It's been 4 years, which means its time for another World Cup. This is probably the only soccer event to which a majority of the United States gives any attention, which probably is part of the reason why it's one of my favorite sporting events. Over the next four days, I'll be posting a quick-hit preview of each team and my predictions for their respective group. Let's start with the hosts in Group A:
South Africa - World Ranking: #83. The host nation. We'll see how they perform being the home team. Being host, they essentially had a free pass to the tournament, and they have a steep slope ahead of them facing off against some excellent teams in the group. Usually host nations tend to surprise; however, its hard to picture this squad outside the group stage. Their player to watch: Steven Pienaar.
France - World Ranking: #9. Where do we start with the French? They barely qualified for the tournament, stealing a seat at the table from Ireland after a "Hand of God-ish" goal by Thierry Henry. That luck continued with an excellent group stage draw. Recent news of a scandal, where key team players like Franck Ribery were called as a witness, may impact the team's performance on the pitch, but with this group, anything but advancing would be a huge disappointment.
Mexico - World Ranking: #17. Before the firing of their manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, El Tri had a rough time qualifying. Led by the aging forward of the Chicago Fire, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and Barcelona's defender, Rafael Marquez, this team should put up a tough fight.
Uruguay - World Ranking: #16. The Celeste, believe it or not, have two World Cup titles to their name. They hosted and won the first World Cup ever in 1930 and won again in 1950. They did just barely squeeze into the tournament though, winning a play-off against Costa Rica. Atletico Madrid's striker Diego Forlan will have to have his best stuff to move on.
PICKS: It's pretty easy to see France getting over their qualification woes in this group. They won't win all three of their games, but they'll take the group. The second spot will be close, probably another goal differential with Mexico moving on. France #1, Mexico #2.
Argentina - World Ranking: #7. I'm not sure what to make of this squad. Diego Maradona has somehow coached this talented team into barely qualifying for the tournament. Like all the powerhouses, this team has depth, but if Lionel Messi, arguably the best player in the world today, can't perform up to those standards, this team will struggle like it did during qualifying.
Greece - World Ranking: #13. It was only 6 years ago when Greece knocked out the Euro 2004 hosts to win their first major international title. While their two stars, Theofanis Gekas and Georgios Samaras, struggle for playing time with their club teams, you get a sense that this team as a whole is greater than its parts.
South Korea - World Ranking: #47. The Asian Tigers have already peaked. When they hosted the World Cup with Japan in 2002, they made it to the semi-finals and finished 4th in the tournament, beating Portugal, Italy, and Spain during their Cinderella campaign. In Germany, they finished 2nd to last in their group above Togo. This team knows it can compete, which should add drama, but Manchester United's Ji-Sung Park isn't enough to get them out of the group stage.
Nigeria - World Ranking: #21. Nigeria sounds like they can play, and they'll need to in order to qualify for the next round. Mikel will be required to live up to the big stage hype that he's known for from Chelsea's Champion League matches in order to push this team along.
PICKS: In a bold decision, I'm picking Greece's team philosophy to overtake Argentina's "Lionel Messi show." Argentina has enough skill to qualify, but with Maradona, they won't finish better than the Greeks. Greece #1, Argentina #2.
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