THE TOPIC: The 2010 World Cup

THE CONSENSUS PANEL: Darren Bent (Sunderland, @DB11TT); Brian Dunseth (FSC, The Original Winger); Brooks Peck (Dirty Tackle); Jen Chang (SI.com); Kevin Wildes (SportsNation); Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht, @sachakljestan); Brent Latham (ESPN Soccernet, The USA 10 Kit); Chris Toy (Studs Up); Josh Burt (The Spoiler); Ben Hooper (The Original Winger); Jeremy Hall (New York Red Bulls); Noah Davis (Goal.com, The USA 10 Kit); Mark Apostolou (Caught Offside); Simon Humber (EA Sports); Richard Farley (EPL Talk); Tim Yu (Nike); Kickette (Kickette); Iain McNee (Onion Bag); Ashley N. Williams (ESPN The Magazine); Bruce McGuire (Du Nord); Lang Whitaker (SLAM, Striker [R.I.P.]); Chris Govoni (The Offside); Brian Phillips (The Run of Play); Mike Cardillo (That's On Point, @thatsonpoint); Eugene Kan (Hypebeast); Tim Webber (author, United Nations); Gerhard "The Coach" Stochl (Chinatown Soccer Club); and Donnie Kwak (Complex)

CONSENSUS: BRAZIL

See commentary from each panel member below...

sunderland
PANELIST: Darren Bent, striker, Sunderland (representing Studs Up Football Club)

SLEEPER: IVORY COAST. "This team is very powerful—I think a lot of sides will underestimate their athleticism and be surprised."

DISAPPOINTMENT: FRANCE. "Qualifying was a struggle for them and not a lot seems to have changed from the disappointment four years ago."

PLAYER TO WATCH: "One of three: LIONEL MESSI, Argentina—just look at what we saw in Spain this year; FERNANDO TORRES, Spain—if fully fit El Niño will be a big force; and CRISTIANO RONALDO, Portugal—hopefully he'll be hungry to grab that spotlight back from Messi with the world watching."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS. "They'll qualify behind England in the group but make it to a quarter-final."

WINNER: "England, Brazil, or Spain—but BRAZIL are favorites. Five World Cups and all but an unfit Ronaldo and it would have been six—says it all."

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originalwinger
PANELIST: Brian Dunseth, The Original Winger, Fox Soccer Channel commentator

SLEEPER: NORTH KOREA. "There's no substitute for political pressure placed on a sports team. Throw in the fact that this is a defensive-minded team that can break out incredibly fast, and they could be the team to steal a couple points in the Group of Death and have a decent say as to who pushes through from Group G."

DISAPPOINTMENT: PORTUGAL. "Keeping it in the Group of Death, there hasn't been a more under-performing world-class team than Portugal since the success and disappointment of Euro 2004. And to be in a qualification group that included Malta, Denmark, Sweden, and Hungary and still have to go to a playoff only to squeak past Bosnia-Herzegovina—that's just not good enough. Losing Nani is just going to put more pressure on Cristiano Ronaldo to carry Carlos Queiroz' squad."

PLAYER TO WATCH: WAYNE ROONEY, England. "A pretty obvious choice considering the season he's had at Manchester United, but given that the pressure to score goals on top of heavy legs from an incredible amount of games, Rooney could shine or let his well-known competitiveness and temper get the best of him. We've seen his blue-collar mentality when tracking back and getting stuck in when the game isn't going through him, but remember '98 and David Beckham? Only takes one split-second to lose everything you worked so hard for over the past four years."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS."Yup, call me a United States homer, but hear me out: If the United States gets through the Group C stage in second place (behind England), they'll face 1D in the round of 16 on June 26. Group D is Germany, Ghana, Australia, and Serbia. I'm thinking that Germany will qualify as the #1 team coming out of that group, with either Serbia or Ghana coming through second. I've gotta go with the U.S. getting payback for 2002 and into the quarter-finals, where they'd face either 1B (Argentina) or 2A (France, as I think Mexico's going through as 1A). And the road should end against Argie, unless Diego's wheels fall off...which they probably will."

WINNER: SPAIN. "I just don't see how you can go against Spain with the talent and depth that they have. Yes, the 2009 Confederations Cup result was a disappointment, but a majority of the squad is healthy and there's a premium for ball possession in the final third with this group. Oh, and they won't have to face Brazil until the finals if both teams qualify as #1 in their group play because they'll be on opposite sides of the brackets through the round of 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals. BUT, if one team comes in first and the other in second, all bets are off as they'll face each other in the round of 16."

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dirtytackle
PANELIST: Brooks Peck, Dirty Tackle

SLEEPER: NORTH KOREA. "Nobody knows much about them except for the fact the fact that they have a guy nicknamed 'The People's Wayne Rooney' who has already promised a goal per game and predicted a win over Brazil in the Group of Death. Even if they suck, it'll be fun to watch whether he can come through on those ballsy calls and ponder the repercussions from the Dear Leader for falling short."

DISAPPOINTMENT: FRANCE. "Can they still be a disappointment if everyone expects them to be a disappointment? With wacky Raymond Domenech in charge, they probably can."

PLAYER TO WATCH: JONG TAE-SE, North Korea. "See above. And wait for him to be tied to a nuclear missile and fired into the ocean."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "If they don't get out of the group again, I'm going to tie them to that missile with Jong Tae-Se myself."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "Dunga isn't the greatest manager and most of Brazil hates his guts, but they've just got way too much talent and no team really looks unbeatable. Maybe Spain, but they lost to the U.S. the last time they were in South Africa. I still say Aruba has a shot, too. Even though, you know, they're not in it."

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sicom
PANELIST: Jen Chang, senior editor of soccer, SI.com

SLEEPER: SERBIA. "Serbia's a genuine dark horse. It has an excellent coach in Raddy Antic and a strong physical back line that dominates at set pieces. Captain Dejan Stankovic anchors a steady midfield, but the Serbian flankers, Milan Jovanovic and Miloš Krasic are an excellent pairing who can score goals as well as create. Watch out for young attacking left back Aleksandar Kolarov, who could be one of the sensations of the tournament."

