There's been weeks of breathless rumors about who won't be on the field in South Africa -- including England's captain Rio Ferdinand and just about anyone who has ever worn a Chelsea uniform (Michael Ballack, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, and possibly Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben), along with endless media eye-rolling about the US's "easy draw", desperate gnashing of teeth about Brazil's workmanlike approach and debates about whether Italy's ancient and desiccated warriors will decompose before they can defend their title. So it is a joyous relief that this Friday the finest soccer players in the world -- and Peter Crouch -- will finally kick the controversial Jabulani (and one another) and begin their quest for the 2010 World Cup.
In other words: It. Is. On.
Here's what to look for:
Will hundreds of thousands of vuvuzela-armed South Africans and the relentlessly fake-tanned Charlize Theron be enough to keep this team from becoming the first World Cup host to go out in the first round?
Having drawn the always formidable French and two other seasoned opponents in Mexico and Uruguay, South Africa appeared as though it would need those infernal plastic trumpets to make more of an ear-splitting din than a million Cameron Crazies in order to keep from going gently into the good night. But under its peripatetic Brazilian coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira -- who won the Cup in a mind-numbing final in '94 -- the hosts are starting to look like more than just target practice for their opponents, particularly if last week's encouraging 2-1 upset of Colombia in a friendly is any indication. On the field, South Africa's most dangerous weapon is the dreadlocked Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar, a leading contender for the 2010 World Cup All-Hair Team.
The French, of course, are in South Africa courtesy of Thierry Henry's Iverson-worthy crossover dribble against Ireland (better known as "The Hand of Gaul") that allowed them to board the plane, after making sure there was no stopover in Dublin. Lame duck coach Raymond Domenech, he of the astrologically informed lineup selections, has read his tarot cards and decided to live or die with an attacking formation laden with European stars Franck Ribery, Nicolas Anelka and Yoann Gourcuff along with one aging future New York Red Bulls star in Henry. Despite France's ballyhooed lack of faith in Domenech, who will step down after the tournament, he did take the team to the 2006 final where it was but a Zizou head-butt away from becoming soccer's Grand Fromage. Les Bleus could be on the first plane home or reach the quarterfinals, depending on whether that scandalous Aries, Ribery, can leave as many defenders in his wake as he recently did tabloid reporters. -- DH
GROUP BWill the specter of Maradona's pride and glory motivate or terrify his team? The last time Argentina was drawn in the same group as the talented Nigerians and physical Greeks, the year was 1994, Whitney Houston was still a megastar, and the Argentine celebrated an opening-round goal in such manic style that a urine sample was barely necessary to prove he was hopped-up on ephedrine.
This time round, Maradona will be hemmed into the technical area as manager. The question remains, does he have a clue what he's doing? The jury is still out. His team was a hot mess in qualifying, cycling through more than 100 players in search of a consistent rhythm. Few squads have been so offense-rich. The Argentines undoubtedly have the talent to lift the trophy with World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, Diego Milito, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and the highly coveted Angel Di Maria. Much will rest on Messi's shoulders and his ability to replicate the magic of his Barcelona performances while wearing an Argentine shirt.
Few are finer at creating a sense of "us against the world" than Maradona, but his initial attempts appear rusty, even misguided. El Diego promised to skip naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if his team is victorious. Any of his players who have Google-imaged "Maradona" and "naked" will probably throw a game or two. It's what safe search was invented for. -- RB
No matter which of his duct-taped defenders U.S. coach Bob Bradley decides to start, he has to figure out a way to stop arguably the second-most dangerous attacker behind You Know Who in the World Cup. For his part, the pit-bullish Rooney must surely be snorting at the prospect of facing a backline that couldn't handle a cold beer on a hot day.
So here's an idea, Bob: Why not tell your team to hack away at Rooney's legs and ankles until he loses his cool (even with his new-found maturity, it shouldn't take longer than about 27 seconds) and channels his inner Merseyside? We saw Rooney's favorite means of payback in 2006, a sly stomp on an opponent (stand up -- if you can -- Ricardo Carvalho) that led to his ejection. And though he has demonstrated more control of his innate fury in recent months, he is still only one reckless challenge away from a red card.
Meanwhile, at the other end, El Landito can renew acquaintances with the former Mr. Cheryl Cole (aka Ashley, who plays left back). Donovan both schooled and injured Cole when Everton last played Chelsea. Of course, England has far more talented players -- Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, rising star James Milner -- than the U.S., so the question becomes: Will class trump athleticism and fighting spirit? On the other hand, does the name Joe Gaetjens mean anything to you? If Rooney implodes, and Tim Howard has a monster game in goal, the U.S. could pull a point from this key matchup. And a Democrat could win in Utah. -- DH
Will this foursome murder the group of death?
At every World Cup, there is a group that is endlessly hyped as THE GROUP OF DEATH ahead of time (see Group G) and a stealthier one that is awarded the moniker retrospectively. This asphyxiating foursome in Group D will be it. Serbia's rugged defenders Nemanja Vidic and Neven Subotic (who played for the U.S. at the under-17 and under-20 level) provide the team with the confidence to foray forward in search of goals. The Socceroos are determined to prove to the world just how much a grudge (born of the controversial manner of their injury-time exit at the last World Cup) can motivate an ornery Australian. Ghana will surely be hampered by the loss of the dynamic Michael Essien, but it is a young and talented squad.
