FIFA World Cup 2010: South Africa

Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/MCT

Jeremy Unger

Although most Americans don’t follow the World’s Game, every four years the U.S. national team faces off against 31 other countries competing for the title of world’s best soccer team. This year’s contest, which is hosted by South Africa, could be one of the most open contests in the tournament’s 80-year history. Here are five of the biggest questions going into the World Cup. (Note: club teams of players are in parenthesis)

1. Who are the top teams and the dark horses of this year’s Cup?

Unlike most years, where one country usually stands out as the perennial favorite, this year’s tournament is a wide-open race. But the two teams who have to be at the top of anyone’s list are Brazil and Spain.
While Brazil may not have the utter dominance they’ve had in past years, they still have one of the best core groups, highlighted by Kaká (Real Madrid) and Robinho (Manchester City/Santos).
But the Spanish can definitely put up a fight, especially if Fernando Torres (Liverpool) can return to help supplement David Villa (Valencia) up top. And when you have players like Xavi (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), and the best goalie in the world in Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), it’s hard not to see the Spaniards in the Finals.
But there are many unknown teams that could make a big splash this year too. With Africa hosting its first ever World Cup, African teams are under more pressure to succeed on the international stage. Ivory Coast brings Africa its first team with a legitimate shot at the title. Superstar Didier Drogba (Chelsea) leads a team that features a wealth of players from the top European leagues, such as Salomon Kalou (Chelsea) and Emmanuel Eboué (Arsenal). Although they were placed in this year’s Group of Death alongside Portugal and Brazil, look for the Ivorians to surprise everybody.

2. Which teams are the most overrated in this year’s tournament?

Sorry Mr. Plant, but the English aren’t going anywhere this year. A combination of injuries and inner conflicts has left England a shadow of their former self. John Terry (Chelsea) was stripped of his captaincy after having an affair with the girlfriend of teammate Wayne Bridge in one of the biggest sporting scandals in Europe. But scandals haven’t been the only problem. Injuries to stars Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) and Gareth Barry (Aston Villa) have made many question whether England will be at full strength come June. With spotty performances in the last couple of World Cups, there is no reason to see England going far in South Africa.

3. How will South Africa handle hosting duties?

When South Africa was given the honor of hosting Africa’s first ever World Cup, many questions were brought up over South Africa’s ability to host one of the biggest events in the world. And while the South Africans have succeeded in building world-class facilities and providing a fun and exciting environment, many people wonder about the safety issues surrounding playing in South Africa. During the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations in Angola last January, armed gunmen attacked the team bus of the Togo national soccer team, killing three people. Although South African officials have said that security and counter-terrorism forces have been increased, qestions remain.
Another serious problem has been the human rights issues during the building and preparation in South Africa for the tournament. Claims have surfaced that the South African government forced evictions in order to build new stadiums and buildings, putting people on to the streets or large slums.
Expect the Bafana Bafana (the nickname of the South African team, which means The Boys, The Boys in Zulu) to make it out of the first round. In the entire history of the tournament, every host nation has made it past the first round, so expect home field advantage to play a big role in how far South Africa goes. And with a handful of players with European experience, expect the Bafana Bafana to keep that home streak going.

4. Who will win the Golden Boot (The award given to the player who scores the most goals in the tournament)?

This year’s Golden Boot could easily go to one of the big star’s like Argentina’s Lionel Messi (Barcelona) or Kaká. But I’m going to go out on a limb and pick Messi’s fellow countryman Gonzalo Higuaín (Real Madrid). With the large majority of defense’s attentions focused on Messi, Higuaín will be open for more runs and opportunities down the field, which will translate to more goals and more opportunities.

Photo: Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/KRT/MCT. Lionel Messi of Argentina looks to be one of the top competitors for the Golden Boot.

5. Will the United States finally succeed, and how would success affect the U.S.?

If the U.S. is ever going to win it all, this is the year it will happen. Last year’s victory over Spain, who hadn’t lost in a FIFA record 35 matches, and a close game against Brazil, showed the world that the U.S. has the ability to play with any of the top dogs. Led by captain Landon Donovan (Everton/Galaxy), defensive back Oguchi Onyewu(A.C. Milan), and goalie Tim Howard (Everton), the U.S. now features a roster that is mostly based in Europe, instead of rosters of the past that were filled with MLS players.  And with young stars like Maurice Edu (Glasgow Rangers) and  Jozy Altidore (Hull City), the future looks bright. But The U.S., who is nearly at full strength and full of desire to win now, could finally bring a soccer world championship home in 2010 and national attention to the sport of soccer.