JOHANNESBURG, May 19 – A high-profile casualty is inevitable in Group G at the World Cup with Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast fighting for two places while North Korea concentrate on damage limitation.Brazil have lifted the trophy that symbolises global football supremacy a record five times, Portugal finished fourth at the last tournament in 2006 and many pundits consider Ivory Coast the best African bet for glory.
And while North Korea are universally regarded as ‘cannon fodder’, none of the 32 challengers has prepared more thoroughly than the mystery men from the east who criss-cross the world playing warm-up games.
Superstars abound in the first-round ‘group of death’ as Brazil boast Real Madrid midfielder Kaka, Ivory Coast Chelsea striker Didier Drogba and Portgual Real Madrid midfielder-cum-striker Cristiano Ronaldo.
Brazil, the only country to compete at all 19 previous tournaments, are favoured to finish first and set up a possible last-16 showdown with fellow South Americans Chile.
And the opening Group G clash on June 15 between Ivory Coast and Portugal in Port Elizabeth could determine who else progresses with European champions Spain the probable second-round opponents.
North Korea will defend en masse and compete like tigers, but lack the fire power to emulate their countrymen of 1966, who defeated Italy in Middlesbrough to cause one of the great World Cup shocks.
Coach Dunga has assembled a tactically astute squad that espouses the work ethic and plays as a team with no place for the prima-donna factor that cost Brazil dearly in the past.
Kaka aside, many consider Julio Cesar of Inter Milan the best goalkeeper in the world, Lucio and Juan form a solid central defence barrier, Gilberto Silva does the midfield graft and Luis Fabiano has few peers as a goal poacher.
Brazil also know South Africa well as they return with the stars who won the dress-rehearsal FIFA Confederations Cup last June, coming from two goals behind to pip the United States 3-2 in Johannesburg.
Portugal needed a play-off against Bosnia Herzogovina to reach South Africa after a qualifying campaign in which Ronaldo failed to score in seven matches before being sidelined by injury.
Where to play the ‘golden boy’ will occupy much time of coach Carlos Queiroz with the options facing the former assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United including a wide or central midfield role or lone striker.
Fate has dealt Ivory Coast a cruel World Cup hand twice after getting the Netherlands and Argentina in Germany four years ago, and the late choice of Swede Sven Goran Eriksson as coach hardly boosts continuity.
The Ivorians are formidable on paper with Drogba, brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure and Salomon Kalou heading a star cast, but the promise of this squad remains unfulfilled and this must be the last chance for many.
Perhaps the safest prediction ahead of the group is that Myong-Guk Ri, the 23-year-old North Korea goalkeeper who considers it his sacred duty to "safeguard the gates to the fatherland", faces an extremely busy June.
Fancied: Ivory Coast and Portugal
Underdogs: North Korea