South Americans favoured for Golden Boot
There are perhaps ten or so countries that can travel to the World Cup in South Africa carrying the thought that, if things go their way, they might just come back with the trophy.
The number of players who might come back with the Golden Boot (awarded to the tournament's top scorer) is far greater. History tells us that the winner can come from nowhere - such as 1990, when Italy's Toto Schillaci went from reserve to national hero inside a month.
Or perhaps even more startling, Juste Fontaine in 1958. He was not even expected to be in France's team, but an injury to a rival opened the door and Fontaine took his opportunity with both hands - or feet, scoring a tournament record 13 goals.
Or there's the case of Oleg Salenko of Russia, who shares the 1994 award (with Bulgaria's Hristo Stoichkov) despite the fact that his team were eliminated in the group phase. Five of his six goals came in the meaningless final match against a dispirited Cameroon side.
History points to South America
The race to win the Golden Boot, then, is always remarkably open. But a glance at the history books tells us that a player from my adopted continent of South America should not be discounted in South Africa. In the 18 World Cups held so far, the Golden Boot has gone to South America on five occasions, with one extra when it was shared.
Argentina's Guillermo Stabile was the first winner in 1930, with countryman Mario Kempes following him 48 years later. Brazil's Leonidas won in 1938, Ademir twelve years later and Ronaldo in 2002. Vava and Garrincha were part of a six-way tie in 1962, along with Chile's Lionel Sanchez.
A Chilean was top scorer in South America's recent World Cup qualification campaign - Humberto Suazo, now playing in Spain with Real Zaragoza, managed ten goals.
Suazo was something of a late developer, and it took people a long time to realise that he is a far better player than he can often appear at first sight. He has a few things going for him in his candidacy for the Golden Boot. Chile is a team built to attack. The philosophy of coach Marcelo Bielsa is to spend as much time as possible in the opponent's half of the field. And with a dangerous winger either side of him (Alexis Sanchez and Mark Gonzalez) Suazo is the king of the penalty area, with others making the bullets for him to fire. Also, he is Chile's penalty taker.
On the other hand, the Golden Boot winner will need to play as many games as possible. Here, Chile is fighting tradition. Apart from the World Cup they hosted in 1962, the last game they won in the competition was against the United States back in 1950. The current side can be very attractive, but they do have problems defending in the air. Many people are picking them out as dark horses, and it will be fascinating to see how they cope with the pressure of the expectations.
Despite their difficult group, it will be a surprise if Brazil doesn't get far enough in the tournament to give Luis Fabiano a shot at the Golden Boot. He scored one goal less than Suazo in qualification, but was only on the field for around half the length of time. Like Suazo, he also takes the penalties (though Kaka is an alternative), and he is also the sole penalty-area target man. Top scorer in last year's Confederations Cup, strong, tough and proficient on either foot, Fabiano is the safe choice to finish the World Cup as leading marksman.
Sergio Aguero was Argentina's top scorer in their turbulent qualification campaign, but Diego Maradona's restructuring of the side means that a place in the starting line-up now looks unlikely for his own son in law (Aguero is married to Maradona's daughter).
It seems that Argentina will go with an attacking trident of Gonzalo Higuain, flanked by Lionel Messi on the right and Angel Di Maria on the left. All three are in excellent club form, and if they can reproduce that level of performance with the national team then Argentina carry a potent threat. In terms of the Golden Boot, however, it could be that the goals will be shared too much around the trio for any one single candidate to emerge.
Don't forget about Forlan
Uruguay also has a dangerous collection of strikers, and the combination of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez will give rival defenders a few sleepless nights. They were full of goals in qualification, though on the evidence of the campaign the Sky Blues were rabbit killers - steamrollering weak opponents in Montevideo, but lacking the midfield guile to get though stronger rivals.
The hope is that the emergence of playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro has solved that problem - but counting against the Golden Boot hopes of Suarez and Forlan is the fact that Uruguay have been drawn in perhaps the most balanced group in the World Cup. There will be few easy goals around against France, South Africa and Mexico.
For this reason it might just be that Paraguay's Roque Santa Cruz is an interesting outsider to go home with the Golden Boot. Preparing for his third World Cup, Santa Cruz is a class act in the air and on the ground - and he has the advantage of facing rank outsiders New Zealand in the final group game, by which time they might already have been softened up by Slovakia and Italy.
The doubt, of course, surrounds his fitness. Eleven years ago when he joined Bayern Munich, Santa Cruz was a 17-year-old already good enough to lead the Paraguayan attack, and the Germans were convinced their new acquisition was on his way to becoming one of the top three players in the world. A bad run of injuries meant that it never happened.
The quality, though, is all still there. After an injury free couple of seasons with Blackburn, the problems have flared up again in the current campaign with Manchester City. But there are some promising signs.
After sitting out much of the season he produced an excellent display for Paraguay in a friendly against Athletic Bilbao at the start of the month. And he scored for City at the weekend, though he picked up a knock and missed the last few minutes.
It could be, though, that he is finding fitness at the right time. Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino certainly hopes so.
"Whenever his fitness allows, Roque is very important for us," he said recently, "and we're very happy that he's coming good in the run up to the World Cup. It gives us great expectations."
And it makes the Paraguayan an interesting candidate for the Golden Boot.
About the Author
The son of a reasonably skilled amateur soccer player, Tim Vickery inherited the enthusiasm but none of the talent - and soon came to the conclusion that his best position was on the sidelines writing about the game. Tim did not make it out of his native England until the age of 23, but has since made up for lost time. He has been based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for over 15 years, and writes and broadcasts about South American soccer for, among others, the BBC, World Soccer magazine, and SI.com.