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Idiot’s Guide to the World Cup

You see them out there, the ones walking around with a little extra spring in their step, coming to work with that smile. The one that’s almost uncomfortably large. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about soccer fans across America. And yes, they do in fact exist.

And over the next eleven days (plus one month), these fanatics will not be able to control themselves, as the World Cup 2010 approaches. I’m sure the rest of you sports fans are well aware that the Cup is nearly here by now, as ESPN has done their best to force-feed you a steady dose of soccer fever over the past few months. But if you’re out there and looking to dip your toes in World Cup tidal wave that is about to take over the world in a few weeks, here is Not in HD’s official World Cup preview, to help get you prepared for what is to come.

In the coming weeks we will zero in specifically on the United States and their contests and expectations, but for now, here is overview of the entire tournament, to get you primed and ready to go for June 11…

Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France

Storylines:

No, Thierry... the feet. We use the feet.

Ever since the World Cup final field was changed to 32 total teams, no host country has failed to advance past the group stage. But it doesn’t look good for South Africa, who has drawn three quality opponents. Can the home crowd buoy Bafana Bafana in at least two of their three matches? After Theirry Henry’s handball non-call in qualifying, you can bet that the French won’t have too many worldwide supporters pulling for Les Bleus. That said, they still appear to be the class of the group and will be hard to pick against. Mexico and Uruguay look to be the teams battling it out for that second spot in the table.

Players to Watch for:

Steven Pienaar – South Africa: He played alongside Landon Donovan as a mid-fielder at Everton and is the most notable name for the host team, but with that comes lofty expectations.

Diego Forlan – Uruguay: This striker is perhaps the hottest goal scorer in the group, coming off of his two-goal performance for Athletic Madrid, in the overtime of the Europe League finals against Fulham. He is primed for a big WC.

Florent Malouda – France: This young star was his team’s best player in the last half of the English Premier League- which is saying something, given Chelsea’s star studded line-up and the fact that they were in the midst of the English title chase.

Theirry Henry – France: The most notable name in the group has fallen out of favor in Barcelona and is primed for his MLS debut in New York after the World Cup, but is looking to leave the international scene on better terms than his old pal Zinedine Zidane.

Giovani Dos Santos – Mexico: Mexico’s hopes may hinge on this Tottenham owned, product’s ability and poise in front of goal. He, Man U’s Hernandez and Arsenal’s Vela, have to look to take the reigns from the old guns of Blanco and Marquez, and hope that they are able to finish better than what they have shown in England and the Netherlands this past week.

Carlos Vela – Mexico: The Arsenal product is looking to prove that he is worth all the hype that has been generated about his talent. With a good World Cup, he can move into a position to see the field on the Arsenal A-side next season.

The Not in HD Selection to Advance to Round 16:

France and Uruguay. Why not Mexico, you might ask? Mexico has the tough task of facing South Africa on opening night and the emotion of the entire continent just might be too much to overcome. Of South Africa’s three matches, this could be where they can steal a result. France has too much talent in form, and Uruguay’s forwards should be able to exploit a weaker Mexican back-line in order to advance from Group A.

Group B: Argentina, Greece, Nigeria, South Korea

Storylines:

Can anyone hang with Argentina, who is clearly the class of the group? Can Argentina get its act together after some early qualifying disappointment? Will Greece’s organized and disciplined style be able to counter the free flowing and speed-driven games that the other three group opponents look to deploy? Nigeria seems to be in too much managerial disarray, while South Korea seems to be the hottest Asian team in the field.

Players to Watch:

Argentina hopes the Spanish success of King Lio translates in South Africa

Lionel Messi – Argentina: Simply put, Messi is the best player in the world. Inter did a great job in the Champions League semi-finals by minimizing his impact. The international coaches will be looking to duplicate Mourinho’s strategy. Luckily for Messi, Esteban Cambiasso will be on his side this time.

Diego Milito – Argentina: He showed the world what he is capable of with his precision finishes and stellar poise in front of net with Inter, in the Champions League final. That finishing ability was precisely what Argentina was lacking in qualifying.

Park Ji-Sung – South Korea: He has the most international experience by far for the Koreans from his tenure at Manchester United and will be counted upon for his leadership and energy, most especially in the Greece matchup.

Lee Chung-Yong – South Korea: Teammates with America’s Stuart Holden at Bolton in the EPL, this 21-year-old is seen as the future of Korean football, but for Korea to advance in this tournament, they cannot afford to wait for his emergence.

