World Cup history: 15th appearance, 33 wins, 13 draws, 19 losses, 113 GF, 74 GA.
Best finish: Winners in 1978, 1986.
The oddsmakers say: 13/2.
Players to watch: F Lionel Messi; F Carlos Tevez; F Sergio Aguero.
The skinny: The two-time champs have plenty of talent as usual, but this is all about coach Diego Maradona. On the hot seat back in Buenos Aires when the Argentines were struggling during qualifying, Maradona is accused by critics of easily being out-coached during pressure games. Of course, while he has been ripped for not providing the best tactical gameplan, even Maradona, one of the greatest players in the history of the World Cup, knows that the more Messi has the ball, the better chance of success Argentina will have. Under Argentina’s 4-4-2 setup, Maradona will allow the creative Messi to roam, much in the same manner as Maradona himself did when he was leading his country to the 1986 World Cup. Keep your eye on the young, skilled Sergio Aguero, who just happens to be Maradona’s son-in-law and father of the coach’s first grandson.
The outlook: While the skilled Nigerians and the defensive-minded Greeks will keep Group B favourites Argentina from waltzing through the preliminary round, anything less than a semi-final appearance will be considered a disaster back in the home country — if not a spot in the title game. Should emerge as group winner.
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World Cup history: Fourth appearance, 4 wins, 1 draw, 6 losses, 14 GF-16 GA.
Best finish: Second round, 1994, 1998.
The oddsmakers say: 125/1
Players to watch: F Obafemi Martins; D Joseph Yobo; MF Mikel John Obi.
The skinny: In 1996 Nigeria made the world take notice when it defeated Argentina in the final to win the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta. The “Super Eagles,” as they are called by their rabid supporters, encountered some scary moments during qualifying and needed to come on at the end to secure a spot in South Africa. At one point, government officials were calling for the axing of manager Shaibu Amodu after he and a number of veterans got into a dispute over the omission of winger John Utaka. But Amodu survived and now has the opportunity to make amends. The talent on this team lies up front, so expect some high tempo play from a Nigerian side looking to run-and-gun at every opportunity.
The outlook: While it’s doubtful they’ll be able to upset mighty Argentina like they did at the ‘96 Olympics, it stands to be a matchup between Nigerian offence versus Greek defence in the battle to claim second place in the group. Expect the Nigerians to be buoyed by vocal, pro-African crowds.
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World Cup history: Second appearance, 0 wins, 0 draws, 3 losses, 0 GF-10 GA.
Best finish: Group stage, 1994
The oddsmakers say: 200/1
Players to watch: F Theofanis Gekas; MF Giorgos Karagounis; F Dimitris Salpigidis.
The skinny: Greece’s 2004 Euro championship seems even more improbable when you consider this is only the second time in history the country has qualified for the World Cup. The Greeks had better pray they are more successful this time around. In their only previous appearance, they were outscored 10-0 en route to losing all three of their outings at the 1994 tournament. In other words, Greece is still searching for its first ever World Cup goal. Coach Otto Rehhagel’s job definitely was on the line had the Greeks not gotten to the Big Dance in South Africa. But a dramatic victory in the Ukraine during the second leg of a qualifying playoff allowed the Greeks to squeeze in.
The outlook: With Argentina the obvious class of Group B, the Greeks likely will have to beat out Nigeria for second if they hope to advance past the preliminary round. The defensive-minded Rehhagel deployed five at the back during qualifying, leaving little doubt that 0-0 is a desirable outcome. There could be some boring soccer played here, to be sure.
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World Cup history: Eighth appearance, 4 wins, 7 draws, 13 losses, 22 GF-53 GA.
Best finish: Fourth, 2002.
The oddsmakers say: 250/1
Players to watch: MF Park Ji-Sung; G Lee Woon-Jae; MF Ki Sung-Yeung.
The skinny: Known as the “Tigers of Asia,” the South Koreans easily qualified for their eighth World Cup final, an Asian record. En route to solidifying a berth in South Africa, they allowed just three goals in qualifying, an impressive defensive record, to say the least. Many feel this is a much better squad than the one that reached the semi-final in 2002, the best all-time World Cup showing by any Asian team. Keep in mind, however, that the South Koreans turned in that impressive performance while playing on home soil. History has shown that the side has struggled whenever it lines up for a match outside of Asia, as is the case this time around. Whatever the case, they stand to be the best of the four Asian participants in the tournament.
The outlook: Some of the so-called experts feel South Korea might surprise a few people and sneak past Greece and Nigeria into second in the group, meaning an automatic berth in the round of 16. But that seems to be asking a lot, especially when the Nigerians will have the African throngs backing them. Will likely finish fourth.