There is no such thing as a level playing field but the first World Cup to be held in Africa promises to be one of the most open in the 80-year history of the tournament. Only the second event to be held outside Europe and the Americas, the 2010 edition in South Africa grants no home-continent advantage to the world's premier footballing nations from South America and Europe. All but one of the 17 tournaments held in Europe and the Americas have been won by a country of the host continent. The exception is the 1958 World Cup in Sweden won by Brazil. Thus, like Asia's World Cup in 2002, jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea, this World Cup could see the Europeans and the South Americans start off on an equal footing. Will any of the six African teams be able to convert the home-continent advantage into title-winning success? While they might have a good run, as South Korea and Japan did eight years ago, at this point the odds are against any of them making it to the last 4, for all their individual brilliance. That the continent's best team, Egypt, is absent after being knocked out in a play-off by Algeria hasn't helped. Nevertheless, the choice of South Africa to host the World Cup is a tribute to the rising stature of African nations in football.
Five-time winner Brazil, the only team to be part of every World Cup since its inception, is deservedly at the top of the rankings of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). With Maicon at the back, Kaka in midfield, and Robinho to press ahead, the team has both pedigree and form to propel it to glory. Compared with some of the previous Brazilian teams, this one seems short on star value, but no one ever counts Brazil out in this game. The other South American football giant, Argentina, is powered by Lionel Messi, widely tipped to be the star of the tournament. With the legendary Diego Maradona as coach, Argentina, seventh in the FIFA rankings, might be inspired to take off to great heights. Among the Europeans, the Euro 2008 winner Spain, ranked number two by FIFA, is the most fancied, even if it has never won the World Cup before. Portugal (ranked third), the Netherlands (fourth), Italy (fifth), Germany (sixth), and England (eighth) make up the rest of the list of strong title contenders. Bookies favour Spain, in the belief they will carry forward their form in the European Football Championship, and Brazil, the automatic favourite in World Cups outside Europe, as also England, which is seen as having a favourable draw. But what makes football the greatest game on the planet is that the only thing that counts ultimately is the performance over 90 minutes, and not the form and reputation built over years.