Brazil is the only South American nation to have won a World Cup outside of the Americas with wins in 1958 and 2002. With World Champion coach Carlos Alberto Parreira back at the helm after stints in Major League Soccer and Saudi Arabia, the Selecao look set to go the distance yet again.
But the timing may not be right for Brazil. A year or two ago, Dida, Robinho, Ronaldinho and Adriano were probably all among the twenty five best players in the world. And that list does not even include Ronaldo who is poised to become the all time leading goal scorer in World Cup History at Germany 2006. (Ronaldo would ironically break German Gerd Mueller's record.) This season in Europe though has been anything but a picnic for many of Brazil's stars. Dida had a troubled season in the nets for AC Milan, while Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos' troubles in Madrid have the subject of endless speculation and gossip. Both Emerson and Ze Roberto had avaerage season in Germany, but both seem to be looking at their best years in a rear view mirror.
All of this having been said, Brazil is still without a doubt one of the best squads in the World Cup. Ronaldinho is simply amazing, but as critics back home like to point out, his performances for Barcelona always seem to exceed his output for his national side.
Guus Hiddink is one of the most accomplished coaches in the International game having led South Korea to the WC Semifinals in 2002, and his native Holland to the same point in 1998 where they lost to Brazil on penalty kicks. Now Hiddink directs an Australian side who makes its first World Cup appearence since 1974. Hiddink's squad has no shortage of accomplished players at the club level. Mark Viduka is a special striker who provides both a tall target for service as well as the pace to be deadly with the ball at his feet. Harry Kewell has been one of the better attacking midfielders in the Premiership in recent seasons and he'll run alongside Tim Cahill who is one of the best goal scoring midfielders in the EPL with Everton. Lucas Neill has been a critical element in making Blackburn Rovers one of the best defensive sides in the EPL the past two seasons as well. And how can we forget about Marco Bresciano, whose stamina and pace are on display in some of Europe's most imporant club matches with Juventus. For a nation with such little international football success, it is truly amazing how many top players Australia has currently. Now they have a head man whose track record is unmatched among current world cup coaches who should have little trouble molding all of the individual talent Australia posses into a cohesive and disciplined side. Watch out for the Aussies. They have waited 32 years to get back to the WC Finals and they look ready to make this trip worth the wait.
Croatia debuted on the World Cuup scene with a bang in the form of a third place finish at France 1998. This team howveer has a limited offensive arsenal although they tend to be good on set pieces. Dado Prso of Rangers is an excellent attacking player with good ball control skills. He's also a threat in the air off of set pieces. Darijo Srna is also a threat on set pieces but with his leaded foot on free kicks. Dario Simic is still going strong now entering his 3rd world cup. Simic the one time running mate for Davor Suker now plays on the back line and given his experience is a threat to go forward and create chances.
Croatia is in a tranisitional phase and has little depth. Given the Croats ability to still kake the World Cup while rebuilding Croatia must be considered a top European side because so many great Footballing nations in Europe including Sweden, Holland, England and France have missed recent World Cups while going through the retooling phase that the Croats are currently in. This scrappy group will play hard but will not advance to the knock out stage.
Former Brazilian World Cup great Zico was a controversial choice to coach Japan in 2002. At the time Zico's entire coaching resume consisted of 10 games as an interim coach in on a lesser club in the J-League. The critics not withstanding Zico was able to qualify Japan for its third straight world cup although it would un realistic to expect anything like the strong performance of 2002 from this young Football nation. Hidetoshi Nakata who is a world class player leads this side but recently expressed his frustrations with the poor work ethic of his teammates. Naohiro Takahara looked like he would be an impact striker for Japan but he has suffered an injury that could force him to miss the cup opener versus Australia. Yuji Nakazawa is a strong and fast defender who is excellent in the air. Just as in World Cup 2002, naturalized Brazilian Alex will be a free kick and dead ball specialist to watch. Alex has scored some of the most spectacular dead ball goals I have seen in recent years.
Japan has a nice core of players returning from a second round trip in 2002, but this cup, much like the USA's trip to France in 1998 could be a humbling setback experience just four years after hosting the cup and making a strong run.
BEST PLAYER IN GROUP: ARE YOU KIDDING???????? RONALDINHO OF COURSE!
BEST YOUNG PLAYER IN GROUP: LUKA MODRIC, CROATIA
WHO ADVANCE: BRAZIL, AUSTRALIA