DISAPPOINTMENT: FRANCE. "As talented as any team in the tournament, France's main problem is its erratic coach Raymond Domenech. Aside from playing favorites, Domenech is known to make his selections based on the player's zodiac signs. France's run to the final in 2006 was prompted by strong internal leadership from veterans like Zinedine Zidane who are now gone. If this group is to live up to its potential it'll need a strong leader to emerge and counter the divisive influence of moody veterans like central defender William Gallas."

PLAYER TO WATCH: MESUT ÖZIL, Germany. "Other than obvious superstars like Messi, Ronaldo, and Rooney, the one to keep an eye on is rising star Mesut Özil. With captain Michael Ballack out injured, most of Germany's creative and playmaking burden falls on the shoulders of the 21-year-old attacking midfielder, who can also operate from the wing. Özil's the type of attacker that Germany hasn't produced in many years, full of flair and vision."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "The U.S. received probably the easiest group draw (Group C) in its history. While it's not favored to take the group over England, it should be able to fend off Algeria and Slovenia for second place. That's where the real problem lies. If the U.S. qualifies for the knockout stage, its first game will likely be against either Germany or Serbia, both strong physical teams that dominate at set pieces, thereby negating the U.S.'s biggest strengths. The U.S. will be hard-pushed to beat either."

WINNER: SPAIN. "Spain and Brazil are co-favorites in most people's book, but I give Spain the edge because they have the best pair of strikers in the world in David Villa and Fernando Torres—most of its rivals don't even have one striker of that caliber, let alone two. It's a team that controls possession and has a trio of superb playmakers in Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and David Silva to get the ball to Torres and Villa."

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sportsnation
PANELIST: Kevin Wildes, producer, SportsNation, ESPN

SLEEPER: FRANCE. "Everybody is down on them because without Thierry Henry's handball goal against Ireland they wouldn't have even been in the tournament. But get this—they are still stocked with talent, they are hungry to avenge the Zidane headbutt, and they are the only team that is allowed to use their hands during the game. Big advantage."

DISAPPOINTMENT: ITALY. "We've got an Italian guy on the SportsNation staff named Zach, a.k.a. Euro. He spends 50% of his time working on Sportsnation.com, 45% of his time complaining that the Italian team is too old, and 5% of the time drinking espresso."

PLAYER TO WATCH: WAYNE ROONEY, England. "He's going to destroy the U.S. We'll hate him for it—then we'll fall in love with him. Not totally dissimilar to how Tom Hanks' mighty Fox Books smashed Meg Ryan's quaint bookstore in 1998's You've Got Mail. (Hold on, are Nora Ephron references not cool anymore?)"

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: "The Super Bowl! The Elite Eight! Oh wait, the QUARTER-FINALS. We're still not a soccer-centric country, but we win it all if we go back and give Baby Rajon Rondo a soccer ball. My prediction really depends if you're reading this pre- or post-time-machine invention."

WINNER: ARGENTINA. "For five reasons: Messi, Messi, Messi, Messi, and Diego Maradona. Just for fun, Google 'Diego Maradona' and try to find a story that doesn't make you say, "Hold on, he did what?!" He can score World Cup goals with his hand. He can survive cocaine-induced heart attacks. He can host his own talk show and interview Fidel Castro. He can pay his tax debt with...wait for it...diamonds. Now he claims he's going to run naked through Buenos Aires once he brings home the World Cup. My response? 'Yeah, seems about right.'"

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sacha
PANELIST: Sacha Kljestan, midfielder, Anderlecht (@sachakljestan)

SLEEPER: IVORY COAST. "I think they will surprise a lot, although most people in Africa know them as a continental powerhouse. Their chances dropped though when Drogba went down with injury."

DISAPPOINTMENT: FRANCE. "They have too much talent but don't seem to be getting the results."

PLAYER TO WATCH: STEVEN PIENAAR, South Africa and WESLEY SNEIJDER, Netherlands. "Everyone will be thinking of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo so I'm going with a couple of really good attacking midfielders that need to have big tournaments in order for their teams to do well. (I couldn't pick just one player, sorry!) Pienaar is the best South African player and the home country will depend on him a lot. Sneijder runs the show for a very good Dutch attack—he showed his class by winning the UEFA Champions League this past season."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS. "It'll match their great run from 2002."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "They showed they were the best last summer in the Confederations Cup. I played in two games vs. Brazil last summer and they convinced me they are the best team in the world so I think they claim the Cup in the end."

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brent
PANELIST: Brent Latham, ESPN Soccernet and The USA 10 Kit

SLEEPER: PARAGUAY. "They have a weak group which they should breeze through, and may even take first place over Italy. Paraguay has always been a tough side defensively, but this year they have some firepower on offense too, so look for them to improve on their recent performances."

DISAPPOINTMENT: FRANCE. "Man, France is just terrible lately. Like rotten bleu cheese, or something else that really stinks. They have great players all over the field, and should be much better than this, but their coach is an epic fail. I can't see them getting out of the group stage."

PLAYER TO WATCH: LUIS SUAREZ, Uruguay. "The striker plays for Ajax in the Netherlands, and he's been raking in the goals of late. He comes in a little under-the-radar, and won't receive nearly as much attention as his strike partner Diego Forlan, but expect Suarez to help Uruguay to heights they haven't seen in decades at this year's Cup."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "They'll be hard-pressed to break down Slovenia and take second in Group C, but they should be able to do it seven times out of 10. Asking them to beat the Group D winner to get any further is a bridge too far, but then again, on any given day..."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "Need I say more? Well, maybe, since Dunga has them playing a more conservative style than usual. But they're a solid team front to back, and they've got the experience to win this tournament. Plus they won in 1994 and 2002. They're due for their sixth championship."

