Longtime Italy watchers will tell you the Azzurri tend to confound World Cup expectations. When hopes are high, Italy underachieves spectacularly: To wit, backbreaking losses in 1966 and 2002 at the hands of the Koreas (North and South, respectively). When expectations are low, the Azzurri often turn heads. The titles in '82 and '06 came in the wake of massive match-rigging scandals in the domestic league that had disgraced Italian football.
Buy into that theory, and 2010 could be another banner year. Never has a defending champ entered the World Cup with so little anticipation and so much uncertainty. Much of the ennui is due to coach Marcello Lippi, who has stuck with many of the same faces from four years ago even though the passing of time has not been kind to them. Defensive stalwart Fabio Cannavaro, at 36, is running on fumes; winger Mauro Camoranesi, 33, is coming off two injury-plagued seasons; and even the normally unflappable midfield general, Andrea Pirlo, 31, muddled through a lackluster club campaign at AC Milan. Indeed, of the 2006 holdovers, only 26-year-old midfielder Daniele De Rossi—he of the infamous elbow to Brian McBride—is a better player today than in '06.
Still, Gianluigi Buffon, 32, is the best goalkeeper of his generation, and as is the case in the NHL playoffs, a shutdown goalie can carry a team in the World Cup. Moreover, Lippi excels at varying personnel and tactics to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Imagine a lanky Bart Simpson with dark hair and a vicious long-range shot, and you have Marek Hamsik, Slovakia's midfield dynamo. He gallops around the pitch with energy and impudence, wreaking havoc in opposing halves. Hamsik will be joined by two exciting wingers in 5' 6" firefly Miroslav Stoch, and the coach's son, Vladimir Weiss Jr., a third-generation international footballer. Making their World Cup debut, the Slovaks won a qualifying group that included the more-pedigreed Czech Republic, thanks largely to a take-all-comers attacking style usually associated with elite teams.
Paraguay, a well-drilled, compact unit that nearly finished first in South American qualifying, will provide stiff competition for Italy as well. This is a mentally tough team that won't lack inspiration: The players have dedicated the World Cup to folk hero forward Salvador Cabañas, Paraguay's top scorer in qualifying, who was shot in the head in a Mexico City nightclub in January and is lucky to be alive. In his absence the offense will lean heavily on the talented but fragile Roque Santa Cruz, who has missed at least half of his club's league starts in eight of the last 10 seasons.
In many respects New Zealand's All Whites are the photo negative of their rugby cousins, the All Blacks, in that they lack tradition, experience and depth. Defensive stalwart Ryan Nelsen of Blackburn Rovers is the only Kiwi to play regularly in a top league. American fans may develop an affinity for the All Whites, whose roster includes seven former U.S. college players, and at this tournament they'll have about as much chance as an NCAA team.