Giorgos Karagounis – Greece: If there is one thing Greek football thrives on, it is the ever-present organization and shape. Karagounis has the captain’s armband and will be in charge of forcing (slowing) the pace of play, in a group full of otherwise open field style teams.

Obafemi Martins – Nigeria: This team is full of talented players, including a trio on the Everton roster in England, but the 25-year-old playing in Germany must be up to the task and hopes to keep his 2:1 game-goal ratio going. But lack of Nigeria’s coaching continuity may be too much to overcome.

The Not in HD Selection to Advance to Round 16:

Argentina and South Korea – This group is full of talent and contrasting styles. Ultimately, Argentina has too much firepower not to get through. Nigeria’s coaching situation prevents me from siding with them, and so between the dynamic Korean side and the Greeks, I believe South Korea will prove too much, as they have shown well in their recent friendlies.

Group C: England, Algeria, Slovenia, United States of America

Storylines:

By far the easiest group of the draw, the U.S. should feel grateful for their matchups. Injuries, especially to their backline, are the biggest concern for the U.S. as they try to match up with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe on June 12. Can the USA pull off another 1950 shocker? Will the England sex scandals distract the team chemistry? Will England take for granted their easy group? Can Algeria and Slovenia turn around some of their poor results of late to get a good result and advance?

Players to Watch:

Landon Donovan – USA: Donovan is probably in the finest form of his career and should be beaming with confidence after his stint in England with Everton. It should be fun to watch him go at Ashley Cole and see if he can exploit the flank the way he did in his team’s upset of Chelsea in March.

It only seems like yesterday he was running away from Wayne Bridge

Oguchi Onyewu – USA: The success of the country could largely depend on how his patella tendon has healed. He has the most question marks about his health and game speed but if he can perform like he did in the Confederations Cup then the US can expect to advance.

Wayne Rooney – England: Rooney’s play in the 2009-10 campaign has most likely kept several defenders of Group C up late at night. He is by all accounts the best player in the world not named Lionel Messi.

John Terry – England: His extra-marital affairs with the wife of countryman Wayne Bridge stripped him of the captain’s armband and seemed to effect his play. Defense seems to be the potential pitfall of the England team, but if he can cut out those momentary lapses in judgment, England can advance far in this tournament.

Hassan Yebda – Algeria: The Portsmouth product enjoyed his team’s bumpy ride all season-playing their way to the FA Cup final, but also finding Premiership relegation and administration- and will have to have a brilliant tournament and be tidy on the ball if Algeria has any hopes of getting through.

Milivoje Novakovic – Slovenia: Novakovic plays for FC Cologne in the Bundesliga and will be counted on to provide the finishing touch for the side that provides the stiffest challenge for the U.S. for the second spot in Group C.

Not in HD Selection to Advance to Round 16:

England and the United States. England is the safest bet in the field to advance to the Round of 16, and the U.S. should have enough bullets in their guns to handle Algeria and Slovenia. Of the remaining two inferior opponents, Slovenia should be the biggest cause for concern, as Algeria had a poor showing in the Africa Cup of Nations. You would have to believe that the England game would remain key in the U.S. campaign and being able to steal a point there would do a lot for their confidence going forward in the tournament.

Group D: Australia, Germany, Ghana, Serbia

Storylines:

The story for Group D going into the tournament is more about who will not be there, rather than who will be. Midfield partners at Chelsea, Germany’s Michael Ballack and Ghana’s Michael Essien, will both be held out because of injuries, significantly effecting the balance of power in Group D. The Essien loss seems to be the more costly of the two, as Ghana looked to repeat their 2006 performance by advancing out of the group, while Germany may have enough make up for Ballack’s loss. That said, Serbia might now be the favorite that no one is talking about. For as much as Group G gets the label of the, “group of death,” there will be no easy games for any of these sides as all four teams advanced to the round of 16 in 2006.

Player to Watch:

Tim Cahill – Australia: He played alongside Donovan this winter with Everton and has had some timely goals for Australia in international competition. His aerial prowess will be tested against some of the more organized and physical backlines in Germany and Serbia.

Essien: The mostly costly injury loss for any World Cup side

Neven Subotic – Serbia: He is an American born player that has chosen to play for Serbia for the remainder of his career and the young player is vying for the opportunity to play alongside the ManU centerback Nemanja Vidic.

Branislav Ivanovic – Serbia: Ivanovic plays out wide for EPL Champions Chelsea and has the flexibility to play in the back or move up to winger. His talent out wide could open up passing lanes for his teammates up the middle.