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studsup
PANELIST: Chris Toy, creator, Studs Up and founder, Studs Up Football Club

SLEEPER: FRANCE. "I consider a 'sleeper' team to be one with an outside chance to win the whole thing even though no one picks them to, and until Ballack's injury I would have said Germany. Instead, I'll go with France. They've had a chaotic buildup to the tournament with poor results and players being very vocal about how badly the team is gelling and needs to improve. People are expecting them to fall flat on their face but when I look at the squad, I see balance, and a lot of players who can singlehandedly turn a game. Football also has a funny way of flipping the script, and I just have a feeling that France is going to make a run."

DISAPPOINTMENT: PORTUGAL. "Simply because Cristiano Ronaldo's individual profile will raise the anticipation and expectations to a level that Portugal as a team can't match. They'll get through the group stage then bow out relatively quick after that because they don't have the depth in quality to go further."

PLAYER TO WATCH: YOANN GOURCUFF, France. "I'm personally looking forward to seeing what impact he can make. He's one of those guys that pulls the strings and makes the game look super-simple. He's long been a hot prospect with loads of talent but has only really turned that talent into performance in the last few years with Bordeaux. That means this World Cup could be his coming-out party with the final falling on his birthday, July 11. Spooky. Also: Chris Wood from New Zealand. Very talented kid."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "I think they'll be running on adrenaline and with a chip on their shoulder for the first few games and get it done, but there just isn't enough quality deep in the squad to see them go much further. Davies getting hurt and Onyewu being questionably fit are losses a thin squad like the U.S. can't make up for."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "It's not actually as cliché as it sounds, popular opinion in football has actually swung away from Brazil while Spain has taken up the mantle of most entertaining and most talented team. Under coach Dunga, they've have been pragmatic and defensive first, with tricks and flicks coming second. I actually think that every successful Brazil team has been built on a solid defensive strategy, especially in midfield, that provides a platform for the flair players to do their thing. The 2006 Brazil team was overloaded with attacking talent, which caused imbalance and ultimately a disappointing tournament. Dunga's fixed that, leaving Ronaldinho at home as if to make the point crystal clear."

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spoiler
PANELIST: Josh Burt, The Spoiler

SLEEPER: IVORY COAST. "It's only a matter of time before an African nation wins the World Cup, and whilst this year might not be the one, there is bound to be an impact on their home continent. The Ivory Coast looked dangerous in the last World Cup, but with Portugal and Brazil to face in the opening group stages, it'll totally be a case of 'sink or swim.' Make it through the first round, and they could go far—especially if Drogba is firing on all cylinders, and the Touré sisters are making all the right tackles. Keep a close eye."

DISAPPOINTMENT: SPAIN. "Make no mistake about it, Spain are brilliant. In every position they're strong, and were you to push any passing football supporter into an alleyway wall and demand that they predict the World Cup winner or else, they'd hyperventilate the word 'Spain.' And then probably collapse. Unfortunately, when it comes to World Cups, the heavens do not shine kindly on teams that have recently won the European Championship, as Spain did in 2004. The last team to graduate from European honors to World honors was Germany in 1974. That means Spain will need to break a 36-year-old hex to win."

PLAYER TO WATCH: AARON LENNON, England. "Every big football tournament tends to pluck a player from apparent nowhere and send his name stratospheric, and this could be a great tournament for England's Aaron Lennon. All eyes will be on Wayne Rooney's handsome face in the buildup, but with pace to burn, Lennon could yet prove to be the man to scare the bejesus out of the opposition. Another to keep an eye on is France's Yoann Gourcuff. Apparently he's really good."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "Pretty much everything hinges on the opening match against England, with Germany the most likely opponents in the knockout stages—and unfortunately, when it comes to big tournaments, Germany have a staggering amount of experience to call upon. Hence, plucky losers. But still losers nonetheless."

WINNER: ARGENTINA. "Most people's third favorites for the trophy. If Argentina manage to get themselves together, no team can match them for attacking prowess. Rather ironically, the consensus seems to be that the man who could singlehandedly lose it for them is exactly the same man who singlehandedly won it for them in 1986: Maradona, then a great player, now an absolutely abominable manager. But should he somehow get Messi, Tevez, Agüero, Milito and Higuaín all singing from the same hymn sheet, they could prove devastating."

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originalwinger
PANELIST: Ben Hooper, The Original Winger

SLEEPER: SOUTH AFRICA. "They have been playing really well as of late, have the advantage as the host nation, and they have the majority of the world wanting to see them do well. A result in the opener against Mexico might just be the push they need to get into the Round of 16."

DISAPPOINTMENT: FRANCE. "Staying in Group A with this one. They barely squeaked through qualifying, and realistically only qualified due to a blatant handball. Plus, I don't get Raymond Domenech as the manager and I think they will crash out. And when they do, we'll see Thierry Henry in MLS even sooner..."

PLAYER TO WATCH: LUIS SUAREZ, Uruguay. "I still can't get out of Group A. Coming off a season that saw him bag 49 goals in all competitions, and 35 in the Dutch League, look for Suarez to continue scoring goals. Post-World Cup expect to see Suarez earn a major-money move to a top European club."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS. "This most likely would require the US beating Germany in the round of 16, but I'm putting it out there anyway. There needs to be redemption from 2002 and this could be the year that happens."

WINNER: SPAIN. "They are as deep as any team and have pure class in every position on the field. If everything goes right, expect to see a Spain v. Brazil final, with the Spanish getting the win."

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Jeremy_Hall
PANELIST: Jeremy Hall, midfielder, New York Red Bulls

SLEEPER: SOUTH AFRICA. "With the first World Cup on African soil being in South Africa, I think it will bring a lot of pride and passion to the Bafana Bafana. Having the whole country behind them, we saw what happened with the rugby team of 1995. It will be a huge boost for South Africa and I believe they will come out to play and put a scare to some teams."

