The 2010 World Cup kicks off in just three weeks time, so by this point the majority of football fans everywhere are only using products made by official tournament sponsors and eating impala for breakfast.  Our intrepid Wikipedia monkey Dotmund has once again put his vuvuzela aside for just long enough to take a look at another of this summer’s groups.  Today we find out about the reigning champions, a South American dark horse, a team from a very long way away and a European team who have only ever been in the World Cup before in disguise.


Qualification 1st place in UEFA Group 8 FIFA Ranking 5 Best World Cup Winners (1934, 1938, 1982 & 2006) Last World Cup Champions (P7 W5 D2 L0 F12 A2 (2006))  Head coach Marcello Lippi (since June 2008 (also 2004-06) Most capped player Fabio Cannavaro 132 (1997-present) Top goalscorer Luigi Riva 35 (1965-1974).

I have no idea how Italy will perform this summer, except to suggest that the results will be there in spite of everything.  Last time out, they were very deserving world champions.  However, during Euro 2008 they looked very pedestrian in comparison, leading the Italian federation to replace coach Roberto Donadoni with the man who masterminded their fourth World Cup triumph, Marcello Lippi.  Under Lippi, the Azzurri comfortably qualified unbeaten from an otherwise-average UEFA Group 8.

The team in South Africa will be mostly comprised of home-based players, the majority of them familiar names to fans of European football and with a healthy-looking mixture of youth and experience on display.  Italy’s strength has always been their exceptional defensive solidity, and the 2010 vintage team are again built from solid foundations at the back.  In goal will be Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon, recently awarded his 100th international cap and still highly regarded as one of the world’s best goalkeepers.  His likely deputies will have but a handful of caps between them, although Lippi has taken the unusual step of naming four ‘keepers in his 23-man squad.  Cagliari’s Federico Marchetti perhaps the leading back up, with Napoli veteran Morgan De Sanctis and Palermo’s Salvatore Sirigu also making the trip.

The back line is just as acclaimed as the goalkeeper.  Milan’s full-back Gianluca Zambrotta and Juventus’ centre-back Fabio Cannavaro continue to be vital players for Italy, though Cannavaro, also the team captain, retires from international football at the end of the tournament.  His probable partner in central defence will be his Juventus clubmate, Giorgio Chiellini.  The other full-back slot remains up for grabs: 2006’s hero Fabio Grosso of Juventus, now 32, was the pick in half of the qualification games, but the left-sided role could also be given to Genoa’s Domenico Criscito.  Juventus’ Nicola Legrottaglie provides back-up.

Italy’s midfield retains a familiar appearance.  Roma’s Daniele de Rossi, who played the most qualifying games of any midfielder, will be an important bridge between midfield and attack.  Other qualifying regulars are Argentina-born winger Mauro Camoranesi of Juventus and Milan’s superb playmaker Andrea Pirlo, the outstanding player of the 2006 World Cup.  Udinese’s tricky Simone Pepe and Sampdoria’s tireless Angelo Palombo are also potential starters, although there may well still be a place for the much-admired anchorman Gennaro Gatuso of Milan.

Italy’s biggest problem remains that they are not the most prolific goalscorers.  Although this is frequently due to tactical considerations rather than for want of skill, much is going to be expected of a new generation of Azzurri strikers, now that Alessandro del Piero has retired from the international game and Luca Toni has fallen from favour with management.  The favoured centre forward is Fiorentina’s Alberto Gilardino, who contributed a team-high 4 goals from his 6 qualifying games.  Juventus’ Vincenzo Iaquinta and Udinese’s deep-lying Antonio di Natale are also familiar faces in the squad, though neither man is nearly as prolific for country as they are for their clubs.  Fabio Quagliarella of Napoli seems likely to provide back-up.  Roma legend Francesco Totti, however, misses out.

