Not surprisingly, the Brazilian team is the hands-down favorite to hoist the trophy this year. With an impressive World Cup record – they are the only country to have qualified for every tournament – they are the defending champions and have won a record 5 World Cup titles. Virtually every sportsbook has selected Brazil as team most likely to win the tournament. With FIFA Player of the Year Ronaldhino, Real Madrid’s forward Ronaldo, and AC Milan’s Kaka, this year’s Brazilian squad looks as strong as ever. Other tournament favorites are Argentina, Holland, Italy, the Ukraine, and the host team Germany. If England can keep a few key players healthy, they also stand a nice chance of going all the way.

One could even go so far as to speculate that the Germans have a 1 in 3 chance of winning this year’s Cup, since the home team have won 6 of 18 World Cup’s in the past. Although many believe that the German squad is not one of their best, the home advantage is huge in the World Cup finals and should not be taken lightly. They also have won 3 cups in the past, which is no small feat in itself. History shows us that winning the cup is extremely difficult as only seven teams have managed to do this in 16 tournaments spanning 75 years.

Let’s take a look at each group and point out who we think are the two teams most likely to qualify for the second round:

Group A: Germany, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Poland

Again, the Germany’s home-field advantage will be a huge factor and should see them through to the final sixteen. Also their efficient and organized defence will make it tough for opposing teams to penetrate and score goals. Poland is the other favourite to emerge from this group.

Group B: England, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Sweden

We should see England qualify from this group, despite their injury problems. Even without Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen, both of whom are considered questionable starters at the time of this writing, the England team looks strong on paper with Gerrard, Lampard, and Beckham all playing at top form. It is Trinidad and Tobago’s first-ever Cup finals and they have very little chance of qualifying, so look for Sweden and Paraguay battling it out for that second qualifying position.

Group C: Argentina, Holland, the Ivory Coast, Serbia and Montenegro

Argentina is one of the favourites to win it all and should qualify first in this group. They have been rather disappointing in the past three Cups, but this year’s roster looks strong and they have turned many heads coming up to the finals. However, Group C is considered by many to be 2006’s Group of Death, and is proving very difficult to predict. Most sportsbooks put Argentina and Holland at the top of this group.

Group D: Angola, Iran, Mexico, Portugal

Group D is considered to be the weakest group. The clear favourites to emerge are Portugal and Mexico, and very few predict that either Iran or Angola will have any kind of impact on the outcome.

Group E: Czech Republic, Ghana, Italy, the United States

This is another killer group. Czech Republic is ranked second in the world by FIFA and the United States, fourth. Italy is always competitive and Ghana is considered by many to be the strongest African team in the competition. It is very difficult to predict the winners of this group, but most pundits see the Czech Republic and Italy making it to the next stage. It’d be foolish, however, to count out the Americans after their stellar – and surprising – performance at the 2002 WC.

Group F: Australia, Brazil, Croatia, Japan

No one expects Brazil to have any trouble qualifying first in this group, but the second position will be a hard-fought battle, most likely between Japan and Croatia. Japan has had some trouble scoring goals of late, and Croatia always seem to pick up their play in the World Cup Finals. It will be interesting to see if Australia will poise any threat in their first-ever World Cup appearance. Our prediction: Brazil and Croatia

Group G: France, South Korea, Switzerland, Togo

1998’s Cup winner France is always a force to be reckoned with, and especially with the likes of Thierry Henry playing at his prime and Zinedine Zidane wrapping up his career, they are a sentimental favourite for many. South Korea, the co-host of 2002’s Cup, is playing some of its best football and could surprise a few this June. Togo will appear in their first Cup finals, but few expect them to have any impact.

Group H: Saudi Arabia, Spain, Tunisia, and Ukraine

Spain and the Ukraine are the top favourites to emerge from this group. Both teams have failed to live up to their expectations in the past, so look for them to come out firing this June. Not much is expected from the Saudis, but Tunisia could make a run for that second qualifying position.

FIFA World Football Rankings for May 2006

1 Brazil
2 Czech Republic
3 Netherlands
5 Spain
6 Mexico
7 France
8 Portugal
8 Argentina
10 England
11 Denmark
12 Nigeria
13 Turkey
14 Italy
15 Cameroon
16 Sweden
17 Japan
18 Egypt
19 Greece
19 Germany