A league of their own

The favourite teams and stars to watch in the battle for soccer glory

Over the past decade, Portugal’s “golden generation” led the side to unprecedented success—but with those legends now retired, the microscope will rightly be on the flashy and talented (but sometimes petulant) Cristiano Ronaldo. The team barely snuck into the 2010 tournament, but if Ronaldo and his supporting cast (such as Manchester United striker Nani) can peak at the right time, their names may, too, be written into Portuguese soccer lore.

There is a joke that 11 Brazilians, picked at random, could probably qualify for the World Cup. While that’s an exaggeration (sort of), this year’s squad is stacked with world-class talent, even without Ronaldinho and the legendary Roberto Carlos. Watch for Real Madrid’s $95-million man, midfielder Kaka, to be this year’s playmaking linchpin as the Brazilians—with their flashy, attacking style—contend for yet another World Cup title.

In the 2002 World Cup, striker Miroslav Klose established himself on the world stage, scoring five goals. Germany made it all the way to the final that year, before narrowly losing to Brazil. If the sixth-ranked Germans are to have a shot in South Africa, they’ll be hoping Klose, now 31, can replicate his form from eight years ago—especially since they’ll be missing their captain, Michael Ballack, due to injury.

World Cup 2010 Special

The Indomitable Lions are the highest-ranked African team in the tournament, and the combination of home-continent advantage and a relatively favourable draw could see them through to the knockout round. The squad is young, but is captained by bona fide superstar Samuel Eto’o, fresh off a triumph in the UEFA Champions League final with Inter Milan.

Since their only World Cup triumph in 1966, fans of the Three Lions have had to endure plenty of heartbreak, including being eliminated on penalty kicks in the 2006 quarter-finals. But with a new manager, Fabio Capello, and a new captain, Rio Ferdinand, English hopes are riding high (aren’t they always?). If the team can unite behind red-hot forward Wayne Rooney, this could be the year English supporters are finally rewarded for their patience.

Gone are the days when America fielded squads of amateurs and unknowns, just happy to be there. Now their team is built on top of European talent like Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu—not to mention Landon Donovan, the long-time poster boy for Major League Soccer. A surprising run in last year’s Confederations Cup has left the squad hungry for success, and a deep run in South Africa could be enough to finally push soccer into the American mainstream.

Ladies on the sidelines (photos) | Top 5 World Cup commercials | Soccer’s biggest fakers (video) | When to watch | + more

La Roja looked unstoppable last year, basking in the afterglow of their Euro 2008 triumph and riding a 35-game unbeaten streak. But then came an unexpected Confederations Cup loss to the U.S.A., followed by injuries to several key players. The Spanish side will now lean on 28-year-old David Villa (who recently signed a four-year deal with Barcelona) to help prove that their dominance of the past 24 months was no fluke.

The Netherlands
The Oranje have reached the World Cup final twice (1974 and 1978) but have never won it all, earning them a reputation as underachievers. But the team breezed through World Cup qualifying games, posting a perfect record (eight wins in eight matches), and have Robin van Persie—back from an ankle injury—powering their attack. Will this be the year they finally deliver on all their potential?

The reigning champions are without Fabio Grosso, who scored the clinching goal in the 2006 final, but will still have the ageless (36, actually) Fabio Cannavaro anchoring their back line. The Azzurri are proof that defence wins, and if Cannavaro—the only defender to ever win FIFA’s World Player of the Year—and fellow vet Gianluca Zambrotta can keep things organized, the Italians could have a shot at repeating. It may not be pretty, but it works.

World Cup 2010 Special

North Korea
In soccer, as in global politics, the North Koreans are mysterious, but worth keeping a close eye on. The team is the lowest-ranked to qualify for this year’s World Cup, and most of its players are unknown to even the most diehard soccer fans. But back in 1966, North Korea posted a stunning victory over Italy and became the first Asian team to reach the World Cup quarter-finals. Could a similar shock be in the works in 2010?

Ivory Coast
While Brazil and Portugal are the favourites in Group G, it’s the Ivory Coast that truly makes it the Group of Death. It boasts an attack fronted by Didier Drogba, the explosive striker who led the English Premier League in goals this season. An exciting squad, the Elephants’ roster possesses plenty of top-flight European experience—but it is ultimately the strong, mercurial Drogba on whom their fortunes will rest.

Ladies on the sidelines (photos) | Top 5 World Cup commercials | Soccer’s biggest fakers (video) | When to watch | + more

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.