DISAPPOINTMENT: PORTUGAL. "Even though Portugal has one of the best players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo, it will be a tough task for him to carry the load to get into the knockout stages. They are in Group G, which is easily the Group of Death with Brazil, Ivory Coast, and North Korea. It will very interesting and exciting to see the matchups in this group but in the end I see Brazil and Ivory Coast pulling themselves into the next stage of the tournament."

PLAYER TO WATCH: LIONEL MESSI, Argentina. "Obviously there are so many players to watch and it definitely is hard to choose just one of them. But I believe all eyes will be on Barcelona star Lionel Messi. He is the best player in the world right now and has performed magic at the club level with Barça. But to some, he has not quite done that at the national level for Argentina. It will be his time to shine and to prove to everyone in the world that he is one of the best to play this game."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS."I definitely think that my boys will do well and show the rest of the world that we can contend with anyone. Of course I will be rooting for them to win the whole tournament but I wouldn't want to be biased. So I am saying that they will reach the quarters and put on a good showing. It will for sure get tough through the later rounds but we showed at the Confederations Cup that we are not afraid to step up against any one."

WINNER: SPAIN. "Their team from top to bottom is the deepest roster at the tournament. The way they move the ball and out-possess their opponents is clinical and second to none. Spain will be the team to beat at this summer's World Cup and if they can keep everyone healthy and clicking like they have been with the recent friendlies, they will be hoisting the Cup in the end."

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goal
PANELIST: Noah Davis, Goal.com

SLEEPER: ARGENTINA. "Can you really call a squad with arguably the most talent a "sleeper"? You can when Diego Maradona's the coach. Few expect the brilliance of Lionel Messi to outshine the struggles of the national hero he emulates on the pitch, but here's the thing: Diego has a plan in that head of his. It may be loco, but here's saying it works."

DISAPPOINTMENT: AFRICA. "Yes, the entire continent. This was supposed to be the World Cup an African nation won. That may have been ambitious, but the fact remains that its teams lie in ruin. Cote d'Ivoire looks in disarray even if Didier Drogba returns. Ghana lost Michael Essien. Samuel Eto'o threatened to quit Cameroon. Algeria fell 3-0 to Ireland. Nigeria can't get organized. Ironically, South Africa—the worst of the bunch—is the only side showing signs of life. Can the home crowd carry them into the second round?"

PLAYER TO WATCH: CRISTIANO RONALDO, Portugal. "The best player in the world not named Messi hasn't scored for his country in 18 months. With apologies to the tiny Argentine, Ronaldo remains the sport's most exciting player for his pace and physical prowess. If he can control the Jabulani, expect a SportsCenter Top 10 devoted solely to the Armani model by the time the month-long event wraps up."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "Getting out of the group is a must for the Americans. Assuming they finish second in Group C, they'll likely take on Germany in a rematch of the 2002 quarter-finals. (The Stars and Stripes outplayed the European team but lost, 1-0. Soccer is a cruel mistress, especially to up-and-coming nations.) Can they beat Germany, which would likely set up a heart-attack-inducing winner-moves-to-the-final-four against Mexico (a match where the U.S. would prevail)? Sure. Will they? Unfortunately not."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "In a tournament where the story line will revolve around injured stars, the Samba Boys arrive in South Africa with their world No. 1 squad intact. Dunga's side boasts the World Cup's best back five, with Kaká providing a little magic in the midfield. They're too focused on organization and efficiency to play the Beautiful Game but winning can be pretty, too."

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caughtoffside
PANELIST: Mark Apostolou, editor, Caught Offside

SLEEPER: URUGUAY. "With in-form striker Diego Forlan leading the line and impressive Serie A stars Cavani, Cáceres, and Muslera to call upon, the South American side are not a bad bet to do well. Not least because they are in a fairly average group."

DISAPPOINTMENT: FRANCE. "Heading for a poor World Cup for sure. In fighting, a fool of a coach, and with the entire footballing world expecting abject failure expect Domenech and co. to duly deliver an early elimination."

PLAYER TO WATCH: ROBIN VAN PERSIE, Netherlands. "After spending most of the season in the treatment room, the Arsenal man is fighting fit and raring to go. The Dutch international has scored four goals in the past three warm-up games. Back him for the Golden Boot, you will not be disappointed."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "The U.S. arrive in South Africa with a decent, but very beatable, squad who should be able to edge ahead of Algeria and Slovenia for the second spot in Group C. The reward for their efforts? A knockout match against Germany which they will lose by two or three goals."

WINNER: SPAIN. "It's hard to look past the Spanish. With the nucleus of the squad that romped to Euro 2008 success, I fully expect Vicente del Bosque's side to have what it takes to clinch their first ever World Cup success."

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easports
PANELIST: Simon Humber, producer, EA Sports, 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa

SLEEPER: CHILE. "Any team that can run Brazil to one point in the final qualification table has to be a pretty smart outfit, and with the Argentine management legend Marcelo Bielsa at the helm, perhaps this is the time that 'La Roja' deliver the goods. Being drawn with Spain might not be such a bad thing for them, as they play them in the last group game in Pretoria when the Spanish would hope to have already qualified. Much depends on whether Alexis Sánchez can shine like the star he is surely destined to one day be. Their Achilles heel is coming under an aerial bombardment, so they might slip up when facing one of the more traditional European nations."

DISAPPOINTMENT: FRANCE. "It's so easy to say England, but let's face it—they always disappoint, so no it's no longer a disappointment. I worry about Italy this time around, but they were fortunate enough to be drawn in a group full of pub teams, so they might find their feet in time. France must be everyone's tips to take an early flight home. With the host nation, the dangerous Mexicans, and Uruguay's stolid approach in their group—plus internal wrangling, a defeat to China, and a manager who must have incriminating evidence of something to still be in the job—I suspect it will be, 'Au revoir, Les Bleus,' early doors."

