Thirty-two soccer clubs will travel to South Africa to take part in one of the biggest sporting events in the Free World, but only one will leave with the Cup. As soccer action begins in the 2010 World Cup, we thought we'd provide a quick rundown on each of the teams and their chances to make it all the way.
The home team gets automatic entrance to the World Cup, which is a godsend for 83rd-ranked South Africa. Let's hope they get a huge dose of home field advantage, because the SA team is woefully underskilled to be competing on this level. In the African qualifying tournament, they didn't even make it out of the initial round with losses to Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
The first opponents for the South African team will be Mexico, who have had a very odd qualifying season. All of their home games have been won decisively, but the team seems to collapse when they hit the road, suffering losses to Jamaica and Honduras. Traditionally, they also tend to wash out of the Cup in the round of 16. As overmatched as South Africa is, Mexico's troubles on the road almost came back and bit them for a surprise loss, barely eking it out 1-1.
The French team has had a great second-place record in recent years, making it to the finals in two of the last three years and the semifinals in four of the last seven. That said, however, the Frogs are not having their best year, barely qualifying for the Cup and suffering some embarrassments on the field (most recently a 2-0 loss to Spain and a 1-0 loss to China) and off (winger Franck Ribéry's underage prostitution scandal). Coach Raymond Domenech is deeply unpopular, so he's under the gun to perform well in the Cup. I wouldn't put any money on it.
There's a lot of mystery surrounding Uruguay's team - they barely inched into the Cup with a win over Costa Rica, and they've only played one major game since then (a 3-1 win over Switzerland). They face France in their first match, and the two teams have only faced off five times in soccer history. A total wildcard for the A Group.
Under the tutelage of the legendary Diego Maradona, people have strong hopes for Argentina, which seems to be a perpetual bridesmaid in World Cup action. Their season has been chaotic, with some stellar play counterbalanced by some perplexing losses, including a 6-1 loss to Bolivia. But factor in FIFA World Player Of The Year Lionel Messi and white-hot striker Diego Milito and you've got a very high pick to make it all the way, especially when you consider Maradona's pledge to run naked through the streets of Argentina if the team wins the Cup.
Facing Argentina in the first match is Nigeria, who barely qualified with a last-ditch win against Kenya in the African qualifying tournament. It's hard to figure out where the team's troubles are coming from, as they certainly have a vast array of talent on the pitch. We'll see if they can pull it together and perform when the chips are down.
Things are tough all over in Greece, and I wouldn't look for a World Cup win to shore up their collapsing economy. The Greek team has struggled all year, and they seem bizarrely over-ranked at #13 in the world following their string of uninspiring matches that included a scoreless tie with Ukraine and a 2-2 draw with North Korea. This is Greece's second time ever qualifying for the World Cup, so I don't expect them to stick around long.
Finally, a team that actually had a good year. South Korean soccer has been solid all year, with seven wins and no losses. They've also been preparing for the Cup by scheduling tons of matches with other competing teams, winning the majority of them. However, their last two preparation matches have been losses, so they may be coming into play a little demoralized.