Group A: France, Mexico, Uruguay, South Africa

Our unmissable guide to the World Cup: The hosts face a battle to progress
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FRANCE: FIFA RANKING 9, ODDS TO WIN 18/1

Raymond Domemech's preparations have been beset by problems, but one obstacle he is almost certain to avoid is the pressure of expectation. A recent poll showed that only 27.3 per cent of French fans believe Les Bleus will be able to get past South Africa, Mexico and Uruguay to reach the knockout stages.

Their early exit from Euro 2008 and an unconvincing qualifying campaign that saw them having to rely on that infamous handball by Thierry Henry to beat the Republic of Ireland in their two-legged play-off have seen public confidence in the team falling to an all-time low. Domenech is booed at most games, and has decided to step down, to be replaced by World Cup '98 and Euro 2000 winner Laurent Blanc, whatever the outcome in South Africa. Things have not been helped by the controversy that has followed the police investigation into under-age prostitution that is to include interviews with Franck Ribéry and Sidney Govou.

The much-maligned coach provoked renewed criticism in France with his decision to leave out the likes of Karim Benzema, Patrick Vieira and Samir Nasri from the provisional squad, one which looks all the thinner for the sudden loss of Lassana Diarra, who collapsed in pain during training at altitude and was subsequently found to be suffering from a genetic blood disorder similar to sickle-cell anemia.

The problems have not dented Domenech's belief, however. "I am convinced this team have a date with destiny in 2010," he said. The strength of the French squad, despite the notable absentees, suggests Domenech's confidence may be placed in something more substantial than his famed passion for astrology and star charts.

There were more French players in the last eight of the Champions League last season than from any other nation, so the playing talent is certainly there. Yet the evidence that Domenech has the ability to blend these individuals into anything resembling a genuine team has so far been scant.

The untimely loss of Diarra has heralded a tactical change of heart by Domenech, who seems likely to head to South Africa with a more attacking 4-3-3 formation that encourages greater creativity than the more cautious 4-2-3-1 system used in qualification.

In the absence of Diarra, Lyons' Jérémy Toulalan or Arsenal's Abou Diaby look likely to patrol in front of their experienced back four of Bacary Sagna, William Gallas, Eric Abidal and Patrice Evra. Gallas looks to have recovered from the calf injury that blighted the final weeks of his season at Arsenal.

Florent Malouda, who has enjoyed a glorious season with Double-winners Chelsea, could line up in midfield alongside Bordeaux's Yoann Gourcuff, who is rediscovering the talent that prompted Milan to sign him as a teenager. In attack Ribéry is likely to be joined by the free-scoring Toulouse striker André-Pierre Gignac and Malouda's Chelsea team-mate Nicolas Anelka, who remarkably has never appeared for France at a World Cup.

Domenech has tried all sorts of team-bonding exercises, one of which involved go-karting, and left Gallas nursing a grazed hand after he flipped his vehicle.

"They must be clever and forget their ego to realise that the only thing that matters is the team, not them," Domenech said. "If they don't understand that, I will need a gun."

Henry needs to rebuild tattered reputation

Henry is the sole survivor from the glorious France side of 1998 who beat Brazil 3-0 in the final to capture their first World Cup. However there is little chance the finals in South Africa will be a warm-hearted farewell tour for one of the finest strikers in the history of the game. He produced one of the most blatant cases of cheating in years with his handball that let Gallas equalise in Paris against the Republic of Ireland last November, a goal that decided the play-off.

Henry made things worse with a partial apology on Twitter, claiming the "the ball ran up against my hand" and with that his reputation was in tatters.

Henry, 32, has become a fringe player at Barcelona in recent months, scoring just four goals in a season that is likely to be his last in Spain with a move to the New York Red Bulls on the cards. This World Cup will be his farewell, but he needs to build a few bridges before he is given the send-off his career deserves.

The verdict

Despite the pessimism at home, the French should make the quarter-finals without too much trouble, where they should provide a stern test for the team they are seeded to meet – England.

The details

Previous best Winners (1998). Three semi-final appearances was their best display until their triumph on home soil 12 years ago. Also reached the final in Germany in 2006.

Killer fact Hold record for the worst defending champions, going out in 2002 losing two and drawing one while not even scoring a goal.

And the fans? Play up to stereotypes of berets and garlic necklaces. Expect pulsating renditions of the national anthem, "La Marseillaise", and constant chanting of "Allez Les Bleus" when France are winning.