Coach Marcello Lippi needs very little introduction: as well as being the incumbent World Cup-winning manager, he is one of Italian and European football’s most successful coaches.  He is most associated with his time at Juventus, which brought him five Italian Serie A titles, 5 appearances in the European finals (including one Champions’ League win), as well as numerous other domestic honours.  In character, he is much like his great contemporary, England boss Fabio Capello.  A strict disciplinarian, Lippi places primary importance on team unity.  No player, no matter how senior or talented, will escape stepping out of line.  He looks set to step aside once again at the end of the tournament, with Fiorentina’s Cesare Prandelli the favourite to succeed him.


Qualification 3rd place in COMNEBOL FIFA Ranking 30 Best World Cup Last sixteen (1998 & 2002) Last World Cup First round (P3 W1 D0 L2 F2 A2 (2006))  Head coach Gerardo Martino (since February 2007) Most capped player Carlos Gamarra 110 (1993-2006) Top goalscorer José Cardozo 25 (1991-2006).

Paraguay qualify for this, their fourth consecutive and eighth overall, World Cup finals at the beginning of a new era.  The team made up of what Paraguayans had known as their golden generation broke up at the end of the last World Cup in Germany, taking with it all-time most capped player (and influential captain) Carlos Gamarra, as well as all-time top scorer José Cardozo.  The youngsters who have started stepping into the established players’ places, however, have done a very respectable job, the team hardly missing a beat on their way to a comfortable qualification, ahead of Argentina.  Indeed, La Albirroja recorded home wins against both Argentina and COMNEBOL group winners Brazil on their way to South Africa.

The squad is is headed by goalkeeper Justo Villar of Valladoid.  This will be Villar’s third World Cup finals, although he only managed 7 minutes of play in 2006 before succumbing to an injury.  Should that happen again, his replacement looks likely to again be Aldo Bobadilla, 2 years Villar’s senior at 34 and a player for Colombia’s Independiente Medellin.  Villar will also fulfil captaincy duties, should the regular incumbent be indisposed.

That regular incumbent is Leon’s Denis Caniza, now 35 and back from international retirement at the call of the team’s current coach.  He will line up at the centre or on the left of defence.  Joining him should be Julio Cesar Caceres of Atletico Minero and Paulo da Silva of Sunderland, both centre backs and stalwarts of the 2010 qualifying and 2006 World Cup campaigns.  Pumas right-back Dario Veron is another popular selection in a defence which tends to be big on experience rather than youth.

Fresher legs may be found in the middle of the park, although 31-year old Enrique Vera, a defensive midielder who plays for LDU Quito remains an important part of the squad.  25-year old Victor Caceres of Libertad will probably also feature, as will winger Cristian Riveros of Cruz Azul (27) and 25-year old Edgar Barreto, a player with a decent eye for a long-range shot.  VfL Wolfsburg’s Jonathan Santana is also another candidate for a starting role.  In attack, Paraguay’s most efficient goalscorer remains Manchester City’s Roque Santa Cruz, although he was not the top scorer during the qualifying campaign.  That honour fell to Salvador Cabanas of Mexican club America.  Cabanas will miss out on this summer’s tournament, however, after he was shot in the head in a Mexico City bar in January. Cabanas survived the attack, but he is not expected to return to football for at least the next couple of years.  In his stead will be Nelson Haedo Valdez, another qualification regular who plays for Borussia Dortmund.  Valdez, however, is more of a link-up man and his goal record suffers accordingly.   Benfica’s beanpole striker Oscar Cardozo may be a better bet for regular goals, although he is yet to replicate his prolific club form at international level.  Younger options include Libertad’s Rodolfo Gamarra or Pachuca’s Edgar Benitez.

The coach, Martino, is an Argentinian, with two caps for the Albiceleste to his name.  However, his biggest successes as a coach have all come in the Paraguayan league, with three Apertura crowns and one overall title to his name.  These placed him well when the national job became available following the 2006 World Cup.


Qualification OFC-AFC play-off winners versus Bahrain FIFA Ranking 78 Only World Cup First round (P3 W0 D0 L3 F2 A12 (1982))  Head coach Ricki Herbert (since February 2005) Most capped player Ivan Vicelich 65 (1995-present) Top goalscorer Vaughan Coventry 28 (1992-2007).