PLAYER TO WATCH: DAVID VILLA, Spain. "This is an impossible category, so many possibles, but we remember past tournaments for so few actuals. I guess we're looking for a team that will progress far, and a man who will be heavily responsible for that. I'll predict that Villa's goals will fire Spain deep into the tournament. Not exactly a bold prediction, but for me he's the most complete striker in the world, and the new Barça man will play with mental freedom now that his big-money move is done and dusted. For a dark horse, the North Korean Wayne Rooney is how Jong Tae-Se has been described. Bizarrely born in Japan to South Korean parents, he ended up having his education funded by the North. He's an explosive front man, good with both feet, and the mostly likely man in a mostly defensive-minded team capable of a moment of magic."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS. "Team USA (why do you always add 'Team'?) look good bets to get out of the group, and then it all depends how kind the draw is for them. None of the Group D teams should hold any fears—the recent win over Australia is a confidence booster, Ghana look poor without Essien, and Serbia regularly disappoint. Naturally both England and USA will be hoping to avoid a Germany team who seem to always come to life at the World Cup, regardless of their pre-tournament form. So the quarter-final is probably the point where it will be surrender time for Bradley's boys. I think that defensively they lack the class to get any further. I mean Jay DeMerit plays for Watford! Clint Dempsey is my pick of the team."

WINNER: SPAIN. "Having finally got rid of the monkey on their backs, this time around Spain come without the perennial chokers tag courtesy of their deserved triumph at Euro 2008. This is the team that plays the beautiful game—Brazil haven't since 1982. Free-flowing football, pass the opposition to death, and two of the best strikers in the world in Torres and my Golden Boot winner, Villa. The only blip since that night in Vienna has been the defeat to USA in the Confederations Cup, but we can forgive them this and it might stand them in good stead if they start to believe their own hype. So, for me, they can only defeat themselves in this tournament."

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epltalk
PANELIST: Richard Farley, host of EPL Talk Podcast at EPLTalk.com

SLEEPER: MEXICO. "They have favorable matches within their group and, if they can finish atop Group A, will have similar advantages into the semifinals—a depth they've never reached in this tournament."

DISAPPOINTMENT: ITALY. "They have an aging team full of under-performing players contesting a group with two other quality teams (Paraguay and Slovakia). Particularly on the right side of their defense, the Azzurri could be exploited by Paraguay forward Lucas Barrios and Slovakia midfielder Marek Hamsik."

PLAYER TO WATCH: GIOVANI DOS SANTOS, Mexico. "He will be the best player for Mexico as they go on their surprise run. Gio will leave Tottenham Hotspur supporters wondering why he has been unable to similarly turn matches at the club level."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: GROUP STAGE. "Slovenia is, unfortunately, a particularly difficult matchup for the USMNT."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "One of only two teams to win a World Cup outside their own continent and the only team to win a World Cup on every continent the tournament's been staged. Brazil will play Internazionale to Spain's Barcelona in the final."

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nike
PANELIST: Tim Yu, Nike

SLEEPER: SOUTH KOREA. "They are quick, fit, and young but have been playing together for some time."

DISAPPOINTMENT: ARGENTINA. "No one can serve the ball on a silver platter to Messi like his mates on Barça do (Xavi and Iniesta)—he's not the same player with the national team."

PLAYER TO WATCH: GIOVANI DOS SANTOS, Mexico. "Healthy, fit, and imperative for Mexico's success."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS. "OK, a bit of wishful thinking, but they are starting to gel at the right time and Bob Bradley picked an especially athletic bunch. Defense just needs to minimize lapses and breakdowns, but they have one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Tim Howard."

WINNER: NETHERLANDS. "They can score from anywhere on the field and are due to win. A bit ironic if they win in South Africa though."

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kickette
PANELIST: The Champagne Guzzlers at Kickette

SLEEPER: NETHERLANDS. "The little Oranje engine that could. They look strong and confident and their WAGs have the best World Cup wardrobe on the planet."

DISAPPOINTMENT: IVORY COAST. "High hopes for this squad, but the loss of Didier Drogba might prove too much of a setback to recover from. We're also a tad concerned about France. Gourcuff's pretty just might not be enough. Plus, karma's a beyatch."

PLAYER TO WATCH: GONZALO HIGUAÍN, Argentina. "He's really coming into his own, and we think he'll be amazing to watch this tourney. It will also be interesting to see if the world's best footballing hobbit-alike, Lionel Messi, can bring home the incredible form he's shown for Barcelona to his national squad. And of course, David Villa for Spain, because he's as awesome as his soul patch."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS. "There's a lot of heart and guts in the squad this time around, but their defensive weaknesses could let them down at this stage. Side note: We'd be willing to change our answer to "finals" if we can get a guarantee that Gooch will strip off at the end of every game."

WINNER: SPAIN. "Brazil look unstoppable, but we think Spain has got the belief, experience, and the star power to make it happen this year. Plus, Fernando Torres has gone back to his natural color—everyone knows brunettes mean business."

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PANELIST: Iain McNee, Onion Bag Soccer Shop

SLEEPER: MEXICO. "A great blend of experience (Blanco, Marquez) and youth (Vela, Guardado, dos Santos, Hernandez). The fanatical support of thousands of Mexicans who will have made the trip to South Africa will see 'El Tri' cause a few surprises in the tournament."

DISAPPOINTMENT: NONE. "There's not many surprises in international football anymore. What's disappointing to one football nation is a great achievement to others. Having said that, I can imagine Brazil fans being relatively gutted if they don't progress out of the first round!"

PLAYER TO WATCH: STEVEN GERRARD, England. "There's no place to hide when you're the captain of England, and I'm predicting Steven Gerrard will come through for England when expected, and when it counts."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "In all likelihood, the U.S. will progress out of Group C in second place behind England, where it's pretty much odds-on they will have a rematch with their conquerors of WC 2006, Germany. I'd love to see the U.S. beat Germany, but as you'll see with my pick for overall winner, I'm quite the dreamer!"

WINNER: ENGLAND. "Football's coming home. Enough said!"

