The world of soccer functions independently of the international marketplace. Of the 32 countries lining up for this year's World Cup, which runs from June 11 to July 11, only two of the world's five largest economies are serious contenders. While only one BRIC nation is among the field, economically imperiled countries Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain are represented.
Although soccer is nowhere near the dominant sport in the U.S., one of the more remarkable phenomena of the last World Cup was that ratings continued to swell even after the U.S. was knocked out. This year the Americans should progress into the next round, but probably no further. Whom should the typical American spectator root for, then? Fans choose a team for all sorts of reasons, ranging from its star players to the stylishness of its jerseys. Some just pick the one that seems the most quirky. What follows is a purely subjective analysis of the 32 teams that most (and least) deserve your support, based on on-field talent, off-field intrigue, socioeconomic peril, historical turmoil, and, yes, couture. Simply put: Fear Brazil, back the plucky Serbs, and don the fetching green of Cameroon. As a tiebreaker: Bet on the country with more debt.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
Odds: 80-1. GDP: $14.3 trillion. Players to watch: Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey will forage for goals while Tim Howard tries to keep them out at the other end. The bottom line: The Americans' opening match against England will receive all the hype, but they'll still need to get past Slovenia and Algeria to advance.
THE LONG SHOTS
These teams, in the words of the onetime Scotland manger Tommy Docherty, may be "home before their postcards."
GDP: $118 billion. Odds: 2,000-1. Player to watch: Defensive anchor Ryan Nelsen. The bottom line: The ultimate pub team. Scoring a single goal will be a monumental achievement.
GDP: $28.2 billion. Odds: 2,000-1. Player to watch: Captain Hong Yong-Jo, a striker for lowly Russian team Rostov, is the only representative who plays professionally in Europe. The bottom line: Kim Jong-Il has decreed that only edited highlights will be broadcast at home, ensuring that the North Korean side appears dominant irrespective of the score.
GDP: $287 billion. Odds: 125-1. Player to watch: Pigtailed midfielder Steven Pienaar. The bottom line: Possibly the least talented host since The Bachelor's Chris Harrison, South Africans hope the tournament has the same economic effect it has had on past host countries. In 2006, for instance, the German economy outperformed the rest of the world by 9 percent before the first ball was even kicked, and then continued to spike after the final.
GDP: $31.5 billion. Odds: 80-1. Players to watch: Flaxen-haired hit man Diego Forlan and defender Diego Lugano. The bottom line: Loaded with offensive potency, but too inconsistent and undisciplined to make an impact.
THE CREDIT RISKS
What could a deeply indebted European nation hope for more than the economic boost that comes with World Cup victory? ABN-Amro has calculated a 10 percent average stock market gain for winners of the last three World Cups. Unfortunately, the average decline for the losing finalist was a staggering 25 percent. Supporting these teams may not be worth the risk.
GDP: $331 billion. Odds: 150-1. Player to watch: The star of the team is actually authoritarian German coach Otto Rehhagel, known as "Rehakles," a mashup of his name and Heracles, the son of Zeus. The bottom line: Little hope exists—on or off the field—for these practitioners of unattractive soccer.
GDP: $2.12 trillion. Odds: 14-1. Players to watch: Goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, midfielder Andrea Pirlo, and his more aggressive sidekick Daniele De Rossi. The bottom line: Italy's aging squad was politely referred to as "experienced" before it won the 2006 World Cup. Many of the same players are back, and now they're legitimately old. Still, UBS Wealth Management Research's (UBS) quantitative analysis picked the Azzurri as a likely winner.
GDP: $228 billion. Odds: 22-1. Players to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo, the magnificent yet petulant thoroughbred; winger Nani; and Liédson, a recently naturalized Brazilian striker. The bottom line: Despite the presence of star names throughout the team, the Portuguese struggled to qualify. Yet an ING (ING) study revealed that the average Portuguese citizen would willingly contribute $450 in exchange for victory.
GDP: $1.46 trillion. Odds: 4-1. Players to watch: David Villa, a striker whose modest demeanor masks a ruthless talent, and Barcelona's Smurfish mono-named midfield tandem Iniesta and Xavi. The bottom line: Spain has repeatedly dazzled early in international competition, only to implode once the elimination round begins. That said, they came out on top of Reuters' poll of global economists to win it all.
Picking these obvious contenders demonstrates a distinct lack of imagination.