The squad:

Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris (age 23, Lyons, caps 11), Steve Mandanda (25, Marseilles, 13), Cédric Carrasso (28, Girondins Bordeaux, 0). Defenders: Bacary Sagna (27, Arsenal, 20), Patrice Evra (29, Manchester United, 30), William Gallas (32, Arsenal, 81), Eric Abidal (30, Barcelona, 55), Sébastien Squillaci (29, Sevilla, 21), Marc Planus (27, Bordeaux, 2), Gaël Clichy (24, Arsenal, 5), Anthony Reveillère (30, Lyons, 5). Midfielders: Alou Diarra (28, Bordeaux, 25), Jérémy Toulalan (26, Lyons, 34), Florent Malouda (29, Chelsea, 54), Yoann Gourcuff (23, Bordeaux, 20), Abou Diaby (24, Arsenal, 5). Strikers: Thierry Henry (32, Barcelona, 121), Nicolas Anelka (31, Chelsea, 67), Andre-Pierre Gignac (24, Toulouse, 13), Franck Ribéry (27, Bayern Munich, 45), Sidney Govou (30, Lyons, 46), Djibril Cissé (28, Panathinaikos, 40), Mathieu Valbuena (25, Marseilles, 1).

MEXICO: FIFA RANKING 17, ODDS TO WIN 100/1

Mexico qualified the hard way, when a dalliance with a diminutive Swede proved more problematic than an attack of killer bees. The swarm of insects attacked during the decisive game in Mexico's Azteca Stadium against El Salvador when thousands of bees descended on a goalmouth, particularly attracted to the fuzzy microphones behind the goal. The bees soon buzzed off and Mexico booked their place in South Africa with a 4-1 victory.

Sven Goran Eriksson, the former England coach spent only 10 months with Mexico before being sacked. In the wake of his departure, Mexico turned to national hero Javier Aguirre, a tough-tackling midfielder at the 1986 World Cup who managed the side in 2002. At the time Mexico were outside the three automatic qualifying spots, and it looked bleak.

Aguirre acted by coaxing 37-year-old playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco – he of the famous bunny hop first seen at the 1998 World Cup in France – out of retirement. The veteran Blanco was the catalyst, playing behind a front three of Andres Guardado of Deportivo La Coruña, Guillermo Franco (formerly of West Ham) and Arsenal youngster Carlos Vela.

Mexico won five of their last seven qualifiers, losing only once to claim second place, one point behind the US. Mexico have continued that progress in friendlies since qualifying, and as they proved with their vibrant first-half performance against England at Wembley the other week, the side has been transformed by the former Atletico Madrid manager.

The defeat at Wembley, however, also highlighted several weaknesses that need addressing before Mexico's appearance in the tournament's opening game against South Africa on 11 June.

Firstly, they must make their possession count. They enjoyed a remarkable 66 per cent of the ball at Wembley but still came away on the end of a 3-1 defeat. The impetus is on Blanco to defy his 37 years and bring out the best in the talents around him once again, not least the gifted 21-year-old Giovani Dos Santos of Tottenham, who impressed during his recent five-month loan spell at Galatasaray of Turkey.

Another 21-year-old of which much is expected is Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, who is set to complete his move from Chivas to Manchester United after the World Cup for a fee of £7m. The young striker has four goals from his nine caps so far, and may be used as an impact substitute in South Africa.

Secondly, their defending against England at set-pieces was poor, and will provide hope to the likes of South Africa and Uruguay that an upset is possible. That is likely to improve with the expected return of Guillermo Ochoa, the regular goalkeeper.

Mexico also have a reputation for not travelling well, but the collective experience of the aforementioned players, along with the influence of captain and Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez, could make a difference.

The verdict

Mexico are unlikely to break their record of never getting past the second round except on home turf in 1970 and 1986.

The details

Previous best Quarter-finals twice (1970 & 1986).

Killer fact Played eight matches in five countries across two continents in preparation for the World Cup.

And the fans? Expect waves of green decorated with sombreros and masks – the latest accessory to be adopted from the country's love of wrestling.

The squad:

Goalkeepers: Guillermo Ochoa (age 24, America, caps 36), Luis Ernesto Michel (30, Guadalajara, 3), Oscar Perez (37, Chiapas, 48). Defenders: Rafael Marquez (31, Barcelona, 88), Ricardo Osorio (30, VfB Stuttgart, 74), Francisco Rodriguez (28, PSV Eindhoven, 45), Carlos Salcido (30, PSV Eindhoven, 70), Hector Moreno (22, AZ Alkmaar, 7), Paul Aguilar (24, Pachuca, 5), Jonny Magallon (28, Guadalajara, 50), Jorge Torres Nilo (22, Atlas, 6). Midfielders: Pablo Barrera (21, Pumas UNAM, 17), Andres Guardado (23, Deportivo La Coruna, 51), Efrain Juarez (22, Pumas UNAM, 15), Gerardo Torrado (31, Cruz Azul, 110), Israel Castro (29, Pumas UNAM, 28). Strikers: Guillermo Franco (33, unattached, 20), Carlos Vela (21, Arsenal, 24), Giovani dos Santos (21, Tottenham Hotspur, 23), Adolfo Bautista (31, Guadalajara, 35), Alberto Medina (26, Guadalajara, 53), Cuauhtemoc Blanco (37, Veracruz, 114), Javier Hernandez (21, Manchester United, 7).

