Germany
© AFP

Three-time FIFA World Cup™ winners Germany are usually there or thereabouts when the honours are handed out, and the current national squad will head for South Africa with their sights and expectations set appropriately high. After triumphing in Switzerland in 1954, on home soil in 1974 and in Italy in 1990, the team now coached by Joachim Low are aiming to hoist the most prestigious trophy in the world's favourite sport for the fourth time.

The Germans' consistent success is based on deep reserves of experience, finely-honed tactical know-how, and the ability to rise to the occasion when the chips are down. Their qualifying campaign merely served to emphasise the enduring nature of those attributes. Michael Ballack will be utterly determined to lead his country to a major international title after the runners-up spot at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, third on home soil in 2006, and another second place at UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland.

That would not merely be the crowning glory of the Germany captain's already illustrious career, it would elevate him to membership of an elite group of FIFA World Cup-winning captains, legendary trio Fritz Walter, Franz Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthaus. Apart from Ballack, German hopes rest largely on striker Miroslav Klose, a goal-getter with the uncanny ability to hit peak form bang on time for the FIFA World Cup, and former talented youngsters turned senior pros Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski.

The road to South Africa
Clinical efficiency and unbending resolve rather than sparkling skill were the hallmarks as Low's men marched to first place in European qualifying Group 4 for the FIFA World Cup 2010 in South Africa. The Germans dropped points only in their home and away meetings with an awkward Finnish side. Klose's hat-trick dragged his side level three times in a 3-3 draw in Helsinki, and Podolski netted a face-saving last-minute equaliser in a 1-1 stalemate in Hamburg. However, that was the final qualifying fixture, and Ballack and company were already guaranteed top spot, as Wales, Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein had all been despatched with the minimum of fuss.

By contrast, in the two meetings with closest rivals Russia, Germany showed all the class that has made them such formidable opponents down the years. In Dortmund, Low's men produced their best attacking half of football since their rousing displays at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and held on to win 2-1. In the crunch return in Moscow on the penultimate matchday, it was almost inevitably Klose who netted the only goal of the game to seal the Russians' first-ever home defeat in FIFA World Cup qualifying. Renowned Sbornaja boss Guus Hiddink mused afterwards on Germany's "utter determination" and named Low's side as contenders in South Africa.

The star players
Chelsea midfielder Ballack rates as the undisputed leader of the team. The 33-year-old national captain has earned 97 senior caps to date and is determined to lead his men to a major trophy after falling at the final hurdle at the FIFA World Cup in 2002 and the EURO in 2008. In all probability, the showdown in South Africa will be Ballack's last chance on a major stage.

Despite his unassuming public persona, Bayern Munich striker Klose comes next in the dressing room hierarchy. His record of 48 goals in 93 internationals puts him third in the Germany all-time scoring chart, behind only living legend Gerd Muller (68 goals) and former GDR goal-getter Joachim Streich (55). Events in South Africa will show whether fellow Bayern men Lahm and Schweinsteiger, and Podolski, who returned home to Cologne from Munich in summer 2009, have what it takes to acquire world-class billing. Diminutive but exceptionally versatile full-back Lahm looks the best bet of the three.

The coach
Joachim Low, Jurgen Klinsmann's assistant at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, long ago emerged from the shadow thrown by the former world-class striker. On stepping up to the top job on 12 July 2006, the 49-year-old named winning EURO 2008 and continuing Klinsmann's attacking philosophy as his primary goals. Neither target has been fully hit, but the SC Freiburg all-time leading scorer has earned huge respect for his calm, knowledgeable and sympathetic manner of dealing with stars, press and public alike. "Meticulous and painstaking hard work is the only way to succeed," he has said, true to his reputation as a skilled tactician and all-round sage of the game, and neatly summing up the soul of German football into the bargain.

Previous FIFA World Cups
- Germany have won the FIFA World Cup three times (1954, 1974 and 1990), a figure bettered only by Brazil (5) and Italy (4).

- Apart from the 1930 and 1950 tournaments, which they did not enter, Germany have contested every FIFA World Cup finals.

Records
- Germany have reached the FIFA World Cup Final seven times, a record they share with Brazil.

- Germany have contested four penalty shoot-outs at the FIFA World Cup finals, winning all of them.

What they said
"We've been very successful in the past, and that's an inspiration to the next generations. You only have to look at Germany's record at major tournaments. We won the World Cup in 1954, '74 and '90, and the European Championship in '72, '80 and '96. We've made it through to finals at least as often. We've grown up with the conviction that Germany are always good enough to reach the Final. We're definitely among a group of countries with a chance of taking the Trophy. We were third at the World Cup and second at the EURO, so our goal for 2010 is to make the Final and win the Trophy." Philipp Lahm, interviewed exclusively by FIFA.com