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By: Mike Levitt

It’s that time again, prediction time!

Since I will be writing about the low-down in South Africa from the time of my arrival on June 3rd, I am taking this week to preview all the excitement to come by breaking down the teams in each of the eight groups at this summer’s World Cup.

This preview is targeted at everybody — from the avid soccer follower to the American sports fan looking for some analysis of the greatest sporting event in the world.

In the coming days, I will preview a group and give background on every nation involved. So stay tuned and enjoy my breakdown of Group A!

GROUP A: South Africa, France, Uruguay, Mexico

SOUTH AFRICA

BACKGROUND/QUALIFYING — The hosts, also known affectionately as “Bafana Bafana” by their fans, have huge expectations for the first ever World Cup in Africa. No host nation has ever faltered in the group stages and South Africa, with a FIFA ranking of 83rd — the second lowest in the tournament behind North Korea — will need every bit of their hometown edge to get through.

As the host nation, South Africa did not have to qualify for the event. Most recently on the international front, they failed to qualify for this past year’s African Cup of Nations, a tournament held every two years that is the African equivalent of the World Cup. They finished 11 points behind group winner Nigeria in the first round of qualifying. In their two previous appearances in the ACON, in 2008 and 2006, the South Africans finished last in the group both times. In 2008 they drew twice, losing once while in 2006 they lost all three group stage games. In 1996, South Africa won their only ACON title, the high point of their soccer legacy.

South Africa, a country that has historically had extreme racial tensions that still linger today, qualified for both the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, but never advanced from the group stage. In 2002 they recorded their first ever win at the event, beating Slovenia 1-0 and narrowly missed out at advancement.

Perhaps the most promising sign for Bafana Bafana was their play at the 2009 Confederations Cup, where they advanced to the semi-finals before losing to Brazil 1-0 and narrowly lost to Spain in the third-place game. They showed tremendous heart in front of their home crowd and can be expected to do so again.

This year South Africa hasn’t lost any of its eight friendlies, seven of which have been on home soil. They won against Zimbabwe, Thailand, Jamaica and Colombia, and drew against Namibia, Paraguay in Ascuncion, North Korea, and Bulgaria.

Not a stellar record if you ask me and they have a tough group. It will be difficult and they will need every ounce of home field advantage.

PLAYERS TO WATCH — Steven Pienaar is unquestionably their most exciting player. He will most likely play on the wings, like he does at his club team Everton (England). The 28-year-old is a dynamic playmaker that tirelessly covers space on the outside and will provide inspiration with his creativity and confidence.

Steven Pienaar

Katiego Mphela may be the key to South African success. The forward hit the international stage at the 2009 Confederations Cup with two blinding goals in the heartbreaking loss to Spain in the third place game, but has been in a goal scoring drought since. He netted twice in a recent friendly against Thailand and once against Colombia on May 27. If he can continue to turn it around , Mphela could be an important asset to his country.

Team captain Aaron Moekena (Portsmouth) and Tsepo Masilela (Maccabi Haifa, Israel) will be instrumental in the back while Siphiwe Tshabalala (Kaiser Chiefs, South Africa), probably Bafana Bafana’s best domestic player will also be important in the midfield.

The biggest question mark remains out-of-favor striker Benni McCarthy (West Ham, England). His form has been terrible this season for the relegation threatened Hammers and he has looked out of shape. But if the 1998 and 2002 World Cup veteran who is also his nation’s top-scorer can find a little more gas in the tank, it might lead his country to glory.

KEY MATCHUP — vs. Mexico JUNE 11 – Johannesburg Soccer City (MATCH DAY 1)

Every game will be tough for the hosts, but getting out of the gate on the right foot will be essential. A win in their first game will take the pressure off when they play Uruguay before a tough matchup against group favorites France on the final day. Mexico’s second game is against France and knowing how tough it will be, “El Tri” will come out flying against South Africa.

FRANCE

BACKGROUND/QUALIFYING — France is one of the world soccer superpowers. Since their back-to-back wins at the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships that featured the great Zinedine Zidane, “Les Bleus” have been less than impressive, however. In 2002 World Cup they failed to make it out of the group but in 2006 made it all the way to the final, losing on penalties to Italy after Zidane’s infamous head-butt to Marco Materazzi.

France finished second in their six team qualifying group, one point behind surprise winners Serbia. In qualifying, they lost only once, their opening game to Austria. They drew three times, twice against Romania and once to Serbia. They did beat Serbia in their first meeting, which is a plus, but also had narrow victories over Faroe islands and Lithuania, which is not so promising.