Australia’s move to the AFC – ostensibly to avoid the perils of missing out on World Cup qualification in the dreaded OFC play-off – had its inevitable effect.  Their successors as Oceania’s biggest fish made it to the play-off final and duly secured their passage to only their second World Cup Finals at the first time of asking.  Now that they are here, what can we expect of them?

Well, initial signs are perhaps that they should be aiming to avoid complete humiliation.  Last summer’s Confederations Cup campaign in South Africa started with a 5-0 hiding to favourites Spain, followed by a 2-0 loss to the hosts and a dreary 0-0 with Iraq.  In their qualification group matches, they were predictably dominant against a weak field, although it may be worth noting that they were not unbeaten – they succumbed to a 2-0 loss at home to Fiji.  Nevertheless, there have been more unlikely qualifiers than New Zealand, and more unlikely stories.  Their opponents will do well to remember not to gloat until they’ve got the job done.

About two thirds of the New Zealand team play their club football for native teams, with the remainder spread around the other usual suspects in the English-speaking world, the English, Scottish and American Major League.  Of the British-based players, the best known is team captain Ryan Nelsen, the Blackburn Rovers centre-half – although he has only just recently returned from a knee injury.  Fans of clubs from the Football League, meanwhile, may well be familiar with a trio of forwards: Plymouth Argyle’s Rory Fallon, Chris Wood of West Brom and Middlesbrough’s Chris Killen.  However, it was a locally-based player – Shane Smeltz of A-League team Gold Coast United – who topped the qualifying goal charts, and will be the team’s principal goal threat.  Killen and Smeltz are the usual pick, however, it was Fallon – who endured a torturous process to establish his eligibility to play for New Zealand having represented England at junior level – who scored the goal against Bahrain which saw the Kiwis qualify for the Finals.

In defence, Nelsen will be joined by Wellington Phoenix duo Ben Sigmund, a centre-back, and full-back Tony Lochhead.  Another regular full-back for the team, English-born Dave Mulligan is currently out of contract, but could well still feature on the right-hand side.  These three saw the most action of any of their teammates in the qualifying games.  The midfield is headed by Wellington’s Tim Brown.  He captains the side in Nelsen’s injury-enforced absences.  Other regulars in the All-Whites midfield include another player currently out of contract: veteran anchor Simon Elliott, formerly of Fulham and most recently on the books at San José Earthquakes.  Winger Leo Bertos, meanwhile, is another name very familiar to English fans, having been on the books at six Football League teams during a six-year spell in England. Like many of his teammates, Bertos is currently on the books at Wellington Phoenix.  Watch out too for versatile Ivan Vicelich in the starting XI: he is his country’s most capped player and can play in defence or midfield.  Other players making the trip are a US-based pair: Jeremy Christie, a defence-minded midfielder plays for FC Tampa Bay and towering centre-back Andrew Boyens is from New York Red Bulls.

In goal probably would have been Melbourne Victory’s Glen Moss, but he will miss the opening two fixtures through suspension – for swearing at the referee in a dead rubber against Fuji, cleverly enough – so he may well find it tough to unseat his likely replacement, Wellington Phoenix’s Mark Paston, for the final group game… especially if New Zealand somehow find themselves still in contention.

The team will be coached by Ricki Herbert.  As well as winning 61 caps for his country, Herbert has had an exciting and varied career in the game.  As a player he played for both New Zealand and Australian clubs, as well as a two-year spell with Wolves in the mid-1980s.  As a coach, his first major appointment – following over a decade of success with New Zealand clubs – was with his national team in 2005.  However, not to be held back, he has also managed two club teams during the same period: now-defunct club New Zealand Knights and then Wellington Phoenix, where he is still the incumbent.  Win, lose or draw, Herbert is unlikely to find himself unemployed come the end of the summer.


