A high-profile casualty is inevitable in Group G at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ with Brazil, Portugal and Côte d'Ivoire fighting for two places while Korea DPR will perhaps aim to concentrate on damage limitation.
Brazil have lifted the trophy that symbolises global football supremacy a record five times, Portugal finished fourth at the last tournament in 2006 and many pundits consider Côte d'Ivoire the best African bet for glory. And while Korea DPR are universally regarded as the underdogs, none of the 32 challengers has prepared more thoroughly than the mystery men from the east who criss-cross the world playing warm-up games.
Superstars abound in the first-round 'group of death' as Brazil boast Real Madrid midfielder Kaka, Côte d'Ivoire Chelsea striker Didier Drogba and Portugal Real Madrid midfielder-cum-striker Cristiano Ronaldo. Brazil, the only country to compete at all 19 previous tournaments, are favoured to finish first and set up a possible last 16 showdown with fellow South Americans Chile.
And the opening Group G clash on 15 June between Côte d'Ivoire and Portugal in Port Elizabeth could determine who else progresses with European champions Spain the probable second-round opponents. Korea DPR will likely defend en masse and compete like tigers, but lack the fire power to emulate their countrymen of 1966, who defeated Italy in Middlesbrough to cause one of the great FIFA World Cup shocks.
Coach Dunga has assembled a tactically astute squad that espouses the work ethic and plays as a team with no place for the prima-donna factor that cost Brazil dearly in the past. Kaka aside, many consider Julio Cesar of Inter Milan the best goalkeeper in the world, Lucio and Juan form a solid central defence barrier, Gilberto Silva does the midfield graft and Luis Fabiano has few peers as a goal poacher.
Brazil also know South Africa well as they return with the stars who won the dress-rehearsal FIFA Confederations Cup last June, coming from two goals behind to pip USA 3-2 in Johannesburg.
Portugal needed a play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina to reach South Africa after a qualifying campaign in which Ronaldo failed to score in seven matches before being sidelined by injury. Where to play the 'golden boy' will occupy much time of coach Carlos Queiroz with the options facing the former assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United including a wide or central midfield role or lone striker.
Fate has dealt Côte d'Ivoire a cruel FIFA World Cup hand twice after getting the Netherlands and Argentina in Germany four years ago, and the late choice of Swede Sven Goran Eriksson as coach hardly boosts continuity. The Ivorians are formidable on paper with Drogba, brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure and Salomon Kalou heading a star cast, but the promise of this squad remains unfulfilled and this must be the last chance for many.