalty area as a corner was taken.

Martin Hansson: Used to putting out fires in his day job as a fireman, Hansson sparked controversy after failing to spot Thierry Henry's blatant handball in the build-up to the winner for France in the World Cup play-off win over Ireland. The Swede will be hoping to avoid a baptism of fire in his first World Cup.

Howard Webb: The South Yorkshire policeman will be England's representative. Rising quickly through the ranks, he has officiated at Euro 2008 and this year's Champions' League final. After Graham Poll's three yellow cards led to a red-faced fiasco in 2006, Webb hopes to shed a better light on England's officials.

Wolfgang Stark: Chile will be keen to avoid Stark after nine of their players were detained by police after a game against Argentina in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup. Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez were pepper-sprayed after clashing with police. They were fuming at the performance of the German referee.

Peter O'Leary: The Kiwi referee was unexpectedly called into action in the Premier League when watching the match between Aston Villa and Sunderland. There as a guest of Steve Bennett, he was summoned down from the stands to act as fourth official after assistant referee Alan Williams was injured.