GDP: $1.57 trillion. Odds: 9-2. Players to watch: Kaká, who was sold to Real Madrid last year for $93 million; ruthless striker Luís Fabiano; and plundering defender Maicon. The bottom line: Ranked No. 1 in the world, the team's physical defense and quick counterattack could bring an unprecedented sixth championship.
GDP: $3.35 trillion . Odds: 14-1. Players to watch: Bastian Schweinsteiger is a multitooled midfielder with a surname meaning "Pigclimber"; young midfielder Mesut Özil is a visionary; goalkeeper Manuel Neuer replaces Robert Enke, who committed suicide seven months ago. The bottom line: With Captain Michael Ballack lost to injury, the squad is thin, especially on defense. Thanks to World Wars I and II, they have more rivalries than all other teams combined: Every game is a grudge match. Their unexpected run to the semifinal in 2006 triggered a national birthrate boom of 10 to 15 percent.
These teams' made-for-tabloid antics could trump their play in South Africa.
GDP: $2.18 trillion (U.K.). Odds: 6-1. Players to watch: Wayne Rooney, the furious attacking force; gossip-rag-starring left-back Ashley Cole; and, lacking any reliable option, whoever starts in goal. The bottom line: They have drawn as much attention as the recent parliamentary election with a slew of sex scandals, key injuries, and an entourage of fame-craving wives and girlfriends ("WAGs"). English fans, who injected more than $2 billion into the retail sector during the last Cup, wonder whether Italian manager Fabio Capello—who earns nearly $11 million annually—can save their team.
GDP: $2.68 trillion. Odds: 16-1. Players to watch: Winger Franck Ribéry, midfielder Yoann Gourcuff, and defender Patrice Évra. The bottom line: The team qualified courtesy of a blatant handball that appalled even die-hard fans. Morale was pummeled further when three key team members became ensnared in an underage prostitution scandal so shocking it actually offended French sensibilities.
FOR ADMIRERS OF NUTJOB LEADERSHIP
These coaches will make their countries' World Cup experience a thrill ride.
GDP: $310 billion. Odds: 6-1. Players to watch: Lionel Messi, the world's highest-paid player; attacking spearhead Gonzalo Higuaín; and the young winger Angel Di Maria. The bottom line: Diego Maradona, one of the greatest players in the game's history, appeared out of his depth as coach during qualifying. The team waited until its last game to scrape in to the tournament, leading Maradona to promise he will charge naked through the streets of Buenos Aires if they win the Cup.
GDP: $5.07 trillion. Odds: 250-1. Players to watch: Iconic free-kick specialist Shunsuke Nakamura and midfielder Yasuhito Endo. The bottom line: Coach Takeshi Okada declared that his team would reach the semifinals, but he may be the only one who believes it.
GDP: $88.2 billion. Odds: 250-1. Players to watch: Marek "The Phantom" Hamsík is a highly rated playmaker; coach's son Vladimir Weiss Jr. is a tiny wonder. The bottom line: Coach Vladimir Weiss sobbingly told his young team he loved them after they qualified. Despite limited resources, their collective spirit may be their top asset.
STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE
Adidas expects to top a reported $1.8 billion in sales courtesy of the tournament. After Nike leaped into the soccer fray, in 1994, and Puma focused on the fast- growing African game, the three brands have used the World Cup as a fierce marketing battleground. The cut of these teams' jib commands your support.
GDP: $22.2 billion. Odds: 100-1. Players to watch: Striker Samuel Eto'o—if he decides to play—and midfield dynamo Alexandre Song. The bottom line: Despite their handsome green V-neck jerseys with the team's motif, the Indomitable Lion, artfully layered across one shoulder, they'll go as far as Eto'o takes them. The country received an unexpected payday after FIFA discovered that the "official anthem of the 2010 World Cup," Shakira's Waka Waka, was a reinterpretation of a 1986 hit by the Cameroonian military band Zangalewa.
GDP: $795 billion. Odds: 10-1. Players to watch: Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, and Robin Van Persie are an arrogantly free-flowing—and injury-prone—offensive trio. The bottom line: Their brilliant orange uniforms harken back to the days of Johan Cruyff's 1974 Total Football team. If they remain healthy, the Oranje—who had a perfect record in qualifying—may have a chance to reclaim similar glory.
GDP: $833 billion. Odds: 200-1. Players to watch: The tireless optimism of midfielder Park Ji-Sung, set-play majesty of Park Chu Young, and midfield invention of Chung-Yong Lee. The bottom line: Their blazing red uniforms—which perfectly set off the classically designed badge of the Korean Soccer Federation—cannot save a team that is energetic but lacking in quality. The exception is Ji-Sung, who is regaled by Manchester United fans with the cheer: "He shoots, he scores, he eats Labradors." Analysts hope against a repeat of the 2002 Cup when Singapore's stock market plunged due to a lack of buying interest.
