We’ve heard time and time again from players, coaches and reporters that there are no easy games at international level. However, after the World Cup draw was made in South Africa just three weeks before Christmas, England coach Fabio Capello could not have wished for a better group had he written to Santa Claus himself.
England, boosted by FIFA’s seeding and thereby avoiding the likes of Brazil, European champions Spain and former World champions Germany, have been drawn in Group C alongside the U.S.A, Algeria and Slovenia.
And if that wasn’t enough to please the England camp, their first match against the U.S. on June 12 will be in Rustenberg, a stone’s throw from their training base.
It could not have worked out any better for Capello as the Italian looks to lead England to their first World Cup since 1966. The only problem now will be complacency, having recently defeated the U.S and Slovenia in friendlies, while Algeria made it through the play-offs with a victory over Egypt.
The second phase will prove a much stiffer test, with Group D containing Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia. The Aussies, never short of confidence, have mixed it with the big boys with increasing regularity, while Ghana will be determined to impress on their home continent.
While Capello, David Beckham and John Terry sit smiling, five-time champions Brazil were not so lucky in the draw. Not even the beauty of South African actress Charlize Theron at the Oscar-like ceremony could blunt the ooohhhs and ahhhhhhhs as Dunga’s men were thrown alongside Portugal, the Ivory Coast and North Korea in Group G – this year’s Group of Death.
Although they speak the same language, Brazil and Portugal are world’s apart when it comes to football, with the Brazilians never really forgiving the Portuguese for their brutal treatment of Pele in 1966 in a bad-tempered affair. While the Koreans may prove to be the whipping boys in that group, the Ivory Coast – with the likes of Chelsea striker Didier Drogba – will fancy their chances having reached the final of the African Cup of Nations in 2006, so one of the big boys has to go.
Hosts South Africa will face 1998 champions France, despite the best efforts of the Irish F.A., as well as Mexico and Uruguay in Group A, while Diego Maradona’s (for now) Argentina will take on South Korea, Nigeria and 2004 European champions Greece in Group B.
If Maradona is still in charge come next June, they could well be in trouble against the South Koreans and Nigeria, while the Greeks have been impressive in recent times.
Defending champions Italy have been more or less handed a bye into the second phase having been drawn in Group F alongside New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia, but assuming they top that group, they will face stiffer opposition against the runners-up in Group E which contains the much-fancied Netherlands, Denmark, Japan and reigning African champions Cameroon.
Alongside Brazil, Spain have been heavily tipped to go all the way in 2010 and like England, will be pleased with their opening matches. Torres and Fabregas et al take on Honduras, Chile and Switzerland in Group H, but will meet the winners/runners-up in the Group of Death in the second phase.
With seven months to go before kick-off, the British press will be focusing on World Cup glory. But despite a promising group, Capello will be warning against the pitfalls – you can’t win the Cup in the first two weeks, but you can lose it.