Group A: France, Mexico, South Africa, Uruguay
Can't-miss game: South Africa vs. Mexico: 10 a.m. Friday, Johannesburg, ESPN. Other matchups have the talent, but none can match the thrill, pomp and anticipation of the World Cup opener. Often that honor falls to the defending champ; this time it's host South Africa.
Who advances: Mexico, Uruguay: No host has ever failed to advance. South Africa will be the first. France, the best on paper, is a bit old at key spots and is so underwhelmed with coach Raymond Domenech that it has already named his successor. A bit of an upset, then: Mexico and Uruguay go through.
Player to watch
Giovani Dos Santos, midfielder/forward, Mexico: In this group, teammates Rafa Marquez and Cuauhtemoc Blanco are more famous, and pretty much all of France's roster has more big-time experience. But dos Santos, the son of a former Brazilian pro, could be the breakout star of this World Cup. Mexico's CONCACAF qualifying campaign was floundering early last year when dos Santos began to assert himself. He scored once and assisted on the other two goals in a crucial 3-0 victory at Costa Rica and in between was named MVP of the Gold Cup tournament. At just 21, and with experience at Barcelona and Tottenham, he's a key part of Mexico's attack.
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, Greece, South Korea
Can't-miss game: Nigeria vs. South Korea: 2:30 p.m. June 22, Durban, ESPN2. On paper, these two teams are the most likely to advance behind favored Argentina, and this is the final group match for both. Nigeria has the edge in experience, with several English Premier League veterans.
Who advances: Argentina, Nigeria: Argentina, assuming that one of the world's most talented teams doesn't crack under volatile manager Diego Maradona, should win the group. Second place is a toss-up, but the pick is Nigeria, which has home advantage of sorts on its own continent.
Player to watch
Lionel Messi, midfielder, Argentina: Last year's FIFA world player of the year has, if anything, done even more since winning that honor. Messi scored 43 goals in the 2009-10 season for Barcelona, including four during a tour de force performance in a European Champions League quarterfinal victory over Arsenal. Some pundits have begun including him in the conversation of the best players ever — and he won't turn 23 until the middle of the World Cup. Yet Messi's form for his country has not matched his club feats; he had just four goals in 18 matches of World Cup qualifying. To truly join the legends, he must be the world's best player on the world's biggest stage.
Group C: Algeria, Slovenia, England, United States
Can't-miss game: United States vs. England: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Rustenburg, Ch. 28. One of the most intriguing matchups in the group stage. The United States allowed an average of 1.3 goals in its 10 final-round qualifying matches and will have to tighten up against the explosive English.
Who advances: England, United States: England is perhaps the most prohibitive favorite anywhere because of the relatively weak group. Since 1990, the Americans have reached the Round of 16 each time the World Cup has been outside Europe (1994, U.S.; 2002, Japan/Korea); the trend should continue.
Player to watch
Wayne Rooney, forward, England: Rooney has been a star since age 16, when he burst on the scene for Everton of the English Premier League. Now 24, the Manchester United striker is regarded as one of the four or five best players in the world and the man England depends on for goals. Since Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid, Man U relied on Rooney more than ever last season, and he delivered, scoring 34 times in all competitions after averaging 19.4 goals the previous five seasons. The lingering question is injuries; he has been battling groin and ankle problems this spring ever since limping off after a European Champions League match against Bayern Munich.
Group D: Australia, German, Ghana, Serbia
Can't-miss game: Ghana vs. Germany: 2:30 p.m. June 23, Johannesburg, ESPN. A clash of styles as the solid Germans face flashy Ghana, which ousted the United States in 2006 to reach the Round of 16 in its World Cup debut. Three of Ghana's best play in Germany's Bundesliga.
Who advances: Germany, Serbia: For Germany, think of Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament — never, ever leaving early. Germany has made the final eight the past 14 times. Serbia has a sterling group of defenders, starring Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic, who should pave the way forward.
Player to watch
Miroslav Klose, forward, Germany: Klose was the top scorer in the 2006 World Cup with five goals and had five in the 2002 competition; his 10 goals are tied for seventh all time in Cup history. But the Polish-born striker, who turns 32 on Wednesday , had only four goals for Bayern Munich last season, and coach Joachim Low found himself defending Klose's selection for this tournament. Still, if Klose can rediscover his peak form or at least get near it, his aerial ability and nose for the goal will make him a danger on a variety of shots, and his skills will be even more important with captain Michael Ballack out injured. Klose had seven goals in six appearances in World Cup qualifying.
Group E: Cameroon, Denmark, Japan, Netherlands
Can't-miss game: Cameroon vs. Denmark: 2:30 p.m. June 19, Pretoria, Ch. 28. This is likely to settle second place below the favored Dutch and ahead of lightly regarded Japan. Cameroon relies heavily on Samuel Eto'o, and if he doesn't light up Japan in the opener, his team might go into desperation mode.
Who advances: Netherlands, Denmark: The Netherlands has by far the most scoring capability in this group and dominated its qualifying group. Cameroon is in its sixth World Cup, the most in Africa, and lit up the 1990 edition. But Denmark is deeper and a bit better on defense, giving the Danes a slight edge.
Player to watch
Samuel Eto'o, forward, Cameroon: In the past two seasons, Eto'o has been a part of two European Champions League champions , helping Barcelona win the title in 2009 then, after his transfer to Italy, leading Inter Milan to first place last month. Eto'o (pronounced eh-TOE-oh) scored three of his country's nine goals during a four-game winning streak to end qualifying, which vaulted Cameroon from last to first in Africa's Group A and clinched a spot. The 29-year-old striker has been the top scorer in each of the past two editions of the African Cup of Nations.
Group F: Italy, New Zealand, Paraguay, Slovakia
Can't-miss game: Italy vs. Paraguay: 2:30 p.m. June 14, Cape Town, ESPN. Paraguay had little problem in qualifying, beating Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay once each. Italy has a reputation for starting slowly but has actually lost its opener only once (Ireland, 1994) in the past 40 years.
Who advances: Italy, Paraguay: According to FIFA's rankings, this is the weakest group (average ranking: 37.75), making the path to advancement smooth for defending champion Italy. Paraguay reached its fourth straight World Cup and got to the Round of 16 in 1998 and 2002. It should do so again.
Player to watch
Gianluigi Buffon, goalkeeper, Italy: As much as we'd love to pick the Tampa Bay Rowdies' own Jeremy Christie, his New Zealand squad is expected to do little. So it's Buffon, 32, who is usually regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world. In the 2006 World Cup, he gave up only two goals in seven games — one was an own goal against the United States, the other a penalty in the final. Buffon has been a star for Italian power Juventus for nearly a decade and earned major loyalty points when he stayed with the club after it was relegated in 2006 for match-fixing. The club bounced right back into the top flight thanks in large part to Buffon.
Group G: Ivory Coast, Brazil, North Korea, Portugal
Can't-miss game: Portugal vs. Brazil: 10 a.m. June 25, Durban, ESPN. Likely the most talent-laden matchup in the group stage, with Brazilian stars Kaka, Dani Alves and Maicon against Portugal's Deco, Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo. And then there's the angle of former power vs. former colony.
Who advances: Brazil, Portugal: Brazil, of course. The last time it fell out in the first round was 1966. The other berth is tricky — North Korea has no chance, which leaves the other two. Ivory Coast superstar Didier Drogba broke his arm Friday; his nation could still pull the slight upset but with him likely missing, we'll go with Portugal.
Player to watch
Cristiano Ronaldo, midfielder, Portugal: Is Ronaldo a showstopper or a showoff? Just confident or completely arrogant? Mostly a scorer or a diver? It depends on whom you ask or perhaps what day it is. Real Madrid paid a world-record transfer fee of $132 million to acquire Ronaldo, 25, from Manchester United in summer 2009. He poured in the goals for the Spanish giant last season, 26 in the league alone. His pace and skills are frightening. But in seven matches in World Cup qualifying, he didn't score once, and Portugal needed a playoff to reach the World Cup. So, what is Cristiano Ronaldo? In the end, call him one thing: mesmerizing.
Group H: Honduras, Chile, Spain, Switzerland
Can't-miss game: Spain vs. Switzerland: 10 a.m. June 16, Durban, ESPN. The Swiss allowed only eight goals in 10 qualifying matches but must be at their best to stop Spain's attack, especially if Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas have recovered from injuries suffered this season.
Who advances: Spain, Chile: Spain might be the best team in the world, and it shed the label of tournament underachiever with a convincing title in the 2008 European Championships. It will have no problem in this group. Chile was an impressive second in South American qualifying, giving it the slight nod.
