Here is an introduction to the four teams in Group F, with their FIFA rankings in parentheses
New Zealand (78)
Defending champion Italy got the luckiest draw of any nation, as none of the other three teams in their group are major contenders.
The Italians are consistent World Cup contenders, having made it at least as far as the semi-finals in five of the last eight World Cups. In 2006, Italy depended on strong performances by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who gave up only two goals in seven matches. Buffon is back this year and better than ever.
Italy qualified easily in a relatively weak group, although they were twice held to draws by Ireland. Since qualifying, the Italians have scored three goals in five matches, playing scoreless ties with Netherlands and Cameroon, losing to Mexico 2-1 on June 3, and tying Switzerland 1-1 on June 5.
The two aspects of the Italian game that can be counted are 1) strong defense and 2) the usual Italian acting and writhing on the ground trying to convince the referee to call a foul or a penalty. Some observers think that Italy is not as strong this year as they usually are, but they have an easy group in which to work out the kinks in their game plan, and they will probably get a comparatively weak opponent in the round of 16.
Paraguay had a strong qualifying run. Although they placed only third in the South American group, they were only one point behind winners Brazil, and, in a critical match late in the tournament, they beat Argentina at home. Still, their historical record in the World Cup is not impressive. Paraguay has won only 6 of 22 matches and has never progressed beyond the round of16. There is no reason to think they will be able to break this barrier in 2010. Back in November, the Paraguayans did hold Netherlands to a scoreless draw in Holland, which was a good experience because if they make it out of group play, they will probably face the Netherlands again in the round of 16. In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, Paraguay defeated North Korea 1-0, lost to Ireland 2-1, tied Côte d-Ivoire 2-2 and defeated Greece 2-0.
This is the first time that Slovakia will compete in the World Cup since achieving independence in 1993. Their first-place finish in their European qualifying group was unexpected and deeply satisfying, as it came at the expense of their former partners, the Czech Republic, whom they beat on the road and tied at home. The Slovaks lost twice to Slovenia, but defeated Poland twice, securing their place in the World Cup with a final-day 1-0 victory over the Poles, in Poland, on an early own goal.
Since then, they have tuned up by beating the US at home in November, but losing to both Chile and Norway, and managing a 1-1 draw with Cameroon, before defeating Costa Rica.
I like New Zealanders, but they really have no place playing in the World Cup. Here is a recap of how New Zealand qualified: they beat Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia, which qualified them for a home-and-away playoff against Bahrain, the fifth-place team from Asia. The Kiwis held Bahrain to a 0-0 draw in Bahrain and then beat them 1-0 at home on a first-half goal by Rory Fallon. That's it. The total combined population of the four nations New Zealand faced is 2.1 million, half the population of New Zealand.
At last year's Confederations Cup in South Africa, New Zealand lost 5-0 to Spain and 2-0 to South Africa before achieving a 0-0 draw against Iraq. This year they scheduled matches with four other World Cup teams, losing to Mexico in Pasadena 2-0, and to Australia in Melbourne 2-1, before embarrassing Serbia 1-0 in South Africa on May 29. On June 4, they were beaten 3-1 by Slovenia.
Despite their good play against the Serbs, a successful World Cup for New Zealand would be if they managed to score even one goal.
Favorites: Italy and Paraguay should move forward, unless Slovakia upsets the South Americans.
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.