Coach: Bert van Marwijk.
Nickname: De Oranje.
Honors: Champions, Euro 1988. Semifinals, Euro 2004, 2000, 1992, 1976. Fourth place, World Cup 1998.
Notes: They skated to the tournament in a weak qualifying group, but there are lots of questions surrounding this soccer superpower. Their defense is particularly underwhelming for a country that has produced all-time greats. And who will they play in midfield? Will they go defensive with the little-and-large partnership of Nigel de Jong and Orlando Engelaar? Or will they prefer attacking types like Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder? Or will Coach van Marwijk take a chance on new blood like Stijn Schaars and David Mendes da Silva? Finisher Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is mired in an awful slump in the Italian league. Can he regain his goal-scoring touch?
Concern: Chemistry. The Dutch have a history of imploding under pressure. If they can put aside their issues, they can put four or five goals past anyone. Otherwise, they’re headed for another frustrating failure.
The main man: Robin van Persie. Most teams don’t have the same player as their best playmaker and best finisher, but that’s what RVP is to De Oranje. He’ll have to battle back from his ankle injury, though. True story: He recently tried a homeopathic cure by going to Serbia to have a woman rub horse placenta into the injured ankle. It didn’t work.
Coach: Takeshi Okada.
Honors: Champions, Asian Cup 2004, 2000, 1992. Second place, Confederations Cup 2001.
Notes: This team isn’t blessed with outstanding size or speed, but they are slick. Their midfielders especially have a high degree of technical polish, allowing them to elude tackles and create scoring chances with excellent passes. These inlcude defensive-minded Yasuhito Endo and attack-minded Makoto Hasebe and Daisuke Matsui. Up front, small strikers Shinji Okazaki, Takayuki Morimoto, and Yoshito Okubo will try to wriggle through any cracks in the opposing defense.
Concern: One-dimensionality. Too many of these players have the same set of talents. They’ll need a lot of luck to put together any sort of a run here.
The main man: Shunsuke Nakamura. One of the world’s best free-kick takers, he can pull Japan out of a fire if they’re down a goal or break open a game that’s at a standstill.
Coach: Paul Le Guen.
Nickname: Les Lions Indomptables.
Honors: Champions, African Cup of Nations, 2002, 2000, 1988, and 1984. Second place, African Cup of Nations 2008 and 1986; and Confederations Cup 2003.
Notes: The well-rounded Indomitable Lions are newly under the experienced leadership of Coach Le Guen, who has won championships in the French league. The ageless Rigobert Song is still their captain in central defense, lining up alongside 21-year-old central defender Sébastien Bassong, who has been a real find. Defensive midfielders Jean Makoun and Stéphane M’Bia will work in concert with attack-minded Achille Emana. If a game comes down to penalty kicks, they’ll have a significant advantage in Idriss Carlos Kameni, a goalkeeper who specializes in reading the body language of opposing shooters and telling where they’re going to shoot.
Concern: Composure. Their young players have gotten them this far, but the Indomitable Lions haven’t been to the World Cup since 2002, and most of their players from that time have left. It will take all of Le Guen’s Gallic cool to steady this squad if things get rough.
The main man: Samuel Eto’o. One of the deadliest finishers anywhere, this guy is an arrow. He likes to take the ball and run at opposing defenders with it, using his speed and quickness to embarrass them before he scores.
Coach: Morten Olsen.
Honors: Champions, Euro 1992 and Confederations Cup 1995. Semifinals, Euro 1984.
Notes: The only Scandinavian team here, the Danes are now a far cry from the “Danish Dynamite” teams of 20 years ago that played fast, attacking soccer. This team is a disciplined bunch of unspectacular role players. Playmakers Thomas Kahlenberg and Martin Jørgensen will try to create openings, while the defense is led by experienced goalkeeper Thomas Sørensen, though expect gray-haired 20-year-old Simon Kjær to get some playing time. Christian Poulsen, a versatile defensive specialist and one of the sport’s most annoying players, will aim to get under the skin of the opposition.
Concern: Finishing. The declining Jon Dahl Tomasson figures to start at striker, but the scoring load may fall on young Nicklas Bendtner, a source of endless frustration to fans at the English club Arsenal because of his habit of missing easy chances. If he can find his scoring form, the Danes will be tough to deal with.
The main man: Daniel Agger. The huge central defender is a stalwart presence on the backline, but he’s also a scoring threat, lurking on the edge of the penalty box on free kicks and corner kicks. If the ball comes to him there, he has a wicked shot that results in spectacular goals.
Coach: Marcello Lippi.
Nickname: Gli Azzurri.
