Contenders to the throne

QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:37 PM ET

PORTUGAL

Cristiano Ronaldo.

Is that all there is to Portugal's 2010 World Cup story?

Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo is the song weíll hear over and over for Portugal in South Africa.

One of the Top 5 most dynamic players in the world, Portugal will have to come to terms with the fact its fate is intertwined in how well Ronaldo plays.

Portugal isnít only Ronaldo. They have a lot of other talent. But Ronaldo will have to excel for the first time in a major national team competition for the rest of that talent to succeed.

Yes, Ronaldo has been successful at the domestic and international club level. He was surrounded by some of the best players in the world. They made each other better.

Ronaldo needs to make Portugal better by rising to the level of his talent, something he didn't do in qualifying rounds even before he was hurt and something he didn't do in Euro 2008.

Will it finally be his time in 2010 in South Africa?

The greatest players in the world have used the World Cup stage to announce their greatness, whether in victory or performance. Pele in 1958 and 1970; Franz Beckenbauer in 1974; Johan Cruyff in 1974; Maradona in 1986; Zinedine Zidane in 1998.

Portugal's story is not much different than many teams in this World Cup. It has great talent in some areas and glaring holes in others.

Portugalís talent lies in ball control and offensive movement. The Portuguese rank at the top of the list along with Spain and Brazil when it comes to ball movement and dominating possession.

Their failure has been in capping off all that ball control with goals. They get the ball to the feet of Ronaldo and hope he can weave his magic.

Everyone else knows that and will stomp him. Thatís the fate of all great players.

Without help, Ronaldo will grow frustrated and wear out.

This time though, Portugal hopes to have found a pure goal scorer who will convert some of the chances that Ronaldo creates or are created because of him, someone who can take some pressure off CR9.

Liedson, a Brazilian-born striker, obtained Portuguese citizenship last year. Good thing. It came just in time for some of Portugal's qualifying matches.

He began to score and hasnít stopped since.

Add Simao into the mix and this Portuguese team may finally earn a reward for all their offensive work.

ď(Liedson's) the kind of striker that can transform a game,Ē said Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz in a newspaper interview. ďWhat we sometimes lack ó and it doesn't date from yesterday ó is the end-product, the goals. When we take our chances consistently, we will be just about unbeatable. That said, I'm optimistic we do have the answers. Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Liedson are exceptional goal scorers. In South Africa they will prove it.Ē

Unbeatable? Hardly. But Portugal is better off than it was during its awful qualifying experience that went to a playoff game.

Queiroz needs others to prove themselves. Queiroz himself has spent most of his coaching career as an assistant and he will be under the microscope.

Portugal will also need to get something from their veteran midfielder Deco. He's been up and down, mostly down, recently. He's 32 and needs to regain some of his spark.

The glaring holes the Portuguese must plug are at the back. Portugal will miss Jose Bosingwa, out with a knee injury, but have Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira. Are they still good enough?

They need to be. Portugal is hurt by quick-strike goals, high balls and set pieces.

When you are in a Group of Death with Brazil and the Ivory Coast, defence is not a position you want to find yourself worrying about.

Portugal is lucky to be in the tournament. If it is lucky enough to get out of this group it will be prepared for whatever else the tournament holds.

SPAIN

Spain is the defending European Champion.

It won the 2008 tournament in Austria and Switzerland.

Spain managed to shed the image of the most talented team never to have won anything.

One would think that would be enough to stop the questions from coming.

It's now the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the question is, what have you done for me lately?

Despite the win in Europe, there is no relief from the questions. The questions will only intensify.

They won in Europe. But there was no Brazil, no Argentina and no African nations.

Can they beat those teams? Have they truly learned how to respond on the world stage?

The World Cup is the granddaddy of all the tournaments, the ultimate test for soccer nations. Until the Spanish respond to the pressure of winning the World Cup, they will forever be a team that will be known as having the goods to win a World Cup but never doing it.

The Spanish have the goods no questions about that. They have more goods than any other team in this tournament. They have depth up and down the lineup especially in the skill positions. They have a wonderful combination of experience and youth. They have the swagger of a champion.

Coach Vicente del Bosque has a lot to work with.

There are issues, though.

La Furia Roja despite all its talent have injury problems. Most are expected to clear by World Cup time but it's disconcerting for a team that is in its prime and ready for a breakthrough at the World Cup.

Striker Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta have had significant injury problems. And even if they recover, the time off will impact their match fitness. The question remains just how much game shape have they retained after lengthy layoffs. Fabregas and Iniesta form half of the world's best midfield.

