Spain hope to end decades of World Cup pain

JOHANNESBURG, May 4, 2010 (AFP) - The exclusive FIFA World Cup winners club could welcome a new member come mid-year with Spain favoured to win the first tournament staged by Africa.

They are reigning European champions, serial winners of competitive and friendly games, boast a wily manager in Vicente del Bosque, and a galaxy of Barcelona and Real Madrid stars like Xavi and captain Iker Casillas.

Add Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres from the English Premiership elite and it is no surprise that 'Red Fury' have been installed as 4-1 favourites to lift the trophy on July 11 at the 90,000-seat Johannesburg Soccer City stadium.

Spain face Chile, Switzerland and Honduras in a first round group that should not prove overly taxing and finishing first may set up an Iberian showdown against Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal.

Ronaldo and company would represent the first potential banana skin for a country that has so often flattered only to deceive at the tournament with fourth the best finish, and that was 60 years ago.

Should Spain succeed at a World Cup that kicks off on June 11 and is being hosted by nine South African cities, they will join Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, Italy, France and Uruguay as champions.

But whichever nation claims the 30-million-dollar prize and world football bragging rights, South Africa will also be winners with a glittering line-up of national teams and stars on show.

Only Croatia, Russia and Egypt are missing from the top 20 national teams in the world and Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is alone among the 23 stars shortlisted for the 2009 FIFA World Footballer of the Year in not making it.

Weary from years of doubts about security and their ability to host only the second World Cup held outside Europe or the Americas, South Africans are relishing the prospect of seeing live the heroes they watch weekly on TV.

The winter chill will give way to unbridled excitement from Polokwane to Cape Town as Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Arjen Robben, Ronaldo, Kaka, Franck Ribery, Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto'o and Didier Drogba strut their stuff.

All the former winners bar Uruguay are potential challengers to Spain along with the Netherlands as Brazil seek a record sixth title and England their first since the late Bobby Moore lifted the Cup 44 years ago.

Argentina have Messi, Brazil Kaka, England Rooney, Germany legendary fighting spirit, Italy street-wise warriors, and France tradition having qualified for two of the previous three finals, winning one.

Inevitably, some teams will mock the form book as South Africa prepare to welcome about 300,000 visitors 80 years after Uruguay hosted and won the first World Cup with the 12 challengers sailing to Montevideo.

The last team to defeat Spain were the United States on a freezing South African night last June in a FIFA Confederations Cup semi-final, so count the 'Stars and Stripes' among potential party poopers.

Others are Cameroon, Chile, Denmark, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Nigeria, Paraguay, Portugal, Serbia and Uruguay - none strong enough to go all the way, but all capable of embarrassing a more formidable foe.

All 19 World Cup hosts - Japan and South Korea shared the 2002 tournament - reached the second round and this offers a glimmer of hope to lowly South Africa, who rely heavily on Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar.

Ranked 90 in the world, Bafana Bafana (The Boys) face a mammoth task to maintain that record with a place among the top seeds proving of little assistance as they must face 2006 runners-up France, Mexico and Uruguay.

The draw offered no favours to Africa with Drogba-inspired Ivory Coast in the same group as Brazil and Portugal and Ghana, whose midfield dynamo Michael Essien is battling to be fit, getting Germany, Serbia and Australia.

Victory over Denmark should see Cameroon through to the last 16 and while not the force of old, Nigeria can defy the odds and advance by finishing above equally modest rivals Greece and South Korea.

After the heroics of 2002 semi-finalists South Korea, no Asia qualifier got beyond the first round in Germany four years ago and the outlook this time is equally bleak with 125-1 shot Australia most likely to upset the bookmakers.

Central America could have two sides in the last 16 - Mexico and the United States - but Honduras appear condemned to an early exit 28 years after their only previous appearance.

And when all the drama ends on July 11, one World Cup record will surely remain intact. Frenchman Just Fontaine scored 13 goals in 1958 and even mesmerising Messi and rampant Rooney can hardly hope to better that. 

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