Who's coming to soccer's big party?

Brazil is so loaded with talent that it could probably field the best two teams in the World Cup. Lucky for hosts Germany and a handful of other upset hopefuls, the rules for the world’s most popular sporting event allow only one team per country. So, when the tournament begins on Friday, Brazil will have to make do with one squad.

And what a squad it is.

Player of the Year Ronaldinho alongside 2002 World Cup hero Ronaldo, flanked by the dynamic Kaka and Adriano.
Veteran Roberto Carlos anchoring the defence along with the impeccable Cafu. More midfielders than coach Carlos Alberto Parreira can find time for. A solid goalkeeper in Dida.

Brazil’s bench will be as formidable as some other entire teams, and that collection of riches makes the five-time champs strong favourites to samba away with yet another trophy. An almost unfathomable sixth title—and third in four World Cups—would be twice as many as anyone else.

“It’s true that we have great chances to win the World Cup,” says Parreira, who coached his nation to the 1994 crown. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal; we still need to play the matches and win them. And we know that’s not going to be easy. All teams will be trying their best to beat the defending champions.”

And who might be best prepared to upset the Brazilians?

History says Europe is the best place to start looking for candidates. Only one non-European nation has won a Cup staged on the continent: Brazil, naturally, in 1958.

There are contenders, however, from the western hemisphere in Argentina, Mexico and maybe South Korea.

Argentina, along with France, were the biggest flop of 2002, failing to get out of the first round. Coming off a fine qualifying effort in which they won 10 times, more than anyone else in South America—including Brazil—expectations once more are high for the Argentines.

Mexico have a comfortable first round in group D: Portugal, Angola and Iran. The Mexicans’ biggest enemy could be infighting if things don’t go well, particularly after striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco wasn’t included on coach Ricardo Lavolpe’s roster. Blanco claimed Lavolpe made it personal in cutting him.

The same is true in South Korea, who made a stunning run to fourth place as one of the hosts in 2002. After not winning a single game in their previous five trips to the World Cup, the Koreans rode the passion of their home fans and some impressive speed and playmaking into the semifinals.

They’re surer of themselves this time around, and play in a less-than-formidable group G (France, Switzerland and Togo).

Generally, though, most non-European teams are long shots. That includes four newcomers from Africa: Ghana, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire and Angola. Trinidad and Tobago are also making their first trip to the World Cup.

Host team Germany would seem a good choice to go far, but are in transition. Coach Juergen Klinsmann has gone offensive, dropping the mechanical schemes of recent German squads. Klinsmann has also introduced American fitness trainers and a psychologist to the training regimen.

He often has been criticised for making so many changes, and if the Germans struggle early, it will be interesting to see if Klinsmann sticks to his nontraditional approach.

“It’s important for me to have my peace and to keep some distance,” Klinsmann said. “Sometimes you have a better view from outside.”

The second World Cup in Germany—the West Germans won on home soil in 1974—will be staged all across the country in a variety of stadiums.

There are glittering new buildings in Munich, Gelsenkirchen and Leipzig, the only former East German city hosting games. Stadiums in Cologne, Dortmund, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanover, Kaiserslautern, Nuremberg and Stuttgart have been modernised.

And the final will be held on July 9 in Olympiastadion, originally built for the 1936 Olympics under the reign of Adolf Hitler.

As fans travel along the high-speed autobahn—from the bustling Berlin and Munich to the Black Forest and historic Nuremberg—they’ll encounter a massive security force that organisers say is prepared to handle issues ranging from safety and racism to prostitution and hooliganism.

“We will not tolerate any form of extremism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism,” said Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany’s top security official. “We will do everything in our power to prevent the soccer World Cup from being used by extremist organisations to spread their abhorrent thoughts.”

Nato will have surveillance planes patrolling the German skies during the tournament. Soldiers will be on standby with radiation and chemical-warfare detection equipment. The German government will reimpose national passport checks at borders to minimise the threat of terrorism.

Also, 16 000 private guards were hired by Fifa to supplement military and police personnel.

Hooliganism, particularly by English, Dutch and Polish fans, has been a theme security forces are concentrating on eliminating. But Schaeuble also said: “The biggest problem we have is with German hooligans—we must not lay that at the door of our neighbours.”

The well-behaved fans, of course, will provide a boost for the hosts. But there certainly will be plenty of fans on hand from other European contenders: England, The Netherlands, Italy, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Perhaps France, Spain and Portugal will overcome their inconsistencies and challenge for the trophy.

This is, after all, the time to produce.

“National teams could do great things in qualifying and win friendly games and what have you, but the acid test of any national team is a World Cup,” United States coach Bruce Arena said. “You can have polls, you can talk about this player, that player, but then you start in a process that began four years ago, with 204, 205 countries and now you’re down to 32. That’s the real animal.”—Sapa-AP

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