With all the talent in Spain, Del Bosque had a difficult time making his selections for the squad.

The Spanish are beautiful to watch. Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets control the midfield with passing reminiscent of Brazilians. They have a deadly duo of Torres and David Villa to finish off their work.

Torres is 'El Nino' (The Kid) and Villa is 'El Guaje', also The Kid but in a different Spanish dialect.

El Guaje is especially effective when he plays for Spain on the global stage. In 55 appearances for La Furia Roja, Villa has scored 36 goals.

They are no longer kids but their play has blunted the usual debate about whether Spanish legend Raul should get a farewell call-up for the national team.

Defensively, the Spanish have veteran presence in Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos and youth in Gerard Pique of Barcelona.

Iker Casillas and Jose Reina are experienced in goal.

If the Spanish are vulnerable though, it is on that backline where they are a little older and the defenders have played a lot of football.

Their ball possession style of play is helpful to that group. A team can't score if they don't have the ball.

Their biggest opponents could well be pressure and over-confidence. They have a target painted on their back.

Enter Del Bosque, Barcelona and the Champions League, a story about what the unpredictable game of football can do to a supposedly untouchable team.

"It's a reflection of what can happen to us and what football is all about. A team that is technically superior . . . a team absolutely dominating the situation (but) that is incapable of winning," Del Bosque told The Associated Press. "I think these warnings come at the right time and we cannot ignore them. He who doesn't want to see this is living outside of reality."

The reality is sobering for the Spanish. Many people believe they will be holding the World Cup trophy at the end of this tournament.

It's the kind of pressure the Spanish will have to respond to if they ever want to be considered true champions and stop all the questions.

FRANCE

On the surface, France appears to have more bad than good things happening to them heading into the World Cup.

They have a lame-duck coach. The player selection process caused great controversy. They are a much-reviled team because of how they qualified for South Africa.

Not the kind of window dressing a team strives for before its showcase tournament.

But thatís all it is . . . window dressing. Inside that window the French still have great talent, potential, experience and luck.

The 1998 World Cup champions have had some hard times since Zinedine Zidane's now infamous head butt to the chest of Italian Marco Materazzi. It led to the team's 2006 defeat in the final to Italy.

But the hard times have been put squarely on the shoulders of Raymond Domenech, the absent-minded professor who is their coach.

Domenech doesnít get much respect especially within his own country. His own football association has already named Laurent Blanc to replace him after this World Cup.

Wouldn't it be a corker if France actually won the thing?

Domenech has been vilified by players he didnít select to his squad. French stalwart Patrick Vieira found out from a television broadcast he didn't make the team. He called it tactless and lacking class.

He also failed to name Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and Arsenal's Samir Nasri to the squad. It is already a dressing room rife with issues and discontent.

When the team takes to the pitch they will have to deal with the ghost of the Hand of Fraud. Thierry Henry culminated a horrible qualifying campaign for the French by handling a ball which eventually led to a key goal that helped eliminate Ireland from going to the World Cup.

Despite the shameful incident, the French had the nerve to complain they were not seeded at the tournament. Normally non-seeded teams wind up with at least one powerhouse team in their group. The powerhouse turned out to be the French. They wound up with a comfy draw getting South Africa, Uruguay and Mexico.

Itís about the only comfy thing they will find in South Africa. The handball and being drawn against home side South Africa guarantees that.

Then thereís Domenech the lame duck.

He will have to justify any controversial move he makes in light of his job termination at the end of the tournament. It doesn't do much for your authority.

"Everything that comes from outside can disrupt, undermine and create weaknesses that could prove harmful during a long competition," he told a French television station. "For one match, no ó but for one month, with substitutes who won't play or who will only play a bit, it could be complicated and it could create tension.

"But I've got nothing more to say about it, I'll deal with it when it happens."

All of this takes away from a team that has plenty of talent, enough talent to make then dangerous in a tournament where the focus will be on all the other contenders.

Eric Abidal, William Gallas (if he is healthy) and Patrice Evra are strong defensively.

Midfielders Yoann Gourcuff, Lassana Diarra, Florent Malouda and Jeremy Toulalan are solid distributors of the ball, with Gourcuff likely taking over the role of on-field general. Malouda is in great form.

With Benzema and Nasri left home, the French must get a positive tournament from Franck Ribery up front. Since the 2008 Euro tournament, Ribery has battled injuries. When on form, he remains one of the most difficult strikers to cover. He'll have help from Nicolas Anelka and Sidney Govou.