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PANELIST: Ashley Williams, associate editor, ESPN The Magazine

SLEEPER: IVORY COAST. "If Didier Drogba hadn't broken his right arm in last week's friendly against Japan, there's no way the Ivorians would be considered a sleeper. But the world's best striker is still questionable for the team's opening match against Portugal, and that's a big problem. But don't write off Ivory Coast just yet. They still have the Touré brothers, Yaya and Kolo, not to mention Salomon Kalou and Gervinho, a young player who's got so much style he has a Brazilian moniker. Plus, home-field advantage has to count for something. South Africa's Bafana Bafana might not get out of their group, which would be the first time in history that's happened to a host country, but at least one African country will make some noise. Why not the Elephants?"

DISAPPOINTMENT: ITALY. "The reigning champs are old. Really old. Germany 2006 stars like Mauro Camoranesi, Gennaro Gattuso, and Gianluca Zambrotta are all over 30, which doesn't bode well for a deep run into the tournament. Still, weird as it sounds, 32-year-old World Cup newbie Antonio di Natale surged this past season as a striker at Serie A team Udinese and could provide the spark Italy needs to make the semis. If they're lucky."

PLAYER TO WATCH: JAVIER HERNÁNDEZ, Mexico. "Never mind that he didn't enter Mexico's opener against South Africa until the 73rd minute, Chicharito is all kinds of good. He scored three times in the team's last three friendlies. Plus, the 22-year-old will be suiting up for Man U. come July, the first Mexican player ever to join the squad. Quick on his feet and in the air, he'll definitely get folks talking."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "As much as we all want the U.S. to go all the way, it's not gonna happen. (By the way, the odds on the Yanks winning it all are currently 66-1). America has the goods to get out of the group, no matter what happens in the team's opener against England, but after that, we can't really hope for too much more. Yes, we've got Landon Donovan, plus Premier League talents Tim Howard in goal and Clint Dempsey in midfield. But one of the main reasons the U.S. upset Spain—then number one in the world—in the Confederations Cup last summer, was the play of defender Oguchi Onyewu. Gooch isn't 100% after blowing out his knee last fall. He's making progress, but he needs to step up his game for the U.S. to best the big boys. The Americans will be confident knowing they've beaten the best before, but that self-assurance will only carry them so far."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "The organizers of the 2014 Cup in Rio might as well go ahead and print 'Home of the 2010 World Cup Champions' on their promo materials. Brazilian fans expect nothing less than a sixth title from FIFA's top-ranked team. With Kaká, Robinho, Lucio, Maicon and Luis Fabiano, who could really blame them? Almost any player on the field can score, and that's what make them almost unbeatable. The Seleção will have some stiff competition from Spain, the Euro 2008 champs, who are stacked with talents like Xavi, Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta, and David Villa. But last year's Confed. Cup loss to the U.S. showed the Spaniards can be tamed. Leave that to Brazil."

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PANELIST: Bruce McGuire, editor, du Nord

SLEEPER: MEXICO and SERBIA. "Not the biggest-named players, but team unity and a real fighting spirit."

DISAPPOINTMENT: ENGLAND. "Only a disappointment to their many delusional fans."

PLAYER TO WATCH: KUN AGÃœERO, Argentina. "Not even the most talented Argentine player, but a true genius on the field just waiting to become a superstar."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS. "After enacting revenge on Germany in the round of 16."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "They are simply the best all around, and have no weaknesses, even though other teams may have better players."

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PANELIST: Lang Whitaker, executive editor, SLAM and former E-I-C of Striker soccer magazine

SLEEPER: FRANCE. "I guess it's weird to pick a team that went to the final in 2006 as my 'sleeper,' but I haven't heard anyone parlez-ing about Les Bleus. They may have barely squeaked into the Cup, but they've got a ton of class players—Henry, Ribery, Anelka, Evra, Gourcuff, Malouda—and a coach who makes his lineups based on horoscopes. So they've got that going for them."

DISAPPOINTMENT: ARGENTINA. "Lionel Messi is probably the best player on the planet right now, and I'm a big fan of Tevez, but having Maradona as your coach doesn't really seem like the most stable situation."

PLAYER TO WATCH: SAMUEL ETO'O, Cameroon. "I've always loved Eto'o, because he's confident, he plays with style and verve, and he has a knack for the spotlight. He could end up being the star of Group E."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "I'm cheering for the U.S., but they're probably going to lose to England (Wayne Rooney will destroy our back line) and then they'll have to fight to advance. But they will, and once they're through to the knockout rounds, anything can happen. I'm being pragmatic here and hedging my bets."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "For so long Brazil was thought of as a team that was all offense, and that worked for them. But now their defense is probably just as good as their offense (Maicon is a bad man). This is the most well-rounded Brazil team I can remember."

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PANELIST: Chris Govoni, The Offside

SLEEPER: SERBIA. "They rode in with the Famous Four defense in '06 only to ride out with their nets and pride in tatters. Since, they've picked up the tactically sexy Radomir Antic and dropped a couple pounds (Montenegro) with a less heralded but perhaps higher-quality defense, along with the quickest flank game in South Africa. They'll frustrate the opposition and pounce on that frustration the moment it sets in."

DISAPPOINTMENT: NETHERLANDS. "The Oranje are top-heavy and awfully nice to look at going forward, but when you start checking out the back, it's not particularly pretty. Worse, they've been supremely cocky heading in, more so than any other team, and that typically amounts to nothing more than tears and tranquilizers."

PLAYER TO WATCH: KAKÁ, Brazil. "Written off to a degree due to fitness, when Ricky K's on form he makes the surface of the sun seem a winter's chill as one of two players on the planet with no apparent ceiling (the other that tiny Argie). He's thrown teams on his back en route to glory before (Champions League '07) and there's little to say he can't do it again. Plus he's got that Jesus guy on his side, which never hurts."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "The group is pretty weak, but both Germany and Serbia will be impossibly difficult. They'll lose 1-0 to Serbia on a late Neven Subotic header, which he'll celebrate by revealing a graphic tee emblazoned with Giuseppe Rossi's mug—just to turn the stiletto."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "Everyone's decrying Dunga's commitment to defense, but don't they know defense wins championships? What happens when you combine great defense with Brazilian flair? Parades and babies, that's what."

