There are 436 days to go to the World Cup, but already Fabio Capello's management has whetted English appetites for the 2010 finals. Elsewhere in the globe, too, thoughts are turning to South Africa and what might be.
For the majority of the 204 nations who entered qualifying just getting there will be success itself. Already that mass entry has been whittled down to 100 nations chasing 23 remaining qualifying slots (South Africa, as hosts, qualify automatically but the holders, Italy, do not).
Many of those are now only notional contenders, as John Toshack admitted of his Welsh team, but a number of countries will be thinking not just of getting to the first African finals, but of winning it.
No doubt Guus Hiddink's Russia will feel they have a chance, especially after reaching the final four in last summer's European Championships. So will Turkey, fellow semi-finalists, who also reached the last four in the 2002 World Cup. Slaven Bilic's Croatia bow down to no one when it comes to confidence, despite being humbled by England in Zagreb. Nor are the Serbs, who top France's group and have Nemanja Vidic at centre-half, short on belief. Further afield Australia are an emerging force and what about Paraguay? They lead the South American qualifying section, ahead of Brazil and Argentina.
In reality, all these teams are rank outsiders. Coaches can look at Otto Rehhagel's Greece, and the shock Euro 2004 triumph, and dream of emulation, but a World Cup is far more testing than the European quadrennial. It is a longer, more draining competition which demands a lot from players, physically and psychologically. Strong squads are needed. In 2006 Marcello Lippi used every outfield player.
Thus the many pretenders can be swiftly reduced to a core of contenders. History counts. Six of this octet are past winners. Indeed, the only past holder who can be discounted are Uruguay. In addition, the form team, the European champions, Spain, must be included, as should the Netherlands, twice runners-up and technically as gifted as anyone, including the South Americans.
There are questions no one can answer, notably what will an African World Cup be like? South Africa will present climatic challenges with Johannesburg, where much of the contest and the final will be played, nearly 6,000ft above sea level.
The last World Cup outside the traditional environs, Japan/Korea 2002, produced unexpected semi-finalists in Turkey and South Korea, but two old hands in the final, Brazil and Germany. So expect a surprise passage to the last four, at which point, in theory, anything can happen; but for one of the usual suspects to be lifting a 5kg lump of solid gold under African skies on 11 July 2010.
Fifa world ranking: 6
Arguably the best footballing team of the last World Cup but it has not been a smooth ride since they went out on penalties in the quarter-finals to Germany. Jose Pekerman resigned to be replaced by Alfio Basile. 'Mr Potato Head' then resigned after a poor start to 2010 qualifying.
Enter Diego Maradona despite having done nothing, during a brief coaching career, to suggest he can reproduce in a tracksuit even a fraction of his success in a jersey.
Maradona is already in dispute with the federation over his staff, and has fallen out with Juan Roman Riquelme, after he initially said that he would build his team around him. However, early wins in Scotland and France showed promise maintained in his first competitive match, Saturday's 4-0 waltz past Venezuela. Such form must be maintained in a qualifying campaign in which there is little margin for error, then in the finals in South Africa.
There are doubts about the defence but while there is Lionel Messi there are dreams, especially with Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero alongside.
Rising star: Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid, age 20). Recently fathered Maradona's first grandchild, but this elusive, quicksilver striker does not need nepotism to win a place.
Fifa world ranking: 9
Cricket's Indian Premier League may have forsaken England for the sunny skies of South Africa but check out the June weather forecast for Johannesburg. The average temperature drops to 4C, with a maximum of only 17C. Cape Town is a little warmer, but a lot, lot wetter. What does this mean? It means England, for the first time in decades of tournament failure, can play their high-tempo pressing game without running out of puff in the knock-out stages.
There are justifiable worries about the strength in depth, the full-back positions, the reliance on Emile Heskey to give the attack balance, Wayne Rooney's temperament, the goalkeeping position, and the fitness of players after a demanding season: we could go on. Yet there is talent: Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole.
