maradona-xl091014getty

Diego Maradona's Argentina struggled through the qualifiers, but it would be foolish to discount the South Americans at the 2010 World Cup. ((PABLO PORCIUNCULA/AFP/Getty Images))

You could hardly blame Spanish, Dutch and English fans if they were excited about their teams' chances at the 2010 World Cup.

Spain, the reigning European champions, and the Netherlands won all of their games in the World Cup qualifiers, and both easily topped their respective groups by a good distance. England was almost perfect, winning nine out of its 10 matches.

As a result, all three nations are, somewhat understandably, being touted as the top favourites ahead of next month's festivities in South Africa. But fans shouldn't start planning celebratory parties just yet, because a successful qualification campaign doesn't guarantee World Cup glory.

No guarantee

"They're two completely different things, and often we see two different teams," Tim Vickery, a Rio-based journalist and expert on South American soccer, told CBCSports.ca.

A lot can happen before the World Cup — injuries, coaching changes, locker-room disharmony — that it makes the act of prognosticating a tournament winner based on the team's form in the qualifiers an exercise in futility.

"There are far too many variables out there ... for anyone to get too excited," said Raphael Honigstein, German soccer correspondent for The Guardian newspaper.

One need only look at the 2002 World Cup as an example.

England was riding high as it boarded the plane for Asia, still beaming with confidence from a near-flawless qualifying campaign that included a historic 5-1 win against arch-nemesis Germany in Munich in September of 2001.

English soccer was riding high after the Munich Massacre, while the German game was in a state of chaos, declared the pundits.

What happened next?

England meekly bowed out in the quarter-finals, while Germany advanced to the finals, proving that winning in the qualifiers and in the tournament itself are two entirely different propositions.

"We have a saying that Germany is a 'tournament team,' and by that we mean that everything that happened before must go out the window once the [World Cup] kicks off because you can't accurately gage the real strength of a team," explained Honigstein.

Tourament management the key

Henry Winter, chief soccer writer for the Daily Telegraph, agrees.

"I think other countries have better tournament management," Winter said of England's failed attempt to build on its successful 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign.

"It's not about doing well in the qualifiers — it's about how you pitch yourself through [the] tournament. How you develop the intelligence to deal with setbacks."

Likewise, Brazil struggled through South American qualification for the 2002 World Cup, losing six games (including shocking road defeats to Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia) and was held to a draw at home by lowly Peru.

The Selecao appeared to be a spent force and was a team in utter disarray.

But Brazil ended up having the last laugh, going undefeated at the 2002 World Cup and winning the tournament for a record fifth time.

Much has been made about Argentina's laborious attempt to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

National team coach Diego Maradona has come under heavy criticism for his tactics and player selections, and the Albicelestes, one of the world's traditional soccer powers, only managed to book their ticket on the final day of the South American qualifiers.

But even though Argentina stumbled through the qualification process — much like Brazil did in 2002 — Maradona's men shouldn't be taken lightly in South Africa.

"There are no prizes for coming first in qualification," said Vickery. "The only thing that matters is to cross that finish line, and now that Argentina is over that line, Maradona has a much easier task at hand."