The South Africa, Mexico, France, Uruguay group may not be the group of death, but it’s not far off, and it’s just about as wide open as any World Cup group could ever be. The unpredictable South Africans, riding a wave of national and continental pride while trying to avoid being the first ever host nation not the qualify. The skilled and speedy Mexicans, running riot of late, creating enough offensive chances to make the doubters shut up about the questions marks on D. The French sleeping giants, currently playing some of the worst football of any World Cup finalist, but steadfastly confident in their pedigree and potential for tactical dominance. The plucky Uruguayans, flying under everyone’s radar with one of the World Cup’s hottest strike forces coming into the tourney, but questions in net on the other end of the pitch. Game on.
Bafana Bafana: Let’s take a moment to NOT buy into all the media hype calling South Africa the worst World Cup host squad ever. Now let’s take another moment to NOT buy into history always repeating itself and allowing the host nation to advance past the group stage just because they always have in the past. Bafana Bafana (“The Boys The Boys” in American… yeah it’s our language this week) are an unpredictable group of alternately highly skilled and highly mistake prone players. At times they’re disorganized enough to look like crap against some of their bottom dweller friendly opponents, yet in other games they hold their shape well enough to keep even the likes of Brazil off the score sheet in the run of play. No joke, it took a Dani Alves 88th minute free kick to doom South Africa to the third place game on their home soil in last summer’s Confederations Cup. And what of their attack? You guessed it, just as schizo! They were good enough to slot two past WC finalists New Zealand last summer before raising their game a few more levels and putting another two goals past Spain before eventually succumbing to the European champs in the Confed Cup’s third place match, 3-2 in extra time. And it’s not even a matter of different personnel producing different results, they play the same guys! A quick tip for anyone dealing with a Benni McCarthy apologist as well: If you run into some soccer newbie know-it-all trying to tell you the South African squad is going to flounder without their all time leading goal scorer, let that apparent expert know that Benedict has hardly featured for the team in the past two years as he’s been too busy sneaking women past his coach.
El Tri: It’s been a roller-coaster four years for Mexico, but unlike South Africa’s seemingly inexplicable doldrums followed by brilliance and vice-versa, most of the El Tri’s peaks and valleys in form have been direct results of the rotating managerial position. Despite leading a talented team to the round of 16 in the last World Cup, and pulling off a ridiculously entertaining display of sideline chain-smoking, Argentine Ricardo La Volpe was widely criticized and not offered a new contract after the big tourney in 2006. And the adventures began! Mexican futbol hero Hugo Sánchez took the reigns coached the boys through an impressive early run that was highlighted by a great Copa America run that saw Mexico take third in South America’s biggest tournament. He also coached the team to a CONCACAF Gold Cup second place that summer, which might have been viewed as a decent result if it hadn’t been the U.S. that doomed his side in the final. Then the wheels fell off. Sánchez pissed off the populace by changing the national team’s uni’s to red from the traditional green. Of course this was followed by a poor run in Olympic qualification in which Mexico eventually missed out, and it was high time for Hugo to go. After a couple months of languishing without a full time manager, the footballing geniuses run the national team down south of Texas decided that former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson was the perfect fit for a team for of pacey creative players and a fan base that craves flair above all else. But oppressive on-field organization and long balls to the heads of five foot six futbolistas never took hold, big surprise. Enter the savior, Javier “El Vasco” Aguirre. The former El Tri middy rescued Mexico’s World Cup qualifying campaign, pummeling the U.S. in the ’09 Gold Cup Final, beating them at The Azteca, and almost swiping the CONCACAF qualification group win out from under the Yanks noses Under Aguirre the team has found their its stride by focusing on what they do well, short passing and quick, creative attacks. They’ve sought to minimize their defensive weaknesses but, not at the expense of taking away from the all important attack. The side backs (especially Salcido) get forward like attacking mids, and the manager relies on a few players including captain Rafa Márquez to quell the counterattacks that inevitably follow. Right now Mexico is playing their best football. They’re the hottest team in Group A and have got the fans at home El Tri is primed to make a run.