Moreover, in Fabio Capello England finally seem to have a manager capable of instilling positional discipline and personal self-sacrifice in a squad not known for either.
Rising star: Theo Walcott (Arsenal, 20). Famously went to the last World Cup, at 17, and never kicked a ball. Showed in Croatia he has the skill, at speed, to frighten anyone.
Fifa world ranking: 12
Somehow Raymond Domenech survived France's failure to escape their group in Euro 2008, and his televised marriage proposal which immediately followed their exit. Since a hairy start to World Cup qualifying, in which Les Bleus were thrashed by Austria, results have improved though they still have work to do to qualify.
Should they reach South Africa they have a mix of experience and youth to prosper but it is feared too many core players are either too young (Sami Nasri, Karim Benzema) or too old (Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira) with a shortage of major talent in the critical 27/28-year-old bracket.
They are overstaffed at left-back, a problem area for many countries, with Patrice Evra and Gaël Clichy. Like Bayern Munich, they seem too dependent on Franck Ribéry, who has gone from promising talent to key figure in two seasons. Vulnerable at set-pieces, there is uncertainty over the goalkeeping slot.
Incidentally, the wedding between Domenech and TV presenter Estelle Denis, the mother of his two children, is yet to occur.
Rising star: Yoann Gourcuff (Bordeaux, 22). The latest "new Zinedine Zidane". Impressed in season-long loan to Les Girondins from Milan.
Fifa world ranking: 3
Scotland saw at close hand in Amsterdam on Saturday the power and class of the Dutch who have quickly brushed aside their nightmare collapse to Russia in Euro 2008. It helps that the team are under new management, Bert van Marwijk replacing the somewhat imperious Marco van Basten. Van Marwijk had a modest playing career, a mildly successful coaching career, and his status is complicated by being father-in-law to midfielder Mark van Bommel. Yet he appears to have the right touch to oversee a young, gifted but often fractious squad.
Cruising to South Africa with maximum points in Group Nine, the Dutch have enough talent to leave Real Madrid midfielders Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart on the bench on Saturday, but much depends on another Madrileno, the mercurial Arjen Robben, staying fit. There are also problems in goal where Edwin van der Sar has not been replaced, and in defence.
Should feel at home in South Africa – may attract Boer support from rugby. As always their challenge will come down to whether their collective ego can survive a month in the bubble.
Rising star: Ibrahim Afellay (PSV Eindhoven, 22). Versatile attacking midfielder of Moroccan descent tipped for a big move this summer.
Fifa world ranking: 5
Dunga, the coach, captained Brazil to their 1994 World Cup triumph, but many Brazilians felt betrayed by the pragmatic nature of Carlos Alberto Parreira's team. That did not bother "Dopey" whose Seleçao play a similar un-Brazilian style despite fierce criticism from the domestic press, criticism which was renewed in the wake of Sunday's barely deserved 1-1 draw in Ecuador.
So turgid was the goalless draw at home to Bolivia this season that the sparse home crowd began cheering for the opposition. However, the criticism is relative, the dissenters hanker after the 1970 ideal in a game which has changed irrevocably, not least in the greater organisation of defences and hugely increased fitness of players. If Dunga was a slave to functionalism, Ronaldinho and a ponderous figure on Sunday, would have been dropped some time ago.
Brazil won the 2007 Copa America, picking off the more stylish Argentina 3-0 in the final, and recently showed class in defeating Italy at the Emirates. Besides, any team with Kaka, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Alexandre Pato and Lucio will provide entertainment, whoever the coach. Will be there or thereabouts in South Africa, not that qualifying is assured.
Rising star: Alexandre Pato (Milan, 19) "Duck" was signed at 17, for £17m, by Milan. further comment required.
