The World Cup starts in 48 days' time. In just six weeks, managers must name their final 23-man squads. The long-awaited action is close enough to heighten anticipation but far enough away for events to go awry for some of the top nations before that first game on 11 June.
The England manager Fabio Capello will hope that the worst is over for his team. This year, he has sacked a captain in John Terry and had an anxious wait over the injury to his star player Wayne Rooney. But he is not the only coach with problems.
France have scandal, players out of form and injuries. Portugal have key players out and a cold war between their coach and the nation's press. Germany do not have a goalscorer. Brazil might be without their best player, Kaka, this summer. And that's just scratching the surface.
Maradona and friends
Diego Maradona seems to have settled on his starting line-up for Argentina's first game against Nigeria on 12 June in Johannesburg and, in keeping with the qualification campaign, it reads more like a list of his closest pals than a national best XI.
Javier Zanetti, the in-form Internazionale full-back, looks likely to lose out to Marseilles man Gabriel Heinze. Another notable Inter absentee will be Esteban Cambiasso. The man who shackled Leo Messi in the Champions League semi-final first-leg can't get past Maradona's buddy Juan Sebastian Veron, now 35.
And to complete a trio of ignored Inter players, striker Diego Milito will struggle to even make the squad because 36-year-old Martin Palermo has just become Boca Juniors' all-time top scorer and Maradona appears very keen to find room for such a living legend from his own former club.
No midfield playmaker, no attacking full-back, and no idea how to get the best out of Messi is the majority verdict on Maradona's master plan.
Waiting for Kaka
The nation holds its breath and prays that Kaka will be fit. He should play for Real Madrid today against Real Zaragoza after – appropriately for a man of deep Christian faith – 40 days in the wilderness with injury. His long-term fitness, and the fear he may break down in South Africa, remain a worry.
Kaka was told by doctors at the turn of the year that he has a chronic groin-hernia injury that will require treatment for the rest of his life. He is still the creative lynchpin of the Brazil team, especially with the dawning realisation that Ronaldinho is way past his best and unworthy of a recall to Dunga's squad.
Apart from the Kaka injury, Brazil find themselves in the happy situation of having too many good players. Back home there is an appetite among the fans for Dunga to consider the two latest prodigies – Neymar, 17, and Paulo Henrique Ganso, 20 – who are making a serious impression at Santos. Neymar scored five goals in an 8-1 win this month.
The rebellious former Inter striker Adriano may miss out on a place in the squad to Wolfsburg striker Grafite. As ever, there is no shortage of talent.
Calm down, Rooney's fine
The good thing for England is that the John Terry-Wayne Bridge scandal seems to be in abeyance. Unfortunately, that is because everyone is a lot more worried by the number of Fabio Capello's key players who have been injured.
Don't panic: Rooney appears to be close to complete fitness after turning that ankle against Bayern Munich. Ashley Cole and Aaron Lennon, two first-teamers who have been out long-term should return for their clubs this weekend. That leaves the likes of Wes Brown and Joleon Lescott, both pencilled in as squad players, to make comebacks.
But the biggest fear is over captain Rio Ferdinand, who seems to take one step forward and another backwards with his chronic back problems. That means that Capello may need a new centre-back to play alongside Terry and he may try to take Ledley King.
The goalkeeper situation is not ideal either – it will probably be David James by default. Robert Green has had a desperate time at West Ham this season and has not convinced for England. There is no David Beckham but that is not the disaster it was once thought to be. Oh, and Steven Gerrard looks pretty miserable in a Liverpool shirt.
But let's go back to the one important point: Rooney's okay.
Even before Franck Ribéry, Karim Benzema and Sidney Govou became embroiled in the recent sex scandal, that could yet see them jailed, it was not plain sailing for the French.
Where to start? Thierry Henry cannot get in the Barcelona team. Lassana Diarra has been injured and, like Benzema, now cannot get in the Real Madrid side. William Gallas is still out and Eric Abidal cannot shake off his foot problem. As for Patrick Vieira, there is still a chance that the old warhorse could go to South Africa but no-one is sure he is up to it.
Ribéry was injured earlier in the season, before the scandal broke, but played well for Bayern Munich when he came back. Now the question is whether he can take the pressure of the events in his private life. André-Pierre Gignac, the Toulouse forward, has also struggled with injuries this season.
On top of that, the players do not like coach Raymond Domenech, who survive nonetheless. After the 2-0 home defeat to Spain in March, Nicolas Anelka said that the players were at a loss. On the bright side, Hatem Ben Arfa has done well for Marseilles this season. A rare plus point.
This is a Loew
The old reliables came unstuck with a dreadful 1-0 home defeat to Argentina in Munich in March during which the South American team rang rings around them. It has put a dent in that familiar German confidence when it comes to World Cup finals.
They have a problem with their goalkeeper since first-choice Rene Adler broke a rib this month and may not be fit for South Africa. In front of him the centre-back question is unresolved. Per Mertesacker is still a first choice but alongside him they may even have to play Robert Huth of Stoke City.
