Here is an introduction to the four teams in Group G, with their FIFA rankings in parentheses
Côte d-Ivoire (27)
North Korea (105)
Having Brazil, Portugal and Côte d-Ivoire in the same group should guarantee some juicy matches, with North Korea providing an exotic element.
Brazil and Spain are the two betting favorites to take it all. Brazil is the only nation to win the World Cup five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002). Their record would be even better if they didn't have to face France, which knocked them out in the 1986 quarter-finals, the 1998 final and the 2006 quarter-finals. The Brazilians must be greatly relieved that Zinedine Zidane has retired, as the French star scored two goals in that 1998 final and controlled the match that ousted Brazil in 2006.
For the 2010 World Cup, Brazil finished first in the South America qualifying tournament, securing their spot with three matches to spare by defeating arch-rival Argentina 3-1 in Argentina. They also won the 2009 Confederations Cup held in South Africa, coming from behind to beat the US in the final. The Brazilian squad is packed with great players, including Luis Fabiano, who was the leading goal scorer at the Confederations Cup; three starters from Italian league champion Inter Milan, goalkeeper Júlio César, and defenders Malcon and Lucio; and midfielder Kaka (2007 FIFA World Player of the Year), who plays for Real Madrid.
Coach Dunga's selection of the World Cup squad was a topic of national importance in Brazil, as he chose to bypass star midfielder Ronaldinho. Even Brazilian President Lula weighed in, supporting Dunga's decision because Ronaldinho was not a team player. So, in the end, Ronaldinho, a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, was good enough to be featured in Nike's 2010 World Cup Ad, but not good enough to make the Brazilian squad.
Portugal will be led by 2008 FIFA Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo. Portuguese soccer gets a lot of attention, but their World Cup record is slim. Portugal has made it out of group play only twice, advancing to the semi-finals in 1966 and in 2006. As well as they performed in the last World Cup, the Portuguese were not fun to watch. They swept through group play, defeating Angola, Iran and Mexico. But when they reached the knockout stage, they did not win over many fans.
In the round of 16, they beat the Netherlands 1-0 in a display of record-setting ugliness, with sixteen yellow cards, nine shown against Portugal. Both teams finished the match will only nine players. At one point, their captain, Luis Figo, head-butted Holland's Mark van Bommel in the face and was given only a yellow card. Considering that two weeks later in the final, France's Zinedine Zidane was red-carded for a head-butt to the chest, Figo and his team got off lucky. In the quarter-finals, Portugal defeated England on penalty kicks, in a match in which Wayne Rooney was sent off for stepping on Ricardo Carvalho's groin. Portugal finally met their match in the semi-finals, beaten 1-0 by France on a penalty kick by Zidane. In the third-place match, Portugal was defeated by Germany 3-1.
This time around, the Portuguese barely qualified. They dug themselves a big hole, losing at home to eventual group winner Denmark and being held to scoreless draws at home by Albania and Sweden. In the end, they edged out the Swedes for second place by one point, and then got lucky in the play-off, drawing Bosnia-Herzegovina, whom they defeated 1-0 twice. Since then, the Portuguese have stayed away from serious competition, their only match of note being a June 1 3-1 defeat of Cameroon at home. So their opening match against Côte d-Ivoire should be intriguing.
Côte d-Ivoire was impressive in African qualifying, winning eight matches and drawing four, and outscoring their opponents 29-6. This year they were beaten in the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations by Algeria 3-2 in overtime. They also lost a friendly in London to South Korea 2-0, tied Paraguay in France 2-2 and beat Japan in Switzerland 2-0.
The Ivoirians have some top-level talent, most notably Didier Drogba, who this season, playing for champions Chelsea, led the Premier League in scoring with 29 goals. Unfortunately, Drogba fractured a bone in his arm during the match against Japan. Côte d-Ivoire will also have Drogba's Chelsea teammate, striker Salomon Kalou.
Côte d-Ivoire has never played any of the other three teams in their group.
I admit it: I'll be rooting for North Korea, the longest of long shots at the 2010 World Cup. As part of my work writing about dictators and human rights, I visited North Korea a couple years ago and found it to be the most repressed country I have ever seen... and I've seen some bad ones. But I came away with the feeling that as awful as Kim Jong-il and his regime are, the North Korean people themselves are more victims than enemies. They deserve a dose of good news.
Unfortunately, the North Koreans received the worst draw of any team in the World Cup. Take a look at the current FIFA rankings and you will see that Brazil, Portugal and Côte d-Ivoire have the highest combined rankings of any threesome in any of the opening round groups.
Back in 1966, North Korea scored one of the most sensational victories in the history of the World Cup. The North Koreans arrived in England as the "mystery team," North Korea being as isolated from the outside world back then as it is now. They lost to the Soviet Union 3-0 and scored a late goal to salvage a 1-1 tie with Chile. Their final match of group play was against the heavily-favored team from Italy. In the 42nd minute, Pak Doo-ik gave North Korea a 1-0 lead, and the Koreans held on for the rest of the match, eliminating Italy and moving on the quarter-finals in their place. North Korea then faced Portugal, which had won all of their group games, eliminating defending champion Brazil 3-1 in their last match. The Koreans shocked the Portuguese by taking a 3-0 lead in the first 25 minutes, but the Portuguese fought back, eventually winning 5-3. That match, 44 years ago, was North Korea's last appearance in a World Cup until this year.
Before examining North Korea's 2010 qualifying run, it is worth taking a look at their behavior in the 2006 Asian qualifying tournament. Remember George W. Bush's Axis of Evil that included Iraq, Iran and North Korea? Forget about it. During a home match against Iran in Pyongyang in 2005, North Korean fans became incensed when a penalty was not called against an Iranian player who knocked down a North Korean in the box. The Korean players rushed the Syrian referee, who instead red-carded one of the North Koreans. When the match ended, North Korean fans rioted, preventing the officials from leaving the field for 20 minutes, and then attacking the Iranian team bus. FIFA forbade North Korea from hosting their final home match, ordering the match--against Japan--to be played instead in Thailand... with no spectators.
Getting back to 2010, North Korea had to grind its way through 16 matches to qualify, including four against South Korea (three draws and a 1-0 loss). FIFA rules require matches to be preceded by the raising of the national flags of both teams and the playing of their respective national anthems. Kim Jong-il refused to allow the South Korean flag to be shown in his country, so the two North Korean home games against South Korea were played in Shanghai. As isolated as North Korea is, they do have two starters who play in Japan. One of them, forward Jong Tae-se, is known as "the Wayne Rooney of Asia."
North Korean officials went out of their way to schedule a number of pre-tournament matches against other World Cup teams. They lost 2-1 to Mexico, tied South Africa, lost 1-0 to Paraguay, tied Greece and lost 3-1 to Nigeria.
Favorites: Brazil is an obvious choice to go through. For the second spot, the opening match on June 15 between Portugal and Côte d-Ivoire could prove decisive.
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.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more