Post Ranking: 2

Region: Europe

World Cup History: 16th appearance, champion in 1934, 1938 and 1982; runner-up in 1970 and 1994

Top Player: MF-F Francesco Totti

Lowdown: The Azzurri is rounding into form under former Juventus coach Marcello Lippi, fielding a typically disciplined defensive side and an increasingly dangerous attack sparked by Totti. He likely will feed forwards such as Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni, who carried Italy to a relatively easy qualification and seem ready to supplant Fs Christian Vieri and Alessandro del Piero.


Post Ranking: 26

Region: Africa

World Cup History:

First appearance

Top Player: MF Michael Essien

Lowdown: Ghana's absence from the World Cup finals has always been puzzling. The Black Stars have traditionally been one of Africa's strongest teams, winning the African Cup of Nations four times and the under-17 world championship twice. Essien (Chelsea), MF Stephen Appiah (Fenerbache) and F Sulley Ali Montari (Udinese) gained valuable experience playing in the Champions League this year.

United States

Post Ranking: 13

Region: North/Central America and Caribbean

World Cup History: Eighth appearance, made 1930 semifinals and 2002 quarterfinals

Top Player: MF-F Landon Donovan

Lowdown: Was 2002 an aberration? Or a signal to the rest of the world that American soccer has joined the elite? The 2006 tournament will be a good indicator because many of the American players are well known in international circles. Although the core of the team will be the European-based players -- Kasey Keller, Claudio Reyna, DaMarcus Beasley and Brian McBride -- the Americans' success will depend heavily on Donovan, who scored twice in 2002 and was the most influential U.S. player during the recent qualifying campaign. Donovan played at Bayer Leverkusen in Germany last winter, but quickly returned to the comforts of MLS.

Czech Republic

Post Ranking: 9

Region: Europe

World Cup History: Ninth appearance (previous eight as Czechoslovakia), runner-up in 1934 and 1962

Top Player: MF Pavel Nedved

Lowdown: After finishing second to the Dutch in their qualifying group, the Czechs used a pair of 1-0 victories over Norway to secure the berth. They actually began building momentum for the World Cup in the summer of 2004, when, in an attractive display of attacking soccer, they claimed a semifinal spot at the European Championship. Nedved, a gifted wing from Juventus, came out of retirement to boost their qualifying aspirations.

Landon Donovan is a central component in U.S. hopes for success.

Francesco Totti of Italy