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Soccer Wed Jun 09 2010

World Cup 2010 Preview: Group A


In the World Cup group stage, four points is a good number to aim for. If you can get a win and a draw, chances are--notwithstanding goal differential and other tiebreakers--you'll make it to the knockout round. This week, GB is taking a look at each group in preparation for Friday's opening kick-off, starting with Group A: France, South Africa, Mexico, and Uruguay.

France

France is overrated, and in trouble. Most experts hold France as a top tier team with semi-final pedigree and they're right except that it takes more than sheer talent to succeed in the World Cup. On paper, it's true: France is stacked. Franck Ribery, Patrice Evra, Nicholas Anelka, Florent Malouda, Thierry Henry, William Gallas, Bacary Sagna--these are some of the world's best position players, and all of them have experience in big games playing for top teams. So getting to the semi-final or beyond isn't out of the question.

The problem with Les Bleus, though, is not the players but how the players are organized. French coach Raymond Domenech is mental. He left Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema, and Hatem Ben Arfa off the team. In 2008, he didn't take Robert Pires to the Euro Cup because he's a Scorpio. (Seriously.) This year, actually just last week, he decided to bench and take the captain's armband from France's all time best scorer in Henry and give it to Evra, while overhauling the squad's formation to enhance their attacking options. Although the players seem to like it, so did lowly China, beating France 1-0 in a friendly last week.

The list of Domenech's questionable decisions is only outweighed in its hilarity by the fact that he's still employed. Somehow, the French Football Federation thinks highly enough of him to have kept him around for six years, even while lining up a successor (Laurent Blanc) to take over in July. Why are they letting him coach the World Cup? France sputtered through qualifying and only made South Africa thanks to the luck of what has quickly become one of the most controversial goals in qualifying history (see above).

So how much can a coach torpedo his own team? The sheer quality and depth of the French squad is probably enough to see them through, but that's what people said in 2002--when France was beaten by Senegal and failed to progress.

South Africa

Say it with me now: THE HOST COUNTRY HAS NEVER FAILED TO MAKE IT PAST THE GROUP STAGE.

Yes the Bafana Bafana (literally, "The boys, the boys") look beatable on paper. They have just a handful of players playing in Europe, their all time top scorer, Benni McCarthy was so overweight (and after women) they had to cut him, and they didn't qualify for Germany '06. But are you really prepared to go against history?

History is the operative term for this South African team, and not only because other seemingly weak host nations (see, for example, USA in '94, Japan and South Korea in '02) exceeded expectations on home turf. No, history is key for this South African team--this, it's important to note, mostly black South African team--because they'll be playing as symbols for overcoming Apartheid. June 16 is Youth Day, a national holiday in honor of South African students protesting and being violently pushed back in the 1976 Soweto Uprising. This year June 16 will also mark their second game, against Uruguay. With a pre-match ceremony, maybe some honorary patches on the jersey, and a stadium and nation certain to be choked with effervescence, do you see South Africa losing to Uruguay? And if they do win, even if they lose to Mexico in the tournament's opening game, isn't it totally possible they could squeeze a draw out of France and go through?

If that's going to happen, if history is to repeat itself, they'll need Steven Pienaar, coming off a great year at Everton, to be at his absolute best. But most importantly, they'll have to harness their emotions into an inspiration, not a distraction.

Mexico

If France and South Africa were to go through, where does that leave perennial group-stage-standout-then-knockout-round-dud El Tre? Well, based on their outstanding tune-up friendlies against England (granted, the result was poor, but the play fantastic) and Italy, it is Mexico and not France that should win the group.

Unlike France, Mexico fired their coach, then Sven Goran Eriksson, when form nosedived in qualifying and they recovered to finish second in CONCACAF behind the US. New coach Javier Aguirre has El Tre playing a speedy, attacking, possession heavy style, and it's working. Their fluid midfield play, combined with an incredibly underrated attack force, is causing solid, experienced teams tremendous trouble. From new Manchester United signing Javier Hernandez to the youthful Carlos Vela and Giovanni Dos Santos; from the experienced Guillermo Franco to the annoyingly persistent Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Gerardo Terrado--this Mexico team is poised to do some damage.

Uruguay

Uruguay is also dangerously underrated. Despite a reputation led by captain Diego Lugano for red cards and violent defending, their strength is in attack. Diego Forlan has carved out a dependable and triumphant role for himself at the head of Europa Cup winners Atletico Madrid while his strike partner, Luis Suarez, is now captain of Ajax.

But Uruguay had to scrape past Costa Rica to make it to South Africa, and it's that qualifying trouble that points to a disappointing June for La Celeste. Don't count them completely out, though. They held France to a 0-0 in 2002 and a similar result this time around could wreak havoc in group A.

 
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Flaco / June 9, 2010 3:50 PM

Nice write up Ben. South Africa is gonna be tough, home team, ref in the pocket. I'm hoping Mexico pulls it out, but it looks tough.

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