JOHANNESBURG, May 17 – There is an intriguing first-round quartet at the 2010 World Cup with Group A featuring France, Mexico, hosts South Africa and Uruguay.Virtually every other mini-league has an obvious candidate to finish first, and a couple of teams vying to be runners-up and also qualify for the knockout phase of the most watched global sports event.
What makes the first group to be completed at the Cape Town draw last December so hard to call is its uniqueness with top seeds South Africa by far the weakest team if the monthly world rankings are to be trusted.
Former world champions France and Uruguay and Mexico, who reached the second round at the last four World Cup tournaments, are among the top 20 football nations, but the hosts are always one of eight top seeds.
South Africa occupy position 90 – a record low for a host country – and only 2000-1 no-hopers North Korea among the 32-field are further down the rankings ahead of the June 11-July 11 spectacular.
Fortunately for Bafana Bafana (The Boys) World Cup games are not decided by rankings, but the listing serves as a sombre reminder to South Africa footballers, coaches and supporters what an enormous task lies ahead.
Playing at venues up to 1,800 metres above sea level before vuvuzela-blowing crowds of up to 90,000 could inspire a Bafana squad currently boasting only one genuine top-level performer in Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar.
Tradition also offers hope with no host nation failing to reach the second round since the World Cup was first staged 80 years ago in Uruguay with the 12 visiting teams sailing to Montevideo.
Uruguay won that tournament and conquered the world again in 1950, but the tiny South American nation have made little impact since and talented players with short fuses have often been branded ‘bully boys’ as red cards flashed.
Coach Oscar Tabarez insists those dark days are history and he possesses in two-goal Europa League final hero Diego Forlan of Atletico Madrid potentially the deadliest Group A marksman.
While 1998 champions France were lucky to reach South Africa as the hand of Thierry Henry played a pivotal role in the play-off victory over Ireland, they must be group favourites given two final appearances in the last three tournaments.
Infuriatingly erratic though ‘Les Bleus’ may be, defenders William Gallas, Eric Abidal, Bakary Sagna, Partick Evra and Gael Clichy, midfielders Abou Diaby, Lassana Diarra and Florent Malouda and strikers Nicolas Anelka, Franck Ribery and Henry are employees of famous European clubs.
An ‘unpredictable’ tag can also be stuck on Mexico, who were battling to stay in the qualification race at one stage and axed former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson before coming good under ex-boss Javier Aguirre.
Although a bit-part performer now at Barcelona, defender-cum-midfielder Rafael Marquez remains the best known Mexican footballer while striker Javier Hernandez is one to watch given he is Manchester United-bound.
Favourites – France
Fancied – Mexico and Uruguay
Underdogs – South Africa