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Though most neutrals will hope to see South Africa go far in the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Bafana Bafana may be hard-pressed to escape from a Group A filled with experienced campaigners. The hosts will open the tournament against Mexico and then have to go through two-time champions Uruguay as well as 2006 runners-up France to keep local supporters happy and make the second round. Les Bleus, who won the competition on home soil in 1998, appear to be group favourites, but Raymond Domenech’s side only reached the finals through the European play-offs, squeaking past the Republic of Ireland. Uruguay also qualified via a play-off, a transcontinental affair against Costa Rica, while Mexico finished second in CONCACAF behind USA. For South Africa, the lowest-ranked African team at the time of the draw, the road will be rough, yet with experienced boss Carlos Alberto Parreira back in charge, there is cause for optimism that the side can continue the record of every FIFA World Cup host getting at least to the second round.
France: An up-and-down qualifying campaign saw the French lose out in their group to Serbia by a point. Their away form was poor, from going down 3-1 to Austria in their first match to drawing at Romania and Serbia. They also struggled to get past Ireland in the play-off, with only William Gallas’s extra-time goal avoiding penalties or worse. However, nobody will underestimate a side that has veteran, emerging and world-class talent through the spine of the team.
Mexico: 2010 will be El Tri’s fifth successive finals appearance and they exited each of the last four events in the second round. Opening the tournament against the hosts will be no small task, but a budding crop of youngsters such as Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela may give the side enough pep to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 1986. Mexico, who were a seeded team at Germany 2006, went out to Argentina in the second round yet only after Maxi Rodriguez’s extra time Goal of the Tournament.
South Africa: It has been a tumultuous few years for South Africa, but a creditable performance at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, the prelude to this summer, has set expectations high going into Group A. Their semi-final loss to Brazil in that event, and subsequent single-goal, extra-time defeat by Spain in the third-place match, show that the hosts can compete at the highest level. And though they have fallen at the group stage in their two FIFA World Cup appearances, they have lost just two of their six finals matches. All eyes will be on dynamic England-based midfielder Steven Pienaar to create chances.
Uruguay: Having advanced to the finals for a third time via the play-offs, Uruguay will be contesting their 11th FIFA World Cup. Yet while the Celeste have one of the richest histories in world football, coach Oscar Tabarez has built a relatively young side that relies on a core group of players. Tabarez has been at the Uruguay helm before at a FIFA World Cup, having led the team in 1990 when they succumbed to hosts Italy in the second round.
The players to watch
Steven Pienaar (RSA), Aaron Mokoena (RSA), Cuauhtemoc Blanco (MEX), Rafael Márquez (MEX), Giovanni dos Santos (MEX), Thierry Henry (FRA), Nicolas Anelka (FRA), William Gallas (FRA), Diego Lugano (URU), Diego Forlán (URU)
The crunch match
Mexico-Uruguay: Come their final group match, Mexico and Uruguay may be fighting for a spot alongside France in the second round, as they face off at Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng Stadium on 22 June. The pair last met when Mexico beat Uruguay to finish third in the Copa América in 2007.
A look back
France-South Africa, 12 June 1998: France opened their second FIFA World Cup as hosts against tournament debutants South Africa in Marseille. With both sides having points to prove, the night belonged to Les Bleus who registered a momentum-setting 3-0 victory en route to lifting the trophy.
Did you know?
Mexico’s Javier Aguirre also coached Mexico at the 2002 finals where they lost in the second round to USA. The former Mexican international midfielder took over midstream in the qualifying campaign, in April 2009, from Sven-Göran Eriksson. He had also come to the rescue after poor results in 2001.
5 – Carlos Alberto Parreira will equal Bora Milutinovic's record of coaching five different teams to FIFA World Cups when he leads out the hosts. Parreira, who won the event with his native Brazil in 1994, has also managed Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in the finals.
There is also a curious historical slant to Group A which will interest the hosts. Back in 1966, when England staged the finals, Alf Ramsey's team were joined in Group 1 by Mexico, Uruguay and France.
Can South Africa overcome the odds and survive Group A? Click ‘Add your comment' to make your opinion known. (fifa.com)