For one thing, it's hardly "home soil" from a geographic perspective -- the Ivory Coast is about as far from South Africa as Brazil. For another, three of the continent's best players -- Michael Essien of Ghana, Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast, and Jon Obi Mikel of Nigeria, all of whom play for Chelsea -- are out or hampered with untimely injuries.
Worst of all, none of the African teams has what could be called a good draw. In 2002, as an underpowered but seeded host, Japan drew Belgium, Russia, and Tunisia, and was virtually gifted into the second round. Now South Africa gets handed France, Uruguay, and Mexico -- all of three of them in the FIFA top 17. I fear that Denmark and Serbia, who dominated their European qualifying groups, will edge out Cameroon and Ghana -- why couldn't they have landed with New Zealand or Slovakia or Switzerland or something? Of the six, Nigeria probably has the cleanest path the second round, and I wonder if the Nigerian immigrant population in South Africa will give them a boost. But even the Nigerian side is in some disarray as of late, changing coaches just months before the World Cup.
Whatever the case, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that no more than one African side advances to the knockout stage, and none makes it beyond the round of 16. An ugly prediction, but it sets the proper tone.
The US's last miracle run, to the quarterfinals, was in Asia, and I think the same is more than feasible in Africa. Last year's Confederations Cup (where the US beat Spain and led Brazil 2-0 before losing 3-2) showed that Americans can handle playing against the big boys amid the vuvuzelas.
Individually, more Americans are playing, and playing well, for overseas clubs: Steve Cherundolo in Germany, Clint Dempsey in England, Hercules Gomez in Mexico. Jozy Altidore is perhaps the most explosive pure athlete ever to put on a team USA jersey -- the kind of guy, at 6'1 with a powerful frame, who could be playing pro football or basketball if he didn't play soccer.
Perhaps most important, the U.S. has a favorable draw. They should get out of their group ahead of Algeria and Slovenia, and then, at worst, play Germany in the round of 16. Of all the seeded group titans, this is least scary -- the US outplayed them in a 1-0 loss in 2002, and would fear them much less than Argentina, the Netherlands, etc. I see a quarterfinal run in the Americans this year.
Spain also has a quietly brutal draw. Their group isn't easy, and if they finish second they're probably looking at Brazil in the round of 16. Even if they win, though, they still may get Brazil, and their best case scenario is something like Portugal/Ivory Coast in the first round, then Italy in the quarterfinals. I'm going to say they don't even make the final 8.
Practically this doesn't mean a lot -- Chile (more on them tomorrow) will advance in its group, but then probably have to play Brazil. Uruguay is tenacious but it's not 1950 anymore. Paraguay could pull off an upset or two, but they're more or less the Italy of the Americas, in their defensive bulldogging, so they don't get me too excited. The Aussies may make a wee bit of noise, with their Jesus-faced striker, Joshua Kennedy, but they'll need genuine divine intervention to really change the face of the tournament.
No, what I really mean is that Brazil and Argentina will dominate this tournament. More on that next.
Argentina has Lionel Messi, the consensus best playmaker in the world, and an almost embarrassingly stacked lineup of strikers around him. Together, these five Argentines have scored over 100 this season in the world's best leagues -- Messi for Barcelona (34), plus Gonzalo Higuain for Real Madrid (27), Carlos Tevez for Man City (23), Diego Milito for Champions League winners Inter Milan (22), and Sergio Aguero for Atletico Madrid (12). That's like having, I don't know, five wide receivers with over 1,000 yards receiving, or five guards averaging 20 points a game. You can't play 'em all, at once but just thinking about it is scary. No one, not England, not Spain, not even Brazil can boast that kind of pure goal-scoring potency.
Their only acknowledged weakness is their nutty coach, who also happens to be the second greatest player in the history of world soccer, Diego Maradona. In qualifying, Maradona's squad looked shaky and they only booked a ticket to South Africa with a last-minute goal against Peru, after which Diego took a maniacal dive across the rain-soaked pitch. But personally, I like the odds that he's not just a washed-up cocaine addict but actually a kind of slumdog genius. I see Argentina winning its group and beating Italy or Spain to represent the deeper 1B/1D/1F/1H half of the knockout draw in the final.
In the finals, I'd really like to take Argentina. And there's some reason to believe it's possible -- if Brazil has a World Cup weakness, it's against the Best Player in the World. Hell, since 1990 they've only lost to Maradona once (check out how he sets up this sweet goal) and Zidane twice. Argentina has Messi, and I think they can win.
But they won't. In the great Pele vs. Maradona debate, there's a reason Pele makes the case for himself in the third person, while even Maradona admits that Pele may be better, before noting that his mother thinks he was the greatest ever. (By the way, how awesome would it be if American athletes, besides boxers, were actually unafraid to talk about themselves this way. Jordan, I guess, has come close, but I'd still love to see a real and candidly grandiose Bird vs. Magic debate, maybe moderated by MJ himself).
Brazil is the boring pick, but also the cold-blooded one. Make it 1-0 in the final.