Qualification 1st place in UEFA Group 3 FIFA Ranking 38 Best World Cup Final (1934 & 1962 (as Czechoslovakia) Last World Cup Quarter final (P5 W3 D0 L2 F10 A5 (1990)(as Czechoslovakia))  (First World Cup as Slovakia) Head coach Vladimir Weiss (since 2008) Most capped player Miroslav Karhan 96 (1995-present) Top goalscorer Szilard Nemeth 22 (1996-present).

Slovakians are no stranger to top-level international football.  Czechoslovakia were twice World Cup finalists, whilst the Czechoslovak team who won the 1976 European Championship were almost entirely Slovak: the squad featured just one Czech.  However, since the Velvet Revolution of 1993, Slovakia have been very much the poorer relations of the two, as the Czech Republic enjoyed a spell of considerable success.  This is the first time that a Slovak team has qualified for a major international football tournament.  That the Czechs didn’t make it – indeed, they were placed 3rd in Slovakia’s qualification group – probably makes it all the sweeter.  All in all, it was a very decent qualifying performance, with four away wins from five matches on the road, plus a national record 7-0 drubbing of San Marino.

Slovakia’s goalkeepers are fairly inexperienced at international level.  14-cap Jan Mucha of Legia Warsaw is the likely number one, with Vaslui’s Dusan Kuciak his understudy.  In defence are a number of familiar faces to English supporters.  Crystal Palace and, particularly, Sheffield Wednesday supporters will be familiar with left-back Marek Cech of West Brom, he of the 96th-minute goalline clearance.  Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel is a fixture at centre-back, and looks to have recovered from injury just in the nick of time.  Leeds’ towering Lubo Michalik is also a possibility, but he is likely to lose out to more established players.  Jan Durica of Lokomotiv Moscow is the usual pick at centre-back alongside Skrtel, with Wolfsburg’s Peter Pekarik a fixture at right-back.  The key supporting cast member is FSV Mainz’s Radoslav Zabavnik, able to play in any position across the back line, as well as in central midfield.  Cesena’s Martin Petras is another probable for the 23.

In midfield, Slovakia’s most-capped player Miroslav Karhan of FSV Mainz will anchor proceedings along with Zdeno Strba of Skoda Xanthi providing support.  Meanwhile, 22-year old team captain Marek Hamsik of Napoli provides the forward thrust from the centre or left-hand side of the park, whilst FC Timisoara’s playmaker Jan Kozak will pull the strings.  Other regular sights in the Slovak midfield are Ancaragucu’s Marek Sapara, Spartak Trnava’s anchorman Kamil Kopunek and Manchester City’s winger Vladimir Weiss, a player with the considerable advantage of both having the same name and being the son of the team’s manager.

Top-scorer during qualifying was Bochum’s Stanislav Sestak.  His goalscoring record of one in three represents the best of any current Slovak forward at this level.  Of his likely fellows on the plane, Ankaragucu’s Robert Vittek has the most international goals with 18, although Sestak’s usual partner is Schalke’s 23-year old Erik Jendrisek.  For experience, Slovakia may turn to FC Nuremburg’s Marek Mintal.

Coach Weiss is, as the man who qualified Slovakia for their first ever finals tournament, unlikely to have paid many a parking ticket or had to buy many a drink in Bratislava in recent months.  He moved into the post in 2008, off the back of Slovakia’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 and his second Slovak league title.  In fact, Weiss took Artmedia Petrzalka to their only ever league and cup double.


Whilst one can never be sure exactly which Italy will turn up for a major tournament, it’s a safe bet to assume that whichever it is will be agonisingly tough to beat: it’s hard to see past them finding a passage through to round two, however well or poorly they play.  Unlike many of the other groups we’ve seen so far, Group F is also good enough to have a clear candidate to finish last – New Zealand’s realistic hopes of progressing beyond this stage are zero, a point or two, plus a few goals on the board, would be a small victory.  As for the other two, it’s tricky to call.  I have a feeling Slovakia will prove to be a thoroughly competitive proposition, but I think Paraguay will just edge it, thanks to their extra experience.

1. Italy
2. Paraguay
3. Slovakia
4. New Zealand