The World Cup, by far the biggest single-sport sports event in the world, kicked off on June 11 with 32 teams competing for a place in the final on July 11. Except for the host team, South Africa, the other nations qualified through regional tournaments. The 32 finalists are divided into eight groups of four teams each. Each team plays each of the other teams in its group once. The top two teams in each group advance to the knockout stage: round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals, final. Places in each group are determined by points earned based on wins (3 points) and ties (1 point). If two teams end up with the same number of points, the tie-breakers are: goal difference, goals scored, head-to-head results.
Although theoretically any of the 32 teams can win it all, reality is not quite so rosy. The truth is that there are two tiers of nations. Tier 1 consists of teams from Europe and South America, while Tier 2 is everyone else. Here are a few facts to give you a bit of perspective on the gap between the two tiers:
• At the last World Cup in Germany in 2006, Tier 1 teams played Tier 2 teams 30 times. The result: Tier 1 won 23 times, Tier 2 two times and there were five draws. The only Tier 2 victories were Ghana beating the Czech Republic and Cote d-Ivoire defeating Serbia.
• In the entire history of the World Cup, which began in 1930, no Tier 2 team has ever made it to the final match.
• Of the 72 teams that have made it to the semi-finals since the World Cup began, only two have been from outside Europe or South America. Those would be the United States in 1930 and South Korea, playing at home, in 2002.
Here is an introduction to the four teams in Group E, with their FIFA rankings in parentheses:
Group E should belong to the Dutch, while Africa's top-ranked team, Cameroon, goes for a Tier 2 breakthrough against Denmark.
Historically, the Netherlands (a.k.a. Holland) usually has a formidable team, but doesn't quite have the goods to go all the way. They peaked in the 1970s, making it to the final twice, losing both times to the home team: West Germany in 1974 and, in overtime, to Argentina in 1978. Since then, the best Dutch World Cup performance has been fourth place in 1998, when they were knocked out by Brazil on penalty kicks. At the last World Cup in 2006, the Dutch were eliminated by Portugal in the round of 16 in an unusually ugly match that saw a record 16 yellow cards and four players sent off.
For this World Cup, the Dutch were impressive in qualifying, winning all eight of their matches and allowing only two goals. But dominating Norway, Scotland, Macedonia and Iceland isn't a guarantee of World Cup success. In the last few months, the Dutch have played friendlies against several World Cup teams, with three scoreless draws against Australia, Italy and Portugal and, more recently, 2-1 victories over both the United States and Mexico and 4-1 over Ghana.
Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon was only 17 years old when he played in his first World Cup in 1998. Now he plays for Inter Milan and, as captain of the Cameroon national team, he will lead them in South Africa.
Although this is the sixth time Cameroon has qualified for the World Cup, they have advanced out of pool play only once, making it as far as the quarter-finals in 1990. For the 2010 qualification, they got off to a rough start, losing to Togo and tying Morocco at home. The national federation fired coach Otto Pfister and replaced him with Paul Le Guen of France. This seemed to do the trick, as Cameroon won their next four matches and won the group four points clear of Gabon. They were less impressive in the Africa Cup of Nations in January and were eliminated in the quarter-finals by Egypt. In March they held Italy to a scoreless draw on neutral ground.
Tuning up in the days leading up to the World Cup, Cameroon managed a 1-1 draw with Slovakia, lost to Portugal 3-1 after Eto'o was sent off for picking up two yellow cards in the first 35 minutes, and lost 4-3 to Serbia.
Denmark was the surprise winner of their qualifying group, upsetting Portugal 3-2 in Lisbon despite trailing with less than three minutes left in regulation, and then holding the Portuguese to a draw at home. This year, the Danes stayed away from major opponents until June, when they were beaten 1-0 by both Australia and South Africa.
This will be Denmark's fourth appearance in the World Cup since 1986, having made it out of group play each of the previous three times. The glory days of Danish soccer were 1992-1995. Originally, Denmark failed to qualify for the 1992 European Championship, but when Yugoslavia was banned in accordance with UN sanctions resulting from war crimes, the Danes were allowed to take their place. Denmark squeaked through to the semi-finals, where they surprisingly defeated defending champion Netherlands on penalty kicks when Peter Schmeichel stopped the try by Dutch star Marco van Basten. In the final, the Danes stunned Germany 2-0. This unexpected victory qualified Denmark for the 1995 Confederations Cup, which they won by beating Argentina 2-0 in the final. Since then, the Danes have never made it past the quarter-finals of anything. Still, they understand Dutch soccer and could cause the Netherlands trouble.
Japan didn't take soccer seriously until 1992, when their team, playing at home, won the Asian Cup. Since then, interest in the sport has increased significantly. When Japan co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, the Japanese won their group, but were knocked out by Turkey 1-0 in the round of 16. At the 2006 World Cup, Japan was leading Australia 1-0 in their opening match after 83 minutes, but then gave up three goals in eight minutes. They managed to tie Croatia 0-0, but were sent packing by Brazil 4-1.
The Japanese had little trouble qualifying for this year's World Cup, even though they finished second to Australia in their final round pool. Since then, Japan has played a number of matches against World Cup teams, losing on the road to the Netherlands, defeating Ghana at home (4-3), holding South Africa to a 0-0 draw in South Africa, and losing at home 3-1 to South Korea in the final of the East Asia Football Championship and to Serbia 3-0 in a friendly, and then again to South Korea 2-0 in another home encounter. Back in Europe, they were beaten 2-1 by England and 2-0 by Côte d-Ivoire.
Japan will be hard-pressed to pull out a victory against any of their Group E opponents.
Favorites: The Netherlands should be a shoo-in to advance, with Cameroon and Denmark battling for the second spot.
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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