We start our previews with Group A. By all accounts, Group A seems relatively unremarkable. Only one team in the group (France) really has the talent to go all the way. Uruguay has the offense to make some noise but is weak on the back end. Mexico is a young team and no one knows how they'll react to pressure. Soccer is sometimes as much about the manager as it is about the team. Some managers are larger-than-life figures. Some are former players. As in any sport, good managers are hard to come by. France's manager might be their Achilles Heel. His inability to get his squad to buy into his system has created tensions on the team. With the host country in this group, every team will have one true "away" game. South Africa's home advantage gives an unremarkable (in every definition of the word) squad a decent shot at making the second round, particularly in a group with no clear favorite.
There are two types of rankings systems used on the world stage. The FIFA rankings rank all matches played by countries in international play. The ESPN rankings take into account the relative skill of the players playing in that match and accounts for that in their rankings. For example, if the USA beats Mexico's "B" squad, it doesn't count as much in the rankings as it would if the US had beaten Mexico's "A" squad. FIFA's rankings count all matches equally.
France (FIFA - 9, ESPN - 13)
Uruguay (FIFA - 16, ESPN - 9)
Mexico (FIFA - 17, ESPN - 17)
South Africa (FIFA - 83, ESPN - 51)
As the host country, there will be a big home-crowd boost for the South African team. The South Africans enter the tournament as the second-worst team in the field according to the FIFA rankings (83rd) and one of the bottom 4 in the field based on the ESPN SPI rankings (51st). Considering that they're in a group with 3 teams ranked in the Top 20 in the world, their chances of reaching the elimination round are slim. However, with their homefield advantage, the villainous French and the shaky Mexicans may fall as an unlikely victim to the home team, allowing South Africa to continue the tradition of every host country qualifying for the knockout round. Since they were an automatic qualifier, they didn't have to try much during the run up to the World Cup. South Africa is a lot like the 2008 Montreal Canadiens. They're a team essentially made up of role players with no real great players on the team, but they're capable of winning a few games and surprising teams that are arguably better than them.
Uruguay has won the World Cup twice, but both came before the Eisenhower administration. They missed the World Cup in 2006 and failed to make it out of group play in 2002. Uruguay is a lot like the Kansas City Chiefs of the early 2000s: lots of offense, not much defense. They have the firepower to score with any team in the tournament (Luis Suarez scored 10 on his own during qualifiers). On the plus-side for Uruguay, Mexico also is fairly weak defensively and South Africa is fairly weak period. If they can find a way to tie the French on the first weekend, the group will be theirs to lose.
Mexico is a lot like the 2007 Pittsburgh Penguins. They're a young team with a lot of talent, but a lot of questions and inconsistencies both offensively and defensively. They have one of the top keepers (goaltenders) in the world who is in his early 20s. Gee, this sounds familiar, doesn't it? No one is quite sure how they'll respond to the big spotlight or the crowds in South Africa. When the Pens made their first playoffs appearance since the dark ages, they weren't quite ready for the crowd in Ottawa. Mexico plays in the very first game of the tournament against host South Africa. This young team will need to remain calm and collected in the face of the crazed South African faithful. If they lose their composure and lose to South Africa, they may be in danger of not making the elimination round.
Without a doubt, the French are the villains of the tournament. They qualified over Ireland based on a goal scored when Thierry Henry illegally used his hand to redirect a ball. Their best winger is involved in an underage prostitution case in the homeland. On top of it all, France plays a lot like the New Jersey Devils. They play a mind-numbingly boring conservative game and wait for their opportunities to spring their one or two strikers for goals. They won the World Cup in 1998 and rode this boring style to the title game in 2006 before Zidane head-butted some Italian guy after he made a joke about Zidanes mom or sister or something. Joke. Need a team to hate this World Cup? Look no further than Les Blues.
Ian's Predicted Group Winner: Uruguay
Cory's Predicted Group Winner: France
Ian's Second Place Prediction: South Africa
Cory's Second Place Prediction: Mexico unless they drink their own water, then your mom is actually going to move into the second place