By William Geldart
With World Cup 2010 only a few weeks away, kicking off on Friday June 11, The Football Blog is counting down to the global gameâ€™s showpiece event. During the build-up, weâ€™llÂ be analysing each group, with in-depth previews of every side and who theÂ keyÂ players are likely to be. With 32 teams participating, these pages will also be the definitive guide to the teams, managers, players and stories that may haveÂ fallen under the radar.
HOST NATION HOPING TO PUT OFF-FIELD PROBLEMS BEHIND THEM
We begin with a preview of Group A, home to the hosts, South Africa. Theyâ€™ll be competing alongside France, Mexico and Uruguay. There are genuine fears that South Africa could gain the ignominy of being classed â€˜worst host nation in historyâ€™ such is the weakness of their squad and the perceived strength of their opponents.
So far in World Cup history, no team hosting the tournament have been eliminated at the first hurdle.
Since winning the African Cup of Nations in 1996 and qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, South Africa have struggled to assert themselves as the predominant force on the continent.
Legendary Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira has led four teams to World Cup finals however it would surely rank as one of his greatest international achievements should his team reach the second round.
Much could depend on the performances of South Africaâ€™s English based players. Star man, midfielder Stephen Pienaar, is enjoying a fine season for Everton. Portsmouth defender Aaron Mokoena will be tasked with spearheading the rearguard.
West Hamâ€™s Benni McCarthy is an uncertain starter as he has struggled for form and fitness, despite his status as the countryâ€™s record goalscorer. Heâ€™ll be buoyed though by his return from international exile and could still pose a threat.
One of the few other players to ply his trade outside of South Africa, Macaabi Haifaâ€™s marauding left-back Tsepo Masilela will be one to watch. Likewise, Orlando Pirates midfielder Teko Modise is blessed with creativity and skill and could trouble opposition defences.
PLAYERS LOOK TO IMPROVE THE MOOD AS THEY MAKE FINAL
No doubt Parreira and his players will be looking to cast aside the off-field problems that have plagued South Africaâ€™s preparations. These include the sacking of fellow Brazilian Joel Santana following a run of eight defeats in nine games and the re-instatement of Parreira as manager.
The local media havenâ€™t been too impressed with the chaos surrounding their teamâ€™s build-up. Following the uninspiring 0-0 draw against fellow qualifiers North Korea, The Times of South Africa journalist, Kgomotso Mokoena gave an unforgiving assessment.
â€œWatching his charges running around like toddlers against North Korea would have left Carlos Alberto Parreira wondering just what he got himself into when he accepted the job to coach South Africa at the World Cupâ€ he said.
THREE MORE GAMES PLANNED AS TOURNAMENT APPROACHES
Bafana Bafana are due to play Bulgaria and Colombia before the tournament kicks off and their last warm-up will be a stern test against a Denmark side that topped their qualifying group.
South Africa can take heart from their performance at the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2009 where they narrowly lost out in the semi-finals to an 88th minute winner against Brazil. Recent wins against Jamaica
and Zimbabwe, achieved without their foreign based players, should also act as a source of hope, despite the relatively poor quality of the opposition.
Their status as the ultimate World Cup underdog may count in their favour and anything they might gain from the opening game against Mexico will offer them hope. They might be currently ranked 90th in the world however they do have a team containing a set of enigmatic talents who could spark into life.
FRANCE ARE GROUP A FAVOURITES
France, winners in 1998, may be considered favourites to win the group onÂ paper however team relations under eccentric manager Raymond Domenech are often strained. Having narrowly qualified for the finals, following a controversial play-off win against the Republic of Ireland that featured Thierry Henryâ€™s infamous handball, the French public have turned on their manager and team.
