June 6, 2010
Everybody, it seems, has something to prove in this group. Mexico forward Javier Hernàndez, better known as Chicharito, or Little Pea, is soccer's It boy, having signed in April with Manchester United after scoring a bevy of spectacular goals with Guadalajara—albeit against less than stellar opponents. Can the 22-year-old do the same against, say, France when tenacious center back William Gallas and Hugo Lloris, the best-performing keeper in 2010, are between him and the net?
Starting Hernàndez up front instead of 33-year-old Guillermo Franco, who plays for West Ham in the Premier League, would be a bold move by Javier Aguirre. Yet the baseball-loving manager known as the Basque should swing for the fences: If he dares to unleash the best generation of young talent that Mexico has ever seen—led by the European-based trio of midfielders Andrés Guardado, 23, and Giovani dos Santos, 21; and forward Carlos Vela, 21—El Tri will win the group.
By the time Mexico opens the tournament against the home country, South Africa will have refuted the naysayers who thought the 10 stadiums wouldn't be ready. Once the ball starts rolling, though, Bafana Bafana must prove itself on the field or risk becoming the first host nation not to advance to the second round. Yes, South Africa has the exuberant, vuvuzela-blowing crowd in its favor, along with Everton playmaker Steven Pienaar. But the team recalls the pioneering African sides of World Cups past—think Algeria or Cameroon in 1982—with its lack of concentration in the opponent's box and, even worse, in its own. Manager Carlos Alberto Parreira has compared the challenge of leading South Africa beyond the first round to "climbing Mount Everest." In fact, barring dubious breaks from the referees—like the two Spanish goals called off against home side South Korea in 2002—this feeble squad will bow out early.
Uruguay is the kind of team that sees more yellows and reds than a Manhattan cabbie. The Charr√∫as still play with the same fierce intensity that won them the first World Cup, in 1930, and a second title in 1950 after coming from behind to beat Brazil in its own temple of soccer, the Maracan√£ stadium. But Uruguay has been living off the memories of the Maracanazo instead of moving past its foul-happy ways. Along comes a versatile striker in 31-year-old Diego Forlàn of Atlético Madrid, Europe's 2008--09 Golden Boot winner, who's as quick as the wind and can score with either foot. His countrymen weren't singing his praises after he failed to guide Uruguay to the 2006 World Cup, but coach Oscar Tabàrez has added firepower up front in winger Luis Suàrez and 6'4" target man Sebastian Abreu. What he has now is a smashmouth team that can also score enough to squeeze into the second round.
Not too long ago France winger Thierry Henry was famous for grace on the pitch and off. Now he's infamous for his left hand, after he palmed the ball twice to set up the winning goal in France's playoff qualifier with Ireland. To top it off, Henry struck a rare disappointing note in Barcelona's outstanding 2009--10 season. In South Africa he'll have a chance to redeem himself in front of the world, before his expected move to MLS's Red Bulls this summer.
But don't count on it: Les Bleus will fail to survive the group stage just as in 2002, when they were defending champions. The talent is there, especially in the midfield, where they have two of the game's most creative players in Franck Ribéry and Yoann Gourcuff. But their coach, Raymond Domenech, is as clueless as Inspector Clouseau, only not as lovable.
Advancing: Mexico, Uruguay
KEY MATCH • France vs. Mexico
June 17, Polokwane
The world will tune in for the opener between South Africa and Mexico on June 11, but the pivotal game in the group will be this one in the tournament's most remote locale. Look for El Tri to score early and then clinch the victory—and the group—with counterattacks.