The leading World Cup contenders begin flexing their muscles this week, a little more than 100 days before the big kick-off in South Africa, while some are hit by unexpected problems or unable to shake off long-lasting ones.
The long build-up begins with eye-catching friendlies such as France vs Spain and Germany vs Argentina, with most of the 32 World Cup nations in action on Tuesday or Wednesday.
By this stage, with the training camps and the hotels booked, every coach would like to see a clearly mapped route to glory in the first World Cup to be staged in Africa.
But England’s Fabio Capello has run into major defensive problems, most of them originating off the field.
Two months ago, he envisaged a settled defensive formation of Glen Johnson, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Ashley Cole. Only Terry will face Egypt in Wednesday’s friendly at Wembley and he will no longer be wearing the captain’s armband.
Capello took that away because of the married Terry’s much-publicised alleged affair with the ex-girlfriend of England squad teammate Wayne Bridge. Bridge, who was first choice understudy to Ashley Cole, has said he won’t play for England while Terry’s there.
“I asked for the captain to set an example for the young people — for the children and the fans,” Capello said as the story line was played out in the papers. “What he did was not good. I told him this and he understood, but I took the decision only because of what happened with Wayne Bridge, nothing else.”
Cole is missing because of a broken bone in his foot, which will keep him sidelined until the end of the season. But he too hit the headlines for allegedly cheating on his pop star wife, Cheryl, who then announced she had left him.
Ferdinand and Johnson are sidelined with injuries, so Capello’s plans to build a defence capable of winning the World Cup are currently in disarray.
The rival coaches of Germany and Argentina have their own problems.
Diego Maradona has not long finished a two-month ban for a profanity-laden rant after the team, traditionally one of the leading contenders and two-time World Cup winners, scrambled through to the World Cup after poor qualifying performances.
His 16-month coaching career with the national team has been fraught with disputes over his back-up team and his selection of more than 70 players. A heavy loss to the Germans in Munich will put more pressure on one of the greatest players, who is showing few signs he will make it as a coach.
Joachim Loew’s future as Germany coach is also in the balance after talks on a new contract broke down, and it looks like his position won’t be settled until after the World Cup is over.
Loew has called up Bayer Leverkusen’s Toni Kroos and Bayern Munich’s Thomas Mueller for Wednesday’s match at Munich, with the two sides neck and neck in the Bundesliga.
“Both of them have caught the eye with good performances in the Bundesliga in recent months and have earned their chance,” said Loew, who sees big value in the Argentina game, Germany’s last before he names his World Cup squad in May.
“This is a welcome challenge. Argentina is an attractive, strong opponent that will demand everything from us.”
Six troubled years
France coach Raymond Domenech knows he will be out after the World Cup following six troubled years, despite leading the team to the 2006 World Cup final.
French football federation head Jean-Pierre Escalettes wants to announce his successor before the championship and Domenech believes that some of the players might be affected by the impending change, with Bordeaux coach Laurent Blanc and Marseille’s Didier Deschamps the favourites to replace him.
By contrast, Spain go to the Stade de France with a well-established squad and a hugely respected coach in Vicente Del Bosque.
He has been able to recall striker Fernando Torres, who scored for Liverpool on Sunday after a long spell out of action. But Del Bosque says even the frighteningly strong squad to meet France may not necessarily be the final one for the World Cup.
“This is not an absolutely closed final list for the World Cup, but one for this match against France,” the former Real Madrid coach said. “Obviously it will be a squad similar to this, but I have to say there are players who have been left out who might be with us.”
Although Luis Fabiano is missing through injury, Brazil coach Dunga has still not recalled Ronaldinho for Tuesday’s game against Ireland at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.
The 29-year-old Ronaldinho has not played for the national team since a World Cup qualifier against Peru in April 2009. But his improved recent performances with AC Milan have prompted fans and media to call for his return.
Recalled as Italy coach having won the World Cup in 2006, Marcello Lippi has named three newcomers in his squad for Wednesday’s friendly against Cameroon in Monte Carlo. But he has dropped Giuseppe Rossi and recalled Antonio Di Natale, who is Serie A’s top scorer with 19 goals this season.
Among other World Cup teams going head to head on Wednesday are: Netherlands vs United States, Côte d’Ivoire vs South Korea in London, Algeria vs Serbia, New Zealand vs Mexico in Pasadena, California, and Switzerland vs Uruguay. — Sapa-AP