The group of death with Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal all drawn together. North Korea is simply here to make up the numbers. This is the second time that the Ivory Coast has been drawn into a group of death. At the last world cup they were drawn with Argentina and Holland. This time I expect them to get out of the group, along with Brazil, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s appearance in South Africa will be a short one.
Group G Teams
Key player: Kaka
Best: Winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
World ranking: 2
When discussing the World Cup it would simply be rude not to begin with the five-time winners Brazil, the only team to have appeared at every finals to date. They made sure that record continued in the best possible fashion, beating their bitter rivals Argentina 3-1 on their home turf. Two goals from striker Luis Fabiano and another from defender Luisao was enough as they inflicted only the second home defeat in World Cup qualifiers on Diego Maradona’s struggling side.
The men in yellow and blue are always favoured, but this time, under the managerial guidance of former World Cup-winning captain Dunga they are justifiably considered one of the teams to beat. Dunga’s approach may not please those in his homeland who favour samba style over substance, forged as it is around solidity and efficiency, but there can be no doubting his results and he is rapidly winning over the purists. Real Madrid midfield maestro Kaka will be the key man, but he is ably assisted by the likes of Seville’s prolific striker Luis Fabiano, Juventus midfield enforcer Felipe Melo and Barcelona’s pacey full-back Daniel Alves.
Manager: Kim-Jong Hun
Key player: Hong Yong-Jo
Best: Quarter-final (1966)
World ranking: 84
Iran’s failure to defeat South Korea in Seoul earlier in the day meant North Korea only needed to draw in their final group match against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. They did exactly that, with a 0-0 result putting them into their first World Cup finals since 1966. Back then, they famously defeated Italy 1-0 before being beaten 5-3 in the quarter-finals by Portugal – despite taking a 3-0 lead.
Whilst unlikely to pose too many problems to the bigger nations in South Africa, North Korea remain something of an unknown quantity. The majority of their squad are based domestically and in their recent 0-0 draw against Congo in France – their first match on European soil since 1966 – gave little away despite the side missing six key players. Russian-based forward Hong Yong-Jo is arguably their most prominent player, although Suwon Bluewings midfielder Ahn-Young Hak is also an able performer.
Manager: Vahid Halilhodic
Key player: Didier Drogba
Best: Round one (2006)
World ranking: 16
Widely considered to be Africa’s strongest team, the Ivory Coast sailed through their qualifying group. A 1-1 draw with Malawi in Blantyre meant they were the second African side to reach South Africa from the qualifiers. Chelsea’s Didier Drogba came on as a substitute to score the crucial equalising goal for the visitors after Jacob Ngwira’s opener.
The Elephants put on an exciting show at the 2006 finals in Germany but failed to progress beyond the first round, largely because they were drawn in the ‘group of death’ with Argentina and Holland. The side has undoubted talent in the shape of forward Didier Drogba, who is firing on all cylinders for Chelsea this season, Manchester City defender Kolo Toure, and Sevilla midfielder Didier Zokora, to mention just three. The excitement that Africa may finally have a side to challenge for football’s biggest prize could well be justified.
Manager: Carlos Queiroz
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Best: Fourth place (2006)
World ranking: 5
Despite having Cristiano Ronaldo, the 2008 Fifa World Player of the Year, in their ranks, Portugal made hard work of qualifying. They were languishing in fourth in Group One at one stage before a late rally earned them second and a play-off berth. Without the injured Ronaldo they secured a place in South Africa thanks to two hard-fought 1-0 victories over Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Similarly to France, Portugal are a side packed with talent but led by a much-criticised coach in the shape of former Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz. However, the near disastrous qualification campaign should not fool opponents into underestimating the Portuguese. Ronaldo is clearly their main threat but Chelsea’s Deco and Atletico Madrid’s Simao provide able support and Deco’s club team-mate Ricardo Carvalho marshals the defence well.