Honors: Champions, World Cup 2006, 1982, 1938, 1934; and Euro 1968. Second place, World Cup 1994 and 1970; and Euro 2000. Semifinals, Euro 1988. Third place, World Cup 1990. Fourth place, World Cup 1978 and Euro 1980.
Notes: The defending champs come in with a lot of questions. One spot that’s beyond question is in goal, where Gianluigi Buffon remains one of the all-time greats. (If your last name means “clown” in your native language, you’d better be good.) The defense is full of young players, with central defender Giorgio Chiellini and left back Davide Santon looking like studs in the making. The midfield relies on the finesse and creative genius of Andrea Pirlo and the all-around badassery of Gennaro Gattuso.
Concern: Age. Coach Lippi still starts many of the players who were with him when Italy won the World Cup four years ago. Lately, though, they’ve started to look their age. Can they keep decline at bay long enough to see out 2010?
The main man: Giuseppe Rossi. Italy’s frontline is loaded with big, physical strikers like Vincenzo Iaquinta, the Brazilian-born Amauri, and the deteriorating Luca Toni. The New Jersey-born Rossi brings speed to their attack, and the Azzurri will rely on him to keep their offense from becoming one-dimensional.
Coach: Ricki Herbert.
Nickname: The All Whites.
Honors: Champions, Oceanian Nations Cup 2008, 2002, 1998, and 1973.
Notes: Maybe the most lightly regarded team in this tournament. Their offense will rely on the strike partnership of Shane Smeltz and Chris Killen. Their nickname is a reference to New Zealand’s much more famous rugby team, called the All Blacks for the color of their uniform. Simon Elliott, who played in England for some years, will lend his experience to the midfield.
Concern: Talent. It simply isn’t there. The All Whites ruled the weak competition in Oceania, but it will take a miracle for them to even win a game here, much less get out of this group.
The main man: Ryan Nelsen. The team captain and stalwart defender plays at Blackburn in the English Premier League, so he faces the best strikers in the world on a weekly basis. He’ll need to be at his very best if the Kiwis are to have a chance. Even if he does play at his very best, they’ll probably have no chance.
Coach: Gerardo Martino.
Honors: Champions, Copa América 1979 and 1953. Second place, Copa América 1963, 1949, 1947, and 1922. Third place, Copa América 1959, 1946, 1939, 1925, 1924, and 1923. Fourth place, Copa América 1989, 1983, 1967, 1942, 1937, and 1926.
Notes: This rigorous, disciplined defensive team has made itself hard to beat, which is how they defeated both Brazil and Argentina in World Cup qualifying. The pairing of Julio César Cáceres and Paulo da Silva are at the heart of their defense, while their midfield features four defensive types, with battling Enrique Vera on the right side and creator Edgar Barreto in the middle. Up front, they have both big strikers (Roque Santa Cruz, Óscar Cardozo) and little ones (Nelson Haedo Valdez, Salvador Cabañas) to score goals.
Concern: Form. The team was leading South American qualifying for some time, but they slumped badly toward the end and finished third, still good enough to get in here easily. Can they recapture their mojo?
The main man: Justo Villar. The goalkeeper came into World Cup 2006 as the country’s starting goalkeeper, and lasted all of five minutes in which he gave up an own goal and tore his ACL. He’s probably hoping his experience next summer is more pleasant.
Coach: Vladimir Weiss.
Notes: Since the breakup of the former Czechoslovakia, the Czechs have had all the soccer glory, but now it’s the Slovaks’ turn. This team is lousy with creative midfielders, with free-roaming Marek Hamšik, support striker Marek Mintál, and dead-ball artist Marek Sapara. Providing the width are fullbacks Marek Čech and Matej Krajčík. (See, they’re not all named Marek.) Their biggest presence on defense is scowling, shaven-headed Martin Škrtel. His last name, which looks like it’s missing a few vowels, is pronounced “SCHKER-tel,” and a British newspaper described him as “a man who looks and plays like he just got out of prison.” Tall striker Robert Vittek brings an aerial element to Slovakia’s offense.
Concern: Battle readiness. Few of the Slovak players have been tested in the heat of a Champions League run or won a championship in any of Europe’s biggest leagues (England, Spain, Italy, or Germany).
The main man: Stanislav Šesták. Their best scorer will be facing two exceptionally tough defenses in Italy and Paraguay. He must break them down.
Honors: Champions, World Cup 2002, 1994, 1970, 1962, and 1958; Copa América 2007, 2004, 1999, 1997, 1989, 1949, 1922, and 1919; Confederations Cup 2009, 2005, and 1997. Second place, World Cup 1998 and 1950; Copa América 1995, 1991, 1983, 1959, 1957, 1946, 1945, 1937, 1925, and 1921; Confederations Cup 1999. Semifinals, Copa América 1979 and 1975. Third place, World Cup 1978 and 1938; Copa América 1959, 1942, 1920, 1919, and 1917. Fourth place, World Cup 1974; Copa América 1963, 1956, and 1923; Confederations Cup 2001.
Notes: Brazil treasures its reputation as an all-offense-all-the-time team, but under Coach Dunga, this current team is actually a team that tends to sit back and defend while choosing its moments to launch counterattacks. Their offensive talent is such that they can score three or four goals in a game without playing much offense at all. An all-time great defensive midfielder in his day, Dunga prefers to field two such players while depending on Kaká and Robinho to break open defenses. Will that be enough?
Concern: Focus. As constituted, Brazil’s not the best equipped for coming back from a goal down, and even a team like USA can jump on them. The starting defensive midfield pair are the fading Gilberto Silva and the imposing but still-developing Felipe Melo. What if the offenses here are too strong?
The main man: Luís Fabiano. The striker who plays for Spanish club FC Sevilla isn’t outrageously gifted like his predecessors Ronaldo, Adriano, and Ronaldinho. Yet he puts the ball in the net quite often. (USA fans will painfully remember this.) He’s never done it in a major tournament like this, though. Will he come through?
Coach: Kim Jong-hun.
Honors: Fourth place, Asian Cup 1980.
Notes: Here’s a shocker: Nobody knows very much about this team. A few players play in leagues in other Asian countries, but most of them stay inside that hermetically sealed country. The only footage we have of them is playing their World Cup qualifiers, where they qualified mainly on the strength of their stingy defense. Then again, they haven’t faced anything like the offenses of their three opponents here. By the way, the North Korean government reportedly won’t show complete matches, only highlights, and will ignore any losses. This team is about as close to an X factor as it’s possible to be.
Concern: Not enough information available.
The main man: Mun In-guk. Yeah, he scored two goals for them in qualifying, enough to be their leading scorer. So it’s him, I guess.
Coach: Vahid Halilhodžić
Nickname: Les Éléphants.
Honors: Champions, African Cup of Nations 1992. Second place, African Cup of Nations 2006. Third place, African Cup of Nations 1994, 1986, 1968, and 1965. Fourth place, African Cup of Nations 2008 and 1970; Confederations Cup 1992.
Notes: The stereotype of African teams is that they’ve got lots of brilliant individual offensive players, but that they don’t have the “discipline” or “organization” (code words there) to defend at top level. That’s not true of this team. The Elephants have a terrific defense, with Kolo Touré in central defense and his brother Yaya Touré in midfield, forming a tough-tackling yin to Didier Zokora’s elegant positional yang. Arthur Boka and Emanuel Eboué will bomb forward from the back, too. This is the most balanced African team here, and probably the most dangerous one.
Concern: Goalkeeping. Boubacar Barry is their number one, but he’s not world-class like his teammates. If opponents can get through that defense and get shots on goal, they’ll have a chance.
The main man: Didier Drogba. The team captain and a human battering ram of a striker, this large and monstrously strong player can score in bunches with his head or either foot. The guy’s a big baby away from the pitch, but he’s a lion on the field.
Coach: Carlos Queiroz.
Honors: Second place, Euro 2004. Semifinals, Euro 2000 and 1984. Third place, World Cup 1966. Fourth place, World Cup 2006.
Notes: This group looked pretty unconvincing in World Cup qualifying, but teams can turn it up once they get into the tourney itself. On paper, Portugal has an intimidating group. The ageless Ricardo Carvalho lines up in central defense along talented newcomer Bruno Alves, with José Bosingwa launching buccaneering attacks from the right back position. The declining Deco and the free-kick specialist Simão Sabrosa are the major creative influences with this team, while the newly Portuguese Liédson (who was born in Brazil) has quickly become the best finisher.
Concern: History. The Portuguese have a history of coming up small, with their flameout in World Cup 2002 and failing to win Euro 2004 in their home country. Can these new players lift one of Europe’s smallest and poorest countries to sporting glory?
The main man: Cristiano Ronaldo. Along with Messi, has a claim to being the best all-around offensive player in the world. Unlike Messi, he’s really pretty. However, he too has yet to duplicate his world-beating play for the national team that he has for Manchester United (and now Real Madrid). Plus Portugal tend to play better without him. Ewing Theory might be at work here. Can Ronaldo put his stamp on this tournament?
Coach: Vicente del Bosque.
Nickname: La Furia Roja.
Honors: Champions, Euro 2008 and 1964. Second place, Euro 1984. Third place, Confederations Cup 2009. Fourth place, World Cup 1950.