Lucas Podolski – Germany: He emerged as the top young striker in 2006 teaming with Miroslav Klose at the age of just 20 to wreak havoc as they reached the Semi-Finals. He will need to exceed his 2006 appearance with Ballack’s absence for a repeat semi-final berth for Germany.

Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari – Ghana: These two will have to combine to fill the void left by Essien’s absence if Ghana hopes for a repeat of 2006. They may also be buoyed by some of their young stars who had a strong showing in FIFA’s U-20 World Cup in ’09.

The Not in HD Selection to Advance to the Round of 16:

Serbia and Germany. Serbia’s organization and toughness will lead them to top of the table in Group D, and Germany survives for a final game victory against Australia to advance. Look for Ghana to poach a point or three, but the talent will be too much for them to handle.

Group E: Cameroon, Denmark, Japan, Netherlands

Storylines:

This group is all about the Netherlands. They clearly are the most talented and technically sound. Their weakness seems to lie in the backline, and the other three teams will look to exploit that in the opening round. Denmark had great success in the qualifying stages, winning their group, but will be challenged by the athleticism and speed of Cameroon. Japan played better against England than it has in its previous tune-ups yesterday, but two own goals prevented a positive result. If Japan has any hopes to advance, it cannot allow any mistakes.

Players to Watch:

Eto'o is critical to Cameroon being Africa's "Greatest Hope No. 2"

Darren Bendtner – Denmark: This big striker has had an all or nothing type season for

Arsenal. One week in March he had and all-time miserable game against Burnley with several open goal misses, but would follow it up with a Champions League hat trick in his next game against Porto. Denmark will need the latter Bendtner to advance.

Wesley Schnieder – Netherlands: This midfielder is playing at the top of his game for Mourinho and Inter and his pairing with Robben & Co. should be able to dictate play with just about any team they step on the field with.

Robbie Van Persie – Netherlands: He missed all but the final two games for Arsenal this season and looks to regain his form quickly to be prepared. If he is not, they should have plenty of depth for replacement including Eljero Elia & Ryan Babel who both have loads of pace.

Samuel Eto’o – Cameroon: Eto’o did not have as prominent a role for Inter this past season as he did for Barca in 2008 & 2009, but he still came through with some timely goals, and will be asked to do the same for Cameroon.

Keisuke Honda – Japan: One of the few players that plays outside of the Japanese League and does so for Russian power CSKA Moscow. He is young at only 23, but will need to step up in a big way in order for Japan to advance from the group.

The Not in HD Selection to Advance to the Round of 16:

Netherlands and Cameroon: The Netherlands have to0 much skill and depth through the midfield and attacking not to win the group. Their defense may be tested later in the tournament, but should not be a problem in the group stage. Home-continent advantage should be in effect for the Indomitable Lions and are the real wildcard as the key match up with Denmark on June 19th. Denmark is a team on the rise and Bendtner had a good run for Arsenal down the stretch, but ultimately Cameroon will get the result. Japan is struggling to find its form and will be hard pressed to get points.

Group F: Italy, New Zealand, Paraguay, Slovakia

Storylines:

This along with Group C is perhaps the weakest group in the field, and this is a huge break for Italy whose average team age is pretty old compared to the rest of the field. The defending champion has kept several key members from their ’06 title team in hopes to repeat their magic, but for my money, they seem to be too old. New Zealand has little expectations and is most likely thrilled simply to be there. Slovakia came up with a shocking win over Russia to enter into the final field, and Paraguay is a bit of Jekyll-and-Hyde team that got a very fortunate draw.

Players to Watch:

Buffon has looked like a chain-smoking old man for years, but don't sleep on his talents.

Fabio Cannavaro – Italy: The FIFA Player of the Year in 2006 has the most caps all-time for Italy and will again be looked upon to anchor the back line.  Defense was the reason for Italy’s success in 2006 and they hope the old legs have one last go around for this all-time great.

Gianluigi Buffon – Italy: He had a dream tournament in 2006 as nothing was able to get by him. He must look for a repeat performance for Italy to hoist the cup for a second consecutive time, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Simon Elliot – New Zealand: MLS fans will recognize this name as the 35 year old is a longtime veteran of the American league. His leadership will be counted on if New Zealand is able to steal a point, let alone a game in their draw.

Roque Santa Cruz – Paraguay: The striker for Manchester City has the most recognizable name of the Paraguayans, but it may be the younger legs of the Dortmund teammates Lucas Barrios & Nelson Valdez that have a large impact on the scoresheet in South Africa.

