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Can Brazil hold it together for 2010?

August 10, 2009
By Ravi Ubha

Other / Ron Scheffler/US PresswireJust as they did in Germany in 2006, throngs of World Cup fans will descend on South Africa.

The world's biggest party is fast approaching.

In less than 12 months, throngs of joyous fans will journey to South Africa, bringing the World Cup to Africa for the first time.

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For more features, analysis, predictions and opinion about the World Cup, drop by our special U.S. index page.

Aficionados without tickets will snuggle up to the TV: More than 715 million viewers watched Italy's dramatic win over France in the 2006 final in Germany. To put that into perspective for U.S. fans, about 151 million took in this year's Super Bowl.

"From a football point of view, it's fantastic," John Barnes, one of England's legendary players and a World Cup veteran, said in a phone interview. "And then there are the fans. Seeing them outside the grounds, seeing what they go through, and seeing how happy or sad they are, it's all a tremendous occasion."

Come July 11, 2010, in Johannesburg, one set of supporters will be happier than the rest.

Here's an early, early look at some of the teams sure to go deep, led by record five-time champ Brazil.

Yes, they'll all qualify.

AP / AP PhotoKaka gives Brazil plenty of firepower, but can Dunga pick him some teammates who will click?

Brazil

Talk about a paradox: Brazil, all suave and flair, being coached by a spiky-haired, no-nonsense enforcer who lacked the skills of many of his international teammates.

No matter. Whatever the diminutive Dunga, nicknamed "Dopey," is doing is working fine.

Taking over from the experienced Carlos Alberto Parreira shortly after Brazil's 2006 flop, Dunga, in his first top-level managerial job, molded together a team without egos.

Or at least that's what it sounded like after Brazil's title in June's Confederations Cup in South Africa, capped by a 3-2 comeback win over an inspired and seemingly fate-infused U.S. team.

"In 20 days together, there has not been the slightest problem, and that's something I've never seen from a team before," Dunga, a World Cup winner in 1994, told reporters. "That shows you how professional my players are."

Brazil has ample firepower in the deeply religious Kaka, the 2007 player of the year; the flashy but erratic Robinho; and Luis Fabiano. Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva, like Dunga in his day, do the dirty work in midfield.

Does Dunga bring back the likes of legendary striker Ronaldo, enjoying a renaissance back home until hurting his hand, and fellow former world player of the year (Brazil has tons of them) Ronaldinho? Ronaldinho, tough to handle at Barcelona, and Kaka failed to click in Germany.

Italy

Marcello Lippi, Italy's cigar-smoking, Godfather-esque manager, has a similar dilemma.

Lippi largely stuck with the old guard: He omitted genius Antonio Cassano and paid the price at the Confederations Cup. The reigning world champions exited early, suffering an embarrassing loss to Egypt and a rout at the hands of Brazil.

Why omit Cassano? As gifted as he is, the striker mixes with trouble too often, and Lippi is a firm believer in the "no I in team" concept.

Lippi garnered seemingly endless praise and sent Italy into rapture while he was leading the Azzurri to a surprising crown, No. 4 overall, in Germany. Now the nation isn't so uplifted.

"I think Italy is quite worried," Massimo Cecchini, a soccer writer with the country's leading sports newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport, said in a phone interview. "Winning the World Cup was a very special and unexpected moment. Currently our best players are not in that kind of form."

Unless Lippi opts for Cassano, or Francesco Totti, Italy's David Beckham, returns to international soccer, defense figures to be the national team's biggest weapon -- again.

As we've seen before, no one defends better.

AP / Rebecca BlackwellIker Casillas is one of the world's top goalkeepers -- and still faces competition on the Spanish squad.

Spain

Strength up the middle is a big plus in soccer, and Spain has it in abundance.

Iker Casillas is one of the world's top goalkeepers -- he is fighting it out for the top spot with Italy's Gianluigi Buffon -- Carles Puyol inspires in defense, Marcos Senna cleans up in midfield, and Andres Iniesta sets up goals.

But Fernando Torres and David Villa take the cake. They're the most feared forward partnership around at the international level.

Villa scored four goals and Torres chipped in with two as Spain finally shrugged off its underachieving tag by winning the European Championships last year.

"They're two extraordinary players from a technical standpoint, able to make easy what seems difficult," New York Red Bulls midfielder Albert Celades, one of the few players to have suited up for both Real Madrid and archrival Barcelona, wrote in an e-mail.

Spain fell earlier than expected at the Confederations Cup, but has few deep-rooted concerns. A first World Cup title would mirror France's Bleus, whose golden generation of stars executed a rare World Cup-Euro double in 1998 and 2000.

Germany

Discount the Germans at your peril.

Sure, they lack a Kaka, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but Germany almost always excels in crunch time.

Germany, amid low expectations, sauntered to the 2002 World Cup final; the home crowd aided in a semifinal showing four years later; and Germany landed in the Euro 2008 final after struggling big-time in the group stage.

"In Germany, everyone knows we don't have the best players, and the only chance to win is as a team," Kai Traemann, who covers soccer for the country's biggest-selling newspaper, Bild, said in a phone interview. "In Spain or Brazil you have stronger players, but in Germany you only have players like [Michael] Ballack and [Miroslav] Klose. The rest have to fight and run for each other."

Midfield maestro Ballack, drifting at club team Chelsea, is transformed in a German jersey, while Klose, a veteran, is the major goal threat. The area of concern is central defense.

AP / Martin MejiaDiego Maradona says he isn't going anywhere, but controversy continues to follow him.

Argentina

The Diego Maradona experiment persists. For now.

Arguably the greatest soccer player of all time and the architect of Argentina's 1986 World Cup crown in Mexico, Maradona controversially became manager in October 2008 despite a lack of substantial experience.

Like Dunga, you say? Well, the Brazilian hasn't battled alcohol and drug addiction and problems with his weight. Nor does he curse opponents who suit up against his favorite team back home.

A bright start was tempered by a crushing 6-1 loss to Bolivia -- currently second-to-last in South American qualifying -- and a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Ecuador. Just last month Maradona was linked with a move to Portsmouth, a small fish in the big pond that is England's Premier League.

"In no way would I abandon ship," Maradona retorted in the Argentinean sports daily Ole.

Argentina has only a two-point lead over Ecuador in the race for the final automatic qualifying spot.

If Maradona, or anyone else, can mesh together a squad that features offensive threats Messi, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero -- father of the coach's grandson -- and defensive stalwarts Javier Zanetti and Javier Mascherano, watch out.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.