SOUTH AFRICA: FIFA RANKING 83, ODDS TO WIN 150/1

The lowest-ranked host nation in World Cup history. Drawn in the only group with two countries – France and Uruguay – who have won it before. On the face of it, things do not look positive for the South African team, who would be nowhere near these finals were it not for their special status as the host nation.

In many respects they are likely to be the most welcoming hosts of all, particularly to their Group A opponents, who will all expect to beat South Africa comfortably. However, that might be easier said than done, particularly in the tournament's opening game, when 94,000 partisan fans will be cheering on Bafana Bafana in Johannesburg's spectacular Soccer City stadium.

The host nation have done their best to mitigate the impending potential disaster by appointing the vastly experienced Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, but his job is a huge one.

Parreira is South Africa's 14th different manager in the 18 years since their readmission to the international sporting fold following the collapse of apartheid. He recognised the scale of the task facing South Africa when he said recently: "This is the toughest group, it is the only group with two former world champions. It is like a Mount Everest for us. And no one climbs Everest just by words. You need planning, commitment, passion, mental fitness and intelligence to conquer the mountain. We have to conquer Everest."

Parreira knows what he is talking about, having led Brazil to World Cup victory in the United States in 1994. What's more, South Africa will be the fifth different country he has coached to a World Cup – Kuwait in 1982, the United Arab Emirates in 1990, Brazil in 1994 and 2006, and Saudi Arabia in 1998.

Parreira's great problem is that only a handful of his players play outside their homeland. His most experienced charges are captain Aaron Mokoena of Portsmouth, and Everton's Steven Pienaar, after Parreira left veteran West Ham striker Benni McCarthy out of his final 23. So to give his home-grown stars a taste of the world, Parreira has taken them to training camps in Brazil and Germany, with relative success. Results in friendlies have been encouraging, with a 5-0 win over Guatemala last Monday to extend their unbeaten run to 11 games.

Home hopes will rest on the shoulders of Pienaar, who comes to the tournament on the back of an outstanding season on the left side of the Everton midfield. The club's Player of the Year would appear to be agitating for a move away from Goodison, or at least his agent is, and he could improve his chances of a switch with his performances over the coming weeks.

The starting line-up for the World Cup opener against Mexico on 11 June has more or less been decided. Mokoena, who is a key player for South Africa and recently became the country's first player to win 100 caps, will be partnered in defence by Anele Ngcongca, while Pienaar is joined in midfield by Fulham reserve Kagisho Dikgacoi, and Teko Modise of Orlando Pirates. Up front the burden of scoring falls to Katlego Mphela, who was the top goalscorer in the South African league with 17 goals for the Mamelodi Sundowns.

The team's nickname Bafana Bafana translates to The Boys, The Boys, but sadly it will be men against boys when the hosts take on Mexico, Uruguay and then France.

The verdict

Sadly, the first African nation to hold a World Cup are likely to become the first host nation to fail to emerge from the group stages.

The details

Previous best Group stage twice (1998 & 2002) Finished third in the group stage of both their previous tournaments and desperate for improvement on home soil.

Killer fact Failed to qualify for last season's Africa Cup of Nations after reaching the previous seven tournaments.

And the fans? Will be among the most colourful and noisy at the World Cup, with their vuvuzela trumpets and brightly painted hats.

The squad:

Goalkeepers: Moeneeb Josephs (age 29, Orlando Pirates, caps 14 ), Itumeleng Khune (22, Kaizer Chiefs, 24), Shu-Aib Walters (28, Maritzburg United, 0). Defenders: Matthew Booth (33, Mamelodi Sundowns, 24), Siboniso Gaxa (26, Mamelodi Sundowns, 29), Bongani Khumalo (23, SuperSport United, 5), Tsepo Masilela (25, Maccabi Haifa, 27), Aaron Mokoena (29, Portsmouth, 100), Anele Ngcongoa (22, Racing Genk, 2), Siyabonga Sangweni (28, Lamontville Golden Arrows, 3), Lucas Thwala (28, Orlando Pirates, 10). Midfielders: Lance Davids (25, Ajax Cape Town, 23), Kagisho Dikgacoi (25, Fulham, 30), Thanduyise Khuboni (23, Lamontville Golden Arrows, 5), Reneilwe Letsholonyane (27, Kaizer Chiefs, 1), Teko Modise (27, Orlando Pirates, 51), Surprise Moriri (30, Mamelodi Sundowns, 24), Steven Pienaar (28, Everton, 46), MacBeth Sibaya (32, Rubin Kazan, 52), Siphiwe Tshabalala (25, Kaizer Chiefs, 42). Strikers: Katlego Mphela (25, Mamelodi Sundowns, 26), Siyabonga Nomvete (32, Moroka Swallows, 74), Bernard Parker (26, FC Twente, 26).

