When football's World Cup kicks off June 9 in Germany, four nations will begin their challenge just to escape from perhaps the most difficult first-round group of the quadrennial tournament. VOA's Jim Stevenson has more on Group C, which includes two-time champion Argentina, the Netherlands, Serbia and Montenegro, and Ivory Coast.
With all four teams ranked in the top 50 in the world, and two in the top 10, well-known international football commentator Derek Rae says Group C will be the most unpredictable for the 2006 World Cup.
"This is clearly the group of death. This is the one that the teams involved wanted to avoid because, really, it is anyone's guess who is going to make it out of this section," he said.
The former Yugoslavia played in nine World Cups. Serbia and Montenegro, which was part of Yugoslavia, is making its first World Cup appearance. While it has the lowest world ranking of the four Group C teams (44th), Rae says Serbia and Montenegro's stingy defense may be the key to reaching the second round.
"Serbia and Montenegro have strength in abundance. They have this marvelous back four that have conceded just one goal in World Cup qualifying in Europe," he said.
Argentina has a rich World Cup history with titles in 1978 and 1986. The Netherlands lost to Germany in the 1974 final and is seeking to have another chance to win its first World Cup. But Rae says the spoiler in the group could be a strong African team.
"Complicating matters for Argentina, Holland [the Netherlands] and Serbia and Montenegro are the Ivory Coast, who are for me, the best of the African sides in the competition. And this is really is a coming together of tremendous young talents. Players such as Kolo Toure of Arsenal, and his club teammate Emmanuel Eboue, also Didier Drogba of Chelsea, these are big names in world football," he said.
Although Argentina may have an advantage with youthful players, Rae says that may also be the nation's weakness.
"There are some doubts of Argentina. We saw how fragile they were at the last World Cup finals. Holland [the Netherlands], well, it is a case of young players really for [coach] Marco van Basten. That is his preference. He tends to pick young players who are in form with their club sides in Holland as opposed to backing some of the more established stars who play overseas," he said.
But the Netherlands will face many international stars, who will be in Germany as each of the Group C teams claw their way through the so-called 'group of death' for the chance to advance.