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PANELIST: Brian Phillips, The Run of Play

SLEEPER: CHILE. "The bloody remains of this category are being carted off the field in a wheelbarrow. You want to pick Ghana, and Michael Essien blows up his knee; you want to pick Ivory Coast, and Drogba snaps his arm; you want to pick Nigeria, and John Obi Mikel appears on the horizon trudging on a cane. In desperation, you try to pick Honduras, and Carlo Costly's ankle yells something about dining in hell and impales itself on a spear. So I'm picking Chile, partly because they're better than people realize—they pushed Brazil all the way in qualifying and finished two spots above Argentina—and partly because Humberto Suazo's thigh injury seems like it isn't that bad, meaning they're relatively intact. They're not a team of stars, but they play an insane, attacking 3-4-3 formation that will catch some people off guard. (Their coach is nicknamed 'the madman'; it's deserved.) They're young, fantastically hard-working, and not likely to be awed by the moment. Spain should walk over this group, but Chile has a good chance to advance and play Brazil in a knockout-round mini-epic."

DISAPPOINTMENT: BRAZIL. "They're going to win the tournament. There's nothing I, you, Spain, or adidas can do about it. But they're still a disappointment, because under Dunga they've turned their backs on the style that made them beloved. They're relentlessly, numbingly marketed by Nike as the apex of purity and flash, but the truth is that they've traded in the samba-football, joga-bonito game for a patient, basically joyless approach that revolves around set pieces, counters, and solid defending at the back. It's like someone sent them some tapes of Italy in the 1960s and it completely blew their minds. You can say that all they have to do is win and anything is justified, but they used to be about winning with artistry and delighting the world. (Search for Garrincha on YouTube for a sense of what that can look like.) Now they're a team of conservative millionaires, and we get to spend four weeks watching commercials and listening to announcers who want us to believe that they're not."

PLAYER TO WATCH: LIONEL MESSI, Argentina. "If you're watching anyone else, you're doing it wrong. To call him the best player in the world is boring; he's the ghostly genius who will out-think you, outrun you, and leave you weeping on the ground. He's the player who amassed an otherworldly 47 goals and 14 assists in 53 games this season. He once made Ray Hudson, the most poetic announcer in sports, scream: 'He's like a little short-legged bull, covered with eyes!!!' There are a million reasons why it's unfair to say that his legacy depends on this World Cup. He's only 22, for one thing. But fair doesn't write the game's legends, and it's a cold fact that Messi has never been the player for Argentina that he is for Barcelona. Also a fact that Argentinians have never unreservedly loved him. Now he's playing for the man universally regarded as the craziest, worst manager in the tournament—Diego Maradona—who, oh, also happens to be the greatest player in Argentina's history and the man to whom Messi is incessantly compared. This is either going to be a disaster or one of the greatest stories in sports, there's no in-between. What else would you want to watch?"

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS. "Assuming we finish second to the English in the group stage (I know, it kills me too, but let's be practical) we have a route to the semi-finals that's no more unlikely than the one we took to the final of the Confederations Cup in South Africa last summer (see: crushing Spain, et. al.). We'd probably play Germany (who are missing Michael Ballack) in the first knockout round, then hit Argentina, currently being managed by the semi-competent fever dreams of Diego Maradona, in the quarters. Both outside shots, both conceivably winnable. It's also completely possible that we lose to England and Slovenia (even Algeria!) and never see the good side of Group C. I'm keeping my hopes on minor inspiration and saying we escape the group, notch a killer upset over Germany, then go down with glory in the last eight."

WINNER: BRAZIL. "They are Brazil. They are talented, consistent, big, physical, rich, hard to crack, disciplined, mean, and expectant When they care, which is usually, they're never out of a game, because even when they go behind, they still have the octanes and cylinders to do some dazzling business, and they're a constant set-piece threat (see: three second-half goals vs. the USA in the Confederations Cup final last summer). The pressure doesn't seep into them like it does England. My heart wants Spain, who are both prettier and more ferocious. But the math says Lucio will be an immovable object, Kaká will slalom for God, Robinho will twinkle like an imp, and Dunga will lift #6 before moving on to his true vocation as the coach of a Big Ten basketball team. Oh, and Júlio César is the best goalkeeper in the world. The sound of bells you hear is Nike's cash registers jingling."

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PANELIST: Mike Cardillo, editor, That's On Point, @thatsonpoint

SLEEPER: MEXICO. "Consider El Tri the soup-kitchen version of Argentina. Nice mix of young, fast offensive players (Gio dos Santos, Andres Guardado, Manchester United-bound Javier Hernández) with the old savvy guard of Rafa Marquez and Gerardo Torrado. Amazingly at 38 and the oldest field player at the tournament, Cuauhtémoc Blanco remains the rug tying the Mexicans together. If Mexico can win Group A and avoid Argentina in the Round of 16, watch out."

DISAPPOINTMENT: ITALY. "Don't let Bobby Solo serenading you in the Nike ad fool you—at 36, Fabio Cannavaro—voted the player of the 2006 tournament—is washed up, so washed up he just signed with a club in the United Arab Emirates, that side of the Atlantic's version of MLS. Expecting Italy to string together clean sheet-after-clean sheet, which it did in '06, is about as likely as Grown Ups winning the best original screenplay Oscar. A super-easy group helps Italy, but the Azzurri get knocked out early."