Martin Skrtel – Slovakia: The big defender will be fun to watch in his matchup against the physical Italians and Paraguayans. If he can keep the back organized, Slovakia could be able to get through.

The Not in HD Selection to Advance to the Round of 16:

Italy and Paraguay: Italy goes through here almost by default but look for them to struggle as the tourney wears on with their old legs (think Confed Cup 2009 and how they fell apart against Brazil). New Zealand will do well to simply pick up a point. Ultimately, the creativity and experience of Paraguay will be able to overcome the organization and structure of Slovakia.

Group G: Brazil, Ivory Coast, North Korea, Portugal

Storylines:

Everyone has tabbed this group as the Group of Death. No one really knows what to make of North Korea, but one would imagine that they would have a hard time earning even a single point in their three contests. Could one imagine a situation where Brazil would need a result in their final contest against Portugal to go through? Can Ivory Coast succeed against the likes of Portugal on their home continent? Can Portugal finally pull it all together after a near-disastrous qualifying run and a horrific friendly to get through the group stage?

Players to Watch:

Kaka – Brazil: His team had a disappointing season at Real Madrid as they came away trophy-less, but he still remains the focal point of the Brazilian attack in Dunga’s more organized system.

Lucio – Brazil: He had a great run at Inter and his sheer speed and intensity provide precisely the type of player and style that Dunga is looking for. He will also be used to playing alongside his teammate Maicon at Inter and that should help as Maicon looks to get forward more than any other outside back in the field.

"Please let us make it past the 'Group of Death!'"

Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal: Teammates with Kaka at Real Madrid, he had a lot of expectations heaped upon his season and he failed to provide the same productivity as his time in Manchester. He will need to come out in form and be fully recovered from injury in the initial match to withstand the emotion that will be behind the Ivorians in South Africa.

Didier Drogba – Ivory Coast: He had another productive year at Chelsea and is the driving force behind what is widely regarded as the most talented team from the African continent. He will be expected to keep producing goals at his 3:2 (game:goal) ratio and will need to do so to see his team through.

Jong Tae-Se – Korea DPR: He has been dubbed as “The Asian Wayne Rooney,” and anybody with the nickname, “The Asian Wayne Rooney,” is ok by me. But in all seriousness he is one of the few players that plays outside the confines of North Korea in the Japanese League and has experienced some success in his time there.

The Not in HD Selection to Advance to the Round of 16:

Brazil and Ivory Coast: While Portugal may have more talent than the Ivorians, I will have to see some of that actually come out in their play before I pick them to advance. They also play each other in their opening match so there is no wading into this World Cup for either team. It will be fun to see Drogba and Ronaldo lining up set pieces of either end of the field.

Group H: Chile, Honduras, Spain, Switzerland

Storylines:

Who will be the second team behind Spain to advance? That appears to be the biggest question of the group. Can Chile continue the same form it experienced in qualifying, finishing one point behind Brazil in the table?  Can Honduras, who was given a huge gift by USA’s Jonathon Bornstein, capitalize on this opportunity?  Or will the Swiss, who also looked great in their qualification, exert their will and style on the group to advance?

Players to Watch:

Spain's viscious attack is made possible by the skill and grit of mids like Fabregas.

David Villa – Spain: He seems to be the pre-tournament favorite for top goal scorer both for his own prowess in front of net as well as Spain’s expectations to advance far in the World Cup.

Cesc Fabergas – Spain: His play-making skills are shown off well at Arsenal, but even more so with Spain as he is surrounded by world class talent on all sides including Villa and Torres up top. The only thing that could slow him down might be any nagging injuries the past season.

Alexander Frei – Switzerland: The top goal scorer for the Swiss will have to continue his own streak of success. As the Swiss look to slow down and play possession, Frei’s own chances may be limited so he will have to capitalize on the few chances that come his way.

Wilson Palacios – Honduras: His strong play in the midfield for Tottenham this season helped propel Spurs to their Champions League berth but he will have to pull off another miracle to see Honduras through this group.

Matias Fernandez – Chile: This young midfielder has a wealth of talent and could emerge as a star in the group. He has shown flashes of brilliance at times but been inconsistent in others. If he plays well the Chileans have a great shot to advance.

The  Not in HD Selection to Advance to the Round of 16:

Spain and Chile: Chile’s success in qualifying is too much to overlook and they have proven more than capable of playing both at altitude but also away from home. I would be surprised if Spain did not walk away with nine points in the group. Honduras may have to hope fate is on their sides and hope Carlos Pavon still has some magic left in his 35-year-old legs.

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