My official World Cup picks ahead of kick-off tomorrow. For what it's worth, here's how I think the group stages will shake out. I refuse to make my picks for the whole tournament yet, because the tournament is really two totally different halves (the group stages and the knockout stages). Also, part of the fun of the World Cup is the relative unpredictability that comes when teams of superstar talent are thrown together in a relatively short time and face off, backed by a global passion and 32 different flavors of national pride. I'm embracing that unpredictability (although, actually, only 7 different teams have ever won the World Cup, but mentioning that kinds of spoils the fun) by picking only the group stage at first.
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Predicted winner: Mexico
Predicted runner-up: France
If South Africa doesn't make it out of this group, it'll be the first time the host nation has failed to advance to the knockout stages, but to be fair, South Africa wouldn't even be in the tournament (probably) if they weren't the hosts. I think Mexico could surprise some people, because they've got some great young talent like Giovanni Dos Santos and Carlos Vela. They've also looked to be gaining steam ever since manager Javier Aguirre took the reins, and if their defense can hold it together, they could make a deep run. As for France, I wouldn't be shocked if they failed to qualify, but even in a somewhat down year, their talent is still enough to take them through, as long as hapless manager Raymond Domenech (headed out after the World Cup) doesn't mess things up too badly.
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, Korea Republic, and Greece
Predicted winner: Argentina
Runner up: Nigeria
Argentina has the most talented manager in the world in Lionel Messi as well as the most talented manager in the world in Diego Maradonna. Unfortunately, Maradona's talent lies on the field (where he led Argentina to a world cup title in 1986) and not on the sidelines, where he's made some bizarre decisions and almost oversaw an Argentine failure to even qualify for this Cup. Maradona also might be the craziest manager in South Africa, and he's already said that he'll run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if Argentina wins the cup (think of a slightly tanner Pilsbury Doughboy with dark hair if you're looking for a mental image). Still, the mercurial talent of Messi and the overall pedigree of Argentina should get them first place. Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is also a country with a lot of talent, but, unfortunately, politics and corruption have often gotten in the way of them taking advantage of it. The Super Eagles qualified amid managers being sacked and allegations of bribes and fixed games in their domestic league. Still, they qualified easily, going undefeated, and finished third at the 2010 African Cup of Nations.
Group C: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia
Predicted winner: England
Predicted runner-up: USA
This group has, obviously, been discussed ad nauseam by all the soccer fans here in the States, but this seems to be the consensus pick for how the group will finish. Bottom line, this is an easy draw for the U.S. and England in relative terms. No matter how much experts keep saying that Algeria and Slovenia are strong teams that can surprise the U.S., this is just about the best group scenario the Americans could have hoped for. The key will be the Americans' ability to put the first game (against England on Saturday) behind them and focus on the next two, which ultimately are the more important fixtures. Whether the U.S. wins, loses, or draws against England, they have to immediately prepare for the next match. If they beat Algeria and Slovenia, they're going through to the 2nd round, period.
Group D: German, Ghana, Serbia, Australia
Predicted winner: Germany
Predicted runner-up: Serbia
If not for Michael Essien's injury, I'd probably be picking Ghana to advance in the place of the Serbs. I'm still tempted to do so, because Ghana (as they proved in 2006) are a team to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, I think Essien was the glue that held this team together and a necessary calming influence. I actually don't think Serbia is as strong as some analysts do (they qualified from a relatively weak group, by European standards), but I think they still get through. Germany also lost a significant contributor in Michael Ballack, but I don't think Ballack was as essential to German chances as Essien was for Ghana. Ballack was somewhat past his prime anyway, and I don't think his leadership will be as missed on the field by this steady German squad.
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Predicted winner: Netherlands
Predicted runner-up: Cameroon
The Dutch have a couple of Champions League finalists in great attacking form with Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. Unfortunately, Robben has suffered a small hamstring tear recently, and will almost certainly miss at least one match. That just means Sneijder will have to step it up even more, which I think he's capable of. As for Cameroon, I mentioned in my first post, that I think they're the African continent's best hope, and they also probably have its best player (now that Drogba and Essien are injured) in forward Samuel Eto'o. Cameroon is a strong squad that should be able to at least handle Denmark and an improving Japan squad.
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Predicted winner: Paraguay
Predicted runner-up: Italy
Italy has looked increasingly sluggish ever since they won the World Cup in 2006 with an already-aging squad. Back then they were experienced, now they might just be over the hill. Manager Marcelo Lippi has repeatedly declined to embrace some of Italy's talented young players (including American-born forward Giuseppe Rossi, who was left off the World Cup squad), and a speedy Mexico team fully exploited their age in a recent friendly. I think Paraguay will as well, and if this were a stronger group, I might pick Italy to fall out. That being said, you never know with the Italians (winner of three World Cup), and it's always dangerous to count a team with tons of talent just because they're older (see Boston Celtics 2010).
Group G: Brazil, Portugal, Ivory Coast, North Korea
Predicted winner: Brazil
Predicted runner-up: Portugal
This has been called the Group of Death by many, but I actually don't think Brazil will have too much trouble winning it. The real toss-up is between Ivory Coast and Portugal, and, although, both squads have suffered key injuries recently, the bottom line is that Portugal still has their best player, and one of the top 5 in the world, in Christiano Ronaldo, while Ivory Coast doesn't. Although Portugal struggled to qualify, and actually seemed to play better towards the end of qualifying without Ronaldo, I still think they'll figure things out enough to at least tie Ivory Coast. If that happens, it comes down to goal differential, and I have doubts about Ivory Coast's scoring ability without Drogba. My real concern in this group is how angry each of North Korea's losses will make Kim-Jong-Il. I can't decide whether to pull for blowouts, so he'll do something crazy like order ever soccer ball in his country burned, or hope that he stays happy so, you know, he doesn't start World War III.
Group H: Spain, Chile, Honduras, Switzerland
Predicted winner: Spain
Predicted runner-up: Chile
The real storyline with this group might be how left-out Switzerland feels in this almost entirely Spanish-speaking group. The Spanish are the favorites, along with Brazil, to win the whole thing, and second place will probably come down to either the Swiss or the Chileans. I'm going to take Chile with the Southern Hemisphere home-field advantage (weren't expecting that were you), and also just because they're really fun to watch. Plus, I think the Spanish are going to give Chile a scouting report on the Swiss after the Spanish beat Switzerland in their first match, because I am blindly assuming that all Spanish-speaking countries band together. Sorry, I can't get enough of this whole language thing. Maybe it's because the Swiss are so white.