In typical Gallic fashion, the aftermath of the unseemly play-off victory brought about a wave of philosophising with national figures espousing their views. Roselyne Bachelot, the Health and Sports Minister voiced the nationâ€™s concerns when she said, â€œI really want to tell him, â€˜Raymond, you must rally yourself and your players because we, the French, are most worried and upsetâ€™.â€
FRENCH CREATIVE FORCES COULD BE KEY
Despite their unimpressive route to the finals, France still
possess a squad that will be the envy of most other managers at the tournament. Captain Thierry Henry is a surviving member of the old guard that led Les Bleus to World Cup triumph twelve years ago and he could be ably assisted by Chelsea frontman, Nicolas Anelka.
Indeed, the French are not short of attacking options. Like Henry, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema may not have enjoyed a prolific seasonÂ in Spain however heâ€™ll have an opportunity to remind the world of his pedigree.
Lyon forward Sidney Govou will also be eager to put aside his own personal heartache of defeat in the Champions League semi-finals to help his side to glory.
In midfield, Bayern Munichâ€™s creative tour de force Franck Ribery has been vocal in his desire to move to fresh pastures and the World Cup is the ultimate shopping window. Chelseaâ€™s Florent Malouda has enjoyed a resurgence in form this season and he has the pace and direct style to frighten any opposition defence.
Arsenalâ€™s Samir Nasri will also join Ribery and Malouda in providing the creative spark with Lyonâ€™s highly-rated Jeremy Toulalan and the Diarras, Lassana and Alou shielding the defence.
Romaâ€™s Phillipe Mexes and Manchester Unitedâ€™s Patrice Evra will both be hoping to go to South Africa having won championship medals in their respective domestic leagues. They look likely to be part of a mobile back-line that could also include Arsenalâ€™s Bacary Sagna.
Their last line of defence, talented Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has already turned down offers from Tottenham and AC Milan in the past and the spotlight will again fall on the youngster.
BEATEN BY THE TOURNAMENT WINNERS?
Franceâ€™s only game since their play-off victory was a 2-0 friendly defeat to much-fancied Spain in Paris. The comfortable nature of the win for the Spaniards has raised questions over the ability of France to defeat the worldâ€™s best should they reach the latter stages of the tournament. Thierry Henry was jeered by the home crowd, further highlighting the fractious relationship between the fans and their national side.
Before the World Cup kicks off, France will face Costa Rica and Tunisia in an attempt to acclimatise to the respective styles of Mexico and South Africa. Their final warm-up game will be against a Chinese side who also didnâ€™t qualify for the finals.
If France are to achieve similar success to their appearance in 2006 where they were beaten finalists, the team will have to gel and perform well in the group stage to win over their detractors. If they fail to make anÂ impression, they run the risk of repeating their feat at the 2002 World Cup where they finished bottom of their group with only a single point With divisive manager Domenech at the helm, maintaining team spirit within the playing squad will be of vital importance.
PERENNIAL QUALIFIERS MEXICO HOPE TO PROGRESS
The early portion of Mexicoâ€™s qualifying campaign was notable for a 7-0 thrashing of CONCACAF minnows Belize. This routine victory was a high point as under the guidance of Sven Goran-Eriksson, they began to falter.
Defeats to Jamaica and arch-rivals the United States, coupled with two defeats to Honduras were the final straw for Mexican Football Federation president Justino Compean.
“We could not take risks with qualification for the World Cup, and we could not rely solely on results at the Estadio Azteca (their home stadium),” he said.
Respected coach Javier Aguirre took the reins for the second time having guided Mexico to the Copa America final in 2001 and to the last 16 of the World Cup in 2002. Results drastically improved, with a five game
winning streak, taking revenge on the United States in the process and securing their passage to South Africa.
Indeed, Mexico, two times hosts themselves, have reached the last 16 in every tournament since USA â€™94.
EXPERIENCED SQUAD SHOULD SEE OFF CHALLENGERS
The experience within the Mexican squad should see them negotiate the group stage to reach the last 16 for the fifth consecutive time. Striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco and midfielder Gerardo Torrado have both been capped more than 100 times. They also boast the imperious Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez as one of their talents to be reckoned with.
