Spain. Brazil. Italy. Everyone knows them, the favorites. The big boys of international soccer. In all likelihood, one of the big teams will go home with a nice shiny World Cup trophy this summer. But nothing is set in stone. Thirty-two teams have their eyes on the ultimate prize, and if the top dogs stumble, there’ll always be someone ready to strike. Here are four countries looking for an unlikely fairytale in South Africa. At the very least, these are the kind of teams that can take a big scalp at any point, and ruin some unwary nation’s World Cup.
The Ivory Coast
Much has been made of the “African World Cup,” but it seems extremely unlikely that host South Africa will have any chance of penetrating deep into the tournament. The Ivory Coast, however, is a much tougher proposition, and provided they make it out of a brutal group containing Brazil and Portugal, along with unknown quantities North Korea, they’ll have the best chance of keeping the trophy in Africa. Set to be coached in the World Cup by legendary Dutch manager Guus Hiddink, Les Éléphants are stocked with players from myriad of top European clubs, like Manchester City’s Kolo Toure, his FC Barcelona-based brother Yaya Toure, Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboue, Chelsea’s Salomon Kalou, and Sevilla’s Dider Zokora. Their ace in the hole, however, is Captain and all-time leading scorer Didier Drogba. A controversial figure in world football, Drogba is nonetheless a physically powerful player with an impressive goalscoring record. His goals could be the difference between going out in the group stages and making a serious run this summer.
Asian football has been on the rise in recent years, and at the vanguard has been The Republic of Korea, better known as South Korea (as opposed to it’s rather optimistically named neighbor the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea). Although it had qualified for every tournament since 1986, South Korea’s day in the sun came when they jointly hosted the tournament with Japan in 2002. They made the semifinals, losing narrowly to Germany and finishing fourth, the best finish for an Asian team at the World Cup. The best Korean footballers have recently started making their mark in Europe, and this summer, the RoK will be relying on the veteran leadership of Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung, and the youthful talents of Celtic’s David Ki and Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chung-Yong, together known in Korea as Ssang Yong, meaning “Double Dragon.” Another important player for the Tigers of Asia will be Park Chu-Young of AS Monaco, an icon of South Korea, and winner of numerous youth awards. Drawn with Argentina, Greece, and Nigeria, the South Koreans will need every ounce of their talent to make the impression they want to.
After making the Final in 2006, it may seem surprising to see France listed as outsiders. But much of the 2006 squad retired following their improbable run the the final, including Fabien Barthez, Willy Sagnol, Lilian Thuram, and Zinedine Zidane. With Les Bleus thus depleted, the veteran leadership roles have devolved to former Arsenal pair Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. Unfortunately for France, both players are on the wrong side of 30 and shadows of their formerly imperious selves. At the opposite end of the age scale, neither of France’s wunderkind attackers, Hartem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema, have quite lived up to their admittedly considerable hype. These Frenchmen are far from surrendering, though. Lyon’s Hugo Lloris is one of the highest rated young keepers in the world, and the French midfield is loaded with talent, boasting stars like Real Madrid’s Lassana Diarra, Lyon’s Jeremy Toulalan, Bayern Munich’s Frank Ribery, Arsenal’s Samir Nasri, and Bordeaux’s Yoann Gourcuff. If the relatively thin depth of France’s defense can hold, Les Bleus could shock the world again (though hopefully with fewer head-butting incidents).
Over the past two decades, the United States has experienced a meteoric rise in world football, ascending from footballing backwater to a respectable international stature and earning a reputation as a difficult, physical team to play against. Following their unlikely run to the Confederations Cup Final last year, The Yanks are widely expected to improve upon their disappointing group stage exit in 2006. The base for Bob Bradley’s side comes from Everton keeper Tim Howard, and a trio of European-based central defenders: Stade Rennais’s Carlos Bocanegra, the US captain, Watford’s Jay DeMerit and AC Milan’s Oguchi Onyewu. The danger of the US, though, is not just the formidable defense, but the counter-attacking talent of the offense, led by Jozy Altidore (Hull City), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), and all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan (your guess is as good as mine).
Keith Hickey is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at USArsnl@gmail.com.