Here is an introduction to the four teams in Group A, with their FIFA rankings in parentheses.
South Africa (83)
This is the barely-managed-to-qualify group and, for France, Uruguay and Mexico: really lucky to have been drawn into this particular group. Why? Each group includes one of the top seven teams in the world or the home team. This year, the home team, South Africa, happens to be ranked 83rd.
France certainly has the credentials, having played in two of the last three finals (an achievement matched only by Brazil) and four of the last seven semifinals. But the French have not looked like contenders lately. The European qualifying tournament was divided into nine groups of six teams (one had five). The winner of each group qualified for the World Cup. Eight of the second-place teams went into a play-off, with four pairs playing home and away. France got off to a bad start, losing to Austria 3-1. They never lost again, but they were also never able to make up the points hole they had dug themselves into, and Serbia won the group.
France drew Ireland in the playoff. They beat the Irish 1-0 in Dublin. The rematch in Paris took place four days later and all France had to do was earn a tie. But it was Robbie Keane of Ireland who scored the only goal of regulation. With the aggregate score at 1-1, the match went into overtime. If it remained tied, the World Cup qualifying team would be decided by penalty shoot-out. Anyone who follows soccer knows what happened next. About 12 minutes into overtime play, Thierry Henry touched the ball with his hand, an obvious infraction seen clearly by everyone...except the referees. He then volleyed the ball into the box and William Gallas headed in what would turn out to be the winning goal.
Since then, France has played only one match against a World Cup team, losing in Paris to Spain 2-0. Even worse, they played poorly in their two most recent preparation matches, tying Tunisia 1-1 and losing to 1-0 to China, a team ranked even lower than South Africa.
The French finally have a reliable finisher in Franck Ribéry, however he will have to shake the distraction of the scandal regarding the revelation that he had sex with a 17-year-old prostitute. (Ribéry is married, has two daughters and converted to Islam at his wife's request.)
The French coach, Raymond Domenech, is more unpopular than the nation's political leaders, which is quite an achievement in a country where most citizens routinely have disdain for politicians of all parties. If France is eliminated in group play, Domenech will be reviled; if they advance deep into the knockout round, he will be forgiven.
The South American qualifying tournament is probably the most exciting of all the regions. It is essentially a two-year-long league in which the ten South American countries play each other twice, once at home and once away. The top four teams go to the World Cup and the fifth place team advances to a playoff with the fourth place team from CONCACAF (North America, Central America and Caribbean). For the third straight time, Uruguay was the fifth place team. They then beat Costa Rica 2-1 on aggregate to qualify for South Africa.
Since then, Uruguay has played only one significant friendly, beating Switzerland 3-1 in Switzerland. We will find out on opening day if Uruguay is really prepared to play at an international level when they face France. The two teams have only faced each five times ever. The last time Uruguay scored a goal against France was in 1966. Since 1995, Uruguay has faced Mexico four times in regional tournaments and their best result has been a draw in 2005.
The CONCACAF (North America, Central America and Caribbean) zone is pretty much organized to ensure the qualification of the United States and Mexico. Nonetheless, the Mexicans managed to make it hard on themselves. All they had to do to qualify for the final qualification group was to finish first or second in a four-team group in the previous round. As usual, they won all three of their home games, but on the road they melted, losing to Jamaica and Honduras and tying Canada. Honduras won the group, while Mexico tied for points with Jamaica and advanced only due to a better goal difference. It was not pretty.
The final round consisted of six teams, with the top three going to the World Cup. Once again, Mexico won all of their home games, but this time managed to win one road game, beating Costa Rica 3-0. All this was good enough to earn Mexico second place in the group, and they are back in the World Cup for the fifth straight time. In each of the last four World Cups, Mexico has advanced out of pool play, only to be eliminated in the round of 16.
I give the Mexicans credit for tackling their road game problem head-on. In the three weeks leading up to this year's World Cup, Mexico scheduled road matches against three of the strongest teams in Europe. They lost to England 3-1 and to the Netherlands 2-1, but then beat Italy 2-1. Whatever one thinks of these results, Mexico will arrive in South Africa better prepared than most other teams.
Still, this could be a rough draw for the Mexicans. It's never easy playing the host country in the opening match of the World Cup. Mexican teams have played France only six times in the last 80 years, and have never won.
This brings us to South Africa. It's hard not to root for a home team that is also an underdog. Unfortunately, there is nothing in South Africa's recent performances to suggest that they will advance out of group play. Although the South Africans qualified automatically, they had to compete in the African qualifying tournament in 2008 anyway because it also served as the qualifying tournament for the African Championships. South Africa performed so poorly that they failed to even make it out of the initial qualifying round, losing twice to Nigeria and once to Sierra Leone.
Last year, as practice for the World Cup, South Africa hosted the Confederations Cup. They defeated Poland and New Zealand and tied Iraq, but lost twice to Spain and once to Brazil. Still, these were noble losses to two of the best teams in the world, and the experience seemed to make up for the previous year's debacle.
Since then, however... well, let's just look at their home matches. They lost 3-1 to Serbia, beat Madagascar, tied Japan and Jamaica, beat Zimbabwe, tied Namibia and North Korea, finally beat Jamaica and then Thailand, tied Bulgaria and beat Guatemala and Denmark. Does a team that couldn't beat Namibia at home seem like one that can defeat Mexico, Uruguay and France? At least they are exciting to watch, even if they are unprofessionally sloppy. And they will have tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans cheering them on.
There will be great pressure on the South African team on June 11 when they face Mexico because never in World Cup history has a host nation lost its opening match.
Favorites: This is probably the most difficult group to predict, but unless France collapses like they did in the 2002 World Cup or the 2008 European Championship, I go with France and Mexico.
To view a guide to all the groups, see here.
David Wallechinsky is the author of The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics and The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics. He is the vice-president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.