Les Bleus: Oh the French, the French, the French. How bad have they been for going on two years now? The answer: Very. Maybe not very bad by traditional footballing standards, but this is France we’re talking about. Probably the only thing saving these guys from the guillotine back at home is the fact that Zizou carried the team to the World Cup final in Germany. Without the influential man in the middle France has languished; the last two years representing perhaps the worst sustained period of French football that anyone alive can remember. After looking like dog crap in their brief appearance in Euro 08, the French proceeded to dig themselves a large hole in World Cup qualification and had to storm back against countries like the Faroe Islands and Austria to even book themselves a spot in a two legged playoff. UEFA then stacked the deck in order to allow France and Portugal the best shot at both qualifying by seeding the two legged playoffs based on FIFA rankings; disgraceful. But the disgrace was just beginning! France were set to go to penalties against Ireland in the second leg of a hard fought playoff until Thierry Henry received a pass with his hand, dribbled through his legs like Kobe, pulled a spin move and looked to be attacking the rim before dishing a beautiful dime to William Gallas. Not legal, but here the French are, drawing Tunisia and losing to China, limping into the World Cup as the “class of group.” And why not, I mean they’ve still got Rib?ry, Henry, Malouda, Gourcuff, Toulalan, et al. Maybe if their crazy coach (literally) decides to quit stargazing and coach some soccer Les Bleus will look something like what they should look like. But on the other hand, maybe not.
La Celeste: The wild card of the group, both as far as media coverage goes and in relation to their defensive record. Mexico and France are getting most of the pub from the pundits while South Africa’s squad is under the microscope as a byproduct of hosting the party, but the Uruguayans have been allowed to fly under the radar, never a disadvantage. The team’s goals against may be set to balloon though, with with new national team starter Fernando Muslera in goal. He plays for Lazio in Italy’s Serie A and has been good in the team’s friendlies to this point, but the fact remains that the 23 year old Muslera got his chance between the sticks only after two other keepers failed to hold onto the spot. Bad goalkeeping easily amended by an athletic and positionally sound but untested young player, or a departure from the nation’s usually organized defense that could lead to chance after chance against quality opposition? Hopefully the former for Muslera’s sake. The one part of La Celeste’s game that will go unquestioned in terms of quality is their striker corps. Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez are two of the best forwards in La Liga and the Eredivisie respectively, knocking in goal after goal for Atl?tico and Ajax. They’ve formed an effective target/speed partnership up top that’s increasingly hard to keep off the score sheet, and are even backed up by quality in the exciting Edinson Cavani and the elderly but effective Sebastián Abreu. The fact that manager Oscar Tabarez decided to leave left-sided midfielder Cristian Rodríguez off the roster due his two match suspension coming into the tournament will hurt both the La Celeste’s attack and their time of possession, but it also speaks to the importance that Tabarez is putting on the first couple contests. Either way, leaving the Porto man off the roster was a risk, a risk the manager hopes he doesn’t have a chance to regret until Uruguay are deep into the knockout rounds.
Let’s hit this Street Fighter style.. Round 1, Fight!
South Africa 2-2 Mexico
Uruguay 1-2 France
The World Cup kicks off in style at the brand new Mecca of the sport, Soccer City in Johannesburg. The Mexicans trot out onto the field accompanied by whatever Menudo jam Aguirre is feelin’ at the given moment, but the show is just about to start. FIFA and ESPN’s official “rock band,” AKA the most pretentious band in the world, U2 gets the night off as sirens announce the arrival of a rock star who exudes bravado and testosterone rather than opinions on foreign policy and free trade. Axl Rose takes to the mic and as the opening riffs kick in he lets the Mexicans know where they are and what they’re in for. “You know where the fuck you are!? You’re in the jungle baby! WAKE UP! Time time to die!”
Okay so that’s not going to happen, but I’m pretty sure if South Africa commissioned even the newly re-imagined Guns N’ Roses to set it off like that they’d be kicking off the World Cup with a win. As it is though, South Africa will fight hard and ride a wave of momentum, probably scoring first actually. Mexico will match them blow for blow though, possibly even taking the lead before parity is restored and both teams go home with one point. The Uruguay v. France match will also be entertaining, but not as close as the score suggests. I think France might actually have found a team against which they can assert their tactical dominance and maybe even score more than one goal! The Fighting Forlán’s will get on the score sheet but probably won’t have the ball enough to score more than once.
