Group D is the toughest group
Here's a World Cup recipe for you: Take one of the best teams headed to this year's World Cup, and mix in the worst. Add a European team that struggled throughout qualifying and needed a playoff to get this far, and top it all off with an African team that, despite boasting several international stars, hasn't won a title since last century.
What do you get? For many, the toughest group at World Cup 2010. For others, a Group of Death label that's hard to swallow.
What's certain is that the moment that little pingpong ball with Portugal's name inside was plucked from the vat at the draw in Cape Town, the whispers began. It has been generally agreed ever since: In South Africa, Group G will be the so-called Group of Death.
Vahid Halilhodzic, the coach of Ivory Coast at the time, assured everyone who would listen that his team had gotten the worst of the draw when it was grouped with Brazil and Portugal. But he -- and the long line of pundits rushing to anoint the group as the competition's toughest -- danced around a few key issues that should have immediately derailed that rapidly accelerating Group of Death bandwagon. There are plenty of reasons to believe Group G, though a challenging one for Ivory Coast in particular, will not prove the most competitive group at the World Cup.
For starters, the fourth team in the group is generally considered to be the worst of any headed to South Africa. North Korea, ranked 106th in the world by FIFA -- right between Thailand and Rwanda -- reached the World Cup despite winning only three of eight games in the final stage of Asian qualifying.
It's enough of a stretch to bestow the Group of Death label on a foursome containing the worst team in the tournament. But -- apart from five-time champion and current FIFA No. 1 Brazil -- there are further doubts about Group G.
Portugal is undeniably a good team, and Cristiano Ronaldo seems to be finding his game at the ideal time. But the Iberians have failed to live up to lofty expectations since a semifinal appearance four years ago, and needed a late surge in their qualifying group just to make a playoff in Europe, through which they qualified for the World Cup.
Then there's Ivory Coast. The Elephants have been recognized for years now as an African power, but they have few results on the field to match their impressive collection of Europe-based superstars. Ivory Coast's résumé includes just one title -- an African Nations Cup nearly two decades ago. During this, the golden age of Ivorian soccer, the Elephants haven't won anything, despite the best efforts of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Yaya Toure. Rate the Elephants highly if you like -- many seasoned observers do -- but it's unlikely Brazil and Portugal are shaking in their boots.
In fact, if you erase reputations from the equation, forget the names in the lineups and instead consider form and results, then Group G suddenly looks much less impressive, before North Korea even enters the picture.
At minimum, Group of Death status calls for four strong teams, certain to battle for each point throughout the first round. On that basis, there are a few groups that could make a claim for deadly status ahead of Group G. Of those, the one that stands out as the strongest is Group D. The credentials of all four teams in the group headed by Germany make for what will likely be the most competitive foursome from top to bottom, and guarantee six exciting games, start to finish.
Germany, following what has become tradition, was solid if unspectacular in qualifying, and comes into the World Cup flying far under the radar for a three-time champion. Odds are the Germans will find a way to get through to the second round -- they have never failed to advance in the modern era -- but continuing that streak won't come easy this year against Serbia, Australia and Ghana.
The Serbs are a strong, athletic bunch who fear no one, and won't back down against their fellow Europeans. Led by a stingy defense anchored by Manchester United standout Nemanja Vidic, Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, and the up-and-coming Neven Subotic, the Serbs swept through a qualifying group that included France to comfortably qualify for South Africa. But the Serbs are not all defense -- they've got skill to burn in midfield and attack as well, behind Inter Milan's Dejan Stankovic and Valencia's Nikola Zigic.
Like Serbia, Australia is a team from which points will not be won cheaply. Led by Everton midfielder Tim Cahill and Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, the Socceroos are tough and clever, and will scrap through the final whistle of each match. This will be the second straight World Cup for the Socceroos, so they have a little history and experience on their side. In Germany four years ago, Australia made the second round, and was eliminated only by a controversial penalty call late in a knockout-round match with eventual champion Italy.
Rounding out Group D is African runner-up Ghana. While many seem anxious to crown Ivory Coast the best team in Africa, by some measures Ghana has been more successful of late on the field. Though the Black Stars haven't won an African Cup since 1982, they finished third in Africa two years ago, and second to Egypt this year in Angola. Ghana also won last year's FIFA under-20 World Cup, and a number of the young stars from that team have now joined the senior ranks.
Like Ivory Coast, Ghana boasts a number of world-class players, including a stacked midfield that will control much of the play in South Africa -- though much depends on the doubtful health of their leader, Michael Essien. As the last African team to make the second round, Ghana also has a better recent World Cup record than any of Africa's other entrants. In fact, Ivory Coast's group was also declared the Group of Death prior to the 2006 tournament amid high expectations for the Elephants, but while that group proved top-heavy in the end, it was the Black Stars who ended up advancing from what most observers later agreed was an even more difficult foursome.
Perhaps that recent history is the best indication of the difficulty inherent in assigning the Group of Death label prior to the World Cup. But for those who insist, there are plenty of arguments this year for Group D.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.