FOR 31 DAYS, FROM JUNE 11 TO JULY 11, BILLIONS OF PEOPLE WILL HAVE THEIR EYES GLUED TO THEIR TELEVISIONS FOR THEIR QUADRENNIAL SOCCER FIX: THE FIFA WORLD CUP . IN THIS YEAR’S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP, IN SOUTH AFRICA, 32 COUNTRIES WILL VIE FOR THE SPORT’S MOST COVETED PRIZE — THE FIFA WORLD CUP TROPHY. INSTEAD OF PREVIEWING THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH BY THE USUAL EIGHT GROUPS, HERE IS A BREAKDOWN OF THE WORLD CUP BY OUR OWN UNIQUE CATEGORIES.


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THE CONTENDERS

FOR YEARS THE ULTIMATE underachiever, Spain is considered a legitimate candidate after winning its first major title at UEFA Euro 2008. But there are concerns that the Spaniards might have peaked after the team was stunned by the U.S. in last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. David Villa, Fernando Torres and Xavi (it’s common practice in the world of soccer for players to go by only one name) will try to prove otherwise.

When in doubt, pick five-time champion Brazil, which is considered to be the world’s team and is the only country to have participated in all 19 World Cups. The South American side has a ton of depth — it’s just a matter of whether coach Dunga can get his team to play to its potential. With the likes of Kaka and Robinho at his disposal, Dunga has riches that every team and coach admires and envies.

England’s media has also touted its team as a contender. Outside of the 1966 championship team, the English have never reached the finals. Coached by Italian Fabio Capello, this year’s team boasts stars Wayne Rooney and standouts Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. The question is whether the team can survive a sex scandal involving defender and former captain John Terry.

When speaking of teams that may have peaked, defending champion Italy comes to mind. The Italians failed to get out of their FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 group, but you have to give the four-time champs respect, given their history, superior defensive capabilities and survival tactics.

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THE PRETENDERS

WITH THE LIKES OF Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, and Carlos Tevez, Argentina could be in a position to surprise, given the talent on the team. But take into account the maddening decisions by coach Diego Maradona and the fact that the team just barely managed to qualify for this year’s Cup — and Argentina will more likely be courting disaster.

Even Germany’s own midfielder, Michael Ballack, claims that Germany shouldn’t be considered a favorite because it lacks class and consistency. However, the Germans, who came in third when they hosted four years ago, have a history of going deep into tournaments.

Considering that the Netherlands has arguably one of the best teams, we aren’t exactly suggesting an upset, but history has proved that the Dutch seem to find a way to fall short every time. Plus, one of its key players, striker Robin van Persie, will be coming back from a knee injury.

THE SPOILERS

IT’S NOT A QUESTION of how well France is going to fare but rather whether coach Raymond Domenech will survive his harsh critics. And how much abuse can Thierry Henry take for his handball against Ireland in the World Cup playoff?

Mexico has reached at least the second round in the last four World Cups, including two that were held in Europe, where Central and North American teams often struggle.

A new generation of players has powered Paraguay, which is expected to get through Group F against New Zealand and Slovakia. Italy will be a tough cookie, so second place is considered a fair finish.