Finishing second in the group meant that they played a home-and-away series with Ireland for a spot in the World Cup, and after a draw in the first leg and scoreless second leg, the fixture went to extra-time. Enter Thierry Henry and his game-winning handball that shook the world and legitimized claims for video replay, and here are France, alive by the skin under their fingernails.

Despite a wealth of absolutely world-class players, France has struggled with their team dynamic under longtime coach Raymond Domenech. Domenech seemed to be on the way out after 2002 World Cup and every subsequent failure since, but has somehow held the reigns through this tournament. He will finally relinquish his role after the event to newly signed Bordeaux coach, Laurant Blanc.

PLAYERS TO WATCH — Where to begin? With Hugo Lloris (Lyon), one of the best young goalkeepers in the world? Or with their absurdly deep back line, especially on the wings with Eric Abidal (Barcelona), Gael Clichy (Arsenal), Bacaray Sagna (Arsenal), and Patrice Evra (Manchester United)? With injury scares to William Gallas (Arsenal), who played in the 2-1 friendly win against Costa Rica Tuesday, Abidal may move to center-back.

Hugo Lloris

France also employs a deep midfield despite the loss of Lassana Diarra (Real Madrid) last week to a stomach virus that will keep him out of the tournament. Jeremy Toulalan (Lyon) will start in the center and Alou Diarra (Bourdeaux) and Abou Diaby (Arsenal) are adequate replacements. NOTE: Adequate by French standards, either one would be a starter on USA and arguably their best player.

Based on their lineup against Costa Rica, which will most likely be close to their starting lineup on June 11 against Uruguay, Yoann Gourcouff (Bordeaux) and Florent Malouda (Chelsea) will round out the midfield. Both have pace, ball control, and creativity.

France employs a 4-3-3, which means they have one striker and two wingers up front. Frank Ribery (Bayern Munich) is chomping at the bit to impress internationally after his suspension in the Champions League Final. He is the go-to guy for his country. Nicholas Anelka (Chelsea), the younger and abler of the two aging strikers (Henry is the other), will start and be given ample opportunity to provide the final touch. Henry, who played sporadically at Barcelona this season, will most likely be demoted to a substitute role.

SNUBS — I don’t care what people say, Samir Nasri (Arsenal) deserved to be on this squad. He had an excellent season, often carrying the north-London club for long stretches because of injuries to other stars. I don’t care how deep the midfield pool may be, he should have been on the plane. There must be a behind the scenes issue with Domenech. Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) is a different story. He had a dismal year at the Spanish giants and saw little playing time, giving little reason why he should be on the squad.

KEY MATCHUP — vs. Uruguay JUNE 11, Cape Town (MATCHDAY 1)

France is the group favorite and has the ability to win all of their group stage games. However, recent international tournaments, most notably the 2008 European Championship where they finished last in their group, have shown Les Bleus are an inconsistent bunch. They should beat Uruguay and if they do, will have the confidence to take the group handily. The two nations have played twice in World Cup history, tying 0-0 in the group stages in 2002 and in 1966 Uruguay won 2-1.

This time around it’s all about chemistry and playing attacking soccer for the French. In recent friendlies, most notably the win against Costa Rica on May 24, they showed everyone that they are a force on their best day.

URUGUAY

BACKGROUND/QUALIFYING — Uruguay prides themselves on a rich soccer tradition. They hosted and won the first-ever World Cup in 1930. In the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, after choosing not to enter the previous two Cups, they won again, beating the hosts 2-1 in the final in arguably the country’s greatest soccer moment.

But all that glory is in the old days. This year Uruguay reached their 11th World Cup by beating Costa Rica in a two-legged playoff. Qualifying is tough in South America and as the fifth place finishers, it took a playoff with the fourth place finisher from the Central and North American group (CONCACAF) to secure the tournament’s last open position. Taking a 1-0 lead after the away leg, the Uruguayans held off at home, drawing 1-1.

Uruguay had a topsy-turvy qualifying campaign, sneaking into the final spot just one point ahead of Ecuador and Colombia and two points ahead of Venezuela. They lost both games against Brazil and Argentina, traded home-and-home wins with Paraguay and drew twice against Chile, the other South American qualifiers. Uruguay fared much better against the teams fighting for the fifth spot, beating Colombia twice, drawing Venezuela twice, and taking four points from Ecuador.