There is a similar problem in attack where the usual strikers are struggling. Miroslav Klose cannot get in the Bayern team, Mario Gomez is not scoring and Lukas Podolski has had a poor season. The only one in form is Schalke's Kevin Kuranyi but he has been frozen out by coach Joachim Loew since October 2008 for leaving a game against Russia at half-time. Most fans think it is time for his recall.
There are still the old problems unresolved by the German football federation. Loew does not have a contract beyond the summer – in fact his deal expires on 30 June, one day before his team's second group game against Serbia. The captain Michael Ballack and Loew's assistant Oliver Bierhoff still cannot stand one another. Uncharacteristically chaotic. At least 21-year-old Mesut Ozil is a shining light.
Weakest ever side?
The defending champions look to be safe from injuries to major players. The big question on personnel is whether Francesco Totti will make himself available having retired from international football after the 2006 triumph and whether coach Marcello Lippi wants to pick him.
There is also some debate about why Lippi refuses to pick Antonio Cassano, the Sampdoria man whose erratic temper means he is regarded as unmanageable by many. The view in Italy is that injuries or no injuries, Totti or no Totti, this Italy squad is one of the weakest they have ever sent to a World Cup finals and will not make much impression this summer.
Dutch optimism in bloom
The Dutch are rejoicing at the timely return to fitness of Robin van Persie who was injured on international duty in November and has had a decent rest for most of the season. But he is not the only Dutchman who has looked impressive in recent months.
Wesley Sneijder at Inter and Arjen Robben at Bayern Munich have had probably their best-ever seasons. So too Rafael van der Vaart, who last summer decided to stay in Madrid because of his wife's illness and is now back in the Real team and playing well. Even Ruud van Nistelrooy is fit again after two years of dreadful injury problems.
The worries for Bert van Marwijk are in his defence where the old guard are still his best option. Giovanni van Bronckhorst, 35, the former Arsenal defender now at Feyenoord, is looking his age. So too the former Blackburn centre-half Andre Ooijer, 35, who has not been a regular for PSV Eindhoven this season. Edwin van der Sar is still retired and has resisted attempts to talk him into a comeback.
Of all the top Dutch players, Ryan Babel at Liverpool has had the most indifferent season. The big worry remains a classic World Cup Dutch training camp row. For reasons that are not quite clear and date back to their days in Dutch youth teams, Van Persie and Sneijder do not like one other. Six weeks in each other's company could be problematic.
Queiroz at odds with press
There is a cloud of depression because of injuries to three players that rule them out of the finals. Chelsea's right-back Jose Bosingwa, the midfielder Ruben Micael and winger Silvestre Varela (both Porto) are all out. On top of that the Real Madrid defender Pepe is a doubt. That is before you consider the unease around the squad.
The coach Carlos Queiroz's disastrous relationship with the Portuguese press pack is not helping matters at all. The old jolly mood that existed under Luiz Felipe Scolari is gone and there are suspicions that Queiroz picked the team base in South Africa chiefly because there was no suitable accommodation for the press within 50 miles.
That said, the Portuguese are excited about the emergence of the Benfica left-back Fabio Coentrao, who they think is shaping up to be the best Portugal have ever had in that position. They still have a squad of tremendous experience. Deco and Ricardo Carvalho are playing their last big competition for Portugal.
As of last year a Portuguese passport has been given to Sporting Lisbon's Brazilian striker Liedson, so this time they will go to a tournament with a decent recognised centre-forward.
And then, of course, there is Cristiano Ronaldo. After another excellent goalscoring season, this time at Real Madrid, he should be at his best yet at what will be his fourth major international tournament at the age of just 25.
Look out for 'Piquenbauer'
It will take a major injury crisis to alter Spain's status as World Cup favourites but that is exactly what's brewing for Vicente Del Bosque. Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta have all played their last matches of the season and are all hoping to recover in time to kick-off against Switzerland on 16 June in Durban in what is the last game in the first round of group matches.
If all three recover in time then Del Bosque's big headache will be the one every other manager in the tournament would like – just who to leave out. Iker Casillas is the team's captain but Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes, not currently in the squad, is Spain's best keeper on current form. Similarly in midfield Xabi Alonso, Fabregas, Barca trio Xavi, Sergi Busquets and Iniesta, and Valencia's David Silva must fight over the four midfield berths.
For players that did not feature two years ago when Spain won the European Championship but could well light up this tournament, look out for Gerard Pique and Jesus Navas. The Barcelona defender is ready to justify the nickname "Piquenbauer", earned last year for his club side. And Sevilla flyweight Navas offers pace and old-fashioned wing play for those rare occasions when opposition teams cannot be passed into submission.
Additional reporting by Pete Jenson
48 days to go
16 May: 30-man squads named
National team managers name their provisional squads for training camps and warm-up friendlies.
17 May: England training camp
England will prepare for the high-altitude conditions in South Africa by spending a week near Salzburg, Austria.
24 May: England v Mexico
Capello's men will fly back to England to bid farewell to those fans who are not joining them in South Africa.
30 May: England v Japan
The squad will return to Austria for more high-altitude training and their last game before the tournament proper.
1 June: Final 23-man squad named
Managers will have to make their final decision on who to take with them to South Africa.Reuse content