Thanks to a tight victory over Honduras on Saturday night, the United States soccer team will be competing in the 2010 World Cup Finals that kick off in Johannesburg, South Africa, next June. While the standards of this particular qualifying group are pretty dismal—Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, and Honduras aren't exactly soccer powerhouses—the U.S. team is ranked a respectable 11th in the world. Even so, although the team has qualified for every World Cup Finals since 1990, it has had limited success—a draw against Italy, the eventual winner, was the highlight of the team's adventures in the 2006 finals in Germany.
So, what can we expect this time around? Much will depend on which teams the U.S. will have to face. Bookmakers rank the U.S. 19th, at around 66-1, to win the tournament. Eternal optimists should definitely get in on some of that action.
Here are the contenders for the trophy:
Spain: With the most creative midfield in international soccer, a devastating attack and a solid defense, they'll will win the competition if they can maintain their self-belief. If you follow one team, make it Spain--they're great to watch.
Brazil: The team favored by Americans who pretend to know about the World Cup, Brazil has had an impressive qualifying tournament. While it has an immensely talented squad with the likes of Kaka, Luis Fabiano and Alves, other stars, like Ronaldinho and Robinho, can be capricious. If they gel, however, they could be world-beaters.
Germany: As solid and dependable as a Volkswagen, Germany is resilient and powerful. Unlike previous World Cups, the team is entering the tournament without a genuine star but is never easy to beat.
England: Huge public expectations follow England to every tournament, where it often fizzles out in the knockout stages. This time, however, it has a coach in the Italian Fabio Capello, who has the tactical chops and the authority to tame the overhyped egotists who make up his squad. Without a doubt, it'll be the best-supported team after hosts South Africa.
Italy: Despite the talent in this squad, the Italians play a highly defensive style that's rarely easy on the eye. But they're not world champions for nothing—Italy knows how to win, and none of the other teams will relish playing them. France: While this year's version isn't the winning team of 1998 (and they have a playoff game to survive before booking their place in South Africa), France still has many world-class players such as Ribery, Henry, and Benzema. But it's a time of transition for Les Bleues, and whether coach Raymond Domenech has the management skills to motivate them is debatable.
Argentina: Bizarrely, Argentina, which is graced by the presence of Lionel Messi—the midfielder generally considered the world's best player—and several other top stars, has had a miserable qualifying campaign. Some Argentines blame coach Diego Maradona who could be replaced before the finals. However, if Argentina does manage to click, it's a genuine contender for the title.
Others to watch:
Holland: The purists' favorite for its open style of play, the Dutch team has a mixture of awesome talent and solid journeymen. Depending on the draw, they may well find themselves in the final eight.
Ivory Coast: With Didier Drogba leading the team, Ivory Coast unquestionably has a player who will score goals against the best defenses. And don't discount the ability of other African representatives, Ghana, to cause upsets either.
Russia: The surprise of the European Championships in 2006, Russia has one of the best players in the world in Andrey Arshavin.
Who do you think is going to win?
And if you're really in the mood to look forward, this kid, who was signed by English champions Manchester United when he was 9 years old, may well be entertaining us at the World Cup 2022: