The World Cup, by far the biggest single-sport sports event in the world, kicks off on June 11 with 32 teams competing for a place in the final on July 11. Except for the host team, South Africa, the other nations qualified through regional tournaments. The 32 finalists are divided into eight groups of four teams each. Each team plays each of the other teams in its group once. The top two teams in each group advance to the knockout stage: round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals, final. Places in each group are determined by points earned based on wins (3 points) and ties (1 point). If two teams end up with the same number of points, the tie-breakers are: goal difference, goals scored, head-to-head results.
Although theoretically any of the 32 teams can win it all, reality is not quite so rosy. The truth is that there are two tiers of nations. Tier 1 consists of teams from Europe and South America, while Tier 2 is everyone else. Here are a few facts to give you a bit of perspective on the gap between the two tiers:
• At the last World Cup in Germany in 2006, Tier 1 teams played Tier 2 teams 30 times. The Result: Tier 1 won 23 times, Tier 2 two times and there were five draws. The only Tier 2 victories were Ghana beating the Czech Republic and Côte d-Ivoire defeating Serbia.
•In t he entire history of the World Cup, which began in 1930, no Tier 2 team has ever made it to the final match.
• Of the 72 teams that have made it to the semi-finals since the World Cup began, only two have been from outside Europe or South America. Those would be the United States in 1930 and South Korea, playing at home, in 2002.
Here is an introduction to the four teams in Group C, with their FIFA rankings in parentheses.
Group C starts off with a bang, when England clashes with the United States on Day 2 of the World Cup.
You would think that England, inventor of soccer and home to a professional league that attracts a large number of the world's best players, would be one of the most successful nations in the history of the World Cup. Not so. Except for 1966, when England hosted the World Cup and won, England has advanced to the semi-finals only once, in 1990, losing to West Germany on penalty kicks. The English stumbling block is the quarter-final round, in which they have been eliminated six times, including 2006, when they lost on penalty kicks to Portugal.
Of course England is the only team in the World Cup that does not represent an independent nation, England being one quarter of the United Kingdom. A combined British national team that included players from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be more formidable. Having said all this, England does look good this year. They plowed through their European qualifying group, winning nine straight matches, including two over Croatia (4-1 and 5-1), which was otherwise undefeated and which has the unfortunate honor of being the highest FIFA-ranked team (10) not in the World Cup.
After qualifying, England lost to Brazil 1-0 on neutral ground (Doha). They tuned up with a sluggish 3-1 home victory over Mexico, and managed a 2-1 defeat of Japan. If Wayne Rooney continues the goal-scoring form he has shown with Manchester United (26 goals in 31 Premier League games), England could break their quarter-final jinx. Unfortunately, England lost their captain, Rio Ferdinand, to a knee injury barely a week before the opening of the World Cup.
The United States is one of only four large nations in which soccer is considered a minor sport. (The others are India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.) The U.S. took part in the first World Cup in 1930, winning two matches and then losing to Argentina in the semi-finals. Although there was no third-place match, somewhere along the line FIFA ranked the United States third in the tournament.
At the 1950 World Cup, the US scored a sensational 1-0 upset victory over England on a first-half header by Joe Gaetjens, who was actually a citizen of Haiti. To this day, that match remains the greatest moment in the history of US soccer. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a fluke. Three days later, the Americans lost to Chile 5-2 and, having already been beaten by Spain, they didn't even make it to the knockout round. It would be another 40 years before the United States even qualified again for the World Cup. In addition, the Americans have played the English eight times since the Great Victory, losing seven times and pulling off a single win in Boston in 1993.
Since 1990, the US has had its highlights, but its total record in the last five World Cups is 3 wins, 11 losses and 4 ties. This time around, the US qualified easily, although the CONCACAF (North America, Central America and Caribbean) region is so weak that it would be an embarrassment to not qualify. To gain some perspective, the combined population of the eight nations the US faced in qualifying (including Mexico) is half that of the United States. Since qualifying, the Americans have lost friendlies on the road to Slovakia, Denmark and Netherlands, and at home to Honduras and the Czech Republic, albeit with experimental squads. They did manage home wins over El Salvador and Turkey, and then looked strong in a final 3-1 victory over Australia on June 5. But Australia is not England and US prospects are unclear.
Nonetheless, the U.S. is capable of spurts of inspired play, most notably a year ago at the Confederations Cup in South Africa. In the semi-finals, the Americans stunned Spain 2-0, ending Spain's remarkable streak of 25 consecutive wins and 35 matches without a loss. Four days later, in the final against Brazil, the US led 2-0 at halftime, but were overwhelmed in the second half and lost 3-2. That momentous week was typical of US teams: they often perform brilliantly for one half, but the times when they put together two good halves on the same day are few and far between. The US is strong in the midfield and strong in goal, but questionable up front and on defense.
It's hard not to root for Slovenia. With a population of barely two million, they are the smallest country in the World Cup, and they qualified by toppling a giant. For those unfamiliar with the nation, the Slovenians are the ones who slipped away and quietly declared independence in 1991 while the rest of the former Yugoslavia descended into warfare. They qualified for the 2002 World Cup by finishing second in their group to Russia and then won a two-match playoff against Romania. In the World Cup itself, they lost all three of their matches.
This time around, Slovenia again placed second in their group and drew Russia (population 142 million) in the playoff. Playing in Moscow, the Russians were safely ahead 2-0 when Slovenia's Nejc Pečnik scored in the 88th minute. At the time, commentators speculated that Russia might live to regret that late slip-up because Slovenia had registered a potentially important away goal. Sure enough, four days later in Slovenia, Zlatko Dedič scored late in the first half for Slovenia and the hosts held off the Russians for the rest of the match, qualifying for the World Cup on the away goal tiebreaker. The Slovenians have a lot of spirit, but they'll probably need more than that to advance out of group play.
Algeria is the only Muslim nation to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. It is usually not like this. In 2006 there were three Muslim teams (Tunisia, Iran and Saudi Arabia), as there were in 2002 (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Tunisia). In 1998 there were four (Morocco, Iran, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia).
This is Algeria's first World Cup appearance since 1986. Their path to qualification was so raucous that it led to a diplomatic dispute with Egypt and rioting in both countries. Even on the pitch, Algeria had a close call. After some minor play-in matches, African qualifying required two rounds. The first consisted of 12 groups of four teams each (one had three) with the 12 winners and 8 second-place teams advancing to the final round. With one match to go, Algeria led Gambia and Senegal by one point. A victory over Liberia would secure their place in the next round, but the Algerians could do no better than a 0-0 tie. Fortunately, in the final day's other match, Gambia and Senegal also tied, allowing Algeria to squeak through.
The final round of African qualifying was made up of five groups of four teams with the winner of each group advancing to the World Cup. Going into the last and decisive head-to-head match, Algeria led arch rivals Egypt by three points and two goals. Algeria had beaten Egypt 3-1 at home, but now they had to face the Egyptians in Egypt. If the Egyptians could win by three goals, they would qualify for the World Cup; if Algeria could hold them to a one-goal victory, Algeria would go to South Africa. The trouble began when the Algerian team arrived in Cairo. On the way from the airport to their hotel, their team bus was attacked by Egyptian youths who smashed the bus windows with rocks and injured three players. The match itself was played under tight security and great tension. Four minutes into second-half injury time, Algeria was leading 1-0 and anxiously waiting for the referee to blow his whistle to signal the end of the match, when Emad Motaeb headed in a second goal for Egypt. This left the two teams in an exact tie in points and in all tiebreakers, forcing a playoff on neutral ground.
This highly-charged match was played four days later in Omdurman, Sudan. Pity the poor Sudanese, already suffering under a brutal dictatorship, who now had to play host to the fans of two nations engaged in a violent rivalry. Reportedly, 15,000 police and soldiers were called in to provide security. Algeria's Antar Yahia scored the only goal late in the first half and that's how Algeria qualified to play England the United States and Slovenia.
Two months after this upheaval, Algeria took part in the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola and they were not impressive. They stumbled into the quarter-finals, where they beat Cote d'Ivoire in overtime. This allowed them to move into the semi-finals, where they faced...guess who...Egypt. This time, the Egyptians, out for revenge, to say the least, crushed Algeria 4-0, as the Algerians completely lost their composure, incurring three red card expulsions.
Algeria has never played any of the three other teams in Group C. Frankly, it's hard to imagine Algeria advancing out of group play in the World Cup.
Favorites: This group should be a shoo-in for England. As for the second spot, it's the Americans' to lose. If they play like they did last year against Spain, they won't have any problems with Algeria and Slovenia. But if their play is erratic, as it often is, either of the two outsiders could knock them off.
To view a guide to all the groups, see here.
David Wallechinsky is the author of The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics and The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics. He is the vice-president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.