World Cup Gets the Ball Rolling

On Dec. 4, the draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup Finals in South Africa was decided, and the 32 qualifying nations were split up into the customary eight groups of four teams.

Each year without fail, a few of these groups take on new personalities, generating drama and unpredictability of end results, for which pre-tournament seeds cannot account.

In the months leading up to the tournament in June and July, I will attempt to profile each group.

Kicking off the series is Group A; featuring host nation South Africa, WC06 runners-up France, a Mexican team with untapped potential, and the talented yet unproven Uruguay.

Group A power dynamic: Talent does not guarantee results.

The host nation could not have asked for a more complicated draw — one that will jeopardize the Bafana Bafana’s chances for emerging from the group. The South Africans are the group’s supreme underdogs, and will be counting on their fans’ energy and “host nation” mojo in order to advance.

While the French and the Uruguayans have both seen rocky roads to qualification, the raw talent on each side is on par with the best in the world. Team chemistry pending, both sides emerge on paper as the group’s power brokers.

Mexico qualified behind the U.S. in qualification in the North and Central American regions. However, the team has proven pedigree at the highest level of competition, and is led by wily manager Javier Agguire — who, after coaching in Europe for the majority of the last decade, is well-versed in tactics at the highest level. However, any path to the round-of-16 will be through the men in blue: the French.

Group Winners: France.

Barcelona forward Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland in European qualification has shrouded the team and the talismanic striker in controversy — some in France have even expressed shame over the way in which they qualified. On top of “handgate,” their mercurial manager Raymond Domenech has done little to instill confidence in the Le Bleus faithful: His sporadic player selections have stifled team chemistry, and his defense is akin to Swiss cheese.

Yet, for all these shortcomings, France still has one of the most elite talent hotbeds in world football — due in large part to their tendency to naturalize quality players from the country’s former colonies. In Girondins de Bordeaux midfielder Yoann Gourcuff, they have a creative midfielder to fill the hole left by the departed French icon Zinadine Zidane. With the likes of Frank Ribery, the explosive rocket-like Bayern Munich attacker, Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, the resurrected Chelsea goal-getter Nicolas Anelka and the aforementioned Henry, Gourcuff has a wealth of options to send forward into attack.

On sheer tournament pedigree and raw talent, the French possess world-conquering potential. Potential that, in the very least, will see them top Group A.

My pick for runner up: Uruguay.

The two-time World Cup winners enter this year’s edition as balanced and capable as any other squad in this tournament. Led in attack by the Spanish League leading scorer — Athletico Madrid striking extraordinaire Diego Forlan — and Ajax starlet Luis Suarez, the Charrúas La Celeste Olímpica (as their supporters affectionately call them) have scorers accustomed to performing at the highest level. Also, the fact that Uruguay emerged out of a highly competitive South American field shows they can win important matches in tough conditions.

However, if they don’t maximize their potential, their impressive qualification could be for naught — as an opportunistic Mexican side or a hungry host nation will undoubtedly look to spoil the “sky-blue” dreams.

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