The absence of a doormat that's just happy to be here makes this one of the tournament's most competitive groups. The first European country to qualify for 2010, the Netherlands is the obvious favorite based on form, a rosy outlook that's a far cry from the last two World Cup cycles, when the emblematic Dutch concept of Total Football seemed near extinction. An electric showing at Euro 2008, in which the Oranje destroyed Italy (3--0) and France (4--1) in the group stage, signaled a Dutch renaissance and presaged the breezy 2010 qualifying campaign.
The Netherlands' soccer style remains attractive and expansive. Free-roaming striker Robin van Persie, who's banged in 73 goals for Arsenal over the past six seasons, is the focus of Bert van Marwijk's preferred 4-2-3-1. The attacking instincts of wingers Dirk Kuyt and Arjen Robben often give the formation a 4-3-3 look, while Inter Milan playmaker Wesley Sneijder pulls the strings from central midfield. The weak points are an untested back line and a pedestrian goalkeeper, Ajax's Maarten Stekelenburg, which will make it tough for the Oranje to get past the quarterfinals.
Since forward Roger Milla came out of semiretirement to spirit Cameroon to the brink of the semis in 1990, the Indomitable Lions have been soccer's paragon of Third World upward mobility. Three holdovers from the 2000 Olympic gold medal squad—predatory striker Samuel Eto'o, longtime right back Geremi and reliable goalkeeper Carlos Kameni—make up the core around which youngsters like Alex Song and Stéphane Mbia have developed under French manager Paul Le Guen. This summer provides Cameroon's golden generation a chance to prove its worth on African soil, and it will be eager to make good on the opportunity.
Short on star power but long on chemistry and experience, Denmark placed first ahead of Portugal and Sweden in a tricky qualifying group. It was sweet absolution for 10th-year manager Morten Olsen, the longest-tenured coach of the 32 in South Africa, after failed qualifying bids for the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008. Arsenal's rising talent Nicklas Bendtner and longtime captain Jon Dahl Tomasson provide scoring punch, while the capable midfield foursome of Martin J√∏rgensen, Christian Poulsen, Jakob Poulsen (unrelated) and Dennis Rommedahl keep the tight, disciplined formation in shape. With so many players from the lower-tiered domestic Superliga, it's tempting to write off the Danes. But qualifying victories over Sweden (twice) and Portugal (in Lisbon) confirm the collective resolve of the workmanlike Olsen-Banden.
The long-proclaimed goal of Japan manager Takeshi Okada has been a place in the final four, quixotic for a country that's never won a World Cup match off Asian soil. The Blue Samurai's weak competition during qualifying did little to dispel doubts about their offense, physicality and tactics. Captain Yuji Nakazawa anchors the defense, and reigning Asian footballer of the year Yasuhito Endo is the fulcrum of Okada's short passing game. But talismanic winger Shunsuke Nakamura, the deadly free-kick expert who played five years with Celtic, must shine if Japan hopes to realize Okada's romantic vision.
The three-way scramble for second should be one of the more engaging plotlines of the first fortnight. As the first team to play an international match in postapartheid South Africa, in 1992, the Indomitable Lions can expect generous support—enough to carry them into the knockout stage.
Advancing: Netherlands, Cameroon
IDRISS CARLOS KAMENI
KEY MATCH • Cameroon vs. Denmark
June 19, Pretoria
While Netherlands-Cameroon on June 24 looks juicy on the surface, the group could very well be settled by then. It's this clash of styles between the fast-paced Indomitable Lions and the methodical Danes that should determine second place and a ticket to round of 16.
EPA/BRIAN STEWART (ROBBEN)
BRILLIANT ORANGE Robben's Dutchmen play an expansive, free-flowing style that recalls their famed forebears.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (KAMENI)