By Grant Wahl
June 01, 2010
World Cup Power Rankings
11 Ivory Coast
The Elephants
When I visited Ivory Coast's team compound in Angola during the Africa Cup of Nations, Kolo Toure wanted to make sure everyone realized something. "We haven't won anything yet as a team," he told me, and sure enough, a few days later Algeria knocked out Les Éléphants from the tournament. The Ivorians may have a bunch of European-based stars, but they have only won one World Cup game (in '06 against Serbia & Montenegro), much less a trophy of any sort, and they drew a killer group with Brazil and Portugal. Is new coach Sven-Göran Eriksson the man to put it all together? It's a lot to ask.
12 Cameroon
The Indomitable Lions
Star forward Samuel Eto'o threw a temper tantrum last week, threatening to quit the team over critical comments from retired star Roger Milla. Eto'o needs to stop the diva act, because I think the Indomitable Lions have a great chance to advance from their group and take out Italy in the second round. When the Argentine sports magazine El Gráfico asked me to fill out its World Cup prediction survey recently, I picked center back Nicolas N'Koulou to win the new World Cup Young Footballer award (given to players born after January 1, 1989).
13 Denmark
Danish Dynamite
The question with Denmark is a simple one: Did the Danes peak too soon in World Cup qualifying? Coach Morten Olsen's bunch qualified with ease in a group that included Portugal and Sweden, but whether it has the chops to take the next step in South Africa is an open question. Arsenal forward Nicklas Bendtner has proved he can score in big games, and I'm hoping Olsen uses 18-year-old Ajax starlet Christian Eriksen, the tournament's youngest player, in his midfield. A recent knee injury to promising center back Simon Kaer of Palermo could complicate things on the defensive side.
14 USA
When you look at the clubs where the Americans play and consider that the U.S. has yet to produce a soccer superstar, you realize that coach Bob Bradley's team actually punches above its own weight. Part of the reason is excellent team chemistry. The Yanks looked good in the second half of Saturday's 2-1 win against Turkey after a brutal first half, especially on defense. Questions on the back line will probably persist until Oguchi Onyewu, fresh off a seven-month injury layoff, shows he can perform against Wayne Rooney and England on June 12. The attacking keys will be two players who haven't been slowed by injuries: Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, who will most likely continue prowling the flanks, where they have the freedom to cut inside with the ball at their feet.
15 Mexico
El Tri
Although El Tri has fallen behind the U.S. in CONCACAF, it tends to have more consistent success than its northern neighbor at the World Cup. Mexico has a mix of youth and experience. For anyone who worries that Cuauhtémoc Blanco has a lot on his shoulders at age 37, there are youthful attacking complements in Andrés Guardado (23 years old), Giovani Dos Santos (21), Carlos Vela (21) and recent Manchester United acquisition Javier (Chicharito) Hernández (22).
16 Chile
La Roja
If you're looking for a surprise breakout star of this World Cup, you could do worse than picking Chilean forward Humberto (Chupete) Suazo, who lit up the South American qualifying tournament with 10 goals. La Roja is a team on the upswing under coach Marcelo Bielsa, who led his native Argentina at the 2002 World Cup. Chile plays with attacking abandon, and if the defense can hold up its end of the bargain I see Chile acing out Switzerland for second place in Group H.
17 Ghana
The Black Stars
The Black Stars suffered perhaps the tournament's most significant injury loss when midfielder Michael Essien was ruled out of the World Cup last week. It's a big blow, and yet Ghana was able to reach the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in January without Essien, so all is not lost. A youth movement is afoot in the West African country, led by 21-year-old Udinese midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah. Don't count these guys out just yet.
18 Nigeria
Super Eagles
Today's Super Eagles aren't quite like the ones of yesteryear, lacking dynamic playmakers (like Jay Jay Okocha) and elite strikers (like Daniel Amokachi or Rashidi Yekini). But there is enough class here -- Chelsea's John Obi Mikel, Everton's Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Lokomotiv Moscow's Osaze Odemwingie -- to survive a milquetoast Group B (Argentina, Greece, South Korea) and reach the knockout rounds. New coach Lars Lagerback isn't exactly a revolutionary, but he'll make sure this Nigeria side is organized.
19 Slovakia
The Fighting Jondas
You take Cinderellas where you can find them in this tournament, and here's one of mine. The Slovaks have the advantage of being in World Cup's easiest group (Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand), providing a golden opportunity for emerging star midfielder Marek Hamsik of Napoli to lead these debutantes to the second round. Also keep an eye on young winger Vladimir Weiss Jr., the son of coach Vladimir Weiss.
20 Paraguay
La Albirroja
A World Cup regular since 1998, La Albirroja doesn't have the star power of its José Luis Chilavert days, but coach Gerardo Martino's boys still qualified with ease in South America. The senseless shooting of forward Salvador Cabañas in Mexico City earlier this year will keep Paraguay's scoring sensation out of the tournament, and while forwards Roque Santa Cruz and Nelson Haedo Valdez can pick up some of the slack, the elderly back line (all four defenders are in their 30s) may well spring some leaks.
21 Slovenia
The U.S.'s second-game opponent will not be easy to break down, as coach Matjaz Kek's team showed by only allowing four goals in its 10-game qualifying group before upsetting Guus Hiddink's Russia in the UEFA playoff. Big, well-organized and fronted by a quality target forward in 6-foot-4 Milivoje Novakovic, Slovenia should compete in every game, but I just don't see a match-winner on this team who could get it through the group stage.
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