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December 1, 2009

Assessing the World Cup contenders

LjungbergBy Freddie Ljungberg

Every player wants to experience the special feeling of playing in the World Cup. It's an amazing feeling to represent your country, and the tournament has so much history.

On Dec. 4, the group stage draw for the 2010 World Cup (Noon, ET, ESPN2) will be made, and it will begin an incredible time for the players involved.

While I was with Arsenal, I remember a couple of times that we sat at dinner preparing for a game while the draw was going on. We had 14 or 15 players preparing for the World Cup so there was always banter back and forth.

2010 World Cup Draw
Noon ET, ESPN2,

It's very important whom you meet in the first round when you qualify, and what scenarios could unfold if you progress. If a nation catches a great draw, it can have a little bit of an easier road to the final. However, either way, you're going to get some stick from your club teammates!

Here is a quick look at the 32 qualifiers for the 2010 South Africa World Cup and my thoughts on their prospects:

Semifinalist contenders (in no particular order):

Spain -- The Spanish are an extremely good side and made easy work of their qualifying matches, winning all 10 and scoring 28 goals.

Brazil -- Brazil is one of my favorite teams to watch, and the five-time World Cup winners are going to be good again this time around.

Netherlands -- This team won six straight qualifiers to become the first European team to qualify for the finals. They keep the ball extremely well, so opponents get very tired playing against them.

Italy -- The Italians qualified in dramatic fashion, equalizing in the last minute with Ireland to clinch a spot. They always seem to raise their game when they come to the World Cup.

Portugal -- Portugal had a tougher time qualifying than expected but has a lot of quality players who can make a difference in a tight game.

Germany -- Germany is another team that always lifts itself in the big championships. Its players are big and strong, and that makes Germany hard to play against.

France -- France needed Thierry Henry's left hand to qualify ... ha-ha ... but now that they're in, can Les Bleus make a run?

Argentina -- Diego Maradona and his squad had a tough time qualifying but still have a talented team and, with Lionel Messi, Argentina has the best player in the world. When he is in form he can make a big difference.

GettyImages / Dennis DoyleDavid Villa and Spain could become the first Europeans to win a World Cup on non-European soil.

England -- Once again, the expectations for England are very high. The English have had a talented squad for a long time, so let's see if this is the time they go all the way.

Ivory Coast -- Ivory Coast is a very good team with some interesting players. I'm looking forward to seeing what it can do with my old Arsenal teammate, Kolo Toure. I'm sure it'll do well.

On the bubble of contention:

Serbia -- Serbia qualified in impressive fashion, forcing France into the playoffs. Keep a keen eye on this team, which is making its first World Cup appearance as an independent nation.

Middle of the road:

Cameroon -- Manager Paul Le Guen replaced Otto Pfister when the Lions were in last place in their group and qualified the Indomitable Lions to their sixth World Cup -- the most appearances by any African nation.

Greece -- Will the Euro 2004 champions be able to find some of the same resourcefulness to succeed in South Africa?

United States -- Can the USA take the next step to becoming a consistently solid team with a significant World Cup appearance?

Mexico -- Mexico struggled for stretches during the qualifying campaign but ended quite strongly, so we will see if El Tri can keep up that quality.

Chile -- Super substitute Jorge Valdivia's incredible effort led Chile to a 4-2 victory over Colombia and its first appearance in the World Cup since 1998.

Switzerland -- This team qualified, but barely. It did go unbeaten in its last eight matches and it's always good to end qualifying in style.

Uruguay -- Coach Oscar Tabarez and his players earned the last spot in the World Cup -- now they're trying to win the tournament for the third time.

Australia -- I didn't know much about this team until the 2006 World Cup. It impressed me there and was knocked out on a dubious penalty against Italy. Can it pick up where it left off?

Nigeria -- The Super Eagles have shown that they can overcome adversity and that they should never be counted out after qualifying in dramatic fashion.

Denmark -- Denmark knocked out my home country -- Sweden -- which still makes me upset! But it's a good side that plays good football and works hard for one another, so I hope the Danish do well.

Paraguay -- We knocked them out of the last World Cup, but they are a good side that has shown to be very consistent, having reached the finals for the fourth straight time.

Slovenia -- Slovenia is one of the outsiders that has qualified, so I'm looking forward to learning more about the country in the World Cup.

Slovakia -- Slovakia topped its group thanks to solid qualifying play, which included knocking out a good side in its neighbors, Czech Republic.

Ghana -- Ghana was the first African nation to qualify. It has good, experienced players like Inter Milan's Sulley Muntari and Chelsea's Michael Essien. I know how important Essien is for Chelsea, so he will have an immense impact on Ghana as well.

Japan -- Japan has now reached the World Cup four times. The Japanese are always very quick and technical so let's see if that can take them even further this time around.

South Korea -- The South Koreans have high energy in their game and that makes them difficult to play against. I don't know how they do it, but their players always seem very fresh in the World Cup.

South Africa -- I saw the South Africans in the Confederations Cup over the summer and they looked solid defensively. They fight for one another and get tremendous support from the fans -- which can be very important -- with their vuvuzelas. With another year, they will develop even more.

No chance:

North Korea -- This will be the North Koreans' first appearance in the World Cup since 1966, when they reached the quarterfinals.

New Zealand -- The All Whites qualified thanks to a 1-0 playoff win over Bahrain. One of my teammates with Seattle, Jarrod Smith, plays for them. I hope he can get fit again for them and have a great World Cup.

Honduras -- Unfortunately, I have not seen Honduras play much, but I know it qualified in dramatic fashion after a 1-0 victory over El Salvador while the USA scored a last-minute goal to draw with Costa Rica.

Algeria -- It's nice to see Algeria back in the World Cup for the first time since 1986. I'm interested to see what kind of football it will be able to play.

See you at my own blog.

Freddie Ljungberg is a midfielder with the Seattle Sounders. He also formerly played for Arsenal in the English Premiership and the Swedish national team. He writes daily at his own blog,