Nine Manchester United players will join former reds and the cream of world talent in South Africa this summer for the FIFA World Cup. The 32-team, 64 game tournament promises a month-long orgy of football, played in reasonable temperatures and with many stadiums at altitude to ensure plenty of spectacular strikes from distance.
There’s plenty on offer, even for those United supporters without a ‘home’ nation at the tournament or – perhaps more likely – somewhat reticent to fully support Fabio Capello’s England team. Still, with Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand joining the England party there is significant United involvement in group D.
Ferdinand captains the team, while Rooney is arguably the side’s only true world star as Capello seeks an improvement on the quarter-final berth achieved by Sven Goran Ericsson in 2002 and 2006. It is the oldest, most experienced England squad in 50 years and many argue that it is now or never for this generation of Premier League ‘stars’ to win the tournament for the first time since 1966.
The question for many United supporters is: which United player will become this tournament’s media scapegoat?
Other United players in South Africa include Patrice Evra, who will have the honour of captaining France during the tournament. Les Bleus reached the final during the 2006 tournament in Germany and with hosts South Africa, Mexico and Uruguay making up group A it will be a major surprise if the French do not make it to the knockout stages, despite the handicap of oddball coach Raymond Domenech.
Also in group A is United’s rising Mexican star Javier Hernandéz, who has scored three times in the last two warm-up games for El Tri and seven in 11 full internationals to date. Officially joining United on 1 July during the tournament, the striker’s capture from Chivas Guadalajara was brought forward by Sir Alex Ferguson precisely because of the 21-year-old’s rapid rise to stardom.
Neat on the ball with plenty of attacking flair, Mexico has a real chance of making its way out of group A and into the last 16 despite a shaky qualifying performance. Much will depend on coach Javier Aguirre’s ability to draw together disparate elements in a squad of apparent egos. Already Giovanni dos Santos has threatened to leave the squad after his brother Jonathan, the Barcelona reserve midfielder, failed to make the plane.
In group B Park Ji Sung’s South Korea faces the unpredictable Argentinians, who boast the world’s finest player in Lionel Messi and the planet’s strangest coach in Diego Maradona. Huh Jung-Moo’s Asian Tigers will arguably start the tournament with few expectations after also being drawn in a tough looking group alongside Nigeria and Euro 2004 winners Greece.
Placed fourth in 2002, Korea must take qualifying form into the tournament to make the last 16. Park’s team topped Asia group B during qualification.
In group D Nemenja Vidic and Zoran Tosic will lead dark horses Serbia into the tournament. Ranked at 16 in the world by FIFA, many believe the Beli Orlovi will challenge Germany for leadership of the group. Powerful in defence with some outstanding creative talent, Serbia is taking part in its first tournament as a fully independent nation.
Serbia’s progress will depend in part on their second round opposition, assuming that Radomir Antić’s side ease past an average Australian sided and Michael Essien-less Ghana in the group stages. Should Serbia come second it is likely Vidic’s country will face England in the first knockout round. Beat Germany and the path to a match with the USA awaits.
Finally, Nani’s Portugal faces Brazil, Ivory Coast and North Korean in group-of-death, G, will real hope of making the latter stages of the tournament. With Cristiano Ronaldo, Simão, Deco and Danny, Carlos Queiroz’ squad posesses the outstanding attacking talent to provide tournament favourites with a stern test but only if Selecção das Quinas improve on an average qualifying campaign.
Perhaps second only to Ronaldo in the team’s pecking order, Nani has often performed more consistently for Queiroz’ side than United. But with his star on the rise at Old Trafford, South Africa 2010 could prove the winger’s finest hour.
Elsewhere former United favourites Gerard Piqué (Spain), Diego Forlan (Uruguay), Juan Sebastian Veron, Carloz Tevez, Gabriel Heinze (all Argentina), Jonathan Spector, Tim Howard (both USA), the aforementioned Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) and Klbéerson (Brazil) will all play in the tournament this summer.
United legend Ruud van Nistelrooy missed out on the Dutch squad, while veteran Villarreal’s striker Giuseppe Rossi was surprisingly overlooked by Italy despite playing a leading role in qualification.
Rant’s coverage of the tournament will focus both on those players familiar to United fans and those who shine at the tournament. It will include news from South Africa, scouting reports, analysis of the key moments and a weekly special edition of Rant Cast, presented by regulars Ed and Paul starting in just a week’s time.