PLAYER TO WATCH: CRISTIANO RONALDO, Portugal. "Europe's forgotten man heading into the tournament. Ronaldo has the natural gifts and training ground skill to dominate—and infuriate every non-Portuguese fan on the planet. Even at the still-tender age of 25, the clock is ticking for 'C-Ron' to enforce his will and take over an international tournament. Hell, he was even rumored to be seeing Kim Kardashian, which worked out okay for Reggie Bush this February."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: QUARTER-FINALS. "Group C is soft after England. The likely round of 16 crossovers with a weakened Germany, Serbia, and Ghana are winnable. U.S. likely doesn't run into an opponent that can simply over-match it from a pure talent standpoint until, probably, Argentina in the quarters."

WINNER: NETHERLANDS. "This is likely the combination of the silky offensive play working subliminally in tandem with the day-glo orange shirts. Maybe defense wins championships, but you need to score goals to advance in the World Cup and that shouldn't trouble the Dutch, who get revenge for their loss to Argentina in the 1978 final in South Africa. Wesley Sneijder carries his sublime Champions League-winning play with Inter Milan and wins player of the tournament."

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PANELIST: Eugene Kan, managing editor, Hypebeast

SLEEPER: NORTH KOREA. "No, they won't exit the group stages, but I wouldn't be surprised if North Korea ended World Cup 2010 with one point, and not getting blown out like many expect. Without the corruption money that sport brings, I think this alone is a positive aspect of the team. The fact they've probably got some weird Asian medicine on their side and the thought of getting beaten and disgraced by the government would surely make you run faster and work harder as well."

DISAPPOINTMENT: BRAZIL. "No Ronaldinho kills it for me. Although it's all a relative disappointment, I guess. If the Samba Boys aren't hoisting a trophy every four years, it's a bit of a disappointment. Other contenders I'd say are France/Germany/Holland, but it could go either way."

PLAYER TO WATCH: CRISTIANO RONALDO, Portugal. "Tough one—probably somebody that is on the cusp of breaking out but not playing in a big league with a heavy schedule since they'll be relatively fresher. I honestly don't follow enough to know. Otherwise, the easy answer would be Ronaldo."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "I have a feeling they won't advance past here, since they'll likely meet Germany in the next round. Or perhaps I can slot Germany into the 'disappointment' category."

WINNER: SPAIN. "Deadliest strike force around and some brilliant playmakers. Although, I have an inkling for the Dutch as well."

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PANELIST: Tim Webber, author, United Nations: Around the Manchester United World...

SLEEPER: SERBIA. "Serbia have not really attracted much attention from the media but I think they can top their group ahead of Germany (who aren't great) and Ghana (who are struggling particularly with Michael Essien out). In the likes of Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic they have great EPL experience, they have Dejan Stankovic from Inter Milan, and in MiloÅ¡ Krasic could have one of the players of the tournament—although he might have the worst hair."

DISAPPOINTMENT: ENGLAND. "It's too easy to say England. But that's only because in England everyone expects England to win. They won't. They'll finish ahead of the U.S. in the group but if Wayne Rooney gets injured there's simply no firepower, and with the way they've played in recent warm-ups there's no reason to think they have the quality to challenge Spain or Brazil."

PLAYER TO WATCH: WESLEY SNEIJDER, Netherlands. "Fantastic all-round technical ability—can score, pass, run, and has the intelligence to make it count. The main reason Inter won the Champions League. If he stays free of injury, he could be the telling player in the tournament."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "The U.S. are a poor man's England, and England aren't great (see above). The U.S. will finish second and face Serbia in the round of 16, who I happen to think are pretty shit-hot (see above). It's all above, just re-read that."

WINNER: NETHERLANDS. "Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart—they don't all fit into the same team but they all have something to prove after either being rejected by Real Madrid last summer or being injured this season. They are form players. A lot depends on Robben recovering from injury, but I think they have the balance of technical skills to go all the way. That's where my money is. I could be boring and say Spain or Brazil, but it looks so much better if you pick a dark horse and are right!"

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PANELIST: Gerhard "The Coach" Stochl, Chinatown Soccer Club, L.E.S.

SLEEPER: NETHERLANDS. "I was really hoping for an African team to go far but the Ivory Coast won't be the same without Didier Drogba (nor will it really help if he plays with a fractured elbow) and Ghana will miss Michael Essien. So while they might not be a real dark horse, I think Holland could finally win something with all that amazing attacking talent at their disposal."

DISAPPOINTMENT: PORTUGAL. "They might have Ronaldo, but their team is in shambles and they have a really tough group with Brazil and the Ivory Coast."

PLAYER TO WATCH: LIONEL MESSI, Argentina. "No surprises here but Lionel Messi is obviously expected to finally perform for Argentina the way he so effortlessly does for Barcelona throughout the season. Also, Germany's Mesut Özil is a supremely gifted player who could have a real impact if his young team do well in the tournament."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: ROUND OF 16. "They should make it out of their group but will probably lose to Germany in the next round—and even if they don't, the later stages will be tough against much more experienced opponents."

WINNER: ARGENTINA. "El Diego is crazy for leaving out Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso after they helped Inter Milan to a historic treble but he still has such an amazing squad. Plus Spain already won the European Championships and another title for Brazil would be boring."

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PANELIST: Donnie Kwak, senior deputy editor, Complex

SLEEPER: SOUTH KOREA. "Being a blind nationalist is no good in times of war, but it's permissible—and actually encouraged—during this month. Yahoo had us ranked #28 out of 32 teams? FOH!"

DISAPPOINTMENT: USA. "Yeah, I'm a hater."

PLAYER TO WATCH: MARCUS TULIO TANAKA, Japan. "A.k.a. the man who broke Drogba's arm. Had the chance to see the fearsome half-Brazilian CB play in Nagoya for Grampus 8, and homie tackles like an animal. Japan might not be going anywhere, but their second game is against the fragile-ass Dutch. Get those stretchers ready."

THE USA WILL ADVANCE TO: GROUP STAGE. "They might beat England, but will drop points to Algeria and shockingly fall to the Charlie Browns—I mean, Slovenia."

WINNER: SOUTH KOREA. "Might as well, yeah?"

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