This is the silly season for World Cup soccer.
It's a lot like baseball's spring training. Every team's fans think they really have a chance to win - even though they don't. The press is all geared up with little to report so every minor story gets blown way out of proportion. How players perform in the exhibitions leading up to the Cup receives extensive analysis - even though, like spring training, it don't mean much of anything unless someone gets injured.
So it goes with the squad announcements this week emanating from the 32 participants in next month's tournament. The only "surprises" tend to come from the enlistment of marginal players who are going to make the squad - the equivalent of baseball's 24th or 25th player. And even the provisional squads announced this week have to be pared some more before the tournament opens.
With all these caveats in mind, we'll begin to look at the squad announcements and other recent developments in the days ahead, beginning today with Group A - Mexico, South Africa, France, and Uruguay. (As background, we've already done an extensive analysis of all the groups in our book, "World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics," so we'll also be referencing that from time to time.)
GROUP A - MEXICO, SOUTH AFRICA, FRANCE, URUGUAY
This is the most wide-open group in South Africa with all four countries having a real shot at making the cut. Three have talent and South Africa has home tourney advantage - which counts for a lot at the World Cup. What makes the group difficult to call is that the three with talent are among the least consistent teams in the world's upper echelon. In our predicted order of finish (more on that later), here's the latest on surprise selections:
MEXICO: The surprise for arguably the most popular team in the USA was that it continued its youth movement, as the younger brother of 21-year-old Gio Dos Santos, 20-year-old Jonathan of the Barcelona reserves got the call-up, along with budding superstar, 21-year-old Javier Hernandez, slated to join Man United after the tournament from Guadalajara. To balance all this youth, 37-year-old Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Veracruz) got named again but as we said before, he's more likely to suffer a coronary in South Africa than score a goal. The surprise picks were indicative of El Tri's chances: This team has some solid veterans at the back but will rise or fall with its youngsters (including Carlos Vela of Arsenal). This team will be very dangerous - in 2014.
SOUTH AFRICA: We kid you not: One of the big surprise selections was midfielder and striker Surprise Moriri (Mamelodi Sundowns), who only has the second most interesting name on the team sheet (behind Innocent Mdledle, his club teammate). Then there's striker Siyabonga Nomvethe, 32 of Moroka Swallows. When his name was read out on the team sheet, the reporters covering the team began laughing openly.
But that's the problem with South Africa, which only scored two goals in last year's Confederations Cup in five games. Up front, the veteran Benni McCarthy of West Ham is back on the team as expected (he clashed with the old coach) but he's been hurt. Then there's 24-year-old Bernard Parker who somehow went through the recent season at Twente in Holland without finding the net. Things have gotten so bad that a high official in the South African soccer establishment recently announced that the team will be paid one million rands (around $130,000) each time it scores at the tournament. Its money is safe.
All this wouldn't be an issue if South Africa didn't leak goals but it does. Little wonder that the Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has spent the last few weeks complaining both about his team and the weak schedule of qualifiers it has in the next few weeks (Thailand??).
Still, home field in a World Cup is a huge advantage. With this squad, it better be.
FRANCE: In his last tournament (as all of France celebrates the fact), coach Raymond Domenech, aka "Le Crackpot," has done it again with a seemingly inexplicable approach to team selection. The man who is known for basing his choices on horoscope readings has dropped Philippe Mexes, the excellent Roma defender, as well as Arsenal's creative and young midfielder, Samir Nasri, who just had his best season ever. They'll get to stay home with young Karim Benzema, who admittedly didn't get to play much at Real Madrid this year but is one of the best scoring options on a team that has trouble finding the net. His goose was probably cooked when he publicly criticized Domenech's ability to inspire the team. (He's right of course).
So who has replaced a trio that we probably would have started? Well, there's Yann M'Vila, an under-21 box-to-box midfielder of Congolese descent who plays for Rennes and has promise. Still the under-21 captain Moussa Sissokho has more, which is why M'Vila thought it was a practical joke when he was told he was on the squad. Then there's a first call up for Marseille's Mattieu Valbuene, who is not only just 5-5 but is, frankly, awful and has the nickname "Le petit velo" (the little bike). At least this tricycle will have a compatriot in awfulness: 28-year-old striker Djibril Cisse of Panathinaikos is back on the squad even though he hasn't scored a national team goal in sporadic play in almost five years.
Confused yet? So is the team, which has also been stung by allegations that several players were involved with a prostitution ring featuring underage girls. France has one of the best pools of talent in the world, which is why you can never rule out last time's finalist. But it also has Domenech, to go along with consistency and scoring problems, which is why it could well go out in the first round.
And Domenech now.
URUGUAY: Uruguay is sending pretty much the expected team to South Africa. But personnel (Forlan, Suarez, etc.) has never been this underachiever's problem; consistency is. This team is the classic example of the sum of the parts being less than the whole.
The one mini-surprise was that Porto winger, Cristian Rodriguez, aka "The Onion," was left off the squad. (The nickname reportedly refers to his propensity to drive opponents to tears.) Then again, Rodriguez was sent off in the final qualifier and was recently given a two-game ban, meaning that Uruguay would need to reach the next round to really use him. Even the coach seems to realize that's unlikely, so hold the Onion and the tears until next time.
Steven and Harrison Stark are the co-authors of World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, recently published by Blue River Press. They will be analyzing the World Cup for Real Clear Sports.