Here’s a look at how Groups A and B could play out in the World Cup, which begins on June 11.
France on paper boasts one of the world’s most talented squads, but it staggered through qualifying and only made it through with an assist from Thierry Henry’s now notorious forearm. Still, with so many established stars — Franck Ribery, Nicolas Anelka and Yoann Gourcuff, to name but a few — Les Bleus remain one of the tournament’s elite teams and will likely top Group A.
The fight for second place appears wide open, but my gut says Uruguay, an inconsistent but wildly talented team, will prevail.
Coach Oscar Tabarez has two goal-scoring machines, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, at his disposal, and Nicolas Lodeiro, a 20-year-old attacking midfielder, could be one of the summer’s breakout stars.
The Mexicans have made the knockout round each of their last five tries, so it’s a risk on my part to put them at third. The team was terrible in the qualifying rounds under Sven-Goran Eriksson, before coach Javier Aguirre took the helm and righted the ship.
Giovani Dos Santos and Andres Guardado are exciting young players, but El Tri still rely too much on Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who at 37 is beyond his prime. Mexico also has to face the host nation on the Cup’s opening day, a tough assignment for any team.
Home-field advantage is invaluable (consider South Korea in 2002), and no host country has ever failed to reach the Cup’s knockout stage. But South Africa could become the first.
They’ll have raucous crowds and thousands of bleating vuvuzelas urging them on, but the Bafana Bafana simply don’t have the talent to compete in such a tough group.
Now, on to Group B.
With his obsessive tinkering of lineups, media blowups and the general absurdity of his post-playing existence, Diego Maradona, who won the Cup as a player in 1986 and has coached Argentina since 2008, has a spotlight perpetually trained on him.
But when the games begin, the focus will shift to the field, where Maradona gets to deploy the best player in the world, Lionel Messi. Messi has scored an outrageous 43 goals for Barcelona this season and can now literally do anything he wants with a ball at his feet. Just 22 years old, he has yet to dazzle for his national team. That should change in South Africa, where Argentina will make a serious challenge for the cup.
South Korea, with a blossoming core of young, European-based players, is my pick to finish behind Argentina in the group.
Park Ji-Sung, the team’s captain, has proved himself at Manchester United, and his career has been a model for players such as Park Chu-Young, Ki Sung-Yong and Lee Chung-Yong, who have since followed Ji-Sung to Europe.
South Korea’s energy and organization should help them finish ahead of Nigeria. The Super Eagles will have the advantage of playing in their home continent, but their struggles in 2009 led to the firing of coach Shaibu Amodu and the hiring this past February of new coach Lars Lagerback, who has only had a few months to prepare his squad.
Midfielder John Obi Mikel and defender Joseph Yobo give Nigeria some bite, but the team does not have a steady goal scorer and could struggle after its rushed preparations.
On the opposite end of the coaching spectrum is Otto Rehhagel, who has led the Greek national team since 2001. Under Rehhagel’s guidance, Greece has molded itself into a tough, organized side. But with a squad filled with ordinary players, Greece should not trouble the others in the group.
Andrew Keh is amNewYork’s soccer columnist.