They will get some help from previously uncapped Mathieu Valbuena.

As for Henry, he is nearing the end of his time as a world-class striker. But as he's proven in the past, he is still able to lend a hand for the French in desperate times.

BRAZIL

There is always one constant in the World Cup.

It's the joy of watching football whenever Brazil takes to the pitch.

You may not like the team but you have to be moved by the style of football Brazil has played over the years.

It is free-flowing, one-touch football that is highlighted by great individual skills and sudden passes which release streaking players toward the net.

Brazil's record five World Cups speaks on its own.

Brazil wins more often than not but even losing efforts often provide works of football beauty.

Brazil lives by the mantra of winning first but if you must lose, lose in a style that has made Brazilian football famous.

The question in South Africa in 2010 will be whether this Selecao will be able to fulfill that mandate. Dunga, former Brazilian midfielder and now coach of Brazil, has inflamed the psyche of a nation with his selection for his World Cup team.

There is fear in Brazil that their team could actually be . . . gulp . . . boring.

Dunga's picks emphasizes winning first.

He passed on Ronaldo, Adriano, Pato, Neymar and others who are considered offensive contributors. Ronaldinho was only named to the seven-man reserve squad.

Some of those have been deservedly left out. Ronaldo has done little and Adriano, while he has started to play better, has not done it for any length of time. But the omission of Ronaldinho, even on the list of 23, is startling given the real lack of depth on this team.

Brazil must now win with defence and goaltending.

In the past, the backline would be measured by how good it was coming forward. Maicon, Lucio and Dani Alves are among the best on the backline while Julio Cesar is touted as one of the best goalkeepers in the world.

Best goalkeeper in the world? When was the last time the world's best goalkeeper and Brazil were even in the same sentence?

Soccer fans know the history of great Brazilian forwards. The list is almost endless ó Garincha, Pele, Zico, Romario, Falcao, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo.

There is no such luminary in this World Cup. Luis Fabiano will score goals but he is not in the others' class. Robinho is playing in the Brazilian league, a far cry from the quality of the English Premier or Serie A or other European Leagues.

Where have the magical Brazilian star forwards gone?

Brazil's most recognizable figure now is Kaka and they will rely heavily on him. But he is not a pure striker. Relying so much on Kaka, a player who has been mediocre in recent months is a dangerous ploy.

Dunga's selections reflected the play of those players during national team games.

As for some of the young players left off the team . . .

"I can't worry about winning in 2014. I need to win now," Dunga said.

They simply didn't perform well enough.

"Playing for the Selecao is different than playing for your club," he said.

The pressure is substantially greater as well.

Dunga is as aware as anyone that selecting older, popular players would have made most people happy but would have ended in disaster. Many of the younger players, outside of Pato, play in the Brazilian domestic league. Dunga has already named a number of players who play outside of the Spanish, French, Italian and English leagues.

All that said, Brazil remains a powerhouse.

While this group of players may pale in comparison to Brazilian teams in the past, they are far from slouches.

They still have a ridiculous amount of talent and experience. If Cesar is solid in net and their back line plays as they have for their club sides in Europe, no one will be surprised if a sixth World Cup comes their way.

The only thing surprising will be the style they played to win it.

ITALY

It would be ridiculously easy to discount Italy's 2010 World Cup team.

They are too old, too slow and too static.

Ever since manager Marcello Lippi named his preliminary roster for South Africa, Italians have vented their frustration and not only at some the players he has named but those he hasn't.

Where are you Fabrizio Miccoli, Davide Santon and Antonio Cassano, a group that are not too old, too slow or too static?

Not among Lippi's favorites obviously.

Lippi's refusal to change key components to a team that won the World Cup in Germany in 2006, but has not played very well since, is confusing but not surprising.

The Italians were terrible in Euro 2008. They were run off the pitch in the Confederation Cup in Africa that included an embarrassing loss to Egypt. Even their qualifying run to the World Cup was highlighted by their need to work themselves out of difficult situations with some late-game heroics.

Gianluigi Buffon, is 32; Fabio Cannavaro 36; Gianluca Zambrotta 32; Mauro Camonaresi 33; Andrea Pirlo 31. Would it surprise you to find out Antonio Di Natale is 32?

Now, not all of these players will be on the field at once you would hope, especially on defence. Zambrotta could be the most vulnerable. Young Bari defender Leonardo Bonucci and Genoa's Dominic Criscito deserve a crack at being the next generation of defenders.


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