Round 2… Fight?!
South Africa 0-2 Uruguay
France 1-3 Mexico
Played on consecutive days, these games won’t pack half the drama that the first round offered. The South Africans will still be inspired, but Uruguay, with their blend of attacking prowess and patience, and what will probably amount to a well organized defense and quality goalkeeper, should be the perfect foil for Bafana Bafana. Similarly, France are just the type of team that Mexico has been feeding on. El Tri recently outplayed England for a half (except for the set pieces) and followed that up by thumping Italy. Expect the crafty Mexicans to bomb forward and overwhelm a French team who won’t have quite enough firepower to make this one a horserace.
Round 3, no one eliminated yet, definitely FIGHT!
Mexico 0-1 Uruguay
France 4-1 South Africa
France finally decides to take off the kid gloves and spank someone, sadly for the continent it’s the host country who have to dance quietly into the night offbeat to the overly annoying rhythm of vuvuzelas. The real match to watch here is the Uruguay/Mexico contest. If it’s a low scoring affair I think La Celeste advances, if someone hits the back of the ole onion bag every few minutes the advantage goes to El Tri. I think this uber-important matchup will be a cagey affair that sees the Uruguayans finally stop the Mexican attack and go through to the next round by securing second place in the group, having equaled the slightly resurgent French on goal differential but lost out in goals scored to the tune of seven to four.
And now for fun, so I can look like more of a jackass or soothsayer, the Jon Levy TYAC Awards for Group A!
The Brian Ching Awaard (Awarded to the group’s hardest working player): Aaron Mokoena
The defensive midfielder is Mr. Bafana Bafana, captaining the team and having earned over one hundred caps. He’s not the most skilled DMF in the world, but will get stuck in, especially for and within his country. A valiant effort by Mokoena will not be overlooked as the media seeks justification for the one point total not being a complete failure for the home side.
The Yashin (Awarded to the best goalkeeper in the group): Fernando Muslera
I’ve got Uruguay advancing on the final matchday by shutting out the prolific Mexicans, he’s going to have to pull out some spectacular saves to make it happen! Plus, by my predictions Muslera’s pitching two complete game shutouts, the only two clean sheets in Group A.
Best Young Player (Must be 21 or younger): Carlos Vela
Not too many recently legal or soon to be legal drinkers in this group, but two of Mexico’s best attacking players are in the mix. I went with Carlos Vela ahead of Gio Dos Santos because the Arsenal reserve has more of a nose for goal and is slightly less prone to overcomplicating things and making a meal out of potential chances. Expect the often absent Gunner to make an impact in this group.
Golden Boot (Most goals): Thierry Henry
If France is scoring seven goals Thierry is netting at least three, I don’t care is Domenech has a master plan to bring him off the bench. Expect Les Bleus’ best striker to snag one as a substitute in the first or second match and capitalize on a back four that he alone completely outclasses to the tune of two goals when the manager gets smart and starts him against South Africa.
Golden Ball (Best player, ooohh): Franck “Don’t Call Me Frank” Ribéry
He’s the best player on France and the best player in the group, period. As my brother Shawn used to tell me about his favorite football player Jerry Rice, “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.” Even if all three opponents game plan specifically against Franck, when the winger’s feeling it he’ll be able to torch all three defenses. He better be feeling it though, otherwise he can kiss the Group A Golden Ball, and France’s chances of moving on, a bittersweet “adieu.”
Tales of the Uninvited: After being cut from Marcello Lippi’s World Cup 2010 version of the defending champion Azzurri, Guiseppe Rossi will take an enforced break from “living his dream by playing for Italy.” He’ll be cooling his heels at his parents’ crib in the only state where you can pull off the turnpike and take a whiz at the Vince Lombardi Service Area, Jersey! Word has it his Mom’s already annoyed with him hanging around the house all the time so she’s making him pickup shifts at his old high school job, clerking at the Quick Stop. On all Italy matchdays Rossi can be found cavorting with his slacker savant buddy Randal, selling cigarettes to underaged kids, and bitching that, “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”
Jon Levy is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com.