Top 10 story lines to follow during the World Cup:
1. Can Maradona discover the Messi formula? There's no doubt that Lionel Messi is the best player in the world, but he has yet to replicate his Barcelona performances for his country. Local critics claim his move to Barcelona at 12 has made him more Catalan than Argentine, an accusation that infuriates and upsets Messi. The fact is, having the unpredictable Diego Maradona as national coach complicates the dynamic in this Argentina set-up: for a start, Maradona is no Pep Guardiola (Messi's manager at club level) as a coach, and Messi's Argentine teammates do not bring out his best as club teammates Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta can. Maradona is also so loved in Argentina, that to criticize Messi is to avoid criticizing him; while the coach has an ongoing battle with his ego to allow Messi the freedom to emulate his own performances. Messi is on the verge of joining Maradona among the all-time greats of the game, but will his coach let him?
2. History beckons for an Italian coach. Vittorio Pozzo, in charge of Italy in 1934 and 1938, remains the only coach to win consecutive World Cups. Marcello Lippi could join him next month after guiding the oldest team in the tournament to the title in 2006. After two years off, in which Italy lost on penalties to eventual winners Spain in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals, Lippi returned to the job and he has kept faith with nine of the players who served him so well in Germany. His friend Fabio Capello would also make history if he leads England to the title: no foreign coach has ever won the World Cup, although Brazil's Luiz Felipe Scolari (Portugal, 2006 semifinalists) and the Nethelands' Guus Hiddink (South Korea, 2002 semifinalists) have come closest.
3. Will South Africa be the least successful World Cup hosts on the pitch? -- No host has ever failed to qualify from their group and South Africa, with a World Cup-winning coach (1994) in Carlos Alberto Parreira and three months' preparation time, encompassing training-camps in Brazil, Germany and South Africa, is beginning to believe that it will be no different this time around. Bafana Bafana are on an 12-match unbeaten run and will have 90,000 fans blowing vuvuzelas in support.
However, only three of those games were against teams who have also qualified, and the two penalties from which they scored in their 2-1 win over Colombia were generously awarded. South Africa's players are physically shorter and weaker than their opponents: this, according to Demitri Constantinou, an exercise scientist at Johannesburg's Wits University and the director of FIFA's first medical centre of excellence in Africa, is down to the players' lack of nutrition when they were growing up (mainly in black townships in the 1980s). They have also been drawn in a tough group.
4. Will there be a new name on the trophy? There have only been seven different winners in 18 editions of the World Cup, with two of those, England and France, winning once when they were host country. Another one, Uruguay, has not won it since 1950, which leaves Italy (four), Germany (three), Brazil (five) and Argentina (two) as the usual contenders. But there have been 11 different finalists and 24 different semifinalists. European champions Spain, second-favorites behind Brazil, represent the best chance of a first-time winner though the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, USA and Chile all hope to be in the reckoning. The competition would benefit from a new winner, although it might be too much to ask if they were to come from the host continent.
5. Africa needs a team to do well. Former Brazil forward Pele has been quiet in the run-up to this World Cup, perhaps because he does not want to be reminded of his prediction that an African team would win the World Cup in the last century. This year, the African sides can rely on home support but Pele's prediction looks like falling short once again -- mainly because Africa's best team, three-time reigning champions Egypt, did not qualify. Instead, Nigeria coach Lars Lagerback is trying to build a new team from scratch; Cameroon has ongoing issues with captain Samuel Eto'o (they need one more of him on the pitch and one less of him off it, where his prickly nature resulted in the tournament's first walk-out threat); Ivory Coast might be without talismanic captain Didier Drogba, and it has a poor record in tournaments; while Algeria, by its own admission, is just pleased to be in South Africa. Their best hope could be Ghana, whose young side coped with the absence of Michael Essien in reaching the African Nations Cup final in January, and has in Milovan Rajevac, an unheralded but tactically brilliant coach.
6. Will Brazil's Dunga side ever be popular? "The perfect World Cup squad should be made up of the 16 best players and the seven nicest," said Helmut Schoen, who coached West Germany in a record four successive World Cups from 1966 to 1978, reaching two finals and winning one of them (in 1974). "And there should be no distractions." Brazil coach Dunga may not have picked the nicest players available but he has certainly avoided any distractions. Brazil's press were clamoring not for the inclusion of Ronaldinho or Pato, whose supporters were based in Milan, but for home-based duo Neymar, 18, and Paulo Henrique, 20. But Dunga, captain of Brazil's 1994 World Cup side, remembered the media circus surrounding squad member Ronaldo, then 17, and did not want a repeat of that. So he ignored their claims and has picked seven defensive midfielders in the squad. This group is in total contrast to the "joga bonito" team of 2006, who were picked on reputation and allowed so much freedom by Carlos Alberto Parreira: Dunga has banned fans and media from the team's training-base in Johannesburg and in the low-key but effective Lucio, has picked a captain in his own image. "To those who complain about style, I just say nothing is more beautiful than winning," he told The Guardian. Dunga's Brazil has already won the Copa America and the Confederations Cup; it has topped the South American qualifying group and beaten Argentina, England and world champions Italy. But still this team is not loved. Winning the final might just change that.
