France the head of the class: Group A
By QMI Agency
World Cup history: 13th appearance, 25 wins, 10 draws, 16 losses, 95 GF, 64 GA.
Best finish: Winners in 1998
The oddsmakers say: 18/1
Players to watch: MF Frank Ribery; F Thierry Henry; MF Yoann Gourcuff.
The skinny: France should not be in South Africa. Sorry if the truth hurts, French fans, but that’s the reality of the situation. How game officials could miss the double hand ball of striker Thierry Henry in a crucial qualifier against Ireland is a mystery, one that left a rancid stink lingering over the entire sport. Henry’s “Hand of Fraud” set up teammate William Gallas for the winning goal that allowed France to get by Ireland, 2-1, on aggregate, allowing the French to advance to South Africa. By all accounts, it is Ireland that should be here, not France. The World Cup winners of 1998, France was inconsistent throughout qualifying, much to the chagrin of its sea of supporters. There are plenty of stars on this team. Let’s see if they play that way.
The outlook: On paper, the French should be able to get out of Group A. At the same time, Uruguay, Mexico and host South Africa will not be pushovers by any stretch of the imagination. If the French continue to underachieve, this group could get interesting.
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World Cup history: 14th appearance, 11 wins, 12 draws, 22 losses, 48 GF, 84 GA.
Best finish: Quarter-finals in 1970, 1986.
The oddsmakers say: 100/1
Players to watch: D Rafael Marquez; G Guillermo Ochoa; D Ricardo Osorio.
The skinny: Despite losses to England and Netherlands in a couple of pre-World Cup tune-ups, the Mexicans showed a lot of flow in their game and could cause havoc in Group A. One plus for the team known as “El Tri” (The Three-Coloured), is the altitude. Mexico is accustomed to playing in the thin air of high elevation, something that should be an advantage given the number of South African venues that are located more than a mile above sea level. In retrospect, Mexico did not get off to a good start in qualifying, eventually costing manager Sven-Goran Eriksson his job. In stepped his replacement, Javier Aguirre, a move that seemed to suit the players. In the end, they qualified just one point behind the United States.
The outlook: While France should be the class of this group, don’t be surprised if these four teams beat each other up in an attempt to get the top two spots and the privilege of advancing to the round of 16. Mexico’s fate could be determined in the tournament’s opening match on June 11, at Soccer City, against host South Africa.
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World Cup history: 11th appearance, 15 wins, 10 draws, 15 losses, 65 GF, 57 GA.
Best finish: Winners in 1930, 1950.
>The oddsmakers say: 100/1.
Players to watch: F Luis Suarez; F Diego Forlan; D Diego Lugano.
The skinny: It’s been 60 years since Uruguay won the World Cup in 1950. Six decades later, don’t expect that dry spell to end. In the words of manager Oscar Tabarez, “The world is very different from when Uruguayan football enjoyed its greatest triumphs.” Indeed, Uruguay snuck its way into South Africa with a 2-1 aggregate win over Costa Rica in a playoff, much to the chagrin of the team’s fans who had nervously chewed their fingernails down to the bone. Having said that, this team could cause some havoc with its young talent. The dynamic duo of strikers Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan might cause a lot of headaches for opposing defenders by the time all is said and done. Known as “La Celeste” (The Sky Blue), Uruguay players will always be quick to point out the country won the first ever World Cup in 1930. That was then. This is now.
The outlook: There is considerable skill oozing from this roster, especially up front. But will it be enough to finish first or second in the group? Most experts figure third place is in the cards for Uruguay. We’ll see.
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World Cup history: Third appearance, 1 win, 3 draws, 2 losses, 8 GF, 11 GA.
Best finish: Preliminary round, 1998, 2002.
The oddsmakers say: 150/1.
Players to watch: MF Steven Pienaar; MF Aaron Mokoena; D Siboniso Gaxa.
The skinny: It’s a good thing South Africa received an automatic invite to the big dance as the host country. Otherwise, there is a good chance this squad might not have qualified at all. Since finishing fourth on home soil in the Confederations Cup 12 months ago, they lost eight of their next nine outings, including a defeat to Iceland, hardly a world powerhouse. That loss helped get manager Joel Santana fired, opening the door for the return of Carlos Alberto Parreira. Parreira, the South African coach in 2007, resigned his post and went back to his native Brazil when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Now Parreira, who led Brazil to the World Cup title in 1994, is back. With the home crowd loudly cheering on their beloved “Bafana Bafana” (Boys, Boys) as the team is known, there will be pressure for a good showing.
The outlook: With the raucous pro-South Africa crowd tooting their vuvuzela horns, Bafana Bafana certainly will have a huge home field advantage in this tournament. But will it be enough to overcome a lack of talent that seemed to plague this team as it staggered toward the World Cup? An entire country hopes so.