Monday, June 07, 2010

World Cup Preview: Group A

Nickname: Les Bleus. They wear blue. Nobody said that they were imaginative.
FIFA ranking: 9
How they got here: Finished second in their qualifying group, and then won a playoff against Ireland thanks to Thierry Henry's hand.
Record in previous tournaments: Won the whole shebang for the first and only time in 1998. Lost to Italy on penalties in 2006.
Manager: Raymond Domenech and his magic astrological charts
Players to watch: Despite the World Cup-winning generation of Zidane et al having retired, France have plenty of talent, from captain Thierry Henry up front to goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Franck Ribery and Yoann Gourcuff will be providing the midfield trickery.

Nickname: El Tri, for the three colours on the Mexican flag
FIFA ranking: 17
How they got here: Finished second to the USA in CONCACAF, after an erratic qualifying campaign that saw Sven-Goran Eriksson sacked as manager.
Record in previous tournaments: Best-ever performance was reaching the quarter-finals in 1970 and 1986. They've been knocked out at the Round of 16 in the last four tournaments.
Manager: Javier Aguirre, who took Atletico Madrid into the Champions League in 2008.
Players to watch: Playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the man that MLS fans love to hate, who's been lured out of retirement. Barcelona defender Rafa Marquez captains the side. Also keep an eye on Tottenham starlet Giovani Dos Santos.

South Africa
Nickname: Bafana Bafana = "the boys, the boys"
FIFA ranking: 83
How they got here: Qualified automatically as hosts.
Record in previous tournaments: Have only qualified twice before, in 1998 and 2002, and failed to get out of their group both times.
Manager: Carlos Alberto Parreira, who coached Brazil to the World Cup trophy in 1994.
Players to watch: Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar. A notable absentee is West Ham striker Benni McCarthy, the team's leading scorer, who's been left at home after a mediocre season.

Nickname: Los Charrúas
FIFA ranking: 16
How they got here: Finished fifth in the South American qualifying pool, and then won a two-leg playoff against Costa Rica.
Record in previous tournaments: Won the first ever World Cup, in 1930, and repeated the feat in 1950, but have had less success in recent years. Didn't qualify in 2006, and went out in the first round in 2002.
Manager: Oscar Tabárez, who's previously managed all over South America as well as in Europe.
Players to watch: Strikers Diego Forlan (of Atletico Madrid) and Luis Suarez (Ajax), with captain Diego Lugano anchoring the team from centre-half.

Verdict on the group
France struggled in qualification, and despite the talented players in the team, they're hampered by the wackadoodle tactics of coach Raymond Domenech, who is currently eclipsed only by Diego Maradona in the managerial nutbar stakes. Still, they should have enough quality to top the group, and I'd expect Mexico to put in a solid showing behind them. The home fans will be hoping that South Africa can pull off an upset, but realistically they'll just be hoping not to embarrass themselves.

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