South Africa World Cup 101: Who’s favored to win it all?

Brazil and Spain are favorites to win the World Cup, but three solid African teams have a legitimate shot at surviving deep into the tournament, as does the US.

REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Mexico's Carlos Salcido runs with the ball during the 2010 World Cup opening match against South Africa at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg June 11, 2010.

Most analysts are picking perennial favorites Brazil and perennial chokers Spain as the teams most likely to go all the way in the 2010 South Africa World Cup.

Legendary Brazilian star, Pele, is no different.

"At the moment, we have Spain in Europe and Brazil in South America. They are the two best teams - no doubt," he said Thursday on the eve of the Cup.

Pele is the greatest player that ever lived (all apologies to the soulful nation of Argentina and its Diego Maradona-worshipping fans), and an ambassador for the game since he stopped playing in the 1970s. It was he, after all, who coined the phrase “the beautiful game,” which has become the descriptor of choice for sports broadcasters worldwide. His track record as a prognosticator is rather shaky, however. He hasn't picked a World Cup winner since before 1990, and many of his favorites have gone crashing out in the first round.

But with many others getting on the Brazil and Spain bandwagon, this may be the year that Pele breaks his duck.

To be sure, no self-respecting soccer enthusiast would ever put Italy far from the top of the list. The reigning champions who edged out France in the last World Cup in 2006 are the only team to have won nearly as many World Cups (4) as Brazil (5). Football is religion in Italy, and their highly technical, defensive – often cynical – brand of soccer is usually enough to squeak by even the most inspired teams.

Then there’s England, a team so strong in World Cup qualifiers (see our explainer on how the tournament works) that most are including it in the top four.

Traditional powerhouses, Germany, the Netherlands, and Argentina are all expected to reach the quarterfinals, as usual. But most analysts are not bullish on France, a team dripping with talent, but full of “old” players and a coach who many in France say lacks the leadership to inspire the team to greatness.

Portugal, which lays claim to one of the world’s elite players, Christiano Ronaldo, are a team to watch, as well.

Dark horses include Asia’s top contender, South Korea, the US (yes, the US), and three African nations: Cameroon, Ghana, and Ivory Coast.

Ivory Coast’s team has arguably as much elite talent as any of the top teams in the Cup. But can the individuals come together, and remaine disciplined enough on defense not to allow goals on the counterattack.?If not, they’ll have a hard time making it out of the “Group of Death,” which includes Brazil and Portugal.

But playing on African soil in the continent’s first-ever chance to host the Cup could provide an extra boost.

"I am very proud to see the World Cup in Africa ... FIFA worked hard for it, and many people like me worked hard for it," said Pele. "It would be fantastic to see Brazil playing an African team in the final."

Could an African team go all the way? Don’t bet on it, but the traditional powerhouses should keep one eye open.

IN PICTURES: Top Ten Players to Watch

World Cup 101:


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