As the World Cup countdown ticks down to just four days, the media have typically focused on nations in the upper echelons of world football. Those without greater knowledge may assume that the tournament will be played out with just 8, or 10 countries – each fighting for the ultimate crown on the world stage.
However, a number of competitive nations have been overlooked, in favour of witnessing the Argentina squad being escorted from their plane by armed forces, or listening to Italians moan about the new World Cup ball. Some nations such as New Zealand and Honduras will be delighted to merely experience the event, but I am to take a look at those with greater ambitions.
One of the first things that springs to mind when the Paraguay international team is mentioned, is outlandish goalkeeper José Luis Chilavert. The stopper netted eight times in seventy-four appearances for the national team, and supporters of Paraguay will be hoping that the whole team’s names will be up in lights after the competition.
Whilst not being seen as the biggest threat coming from South America, Paraguay qualified for South Africa comfortably – finishing third of ten in the CONMEBOL qualifying group. Brazil and Chile finished first and second respectively, although the Paraguayans qualified level on points with Chile, and just a point behind World Cup second-favourites Brazil.
Paraguay took four points off Diego Maradona’s Argentina, including a 1-0 victory, which sealed their qualification. The games with Brazil were equally promising – resulting in a 2-0 win and a narrow 2-1 defeat in Recife.
The 2-0 defeat of Greece in a warm-up friendly in Switzerland sets Paraguay up for a successful tournament. A negotiable group with Italy, Slovakia and probable whipping-boys New Zealand could lead to a knockout match against The Netherlands, but 2010 could be Paraguay’s year to break into the last-eight.
One to watch: Lucas Barrios – The Borussia Dortmund striker only received his Paraguayan nationality in March, but has netted three times in as many games for the national team, along with 19 in 33 appearances for Dortmund.
World Cup odds: 80/1
Paraguay 2010 World Cup Squad
Serbia are another nation who had an impressive qualifying campaign. In their first ever qualifying campaign as an independent nation, they topped the group, and Raymond Domenech’s faltering France. The French did take four points off the Serbians, but could only finish second to secure a play-off with the Republic of Ireland – and we all know what happened there!
Lining up alongside Germany, Australia and Ghana in Group D, the bookies fancy Serbia to qualify in second place. That could well lead to a knockout game against our very own England! If they can avoid the English, then all is in place for a quarter-final place. They certainly can’t do any worse than in 2006 – where Serbia & Montenegro were knocked out without troubling the scorers.
One to watch: Inter Milan midfielder, and Serbia captain Dejan Stanković, is a veteran at 31 years of age, but can use his experience to guide Serbia to a good finish in South Africa.
World Cup odds: 50/1
Serbia 2010 World Cup Squad
Before every World Cup, there is the debate as to whether an African nation can compete at the business end of the tournament. The Ivory Coast appear to be the main threat to the Europeans and South Americans this year, and have already been in the headlines for appointing former England coach Sven-Göran Eriksson.
It is difficult to assess their qualifying performance due to the weak nature of many African nations – but five wins and a draw from six games comfortably secured their place in South Africa. The African Cup of Nations, marred by the brutal attack on the Togo international team, was not particularly encouraging, however. England’s Group C rivals Algeria knocked the Ivory Coast out of the competition in the quarter-finals, with a 3-2 victory after extra time.
With fresh ideas from Sven, coupled with the obvious talent of the Touré brothers, the Ivory Coast could do Africa proud in 2010. But they will dearly miss Didier Drogba – whose fractured arm is not likely to recover before their opener against Portugal.
One to watch: Didier Drogba’s fitness will have a huge impact on the Ivory Coast’s success in the tournament. Reports are promising following “successful” surgery on his fractured arm – much to the delight of Ivorian supporters. The Chelsea hitman has scored 44 goals in 68 appearances for the national team, and is without doubt one of the best strikers who will be on show in South Africa this summer.
World Cup odds: 40/1
Ivory Coast 2010 World Cup Squad
I felt it necessary to include the proud hosts of the 2010 World Cup – South Africa. Not renowned for their success on the field in recent years, South Africa can take inspiration from ambassador Lucas Radebe, and the support of the whole country, to put on a show – not merely off the pitch.
Despite not requiring to qualify for the tournament, ‘Bafana Bafana’ took part in the qualifiers as these also served as the qualifiers for the African Cup of Nations. Despite finishing in second position in their second-round group, they did not progress as one of eight best runners-up.
Since, however, the South Africans have had a successful warm-up schedule ahead of the World Cup finals. Having thrashed Guatemala 5-0, South Africa beat Denmark 1-0 in their final game before the tournament gets under way. They boast an unbeaten run of eleven games, which stretches back to late 2009.
South Africa have clearly improved greatly in recent months and home turf could give them a chance of surprising many when their World Cup campaign kicks off in Johannesburg, against Mexico, on Friday.
One to watch: Katlego Mphela had a spell in France as a youngster, but the 25-year-old has returned to his home nation turning out for Mamelodi Sundowns. The striker grasped the league’s top scorer award, and could be a danger to defenses this summer.
World Cup odds: 150/1
South Africa 2010 World Cup Squad
These are just a few of the nations who could shock the so-called ‘big boys’ and the media this summer. Whatever happens, the 2010 World Cup looks set to be one of the most competitive competitions in recent history. I can’t help but feel that South Africa, if remaining civil, could be the host for one of the great World Cups. If I were to have a sneaky each-way bet on the tournament, it would be with the Paraguayans. A long-shot indeed, but when was football predictable?