Fifa world ranking: 4
Their crown was somewhat dented by a disappointing Euro 2008 under Roberto Donadoni, but with Marcello Lippi, the architect of their 2006 World Cup triumph, restored to the dug-out the Azzurri are rising again. Lippi has resisted the temptation Clive Woodward fell prey to with the Lions in relying on old heroes. He is instead steadily introducing talent such as striker Giampaolo Pazzini (Sampdoria) and defenders Marco Motta (Roma) and Salvatore Bocchetti (Genoa). Doing just enough in qualifying at the moment, easing clear of the Republic of Ireland (whom they meet tomorrow) to lead Group Eight without playing that well. But there have been injuries and that is the Italian way. Qualifying is a given, the focus is on peaking in 2010. Disregarding the crisis in the club game, the national team still have quality and nous to spare. Gianluigi Buffon remains peerless in goal, there are plenty of solid defenders, Andrea Pirlo continues to pull the strings in midfield and Pazzini is the latest in a long line of high-calibre strikers.
Rising star: Giampaolo Pazzini (Sampdoria, 24). First goalscorer at new Wembley with a hat-trick for under-21s.
Fifa world ranking: 1
Ranked first in the world and justifiably so after their triumph at Euro 2008. That success, after so many years of failure, appears to have given the squad a further injection of confidence. Despite a change of management, Vicente del Bosque taking over from Luis Aragones, they have maintained an unbeaten run which now stretches 30 matches. They lead Group Five with four straight wins and must be considered real candidates to become the first European champions to lift the World Cup since West Germany in 1974.
The core of last summer's team remain and so does the pass-the-opposition-to-death style. The Euro finals showed there is plenty of depth to the squad – Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas on the bench! – and young players are being added to the mix, including Gerald Pique, once of Manchester United, and Barcelona team-mate Bojan Krkic. Most importantly they have goalscorers, Fernado Torres, David Villa, Daniel Guiza.
Have any team in Europe a more potent attack, or more creative midfield?
Rising star: Bojan Krkic (Barcelona, 18). Striker who made his national debut in September, less than a fortnight after his 18th birthday. Serbian father, Catalan mother.
Fifa world ranking: 2
The Euro 2008 runners-up and World Cup 2006 semi-finalists are having a lean period, beaten at home by England and Norway either side of Christmas. Nevertheless, as they have proven time and again, they have a tournament mentality and should never be written off.
Joachim Low, now thoroughly out of Jürgen Klinsmann's shadow, has had his problems, arguing with Michael Ballack, his captain, over the treatment of veterans like Torsten Frings, and with Kevin Kuranyi who left the stand at half-time during October's tie with Russia – for which he had not been selected. Low has made peace with Ballack, and has recalled Frings, but not Kuranyi.
Like Fabio Capello, Low has to deal with a league that employs many foreign players – and Bundesliga recruits lack Premier League quality. Attempts to introduce more young players have been a mixed success and there are question marks everywhere. That said, qualification looks likely despite the threat of Russia.
Rising star: Mesut Ozil (Werder Bremen, 20). Attacking midfielder who spurned Turkish claims to make his German bow last month, saying: "I'm hoping migrants will now identify more with the German team."
Out of Africa?
Pele's forecast of an African World Cup winner by 2000 proved well wide of the mark but 2010 does offer the prospect of what would still be a shock triumph. Most African teams will feel at home in the tournament and any team that progresses to the later stages are likely to attract mass support.
The back-to-back African Nations Cup holders, Egypt (Fifa ranking 31), are a continent away but proved with last year's success in Ghana that they can travel well. In Amir Zaki and Mohamed Aboutrika they have two of the best strikers in Africa.
Nigeria (24) are in a period of rebuilding and could be over-reliant on the still maturing John Obi Mikel but the other likely qualifiers, from the final stage which began on Saturday, Cameroon (16), Ghana (34) and Ivory Coast (36), will provide a strong West African challenge.
Ivory Coast, though the lowest ranked of the quintet, may progress the furthest. They have experience from the 2006 tournament, a strong spine in Kolo Touré, brother Yaya, and Didier Drogba, plus the likes of Didier Zokora and Salomon Kalou. The hosts, South Africa (72), are poor, but are finally improving under the veteran Brazilian coach Joel Santana.Reuse content