Rocky road beckons Brazil

Rocky road beckons Brazil

Five-time champions have to hit the straps early if they are to progress from the group of death

Rocky road beckons Brazil

No joyride: Five-time champions Brazil will not have it easy at the World Cup in South Africa.

Back then, it was South Africa's most imposing stadium. Next summer it will probably be overshadowed by a new generation of spectacular purpose-built or reconditioned arenas, but it seems an appropriate location for the heirs of Pelé, Jairzinho, Romario, Ronaldo and the rest to begin their challenge.

Brazil may need all the omens they can get, since they occupy the closest thing in the 2010 draw to a group of death, but they may count themselves fortunate to be kicking off with a match against North Korea, whose only previous appearance in the finals came in 1966, when they achieved a stunning elimination of Italy in their final group game before making a quarterfinal exit after losing 5-3 to Eusébio's Portugal.
Next for Brazil in Group G come Ivory Coast, complete with Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and YaYa and Kolo Touré, on paper the strongest of the African contenders, full of experience at the highest level of European club football and certain to be highly motivated by the thought of carrying the flag for the host continent. And finally Brazil will meet Portugal, who only scraped into the finals by way of the play-offs but, barring further injuries, will have Cristiano Ronaldo back in the team and, despite the question marks over Carlos Queiroz's qualities as a head coach, will be pushing hard for a place in the last 16.

If that looks like a compelling contest between three sides, the best chance for a four-way fight appears likely to come from Group D, where Jögi Low's Germany, valiant losers in the semifinals at home four years ago, meet Ghana, easily the best African side in 2006, followed by Serbia and Australia, neither of whom will want to go home without a fight. Ghana, built around the driving power of Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari in midfield, need only an efficient striker to challenge Germany for the leadership of a group whose top two will meet the top two from England's Group C in the next round. But Serbia, 20th in the world rankings, may be among the
championship's dark horses.

There is a curious historical slant to Group A, topped by the hosts, South Africa. Back in 1966, when England hosted the finals, Alf Ramsey's team were joined in Group One by Mexico, Uruguay and France – exactly the trio drawn last night to complete the home team's group. On that occasion Uruguay qualified with England, leaving France at the bottom of the table – an outcome that, if repeated, would be welcomed with jubilation across the Irish Republic. But this is a mediocre group in which the lightweight Mexico and the functional Uruguay could prove to have the greatest staying power, particularly since France seem likely to continue their long-running demonstration – first seen against Paraguay in Lens during the 1998 finals – of an inability to function without Zinedine Zidane, seemingly irreplaceable but now firmly beyond recall.

Italy, the holders, are one of the seeded teams favoured by a relatively easy draw, with Paraguay, Slovakia and the minnow of minnows, New Zealand, alongside them in Group F. The opening match, Italy versus Paraguay, looks a banker for the tournament's first goalless draw, given Italy's record of making inglorious starts to the opening stages of World Cup finals and the unimpressive recent performances of Marcello Lippi's side.

Holland, buoyed in their quest for a first victory by an unblemished qualifying campaign, should cope with Denmark, Japan and Cameroon in Group E, the greatest danger possibly coming from the African side, now coached by Paul le Guen. Spain, the reigning champions of Europe and currently topping the FIFA rankings and the betting, can feel similarly optimistic of avoiding banana skins as they eye the prospect of Group H matches against Switzerland, Honduras and Chile, with the Swiss likely to edge out the Chileans for the second qualifying place.

Under Diego Maradona's ineffably erratic leadership, Argentina have shown little to suggest they can challenge for a third World Cup win, despite the opportunity to select a forward line of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero. They face what could be three tough matches against sides – Nigeria, South Korea and Greece – that lack quality on paper but will run and fight until they bleed, and will be quick to pounce on any hint of complacency or irresolution in the successors to the champions of 1978 and 1986.

Anyone attempting to predict the overall quality of a World Cup is on a fool's mission, but there are sound reasons for believing that the 2010 edition, the 19th in a series that began in 1930, holds out the promise of a summer of outstanding football, which would be particularly welcome after the intermittent exhilaration of the last two tournaments. Brazil were worthy winners in Japan in 2002, and Turkey and South Korea provided great entertainment, but 2006 was largely unimpressive, with Italy convincing few neutrals that they were the best team in the world.

No one can doubt that the two teams installed as favourites for 2010, Spain and Brazil, deserve their standing. The winners of Euro 2008, now with the veteran Vicente Del Bosque as head coach, put their faith in artistry, thanks to a core of Barcelona-bred midfielders and the presence of a couple of outstanding strikers. Under Dunga's supervision, the leading South American qualifiers have adopted some of the blunt pragmatism associated with their manager's playing style when he captained them to the trophy in the United States in 1994, but their strong defensive shield serves as a useful platform for the brilliance of Kaká and the consistent goalscoring of Luís Fabiano. Nothing in Friday night's draw will have undermined their confidence.