Player to watch
Andres Iniesta, midfielder, Spain: The hard part in this group is figuring out which Spanish superstar to pick. When ESPN.com chose its top 50 players of this year's World Cup, nine were from Spain, including six of the top 16. Iniesta, 26, is one of the world's premier playmakers and is a big reason Lionel Messi has racked up such amazing goal-scoring totals for Spanish champion Barcelona. Iniesta is nicknamed "The Illusionist" — in Spanish it sounds even cooler, El Illusionista — and shares headlines with Xavi, his fellow midfielder for club and country. Xavi's take? "Iniesta is easily Spain's most complete player," ESPN quoted him as saying. "He has everything."
Throughout the World Cup, you'll hear various formations talked about. This refers to the placement of defenders, midfielders and forwards on the pitch in numbered order. These are three formations you're most likely to see:
4-4-2: This is the most commonly used formation throughout the world because it's the most balanced and adaptable. It works well for offense and defense. The 4-4-2 gives a team width and helps create space for passing. Teams using a 4-4-2 can spread out quickly to attack, but they can drop back into defensive mode quickly.
Who may use: United States, England, Germany and Spain
4-5-1: This formation is mostly used by teams whose strength is in their defense and midfield. With so many players behind the ball, the midfield becomes crowded, making it hard for opponents to move the ball and score. One drawback: The lone striker can have trouble getting into the game. The best chance to score usually comes on the counterattack, when the opponent is caught up field and off guard. Though not as balanced, this formation, with the right cast, can really disrupt the opposing team's game, making scoring difficult. One goal is often enough to win a game, or at least grab a draw, depending on a team's strategy.
Who may use: Algeria, Greece, Slovenia and Australia
4-3-3: This formation is mostly employed by teams whose strength is an outright attack, with constant pressure put on the opposing team's defense and goalie. Teams that use this formation are usually highly skilled and move the ball with ease, creating many scoring chances every game. But they are left vulnerable at midfield with only three players. The opposing team can often have its way moving the ball about the pitch with the empty space created using a 4-3-3.
Who may use: Netherlands, Cameroon and France
World Cup notes
Who is Zakumi?
He has spirit. Yes, he does. Zakumi, a young leopard with green hair, will serve as the official mascot for the World Cup. His name is a combination of "ZA," South Africa's international country code, and "kumi," which means 10 in several languages in Africa. "He symbolizes South Africa and the rest of the African continent through his self-confidence, pride, hospitality, social skills and warm-heartedness," FIFA says on its website. As for the green hair? Zakumi dyed it to serve as, well, "perfect camouflage against the green of the football pitch." And over the next month or so, he'll be everywhere.
The sound seems to come from everywhere. A swarm of bees? A herd of elephants? No. It comes from vuvuzelas, the brightly colored trumpets used by South African football fans. At last year's Confederations Cup, the vuvuzelas could be heard in every match from beginning to end. Expect the same throughout the World Cup. "It is African culture, we are in Africa, and we have to allow them to practice their culture as much as they want to," FIFA president Sepp Blatter says. " … It is part of their celebration, it is part of their culture, so let them blow the vuvuzelas."
World Cup trophy
They all want it. But only one can have it. Sort of. The World Cup champion retains the coveted 18-karat gold and malachite trophy until the next World Cup then is awarded a gold-plated replica. Why? According to regulations, the trophy remains FIFA's own possession and can't be won outright. This year, FIFA will display the trophy at the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg for the opening match Friday then lock it in a safe until the final July 11. "This trophy is unique; it has no (specific) value," Jerome Valcke, FIFA's general secretary, said last month. "Some say that the value is the equivalent of the Mona Lisa, and I think that's right."
The Jabulani ball
Jabulani means "to celebrate" in isiZulu. Eleven colors are used in the Jabulani, the 11th Adidas World Cup ball. These 11 colors represent the 11 starters on every team, the 11 official languages of South Africa and the 11 South African tribes.
World Cup games will be spread across South Africa in 10 stadiums. The final four games will be played in these venues:
Green Point Stadium
Location: Cape Town
Cost: $330 million
Notable: Ultra modern stadium features a nearly 400,000-square-foot retractable glass roof that weighs 4,500 tons.
Cost: $200 million
Notable: Spectators can take a cable car to a viewing platform at the top of the arch, a staggering 350 feet above the pitch.
Nelson Mandela Bay
Location: Port Elizabeth
Cost: $150 million
Notable: The stadium's unique roof, made up of a series of white panels, has been given the nickname "The Sunflower."
Built: 1987, renovated in 2009
Cost: $310 million
Notable: The outside of the stadium has the appearance of an African pot.