Being placed in a World Cup Group of Death can be draining. In the last five tournaments only one team from the most difficult group advanced past the quarterfinals. Thus the challenge for Brazil, which was a favorite to make the 2010 final before a high-mortality draw that includes an '06 semifinalist, a rising African power loaded with Europe-based stars, and a relatively unknown and potentially scary wild card.
Few will deny that the easiest path is that of least resistance, but the Sele√ß√£o's prize midfielder Gilberto Silva is undaunted. "This team's already lived through a lot of adversity," he says. Indeed. The showboating squad from 2006 that strutted into Germany only to stumble in the quarters has since righted itself under the stewardship of Dunga, defensive midfielder and captain of Brazil's 1994 World Cup winners. The manager's physical style belies the Beautiful Game, and thus Brazilian fans were quick to pounce when the team went scoreless during three home qualifiers. A come-from-behind finals win over the U.S. in the 2009 Confederations Cup didn't silence critics who pleaded for Dunga to add Ronaldinho and young star Neymar to his roster—calls he declined to heed.
Instead, Dunga's lineup has more complete players, like defender Maicon, an '06 omission who fed and finished spectacular runs during Inter Milan's drive to the 2010 Champions League title. Maicon's end-to-end presence should make life easier for the attacking trio of Kak√†, Robinho and Luís Fabiano. And with another rock-solid Inter staple, J√£lio César, in goal, Brazil is sufficiently well-rounded to win its sixth Cup. A champion from the Group of Death wouldn't be unprecedented: In 1958, the year the term is believed to have been coined, Brazil emerged from a quartet that included England, the Soviet Union and Austria to win it all.
Since guiding Portugal to the World Cup semis in '06, winger Cristiano Ronaldo has won three Premier League titles and a Champions League crown, was named FIFA World Player of the Year and earned Europe's Ballon d'Or. He also holds the distinction of being the highest-paid footballer in the world. Thus he'll be expected to rebound from a poor qualifying campaign (including a three-game stretch on the bench with an injured ankle) from which Portugal barely emerged. No pressure, Cristiano.
Nor any on Ivory Coast, which boasts an inordinate stockpile of players from elite European leagues, notably Chelsea strikers Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou; Sevilla midfielder Didier Zokora; and backliners Emmanuel Eboué (Arsenal) and the brothers Kolo and Yaya Touré (Man City and Barcelona, respectively). For all that talent, Les Éléphants have lacked a coach to match. In February they dumped Vahid Halilhod≈æic, whose team disappointed at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, and a month later hired Sven-G√∂ran Eriksson—himself a disappointment as England's boss in '06.
While those three powers—whose average FIFA rank of 10 is best among any trio in the eight groups—battle to meet expectations, North Korea is not to be overlooked. Superbly conditioned and tactically advanced, the Chollima play a stifling defensive style, sometimes lining up in a 5-4-1 and hoping for the counterattack. A highly cryptic team with a coach, Kim Jong-hun, who's known for mind games, the DPRK will present a stiff opening challenge for Brazil, which struggles against teams that pack it in, and could prove infuriating to Ivory Coast and Portugal, who'll be looking to boost their goal differential in a tight race. In the Group of Death, every point counts.
Advancing: Brazil, Portugal
KEY MATCH • Portugal vs. Ivory Coast
June 15, Port Elizabeth
Expect fireworks when these two explosive powers meet. Added pressure for the Ivorians: Portugal's last game is against Brazil, which could be resting its starters if it has seized the top spot by then. In other words: A loss here could be disastrous for Les Éléphants.
MIKE HEWITT/FIFA/GETTY IMAGES (MAICON)
ENERGIZER These days Brazil's strength lies in a pulsating physicality, embodied by Maicon's end- to-end runs.