THE FAN FACTOR
It's hard not to become swept up in the infectious fervor and curious behavior surrounding these teams' fans.
GDP: $309 billion. Odds: 125-1. Players to watch: Erratic striker Nicklas Bendtner and defender Daniel Agger. The bottom line: The famously ebullient Danish fans may have their style cramped by the ongoing strike at the Carlsberg brewery.
GDP: $875 billion. Odds: 80-1. Players to watch: The impish Giovani dos Santos is a spark plug, while goalie Guillermo Ochoa is effective. The bottom line: Although the team rarely gets past the Round of 16, Mexico's rabid fan base is a legendary unifying force.
GDP: $173 billion. Odds: 100-1. Players to watch: Powerful forward Obafemi Martins and penetrating midfielder John Mikel Obi. The bottom line: The government even built an exhibition that follows the team around showcasing investment in the oil-rich nation's resources.
THE WOUNDED WARRIORS
To back these teams is to root for the supporting cast—and a miracle.
GDP: $15.5 billion. Odds: 80-1. Player to watch: Kevin-Prince Boateng knocked Germany's star Michael Ballack out of the tournament with a vicious tackle in England's FA Cup Final. The Ghana-Germany clash on June 23 promises to be a brawl. The bottom line: The "Brazilians of Africa" are rocked by the loss of defensive midfielder Michael Essien to a knee injury.
GDP: $14.7 billion. Odds: 80-1. Players to watch: Gallant Roque Santa Cruz and clinical Oscar Cardozo must bring their scoring boots. The bottom line: Any real chance to win ended when star striker Salvador Cabañas was shot in the head in a Mexico City nightspot.
GDP: $495 billion. Odds: 200-1. Players to watch: Attacker Blaise Nkufo and the midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta. The bottom line: Record goal scorer Alexander Frei is racing to regain form after shattering his arm in April.
The soccer world has become flat: Any of the following could make life very difficult for their opponents.
GDP: $162 billion. Odds: 66-1. Players to watch: Plump striker Humberto Suazo will be joined by Alexis Sánchez, a prodigy known as "El Niño Maravilla." The bottom line: Coach Marcelo Bielsa has molded a squad keen to prove Goldman Sachs' (GS) assessment that there is no correlation between equity markets and Cup performance.
GDP: $42.9 billion. Odds: 50-1. Players to watch: Coveted defenders Nemanja Vidic and Neven Subotic. The bottom line: The team's top players are aware that a strong World Cup showing may well lead to a lucrative money transfer after the tournament.
GDP: $49.2 billion. Odds: 250-1. Players to watch: Midfielder Robert Koren is the puppet master; striker Milivoje Novakovic is a skillful beanpole. The bottom line: Despite a population about one-fifth that of Moscow's, Slovenia stunned Russia to qualify.
Aligning yourself with these teams may be the righteous thing to do.
GDP: $141 billion. Odds: 400-1. Player to watch: Midfielder Mourad Meghni, known as le Petit Zidane, after the French legend. The bottom line: Still smarting over their controversial elimination by West Germany and Austria in 1982, this squad must not be underestimated by the U.S.
GDP: $997 billion. Odds: 125-1. Players to watch: Tim Cahill is one of the greatest headers of the ball, and striker Joshua Kennedy is known as "The Messiah." The bottom line: They harbor extra motivation owing to their exit at the last World Cup, when opponent Italy was awarded a controversial penalty in the game's dying seconds.
GDP: $14.3 billion. Odds: 750-1. Players to watch: Forceful midfielder Wilson Palacios and defender Maynor Figueroa. The bottom line: Their qualification brought joy to streets that had recently witnessed a coup. This team could surprise.
GDP: $22.5 billion. Odds: 33-1. Players to watch: Chelsea's one-man forward line, Didier Drogba, and Barcelona ball handler Yaya Toure in midfield. The bottom line: The host continent's top team is haunted by the death of numerous fans crushed in a 2009 stadium stampede.
THE GROUPS: TWO TEAMS FROM EACH WILL ADVANCE
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
Group C: England, U.S., Algeria, Slovenia
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Group F: Paraguay, Italy, New Zealand, Slovakia
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
Data: IMF Gross Domestic Product Report for 2009; Odds: William Hill, as of June 1