Germany is favored but will have to draw on all of its clichéd clinical efficiency to emerge unscathed. The squad's midfield is depleted by injury and its defense has seemed uncharacteristically brittle at times. The loss of Michael Ballack to Kevin Prince Boateng's reckless lunge in the English FA Cup final has set up one of the most fascinating subplots of the tournament. Boateng is on the Ghanian squad, which will take on the Germans in the final game of the opening round. If he is selected, will Germany take its eye off the ball and focus on revenge, even persuading Boateng's brother, German defender Jerome, to give him a good kicking? Tune in June 23 to glimpse the possibility of the greatest act of brother-on-brother violence since Cain and Abel. -- RB
GROUP EAre the Dutch the Buffalo Bills of the World Cup?
Runner-up in both 1974 and 1978, the Clockwork Oranje haven't come close to hoisting the Jules Rimet trophy in 32 years. This is despite producing some of the world's most phenomenal players, including Dutch masters Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutch may have invented Total Football, but for decades the country hasn't had a clue about Total Chemistry. 2010 looks to be no different: electric midfielders Arjen Robben (if healthy) and Wesley Sneijder should provide sniper Robin van Persie with more than enough goal-scoring ammunition, as they did so ruthlessly during Holland's perfect 8-0 run in qualifying. But Sneijder is prone to sullen, angry moods (think T.O. but balder) and van Persie did his bit to foster team harmony by recently lashing out at fellow striker Dirk Kuyt, saying the Liverpool workhorse doesn't even deserve to be on the field. Besides its dysfunctional locker room, the Dutch defense, anchored by 35-year-old captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst, tends to crumble faster than a stale piece of Gouda. And, of course, Dutch tradition is replete with big-game chokes (see Holland vs. Russia in the 2008 European Championships) that dwarf even the auto-asphyxiating efforts of mighty England. It all points to another swashbuckling but ultimately doomed World Cup performance for soccer's favorite almost-but-not-quite-champions. -- DH
Is Italy "experienced" or just really, really old?
Slovakia is a plucky band of brothers led by "The Phantom," Marek Hamsik, who should not let his resemblance to Green Day's drummer prevent him from becoming one of the breakout stars of the tournament. Paraguay may be hobbled after the loss of star striker Salvador Cabanas, who was gunned down in a Mexico City bar. Clearly the team will need Oscar Cardozo to bring his scoring boots. New Zealand is a motley crew that may not score a goal and promise to be one to watch for those who enjoy Eli Roth-esque horror flicks.
The story line of this group is the defending champions from Italy, who appear uncharacteristically toothless. Master coach Marcello Lippi has remained loyal to many of the players who dug deep to lift the cup in 2006, irrespective of their recent club form. Fabio Cannavaro, 36, had a diabolical season for Juventus -- after the World Cup he'll be moving to Dubai's Al Ahli club -- yet he is still captain. But Italian fans should fear not. Perhaps their team has the world exactly where it wants them. The Azzurri have never been more dangerous than when written off -- even though the midfield has the combined age of Larry King, Regis Philbin and Hugh Hefner. -- RB
Would Cristiano Ronaldo even start on the 2010 Brazil team?
Even though purists the world over are wailing about Brazil coach Dunga's betrayal of the holy Joga Bonito ("play beautifully") scripture by sacrificing step overs and flair in favor of defensive commitment, Brazil is again the team to beat. The biggest shock was the omission of Jheri-curled, two-footed Ronaldinho, star of Nike's new World Cup ad (Whoops! Just Do It Elsewhere) as the once-great Dinho's bag of tricks didn't fit into the no-nonsense Dunga's vision. After all, Brazil was overflowing with ball wizardry in 2006 and crashed out to France in the quarterfinals.
So four years later, Dunga is taking no chances. Instead of adding another crowd-pleaser to complement Kaka and Robinho in attack, he's installed a double lock -- two holding midfielders -- in front of his defense. Dunga has made it clear that if it's Brazilian entertainment you want, you can check out the samba bands and the half-naked gyrating women in the stands. What, you wonder, would be his attitude toward Vanity Fair cover boy and world's pre-eminent show pony Ronaldo if he were playing for Brazil? Would he forgive the heavily gelled look and affinity for drama-club theatrics or would he banish him to Ronaldinho purgatory? Either way, it will be interesting June 25 to see if Ronaldo gives Dunga a searing reminder of what Joga Bonito looks like in Portugal's battle with its ex-colony for the likely first-place finish in the group. -- DH
Is Spain psychologically ready to get physical?
Spain's slick passing papercut opponents to death at Euro 2008, and the team cast aside its reputation as prime-time chokers in the process. Spain enters this World Cup with the pressure of being the bookies' favorite, and it has the soccer world wondering whether La Furia Roja is psychologically ready to withstand the pressure of expectation. As Barcelona discovered in its unsuccessful defense in the Champions League, a determined, organized team can park the bus in front of the goal and wait to score on the break -- soccer's version of the rope a dope. This type of strategy is a real threat in the short format of the World Cup.
Switzerland may just be there to make up the numbers, but Chile, spearheaded by Alexis Sanchez and the plump Humberto Suazo, can score goals in bunches. Honduras will bring the steel of English Premier League stars Wilson Palacios (injured shin permitting) and Maynor Figueroa.
To add to the prospect of parity, the Spanish treatment table has seen more action than the sound stage of "Grey's Anatomy." Many Spanish soccer fans could qualify for a medical degree after following the assorted healing body parts of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Torres. For Spain, the decisive question may ultimately be this: How proficient is its medical team? It's on this ability that the nation may rise or fall. -- RBDavid Hirshey and Roger Bennett are the authors of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event." You can reach Roger Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @rogbennett.