Words from the wise: An early look at the 2006 World Cup

As soon as the teams are finalized, the build up will begin in earnest for what is sport's biggest event.

On Wednesday the final five places at the 2006 World Cup will be decided. Well maybe not five; Spain is 99% already there, the Czech Republic 75% and Switzerland 60%. But as soon as the final 32 teams are finalized, the build up will begin in earnest for what is sport's biggest event. You could argue that the Olympics are bigger but you would be hard pressed to do so. The World Cup lasts for a month while the Olympics are only two weeks long. Qualifying for the World Cup is a dream come true for many countries. You only have to see the numerous advertisements from the Angolan government that have appeared in this newspaper. Every country attends the Olympics - including some territories that are not countries - with most simply padding the participation numbers. Only 74 of the 202 delegations at the 2004 Games in Athens won a medal. With half of the teams being eliminated after the group stage, many of the countries at the World Cup are making up the numbers as well but who can predict who? Four years ago, who thought Senegal would make the quarterfinals and Korea and Turkey the semifinals? Who would have predicted Argentina to be knocked out in the pool stage for the first time in 40 years and defending champion France to bow out without scoring a single goal? With so much happening at the Olympics simultaneously it is difficult to know what is going on. The World Cup is far easier to follow and keep a handle on everything. The whole world is transfixed by the World Cup, while many can't wait until the Olympics are over. Now that it is settled we can discuss the World Cup itself. This 18th version of the tournament returns to Germany after a 32-year absence. It was a controversial vote as New Zealander Charlie Dempsey abstained and gave Germany a 12-11 win over South Africa. South Africa later won the right to host the 2010 World Cup. There will be six first-time nations in Germany, which is the most since 10 nations debuted in 1930. Of the nine previous times the World Cup has been staged in Europe, European teams have prevailed on eight occasions. Pel 's Swedish coming out party in 1952 was the one exception as Brazil claimed the first of its record five titles. If you look at the World Cup as a whole, South American teams have outperformed everyone else by a staggering margin. There are only 10 South American countries but yet they have nine World Cups between them. Only seven countries have won the World Cup and three of them are South American. Again Brazil and Argentina will loom large as well as the traditional powerhouses in Italy, France and the Netherlands. England will tantalize again but lacks the all-round depth to advance deep into the tournament. The South Korean side will be hard pressed to repeat its heroics from four years ago. Prior to the 2002 World Cup, the Red Devils had never even won a World Cup match in 14 previous attempts. Without home ground advantage behind them nor an inspiring parochial crowd they may struggle. The USA did very well in reaching the quarterfinals last time but doesn't seem to be the same team it was then, so don't expect big things from them. From the European contingent, Sweden and Croatia are always a tough proposition, while Portugal and Spain prove time and time again that all that glitters definitely is not gold. Ukraine was the first European team to qualify outright and led by the sublime Andriy Shevchenko, it will prove a handful. With four first-timers, Africa may throw up a dark horse like it did with Senegal last time. Over the year, Ghana has been exceptional at the youth level and finally gets the chance to showcase its wares on the biggest stage. Everything will be a bit clearer and murkier once the pools are set on December 9. Then all will be rushing to be the ones claiming that their group is the "Group of Death." And while Israel will be not taking a place, it doesn't mean you can not adopt a team or two. If you are wondering which team to root for, maybe go for the Ivory Coast, which has the added burden of having to wear an orange and green uniform.