Here is an introduction to the four teams in Group B, with their FIFA rankings in parentheses.
South Korea (47)
This is another group of barely-made-its that could produce some exciting matches.
Argentina is a perennial power...and yet the last time they advanced to the semifinals was 20 years ago. The team has been coached since November 2008 by the legendary Diego Maradona, who, as a player, led Argentina to the World Cup championship in 1986 and second place in 1990. In 1994, he failed a doping test and was sent home after two matches. One thing you can count on with Argentina this year is drama. It is hard to imagine the Maradona-led Argentineans completing the tournament without being involved in some sort of controversy.
The FIFA World Player of the Year, Lionel Messi, has been spectacular when playing for his club team, FC Barcelona, so why is he so underwhelming when he plays for the national team, and can Maradona do anything about it?
Argentina's road to the 2010 World Cup was chaotic. They opened with three wins, but then lost to Colombia and played four straight ties. By the time Maradona took over, their record was a mediocre 4 wins 2 losses and 4 draws. After an easy 4-0 victory over Venezuela, disaster struck. Argentina lost to Bolivia 6-1 -- the first time in 50 years they had lost an international match by five goals. There were calls for Maradona to be fired, particularly after the team also lost to Ecuador, Brazil (at home) and Paraguay. With only two matches left in the qualifying tournament, Argentina was in fifth place and in serious danger of not qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. They eked out a 2-1 victory over last-place Peru and then faced Uruguay on the road, needing a tie to qualify. Mario Bolatti scored for Argentina in the 84th minute and the nation of Argentina breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Maradona celebrated the goal by diving onto the pitch on his stomach and then earned a two-month ban by swearing at the media during the post-match press conference. He has also promised to run down the streets of Buenos Aires naked if Argentina wins the World Cup, a threat that will probably inspire his team's opponents to play even harder.
This year, Argentina lost to Spain in Madrid, but beat Germany 1-0 in Munich on a goal by Gonzalo Higuain. Watch for Diego Milito, who, over an 18-day period in May this year, playing for Inter Milan, scored the winning goal in the Italian Cup final, the winning goal in the final match of the season to give Inter the Italian Serie A championship, and both goals in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich. That's what you call going into the World Cup on a roll.
Like Argentina, Greece struggled to qualify. They were beaten twice by Switzerland and were forced into a playoff with Ukraine. They managed only a 0-0 tie at home and traveled to Ukraine as the underdogs. However, Dimitrios Salpingidis scored in the first half and the Greeks held off the hosts for the next 60 minutes to gain a somewhat surprising victory. In May they managed no better than a 2-2 draw with North Korea, and, frankly, they don't look nearly as good as their #13 world ranking would imply. Although Greece won the 2004 European Championship, this is only the second time they have qualified for the World Cup. The only other time they appeared, in 1994, they lost all three of their matches and didn't score a single goal.
Nigeria is yet another last-gasp qualifier. The most populous nation in Africa, Nigeria also boasts many nationals who play in Europe, particularly in England and France. So one assumed that they would qualify easily. However, the Nigerians found themselves two points behind Tunisia on the final day of the African qualification tournament, with Nigeria on the road against Kenya and Tunisia playing at Mozambique. With ten minutes to play, both matches were tied and it looked like Tunisia would go through. But in the 81st minute, second-half substitute Obafemi Martins scored his second goal to give Nigeria a 3-2 lead that they held to the end. Meanwhile, in Maputo, the Tunisians let their chance slip away when they conceded a goal in the 83rd minute. So, on the brink of missing its second straight World Cup, Nigeria instead qualified for the fourth time.
Actually, there is a certain déjà vu element to Group B because back in 1994, Nigeria, Argentina and Greece were also in the same group. That time, Argentina beat Nigeria, but Nigeria won the group on goal difference. In the round of 16 they came close to a major upset when they led Italy 1-0 with less than three minutes left in regulation. But a goal by Roberto Baggio sent the match into overtime and Baggio scored again on a penalty to end a courageous run by the Nigerians. Nigeria also won their group in 1998, before bowing out to Denmark. Earlier this year, Nigeria placed third in the Africa Cup of Nations, losing to Egypt and Ghana.
To give some perspective on the difficulties faced by some countries in the World Cup, the Nigerian press has reported that Nigeria limited the number of spectators who could attend their pre-tournament matches against Colombia and North Korea because they could not afford to pay for the security required to accommodate larger crowds. Nigeria defeated the North Koreans 3-1 in South Africa, but at least 20 people were injured during a stampede to get into the stadium.
Unlike the rest of the group, South Korea qualified with steady play, racking up seven wins and seven draws without a single loss. Since qualifying, the Koreans have scheduled an unusually large number of friendlies with teams that will also be in the World Cup. They beat Paraguay and Australia at home, tied Denmark on the road, lost to Serbia on neutral ground (London) and beat Côte d'Ivoire in London. South Korea also notched a notable victory in the final of the East Asia Football Championship, beating Japan 3-1 in Tokyo, and then beat them again 2-0 in a warm-up match in Japan on May 24. However, they lost their last two preparation matches, 1-0, to Belarus and Spain.
When the World Cup was co-hosted by South Korea in 2002, the Korean team performed courageously (although some would say they were helped by a series of hometown calls), knocking Portugal out of the competition in the final match of pool play, and then advancing to the semi-finals with a dramatic overtime victory over Italy and a penalty shootout defeat of Spain, before they finally fell 1-0 to Germany. Four years later, in the most recent World Cup, South Korea beat Togo, tied France and lost to Switzerland, and didn't qualify for the knockout round.
South Korea has only played Nigeria three times and Greece twice and they have never been beaten by either one, although all the games against Nigeria were home friendlies.
Favorites: It would be a shock if Argentina didn't advance out of this group. As for the second team, it is tempting to give Nigeria some sort of semi-home team advantage, but South Korea could pull off an upset.
To view a guide to all the groups, see here.
David Wallechinsky is the author of The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics and The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics. He is the vice-president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.
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