Notes: For many decades, Spain had a reputation as a magnificently talented team that choked under pressure, but their win in last year’s European Championships took that tag off them. They’ve been almost unstoppable since their loss in the quarterfinals of World Cup 2006. Team captain Iker Casillas is perhaps the world’s best goalkeeper, while the backline is commanded by Carles Puyol, whose small stature doesn’t prevent him from being an all-star central defender (and whose hair makes him look like a heavy metal rock star). The midfield is loaded with playmakers such as Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fàbregas, and Andrés Iniesta, while defensive anchor Marcos Senna backs them up. Up front, tiny dribbler David Villa is a goal-scoring machine.
Concern: Width. Granted, it’s tough to identify a weakness on a team that has lost exactly one game in the last 3½ years. Yet USA beat them by leaving the sidelines open, collapsing the defense into the middle of the field, stifling Spain’s central midfielders, and daring them to cross the ball. They couldn’t do it.
The main man: Fernando Torres. This all-around threat is big, fast, and tougher than he looks (which is good, because he looks like this). If “El Niño” is putting the ball in the net, Spain will be just about impossible to overcome.
Coach: Reinaldo Rueda.
Nickname: Los Catrachos.
Honors: Semifinals, CONCACAF Gold Cup 2009.
Notes: This team doesn’t get exposure in Europe like USA and Mexico do, so expect the world powers to underestimate them. That will be a mistake. Los Catrachos are led by a couple of hard-ass defensive midfielders in Wilson Palacios and Hendry Thomas, both seasoned by their time in the English league, and they will be hard to break down. Left back Maynor Figueroa is a solid presence in the back, and striker David Suazo will create scoring chances with his speed, though his shooting touch will waste at least some of them.
Concern: Inexperience. This Honduran team is the first from their country to reach this tournament since 1982. If they take the attitude that they’re just happy to be here, they’ll be toast.
The main man: Amado Guevara. The mercurial playmaker has spent most of his career here in America, where his flamboyant skills win people over before his diva antics turn them off. He’ll need to provide linkage between the defense and offense here.
Coach: Marcelo Bielsa.
Honors: Second place, Copa América 1987, 1979, 1956, and 1955. Third place, World Cup 1962; Copa América 1991, 1967, 1945, 1941, and 1926. Fourth place, Copa América 1999, 1953, 1947, 1939, 1935, 1924, 1920, 1919, 1917, and 1916.
Notes: One of the few teams that plays only three defenders instead of four. No doubt it’s because Coach Bielsa loves his offense and wants as many people forward as possible. This team is stacked with creative players, most notably Matías Fernandez and Alexis Sanchez. Manning the flanks are defensive Carlos Carmona and Rodrigo Tello, with French-born Jean Beausejour and talented but lazy Mark González presenting options as well. Tough-tackling defensive midfielder Arturo Vidal will act as first line of defense.
Concern: The backline. Three defenders leaves the team short defensively already, and their starting lineup of Gonzalo Jara, Gary Medel, and the injury-prone Waldo Ponce are undersized and undistinguished. A team that repeatedly crosses the ball from the wings or employs three strikers could shred them.
The main man: Humberto Suazo. Short, fat, and bald, this striker nicknamed “El Gordo” doesn’t look anything like an elite athlete. Yet he has a fantastic knack for lurking in the penalty box and pouncing on loose balls in front of goal. Spain’s defense will probably be too stern a test for him, but if he can net some goals against the others, the Chileans can do damage.
Coach: Ottmar Hitzfeld.
Notes: The Swiss repeatedly qualify for these big tournaments and then do nothing memorable once they get there. (Except possibly for the locker-room brawl at World Cup 2002 between the team’s French-speaking players and German-speaking players.) Goalkeeper Diego Benaglio has excellent strength and reflexes, and is one of those keepers who’s often seen screaming at his defensive teammates. Those include the central defense pairing of Arsenal teammates Philippe Senderos and Johan Djourou, young players rapidly gaining confidence. Tranquillo Barnetta and Valon Behrami will try to create opportunities from the wing positions, while the slick-passing Gökhan Inler will operate in the middle. The Swiss’ style at least will contrast with all the Latin flair in this group.
Concern: Inspiration. The Swiss play efficient, relentlessly correct soccer, but they don’t have a gamebreaker who can make a goal from nothing or lead them when they get down. Also, there’s a danger that they might bore the audience to death.
The main man: Alexander Frei. The Swiss have big, physical strikers (Blaise N’Kufo, Marco Streller) and quick dribblers (Hakan Yakin, Eren Derdiyok), but team captain Frei is the only player with genuine scoring touch. They’ll need him to put chances away.