URUGUAY: FIFA RANKING 16, ODDS TO WIN 100/1

Few countries at the World Cup will boast a pair of strikers as good as Uruguay's Diego Forlan and Luiz Suarez, yet the two-time World Cup winners are not even expected to progress from the group stages.

Atletico Madrid's Forlan has become one of the most consistent goalscorers in Spanish football, where the former Manchester United flop boasts a stunning return of 145 goals from 278 games in six seasons. However, even he was put in the shade last season by Suarez, whose fantastic goalscoring for Ajax has alerted Europe's top clubs, including Manchester United and Chelsea.

Suarez was recently voted Dutch Footballer of the Year for scoring 45 goals last season – 35 in the league. His haul is all the more remarkable as he prefers to play behind the main striker.

Should Manchester United come knocking, then Suarez will receive a first-hand account of the problems that can follow moving to Old Trafford from Forlan, who endured a miserable two-and-a-half year spell there from 2002 to 2004.

He managed 17 goals in 98 appearances for United and was dubbed Diego Birtles in memory of legendary United failure Garry Birtles, who scored one goal in his first 32 games following a big-money move from Nottingham Forest in the 1980s. Forlan has put those dark days far behind him in Spain, first with Villarreal and then Atletico Madrid, where he has become one of the most respected strikers in La Liga.

His goals for Atletico Madrid against Liverpool in the semis and Fulham in the final of the Europa League demonstrated just how well he is playing, at the age of 31. However, his goalscoring is not as consistent at international level, with just four since he recorded a hat-trick against Peru in 2008.

The combination of Suarez and Forlan was not enough to prevent Uruguay needing a two-legged play-off with Costa Rica to qualify. The play-off games saw the international debut of the exciting playmaking talent of Nicolas Lodeiro, 21. He will be joined in midfield by Porto's Alvaro Pereira, who was a revelation on the left flank in qualifying.

Uruguay are normally strong defensively and this year is no different, with two holding midfielders in Napoli's Walter Gargano and Diego Perez of Monaco. The defence is marshalled by captain Diego Lugano, who plays his club football for Fenerbahce.

The man charged with ending Uruguay's poor run at the World Cup is 63-year-old former Milan manager Oscar Washington Tabarez, also known as El Maestro, who returns to lead the national side.

The verdict

Will kick a few lumps out of the opposition. Forlan and Suarez are a threat, but the squad is thin and making the second round will be their aspiration.

The details

Previous best Winners twice (1930 & 1950). Won two of the first four tournaments, both taking place in South America.

Killer fact Final against Brazil in 1950 was attended by 199,854, a record crowd for the World Cup finals.

And the fans? Will be dressed in the light blue colours ready for the unenviable task of singing along to their country's five-minute national anthem.

The squad:

Goalkeepers: Fernando Muslera (age 23, Lazio, caps 5), Juan Castillo (32, Deportivo Cali, 11), Martin Silva (27, Defensor Sporting, 1). Defenders: Diego Lugano (29, Fenerbahce, 41), Diego Godin (24, Villarreal, 36), Andres Scotti (34, Colo Colo, 24), Mauricio Victorino (28, Universidad de Chile, 4), Martin Caceres (23, Juventus, 46), Jorge Fucile (25, Porto, 24), Maximiliano Pereira (25, Benfica, 36). Midfielders: Sebastian Eguren (29, AIK Stockholm, 24), Alvaro Pereira (24, Porto, 13), Walter Gargano (25, Napoli, 26), Diego Perez (30, AS Monaco, 50), Alvaro Fernandez (24, Universidad de Chile, 7), Nicolas Lodeiro (21, Ajax Amsterdam, 3), Egidio Arevalo Rios (27, Penarol, 4), Ignacio Gonzalez (28, Levadiakos, 17). Strikers: Luis Suarez (23, Ajax Amsterdam, 29), Diego Forlan (31, Atletico Madrid, 61), Sebastian Abreu (33, Botafogo, 56), Edinson Cavani (23, Palermo, 13), Sebastian Fernandez (24, Banfield, 5).

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