Just over two years ago when Italy were crowned FIFA World Cup™ winners in Berlin, many of the competing nations vowed to return to the showcase event in four years time to try to wrest the coveted title from the Azzurri. However, with the Preliminary Competition for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa now in full swing across the globe, several of these sides, from Brazil and Argentina, to Portugal, France and Togo, have it all to do if they are to make good on that promise. FIFA.com takes a closer look at the teams in question and their varying travails on the road to South Africa.
Big guns struggling
In spite of their anguish at losing the Final in Berlin, Les Bleus took a lot of positives from their Germany 2006 experience. Overcoming a lacklustre start at the finals, France showed they could raise their game when it mattered most. And it is this same quality that the team will need to rediscover if they are to bounce back from a shaky start in European Group 7, where they lost their opening game away to Austria. "Raymond Domenech's continued tenure [as coach] will be assessed after the Romania game," warned Jean-Pierre Escalettes, President of the French FA. With Les Bleus unbeaten on Romanian soil since 1972, the coach and fans will be desperate to keep that record intact when they visit in October.
France, though, are far from alone in their predicament. Both Brazil and Argentina, winners of seven world titles between them, are struggling to impose themselves in the South American qualifiers. And though the pair are in a three-way tie for second spot with Chile, they remain four points behind pacesetters Paraguay, and have left their respective fans concerned and dissatisfied with their recent form.
The ever-demanding Brazilian faithful were scathing about their side following a goalless draw this month at home to ten-man Bolivia. "The public are angry, but we players are more disappointed than anyone. We lacked ideas, failed to find our game and that has us worried," admitted Ronaldinho after the draw.
Fans of the Albiceleste are equally upset, having had to endure five consecutive qualifying games without a win, their worst ever sequence in this competition. Serious questions are now being asked about the team, who last won a qualifier ten months ago against Venezuela and have still to travel to Quito, La Paz, Montevideo, Asuncion and Santiago. Neither of South America's big two will need reminding that only three points currently separate them from sixth place in the table - the dreaded position that guarantees you will be watching South Africa 2010 from the comfort of your own home.
Surprises the order of the day
When the European Zone qualifiers kicked off last month, Portugal suffered the ignominy of being the first of the top sides to taste home defeat after going down to Denmark. That chastening reverse, their first in 20 home games in this competition, left Carlos Queiroz's men trailing Albania, Denmark and Sweden in Group 1 and has sown seeds of doubt about their future prospects.
Switzerland are another side with worries. A shock opening-day defeat at home to Luxembourg, coupled with a lacklustre draw with Israel to hand new coach Ottmar Hitzfeld the worst possible start to Group 2. The Swiss now have it all to do, and those who predicted a trouble-free qualifying campaign for them against less illustrious group rivals like Luxembourg, Moldova and Latvia now seem badly mistaken.
The trials and tribulations of staying on course for a place at South Africa 2010 have also been affecting two of Africa's representatives at the last finals, Ghana and Togo, who have no margin for error if they are to take part in the first FIFA World Cup on their continent. The Black Stars, for their part, have already changed coach twice since Germany 2006 and, with several key players out injured, must now beat Lesotho in their final Group 5 game if they are to advance to the next qualifying phase. The Togolese, meanwhile, are also facing the possibility of an early exit and need all three points from their final Group 11 game against Swaziland to keep their hopes alive.
Over in CONCACAF, it looks highly likely that either Trinidad and Tobago or Guatemala will miss out on a place in the six-team final group. The Group 1 rivals are chasing runaway leaders USA for their section's second qualifying berth, and the picture will become considerably clearer after the pair go head to head this October.
And there is more. Asia has just kicked off its final qualifying phase and it is shaping up to be a fiercely tight contest for Australia and Korea Republic. Elsewhere, fellow 2006 finalists Ecuador are struggling to kick-start their faltering campaign in South America, while Angola are battling to get back on course for a second successive finals. With time ticking away and much work still to be done, will the class of 2006 be able to fulfil their promise to once again grace football's top table? Watch this space to find out...