We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.
Appearance: 13th, fourth consecutive
Last time there: 2006 (lost in final)
Best performance: Champion (1998)
Of the "elite" nations in this tournament, there is not a more unpredictable side than France. Winners in 1998, they slumped to a first-round exit in 2002, backed by an improbable opening upset by Senegal.
Then in 2006, they dazzled at times, making the final before losing to Italy on penalty kicks. It seemed the France of 1998 was back again.
Qualifying for 2010, though, proved quite an adventure. After finishing second in their group to Serbia (?), France had to beat Ireland in a playoff to advance to South Africa. During extra time of the second leg, Thierry Henry's obvious (and inexplicably uncalled) handball led directly to the winning goal, and France was through to South Africa.
So which team will show up? The one that won it all in 1998 and was runner-up in 2006, or the one that lost to Senegal and almost didn't qualify for this year?
One thing is certain: Coach Raymond Domenech has a year's worth of criticism to lean on as he prepares and motivates his team for this tournament. If they're not fired up to prove the world wrong in their "They don't belong" contentions about France, nothing will ever fire this team up.
Henry leads the offensive charge. It might seem like he's played forever, but he's only 32. Nicolas Anelka is a nice complimentary forward. The midfield includes Yoann Gourcuff, who will play a similar style to former star Zinedine Zidane. Manchester United stalwart Patrice Evra is the top defender on the team. Hugo Lloris is one of the top young goalkeepers in Europe.
The draw is harder than it might look for Les Bleus. Mexico has to be considered a group favorite, given their pedigree, talent, and the coaching of Javier Aguirre. South Africa is the host, and they are trying to keep the long streak going (no host nation has ever failed to advance out of the first round). Uruguay can cause trouble if you aren't focused.
June 11 vs. Uruguay (Cape Town)
June 17 vs. Mexico (Polokwane)
June 22 vs. South Africa (Bloemfontein)