June 7: Four Days To Go
It surprises me that the Americans continue to be regarded as football minnows. Ever-presents at the World Cup since 1990, they are perfectly capable of making like difficult for England, Slovenia and Algeria in Group C, with Rangers fans no doubt keen to see Damarcus Beasley and Mo Edu do well. Kicking off against England on Saturday does them no favours but, if they can get a result against Slovenia, they could find themselves in a straight fight with Algeria for the second qualifying spot. But with Germany probably lying in wait in the second round, American interest in hardly likely to last beyond June 27.
South Korea have an even better World Cup pedigree than the Yanks. This will be their seventh consecutive World Cup, although with the exception of their fourth place finish as co-hosts in 2002, they can't lay claim to two many big scalps. In Group B with Greece, Nigeria and Argentina, I wouldn't expect them to survive beyond the group stage.
Mind you, it was good to see them arrive in South Africa safely. I had visions of them being harpooned by a North Korean submarine halfway through the journey. The North Koreans' first appearance in the finals since 1966 has taken many by surprise, not least of all their fourth choice striker turned third choice goalkeeper Kim Myong-Won. I wonder if he fancies being Septic's next manager. Well, Liewell would swear he was always first choice!!!
It would be nothing short of sensational if North Korea repeat their 1966 performance of making it to the quarter-finals. I'm afraid I foresee three proper humpings for the men from Pyongyang, with the players probably ending up in the salt mines for their poor showing.
Both Australia and New Zealand are rightly quoted among the also-rans. The Kiwis will do well to pick up a solitary point in Group F where they'll face Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia but I wouldn't be surprised if Australia get some joy in Group D.
Their first game is against Germany on Sunday but, if they can get a point from Ghana on June 19, they would have everything to play for in their final game against Serbia on June 23. With the bulk of their squad plying their trade in Europe, Australia don't lack big time know-how but they are in a tough group and reaching the group stages might just be beyond them.
Of all the underdog nations, the Aussies are probably the best placed to pull off a shock result or two. If the likes of Brett Emerton and Tim Cahill can hit the ground running, their group rivals had better be on their toes.
In their fourth successive World Cup, Japan have developed a liking for the big stage but, in Group E alongside Holland, Denmark and Cameroon, they are unlikely to progress. Like South Korea, they impressed when co-hosts in 2002 but the Japs don't travel well and will do well to pick up a single point. Then again, if a certain former hooped horror is in their squad they might be good value for a penalty kick or two!!!
Similarly, Honduras are unlikely to do too much in Group H. Spain, Chile and Switzerland will all see their games against the Central Americans as three points in the bag, with goal difference maybe even determining who joins Spain in the last sixteen.
While I've been dismissive of all these unfancied countries, any complacency from their bigger opponents could prove costly. After all, who would have thought Iran would get a draw with Scotland in 1978 or that Costa Rica would beat us in 1990? The big boys have been warned.
Tomorrow: THE EUROPEAN CHALLENGE