7. This could be the first scientific World Cup. Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the biggest innovation of the 2006 World Cup, employing American fitness coaches who gave each player an individualized training program for two years, designed to peak during the tournament. The result was that Germany made more tackles than any other team, sustained fewer injuries, and scored late goals in important wins against Poland and Argentina. "It's hard for coaches to prepare 22 players individually, but I learned from Arsene Wenger to view a player's development in the long-term," Klinsmann told the Financial Times. Other national teams have caught up fast: England coach Fabio Capello has convinced his players of the benefits of video analysis while Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld has taken advantage of the sports scientists and performance diagnosticians at his players' clubs. This is all part of a wider shift in the game, part of a new dimension where science and technology combine to improve performance. "All the teams at the World Cup will be studying computer-generated data and it could just be that clever use of data decides certain games," said Simon Kuper, whose book Soccernomics has made coaches rethink strategy just as Michael Lewis's 2003 best-seller Moneyball did for baseball.
8. Germany needs a goalscorer. After Michael Ballack, Christian Trasch and Heiko Westermann -- three players who could all play as one of Germany's two holding midfielders -- dropped out with late injuries, coach Joachim Low was expected to call up another midfielder and drop one of his six strikers. But it's a sign of how worried he is about Germany's goal threat that he kept all six in the squad. His first-choice was Miroslav Klose, Golden Boot winner in 2006, but he spent most of last season on the Bayern Munich bench, and scored only three league goals. Lukas Podolski scored even fewer for FC Cologne but could start wide on the left, while Mario Gomez, Bayern's €30m record-signing, has scored in two international matches in the last two years, and his only competitive goals for Germany were against San Marino. Thomas Muller, a key figure in Bayern's double-winning season, should get the nod on the right flank. The wild-cards are recently-naturalized Cacau or Stefan Kiessling, who had a prolific Bundesliga campaign with Bayer Leverkusen. If Germany does struggle, expect to hear Kevin Kuranyi get mentioned: the forward has been ignored since walking out at half-time of Germany's qualifier against Russia in October 2008, but after top-scoring for runners-up Schalke 04, perhaps represented the best combination of goals, experience, and form.
9. Which players' market value will rise most during the tournament? The breakout star of the 2006 World Cup was Ecuador's 20-year-old winger Antonio Valencia, who after gaining most votes in the Young Player of the Tournament award, took four years to go from unwanted at Villarreal to a Manchester United regular. This time around there are fewer unknown quantities, though even the known ones could raise their profile, and potential transfer fees, with a few good performances. Ajax will have high hopes that their young trio of Luis Suarez,Nicolas Lodeiro (both Uruguay) and Cristian Eriksen (Denmark) can impress, while scouts are already on the trail of Sammy Inkoom, Kwadwo Asamoah (Ghana), Alexis Sanchez (Chile), Lee Chung-Yong (South Korea) and Milos Krasic (Serbia). Other players, like Napoli's goal-scoring midfielder Marek Hamsik (Slovakia) and Borussia Dortmund forward Lucas Barrios (Paraguay, but Argentina-born) could end up with moves to elite European sides if they fulfil expectations.
10. Attacking full-backs could make all the difference. Recent World Cup winners have all benefited from playing fullbacks who are happy to push forward: think of Lilian Thuram winning France's 1998 semifinal against Croatia with his only international goals, or Fabio Grosso's dramatic semifinal winner for Italy against Germany in 2006. SI.com's Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting The Pyramid, suggests this is because fullbacks have more room than other players and therefore more options on the pitch. "Even against a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, when the fullback is facing a winger, he can neutralize him by pushing forwards," Wilson says. Brazil will start with a winger, Michel Bastos, at left back, while England (Glen Johnson), France (Patrice Evra) and Spain (Sergio Ramos) all use their fullbacks as attacking outlets. The team least likely to do so is Argentina, whose coach Diego Maradona prefers to play with three or four center backs across the back line.