Their training camp has already begun with a 17-man preliminary squad already named from the domestic contingent with European players such as PSV Eindhoven defender Carlos Salcido set to join up imminently. Mexico have lined up a series of hand-pickedÂ friendlies to be played in the USA against Ecuador, Senegal and Angola. They will then travel to Europe for their final warm-up games, including a trip to Wembley to play England on May 24.
Mexico have the joint honour of kicking off the tournament on June 11 when they face hosts South Africa in what is guaranteed to be a fervent atmosphere. There will be no charity shown for the Bafana-Bafana though
as El Tricolor will look to make a positive start.
They then face a difficult test against an erratic France side and they will want to be in a healthy position to qualify from the group by the time they meet Uruguay, who could prove to be rivals for second place.
URUGUAY WILL HOPE TO RELIVE PAST GLORIES AND SNEAK INTO LAST 16
Uruguay, the first hosts and winners of the World Cup, will look to relive past glories and achieve the respectability afforded to their winning sides of 1930 and 1950. Their recent record has been poor, having failed to advance to the second round since 1990.
They were the last team to qualify for the finals, having beaten off the challenge of Costa Rica to win a two-legged play-off 2-1 on aggregate. Like Mexico, theyâ€™ll be led by a returning manager, Oscar Washington Tabarez. He has managed the likes of AC Milan and Boca Juniors and was in charge the last time Uruguay made it to the last 16 at Italia â€™90.
The veteran coach has already begun plotting his sideâ€™s path to the latter stages, highlighting the game against hosts South Africa as crucial to his nationâ€™s hopes. Uruguay will open their campaign against France before facing South Africa in Pretoria five days later.Â Tabarez, in an interview published on Monday, told the daily Ultimas Noticias, “But the decisive match is the second. Even winning the first match, the second is the match of confirmation or the return. We have to focus our minds and prepare well to try and play well in that match.”
TABAREZ WILL HOPE TO FURTHER NUTURE YOUNG TALENT
The manager will name his preliminary 30-man squad early next week. The Uruguayans have a few stalwarts, namely the 33 year-old scoring sensation Sebastien Abreu, however as a squad they are a work in progress that are beginning to knit together.
The youthful pair of Nicolas Lodeiro and Luis Suarez, both currently at Dutch giants Ajax, will be looking to impress on the world stage. Midfielder Lodeiro was instrumental in former team Nacionalâ€™s surge to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, in the 2008/2009 season.
Lodeiro is feted for his excellent close control and dribbling ability besides his eye for goal. Suarez, meanwhile, is already an influential figure for club and country, having been handed the Ajax captaincy by manager Martin Jol. He has an impressive strike-rate of 10 goals in 29 appearances for the national side and will look to form a lethal partnership with Atletico Madrid hitman Diego Forlan at the finals.
Suarez also scored in Uruguayâ€™s latest game, a 3-1 friendly win against Switzerland and will hope to feature in their next contest against Israel on May 26.
Like manager Tabarez has already stated, much will depend on how Uruguay fare against South Africa. They could prove to be the dark horse of Group A if they can beat the Africans and topple Latin-American counterparts, Mexico. Anything earned against France would also be seen as a massive boost.
GROUP A WIDE OPEN AS FINALS APPROACH
Group A could see various permutations arising should results swing in favour of differing teams. France may appear to be favourites however theyâ€™re already under pressure and any negative start to the tournament will intensify the heat on their unpopular manager and players.
Some commentators, including CNN correspondent James Montague have suggested that â€œIt is an unwritten rule of all World Cups: if the host nation fails on the pitch, interest in the competition dies off the pitch.â€
The likelihood is that, no matter what the performances of their national side are like, soccer mad South Africans will lap up every minute of playing time this summer. Should their side manage to pull off any shocks, then even better. It will take a mammoth effort for them to qualify however a positive opening result against Mexico could see the momentum build and carry them through.
Mexico and Uruguay may see themselves as the natural contenders for the second spot in the group and much may depend on how well they do against South Africa. Both have the potential to take a point or more from an unpredictable French side however it could well come down to the final group game on June 22, when the pair will meet in Rustenburg.