The fact that they haven’t been able to compete with top teams bodes poorly for Uruguay and their chances of advancing out of this tough group.

PLAYERS TO WATCH — Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid) is a combination of Derek Jeter and Brad Pitt in Uruguay. The 31 year-old is a consummate pro and has an uncanny nose for goal. He is nothing short of a national hero and led his team in goals during qualifying (seven). Fresh off his team’s Europa League success where he scored both goals, Forlan is a legitimate threat in front of net and can never be counted out to score a big goal for club and country. Combined with Luis Suarez (Ajax) who scored 35 goals in all competitions this season, they will make as formidable a duo as any in the World Cup. Edison Cavani (Palermo) is young, but scored 13 goals in Serie A this season and could impact off the bench.

Diego Forlan

Uruguay has a delicate mix of youth and experience. The back line, led by Captain Diego Lugano (Fenerbahce) and imposing Diego Godin (Villareal) shows potential. Maxi Pereira (Benfica) is explosive up the flanks and Alvaro Pereira (Porto) and Walter Gargano (Napoli) control the ball in the midfield.

Watch out for youngster Nicolas Lodiero (Ajax). Lodiero, at 21, is highly regarded at home for his technical ability and left foot and is on the cusp of breaking out at Ajax, where he signed over the winter from hometown club Nacional.

SNUBS — Christian Rodriguez (Porto) was considered a lock except for the fact that he is looking at a two-match FIFA ban for a red card in the final qualifier against Argentina, which would keep him out of games against France and South Africa. Head coach Oscar Tabares just couldn’t take the chance.

KEY MATCHUP — vs. Mexico. JUNE 22 Rustenburg (MATCHDAY 12)

By the final group stage games, it is extremely likely that both Mexico and Uruguay will be in a position to advance with a win. Depending on who got points off France and how many they got off South Africa will be pivotal. Uruguay has the offense, it is simply whether or not they come to play against a big team. It will all be about confidence and capitalizing on opportunities. The edge has to be given to Uruguay if they come off a win in their prior match against the hosts.

MEXICO

BACKGROUND/QUALIFYING — Traditionally the powerhouse in the CONCACAF region, Mexico finished second in the final qualifying group behind the USA. Expectations are always high for the national team and as such when results are unfavorable, heads roll. At one point early in qualifying they went through three coaches in a little over a month and it appeared that maybe they wouldn’t even make it to the final round of qualifying. After an abysmal run of (1-5-1) in a seven game stretch, Swedish manager Sven Goren-Erikkscon was dismissed in favor of Javier Agguere, the man that led Mexico to the 2002 World Cup. Under the new coach it took a five-game winning streak to secure their position before the final day of qualifiers.

Mexico was the first country to host two World Cups, in 1970 an 1986. In 1986, after an earthquake devastated would-be host nation Chile, Mexico stepped in and took over the event. Despite all their history, Mexico has never advanced past the quarter-finals and in both instances it was on home turf. They have been at every World Cup since 1994, advancing from the group stage each time.

PLAYERS TO WATCH — Mexico has a number of young attacking players that have been in the limelight since their arrival on the international stage at the U-17 World Cup in 2005. Both Carlos Vela (Arsenal) and Geovanni Dos Santos (Tottenham) are primed for the big time and are craving serious minutes. Both have found themselves in supporting roles for their clubs and are ready to prove their worth at the full-international stage.

Carlos Vela

Mexico supports a young attacking front with a veteran core of Rafa Marquez (Barcelona) Ricardo Osorio (Stuttgart) and Carlos Salcido (PSV Eindhoven). Look for Andres Guardado (Deportivo La Coruna) to also have a breakout performance.

KEY MATCHUP — vs. France JUNE 17. Polokwane (MATCHDAY 7)

No matter what happens in their first game, Mexico needs to secure points from France in their second game. If they win against South Africa, then a draw will suffice. But anything short of that on Matchday 1 against the hosts, and Mexico will need a win to ease their qualifying hopes. Against France they will need to assert themselves and keep a bit of possession. The more they allow the favorites to control the game, the harder it will be. Uruguay will be a tough game on the last day and the Spanish-speaking battle will most likely be a tenacious, tense affair. So a good result against France is the best way to ensure advancement.

MY PICKS: France and Uruguay

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Tags : Carlos VelaDiego ForlanFranceHugo LlorisMexicoSouth AfricaSteven PienaarUruguayWorld Cup 2010

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