The contenders: France
The current FIFA rankings are onto something.
Entering the World Cup four years ago, longshots United States and Mexico were considered top 5 teams according to the latest FIFA rankings. They didn't play like it.
This year, however, the top 9 teams (10th-ranked Croatia didn't make it) all appear to be a cut above the rest. Although some are ranked higher than they should be (ahem, Portugal), these teams have historically been the ones to watch on the world's stage, having won all but two of the 18 titles.
So, we present to you a brief bio of FIFA's top 9 teams -- one per day -- until the World Cup. On Day 10, we'll feature the 14th-ranked Americans. On Day 11, the madness begins ...
Group: A - South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay
World Cup history: 1 title (1998); France has been in two of the last three finals after winning it all on its home soil 12 years ago. Although it missed the tournament twice in the 1990s -- and didn't score a goal in 2002 -- it has been to the semifinals in four of the last five tournament in which it's played.
5 key players: Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich), William Gallas (Arsenal), Nicolas Anelka (Chelsea), Lassana Diarra (Real Madrid), Thierry Henry (Barcelona)
>> Read about Franck Ribery and other players to watch at the 2010 World Cup
Coach: Raymond Domench
Outlook: France is the last-ranked team on our "contenders" list, and with good reason. It's been hotly debated whether "Les Bleus" should even be here after Thierry Henry's "handball-heard-'round-the-world" against Ireland in its qualification playoff game. Despite the illegal move -- NO TOUCHING!!! -- that led to the game-winning goal and a berth in the tournament, France is here.
The French lucked out when they drew into Group A with host nation South Africa, rather than one of the other groups that featured a seeded team. Still, the other teams in its group, Mexico and Uruguay, could prove troublesome and could easily show France the door. And by the way, whoever finishes second in this group likely plays Argentina in the Round 16 -- and likely exits after the Round of 16.
Though France struggled to qualify, it doesn't have a shortage of individual talent. Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda offer dangerous attacking options from the midfield to complement a rising star in Yoann Gourcuff. Striker Nicolas Anelka may not dazzle, but he finishes the job more often than not. Henry -- the face of the team -- is nothing but an option off the bench, but it wouldn't shock us if he finds the net this summer.
Prediction: France nets four points and finishes second in its group.
Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris (Olympique Lyon), Steve Mandanda (Olympique Marseille), Cédric Carrasso (Girondins Bordeaux)
Defenders: Bacary Sagna (Arsenal), Patrice Evra (Manchester United), William Gallas (Arsenal), Eric Abidal (Barcelona), Sebastien Squillaci (Sevilla), Marc Planus (Girondins Bordeaux), Gaël Clichy (Arsenal), Anthony Reveillere (Olympique Lyon)
Midfielders: Alou Diarra (Girondins Bordeaux), Jeremy Toulalan (Olympique Lyon), Florent Malouda (Chelsea), Yoann Gourcuff (Girondins Bordeaux), Abou Diaby (Arsenal)
Forwards: Thierry Henry (Barcelona), Nicolas Anelka (Chelsea), Andre-Pierre Gignac (Toulouse), Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich), Sidney Govou (Olympique Lyon), Djibril Cisse (Panathinaikos), Mathieu Valbuena (Olympique Marseille)