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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Preview: World Cup day one, at long last

Posted by on Thu, Jun 10, 2010 at 4:54 PM

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Four years is a long time to wait. Just ask a high school freshman or Sarah Palin. But, soccer fans, our wait has warmed to anticipation and now, finally, to the first World Cup ball being kicked on African soil. The world’s game, as it’s called, becomes a bit more worldly at 10 a.m. Friday when South Africa (Bafana Bafana) takes the pitch against Mexico. Let the vuvuzelas reverberate.

What’s on?

Group A: South Africa v Mexico 10 a.m. ESPN
Group A: Uruguay v France 2:30 p.m. ESPN

What’s at stake?

In keeping with tradition and the alphabet, host country South Africa and Group A takes to the field first. There they’ll face a compelling, albeit inconsistent Mexico side capable of beating Italy and beating themselves too. South Africa, ranked 83 in the world by FIFA, is hoping to follow form and join every other host country in history in getting out of the group stage. A point here would be a decent start. Do yourself a favor and make your way to a Mexican restaurant for this one. I can still remember the waiters dancing, fajitas in hand, when Mexico scored in 1998.

In the other match we've got a pop quiz: Which of this countries has won more World Cups? Sorry, French. Les Blues, fresh off a 1-0 loss to China in the final friendly match before the tournament, will be eyeing three points against a surprisingly good Uruguay team. Guided by the always-criticized Raymond Domenech, the French are tough to predict. They barely qualified in 2006 and went on to reach the final.

This year it took an infamous Thierry Henry handball to make the journey to South Africa. The team is still favored to win this group, but don’t be surprised if this group of aging stars doesn’t advance to the knockout stages. Still, word from guest blogger Paul Savery who's on holiday in Cap Breton, France, is that hopes are high.

"While strolling around the streets of this charming town I dropped into FNAC, a cross between Barnes & Noble and a Virgin superstore," he writes. "Inside I found 'le kit du supporter des bleus' for the Mondial 2010. Le kit contains a drapeau francais, a ticolore wig and red white and blue face paint.The French now have a one stop shop to make their preparations.

Uruguay, meanwhile, is hoping to end its 60-year wait for another World Cup title after winning two of the first four tournaments in history and after missing out on the 2006 event in Germany.

Who should I watch?

Steven Pienaar, South Africa: Everton’s braided-hair winger is the standout on this squad. He’s short and stout but he holds the ball well and plays a quality cross the center of the box. He was named the club’s Player of the Season this year.

Carlos Vela, Mexico: The 21-year-old striker never didn’t figure for club side Arsenal this season until the final match of the season, when his deft scoring touch was on full display with a delicate chip over the keeper. With playing time a guarantee, Vela could be a somewhat surprising star in this competition.

Franck RIbery, France: A red card against Lyon robbed us of watching Ribery play for Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final. What a pity. Fans will get a chance to see the pacey winger work his magic again today.

Diego Forlan, Uruguay: Perhaps the most dangerous striker in this group, The former Manchester United man netted seven goals in 13 qualifying games for this tournament. If he can maintain that form, France could face an early setback.

Joe Schwartz follows European soccer and the Carolina RailHawks. He remembers watching his first World Cup in 1994 when Roberto Baggio's penalty kick sailed atop the goal. He recalls the crew at the pizza place tossing their dough in disgust.

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