The only group containing two former Fifa World Cup winners: France (1998) and Uruguay (1930 and 1950). Hosts South Africa will have their work cut out for them!
Despite being ranked seventh in the Fifa World Rankings, France was unseeded for the draw. Their qualification was very controversial, thanks to an overtime victory over the Republic of Ireland in Paris in which the winning goal was set up by a deliberate hand ball by striker Thierry Henry.
While they are still a team to be reckoned with, the French are no longer the free flowing skilful side that they were when the great Zinedine Zidane patrolled their midfield.
Despite having Henry – now his country’s leading international goal scorer of all time – leading the attack, they have at times struggled to find the back of the net. In fact, during 2009, they went through seven matches in succession in which neither team managed to score more than one goal. They played 12 matches, won seven, lost two and drew three.
France finished second in their qualifying group behind Serbia, but booked their place with their controversial two-leg win over the Republic of Ireland. It marked the first time the French had qualified for the World Cup four times in succession.
It should also be pointed out that the French go into the World Cup as the beaten finalists from 2006. If they had come out on the right side of a penalty shootout, it would have been their second title in three World Cups. The big question is whether or not they can perform as well outside of Europe.
Mexico showed good form in the latter half of 2009 with eight wins, one loss, and two draws. Overall, in a very busy year, they played 20 matches, won 11, lost six, and drew three.
Their most impressive performance of all came in the Gold Cup final in July when, after being level at nil-nil with the USA at half-time, they crushed the USA 5-0. If they can show a similar ability to step up their game on the World Cup stage, the Mexicans could be dangerous.
They will be appearing at the World Cup finals for the fifth time in succession and for the thirteenth time in total. They will also be South Africa’s opposition in the tournament opener.
Mexico’s coach Javier Aguirre told Fifa.com: “It is an honour to play against South Africa in the opening game. To know that the whole world will have eyes on us during the game is huge. There will be a lot of emotion and pressure.”
Previously Aguirre led the team to South Korea/Japan in 2002 before moving to Spanish club Osasuna, which he helped qualify for the Uefa Champions League. He then moved to Atletico Madrid and helped them to fourth in La Liga before he moved back to take over as Mexico’s coach once more.
In their past four appearances in the Fifa World Cup finals, the Mexicans have always made it to the round of 16.
Veteran striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, at the age of 37, will likely lead Mexico’s front line.
Uruguay snatched the last available qualifying place for the 2010 Fifa World Cup by qualifying fifth among South American teams and then beating Costa Rica in a playoff for a place in South Africa. It was the third time in succession that they had been involved in a playoff for a World Cup place.
During 2009, the Uruguayans played 12 internationals. They won five of them, lost four, and drew the remaining three.
They have an enviable World Cup record, having won the tournament the first two times they entered it, in 1930 and 1950. In 1954 they finished fourth. Since then, apart from reaching the quarterfinals in England in 1966, Uruguay has found the going tough at World Cup level.
They have qualified only twice over the course of the last five World Cups. Even then, in 2002, they failed to make it out of the group stages.
While they may have been the last team to qualify, they have two quality strikers in Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, which makes them a dangerous prospect for any opposition.
Uruguay is coached by Oscar Washington Tabarez, known as El Maestro. He previously led Uruguay to the round of 16 at Italy 1990. He has been in charge of the team since they exited qualification for the World Cup in Germany in 2006 after a penalty shoot out loss against Australia.
Bafana Bafana are one of the lowest ranked teams in the tournament. However, as hosts, there was no need for South Africa to qualify for the World Cup. They will be contesting the event for the third time.
Unfortunately for the hosts, 2009 was not a good year on the field. After an encouraging showing in the Fifa Confederations Cup in mid-year, the SA national team went through a run of eight losses in nine outings, resulting in coach Joel Santana being fired and replaced by his predecessor Carlos Alberto Parreira. No coach will have more World Cup finals experience than Parreira in 2010.
In total, South Africa played 18 matches in 2009. They won only five games, lost 10, and drew three. Among their defeats were five losses to top 10 ranked teams Spain (twice), Brazil, Portugal and Germany, but to be successful at the World Cup those are the kinds of teams that Bafana Bafana will have to beat.
Based on their ranking, South Africa shouldn’t progress beyond the first round, but host nations invariably perform pretty well; in fact, no host nation has previously failed to advance beyond the first round. At times, host nations have performed well beyond expectations too. One of the best examples of this, and a recent one to boot, is the performance of South Korea in 2002 when they reached the semi-finals.
To reach the last 16, Bafana Bafana are going to have to recapture the form that they found during the Confederations Cup and maybe a little more than that. It will be tough, but then every group should be tough; this, after all, it is world football’s biggest and most important event.
They will look to Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar for inspiration. He showed during the Fifa Confederations Cup that he is able to excel among the world’s best players.
Benni McCarthy’s move from Blackburn Rovers to West Ham United in February could be a big plus for South Africa. Bafana’s all-time leading goal scorer needs match practice and if he gets it, it would help coach Parreira’s charges find a cutting edge.
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