Group A contains the hosts South Africa, the Latin American duo of Mexico and Uruguay and the Republic of Ireland's conquerors, France.
All eyes will be on France after their dramatic qualification, and Thierry Henry’s infamous handball. And with rumours of unrest in the squad, and Raymond Domenech’s unpopular rule coming to a close after the finals, French football is at a crossroads.
Patrick Vieira didn’t make the final cut, having not had the game time at Manchester City, or the fitness to prove worthy of a spot. The bigger shocks not making it though are Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri. Nasri has been fit for Arsenal’s Premier League run-in, but couldn't force his way in front of players who have had more time on the pitch this season. And Benzema hasn't had a happy first season at Real Madrid, and it will be interesting to see if his fortunes improve there under Jose Mourinho. He's the sort of player who could have taken the World Cup by storm though, and it is a big call from Domenech to leave him out.
Despite the ageing nature of the squad, France still have some of Europe’s best, and more importantly, in-form players. Ribery, Anelka, Gourcuff, Malouda and Lloris all have hugely impressive run-ins in their own leagues, and add in the experience of Sagna, Evra Abidal, Henry and more, you see France still has formidable firepower which will worry anyone. Certain to get out of this Group, and a good bet for the semi-finals.
The hosts, South Africa, go into the finals not having played a competitive game of football since getting knocked out in the African Cup of Nations qualifiers. They are, however, 10 friendly games unbeaten under legendary Brazilian manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, which will give them confidence. South Africa will also have the support of the nation, and providing they are allowed in, a wall of noise coming from the vuvuzelas. It will be intimidating to any opponents, and this could go along way to securing the bafana-bafana a last 16 spot.
Steven Pienaar will be their most influential player, and if he plays as well as he has for Everton this year, then he can make South Africa tick. And Aaron Mokoena will be looking to put his disappointing premier league season behind him with some big performances, and there will be European scouts looking at the likes of Matthew Booth and Lance Davids. Also, one of the players I think could make a massive impact on the world stage is Bernard Parker. He has just won the Dutch championship with FC Twente, and the World Cup could be just the prelude for the stop start season he has had.
Getting off to a good start for all teams is vital, but even more so for South Africa, and the ground swell of support will give them a huge boost. They play France last, so will not want to need a result going into that game. The opening game in Joburg against Mexico will be the barometer.
Mexico will fancy their chances though. Despite losing to England at Wembley, they played good football and saw enough of the ball to threaten sides. Mexico have also had a tough friendly schedule, and will have played eight games since May by the time they play South Africa. They will either be a close knit team who work well together, or will be exhausted! As well as playing England, they've also run Holland close, and this squad are being billed as the best to come out of Mexico since the team that hosted the Finals in 1986. Manchester United’s new signing Javier Hernandez will lead the line along with West Ham’s Guillermo Franco, and they can get the goals they need to secure second. Rafael Marquez will martial the defence, and I think they have enough to pip South Africa and qualify from the Group.
Uruguay make up this Group and they will be all about Diego Forlan. So far they have only had one warm up game, beating Israel comfortably. France will be a sterner test in their opening game though, and a bad start could hurt this notoriously temperamental team. Uruguay were the very last team to qualify, scraping past Costa Rica in the CONCACAF v CONMEBOL play-off, and despite their FIFA ranking of 16th, their qualifying campaign should be a more reflective gauge of how they will perform. This Group will be a struggle for them. Their form away from Montevideo has not been good for many years, and South Africa will be a step too far for them.
For me, France and Mexico will progress from Group A, with South Africa providing the main competition for them.