Six months before the World Cup begins in South Africa, Spain already has its first win.
The world’s No. 1 team was drawn into what appears to be one of the easiest groups Friday, and should have a clear path to the knockout round. Five-time champion Brazil, meanwhile, seemed to get the worst of the lot, facing not only reigning player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in Group G, but also the Ivory Coast, the strongest African team.
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“It’s going to be tough, man,” Brazil striker Luis Fabiano said.
Not as much for Spain, which is looking to win its first World Cup and got a big assist from those pingpong balls designed to look like mini soccer balls. The European champs drew games against Chile, Honduras and fellow European team Switzerland in Group H.
“Let’s not underestimate the three opponents we’re facing. Every one has their difficulty,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. “We already knew that we were going to be mentioned as the group favorites, but that’s something you have to prove on the pitch.”
Consider, however, that Spain could have drawn 1998 World Cup champion France, the United States or Mexico.
Spain’s bigger challenge will likely come in the second round, where it could face Brazil, Portugal or the Ivory Coast. A potential matchup with defending champion Italy in the quarterfinals looms, too.
“Of all the teams we could have come across we haven’t done too badly,” Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas said. “But it’s further along that things get complicated.”
Italy, looking to match Brazil with five titles, will face New Zealand, the second-weakest team in the field, Paraguay and Slovakia in Group F. None are ranked higher than 30th in the world.
Not that you’d know of the Azzurri’s good fortune from listening to coach Marcello Lippi.
“Paraguay led qualifying for two years. Slovakia is a team that has improved lately and they feature an important player based in Italy,” Lippi said, referring to Napoli’s Marek Hamsik.
“We’re not satisfied nor unhappy,” Lippi said. “We’ll prepare, study and get to know our opponents’ characteristics and then we’ll face them.”
The French were far more confident.
Les Bleus struggled throughout qualifying, and only got to South Africa courtesy of a goal set up by Thierry Henry’s obvious handball. They were passed over in the seedings, making them vulnerable to be drawn against one of the world’s powerhouses.
Instead they got South Africa, the lowest-ranked team in the World Cup, and Uruguay, which had a controversial goal of its own in its playoff with Costa Rica for the tournament’s last spot. Mexico also is in Group A.
“I’ve heard about two or three groups far more difficult than our pool,” Lyon striker Sidney Govou said on RTL radio. “We make no secret of it, we had a favorable draw.”
Same goes for England and the United States, which are paired in Group C with little-known Algeria and Slovenia.
“We feel this is a group that gives us a real fair chance to move on,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said.
Hopes were high for the Americans after their surprise quarterfinal run in 2002 but they crashed out in the first round four years ago, scoring a measly two goals – one of which was an own goal by Italy. But the Americans have made big strides since then, scoring the upset of the year with a victory over Spain at the Confederations Cup.
It was only two years ago that England had to stay home for the European championships, a stunning humiliation. But Fabio Capello has done wonders since taking over, and England might just have its strongest team since 1966, when it won its only title.
The English and Americans play on the second day of the tournament in what could be the glamour matchup of the group stage. Though England has a significant edge in friendlies, this is their first World Cup meeting since the 1950 tournament in Brazil – a 1-0 victory by the Americans still considered one of the game’s greatest upsets.
“It’s a big challenge,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “But when it comes to the World Cup and you have a chance to kick it off against a team like England, it gives it a real special start.”
The Netherlands, which won all its qualifying games, should cruise through a Group E that also includes Cameroon, Denmark and Japan.
Germany, which lost in the semifinals in 2006 to eventual winner Italy, has a tough draw with Ghana, Serbia and Australia in Group D. But the three-time champions haven’t lost a group game at the World Cup since 1986 and could be playing with added inspiration after the shocking suicide of goalkeeper Robert Enke.
Things don’t look nearly as smooth for Argentina and coach Diego Maradona. Despite having Lionel Messi, Argentina barely made it to South Africa. They’ll face Nigeria, South Korea and Greece in the group stage.
That’s nothing, though, compared to Brazil.
The Brazilians are one of the hottest teams right now, winning 13 of their last 15 games with a star-studded lineup. But they’ll be tested soundly against Portugal and the Ivory Coast.
Portugal, semifinalists in 2006, is a hard team to figure out. It played poorly in the early rounds of qualifying, and had to go through the playoffs to get to South Africa. Still, any lineup that has Ronaldo, Deco, Ricardo Carvalho and Nani is always dangerous.
Many think Ivory Coast could be the surprise of the World Cup. Didier Drogba is having his finest year yet at Chelsea, tied for the Premier League lead with 11 goals. The Elephants also have Drogba’s Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou and Manchester City defender Kolo Toure.
“You could almost say the ‘Group of Death,”‘ Kaka said.