JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AFP) - There is an intriguing first-round quartet at the 2010 World Cup with Group A featuring 1998 winners France, Mexico, hosts South Africa and Uruguay.
Virtually every other group has an obvious candidate to finish first, and a couple of teams vying to be runners-up and also qualify for the knockout phase of the most-watched global sports event.
What makes the first group to be completed at the Cape Town draw last December so hard to call is its uniqueness with top seeds South Africa by far the weakest team if the monthly world rankings are to be trusted.
France, winners on home soil 12 years ago and beaten finalists in 2006, and Uruguay and Mexico, who reached the second round at the last four World Cups, are among the top 20 football nations, but the hosts are always one of eight top seeds.
South Africa occupy 83rd position - a record low for a host country - and only 2000-1 no-hopers North Korea among the 32-field are further down the rankings ahead of Friday's curtainraiser when the host nation take on Mexico in Johannesburg.
Fortunately for Bafana Bafana (The Boys), World Cup games are not decided by rankings, but the listing serves as a sombre reminder of the enormous task ahead.
Playing at venues up to 1,800 metres (5,900 feet) above sea level before vuvuzela-blowing crowds of up to 90,000 could inspire a Bafana squad boasting only one genuine top-level performer in Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar.
Tradition also offers hope with no host nation failing to reach the second round since the World Cup was first staged 80 years ago in Uruguay.
Uruguay won that tournament and conquered the world again in 1950, but the tiny South American nation have made little impact since and talented players with short fuses have often been branded 'bully boys' as red cards flashed.
Coach Oscar Tabarez insists those dark days are history and he possesses in two-goal Europa League final hero Diego Forlan of Atletico Madrid potentially the deadliest Group A marksman.
While 1998 champions France were lucky to reach South Africa as the hand of Thierry Henry played a pivotal role in the play-off victory over Ireland, they must be group favourites given two final appearances in the last three tournaments.
Infuriatingly erratic though 'Les Bleus' may be, they have quality in defenders William Gallas and Partick Evra, midfielders Abou Diaby and Florent Malouda and Franck Ribery will hope to re-discover his creative spark after an injury-hit season to supply Henry and Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka.
Even France's stuttering pre-tournament form -- including a 1-0 defeat to China in a friendly -- is unlikely to seriously shake their hopes.
An 'unpredictable' tag can also be stuck on Mexico, who were battling to stay in the qualification race at one stage and axed former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson before coming good after recalling ex-boss Javier Aguirre.
Although a bit-part performer now at Barcelona, defender-cum-midfielder Rafael Marquez remains the best-known Mexican footballer while Manchester United-bound striker Javier Hernandez is one to watch.
Favourites - France
Fancied - Mexico and Uruguay
Underdogs - South Africa
|Kagawa shines as Dortmund hit six in Japan|
|Alonso tips Gerrard for Galaxy glory|
|Firmino seeks self-improvement with Liverpool|
|Buffon bids farewell to Pirlo|
|Sterling named Europe´s ´most valuable´ young player|
|Casillas´ agent reveals Porto offer|
|Southampton bring in Martina|
|Dundee United accept Celtic´s Ciftci bid|
|McArthur pens new Palace deal|
|Bartomeu rules out Barca move for Pogba this year|
|Spurs have to be better now - Bentaleb|
|Milner expects central role|
|Micronesia thrashed again, this time 46-0|
|Marchisio: I cannot be Pirlo´s heir|
|Inter aiming for Champions League return - Icardi|
|UEFA Europa League Preview: Brondby and Slovan to protect handsome leads|
|Bentaleb pens new long-term deal at Tottenham|
|Barca agree Turan deal|
|FIFA bans Mayne-Nicholls|
|United States v Honduras: Klinsmann demands improvement ahead of Gold Cup opener|
|CONCACAF institutes extensive reforms in wake of FIFA corruption scandal|
|Mauri completes Milan move|
|City sign Turkey striker|
|Women´s World Cup final draws huge US TV ratings|
|My first Chelsea team better than current crop - Drogba|
|Bertrand set for lay-off after knee surgery|
|New five-year Juve deal for Marchisio|
|Allegri extends Juve contract|
|Koeman reiterates Alderweireld interest|
|Valencia bag Bakkali|
|New York City FC complete Pirlo capture|
|Panama v Haiti: Collat ready to challenge the best of CONCACAF|
|UEFA Champions League Preview: Harrison eyes TNS progression|
|FIFA sanctions Yemen for fielding ineligible player|
|Toulouse rubbish Ben Yedder exit reports|
|Mourinho ´knows what he´s doing´ with Falcao signing|
|Watford shell out club-record fee for Capoue|
|Braafheid signs Lazio extension|
|Nani finalises Fenerbahce move|
|Liverpool confirm O´Driscoll appointment|
|Liverpool have to start better - Lucas|
|USA simply too good - Sasaki|
|Portland Timbers 1 San Jose Earthquakes 0: Jewsbury wins it in stoppage time|
|No move yet for Van Persie|
|Lloyd wins Golden Ball, Silver Boot awards|
|Mascherano: I never grabbed Banega|
|Dunga requested Brazil not appeal Neymar´s suspension|
|United States 5 Japan 2: Lloyd stars with hat-trick|
|Fiorentina deny Inter criticism|
|Nani relishing Fenerbahce opportunity|
|Newcastle hold talks over Northampton youngster|
|Cuadrado´s agent plays down Chelsea exit rumours|
|Liverpool´s Alberto set for Deportivo loan|
|Leverkusen suffer surprise defeat, Stuttgart hit six|
|Inter ´dismayed´ at Fiorentina vice-president´s Salah Twitter outburst|
|Blaszczykowski ruled out of Dortmund´s Asia tour|
|Gerrard gets the beers in for LA Galaxy fans|
|De Gea coy over Real links|
|Former Brazil star Carlos handed Delhi reins|
|Ciftci will not push through Celtic switch – agent|
|In-demand Mitrovic considering Roma offer|
|Lehmann calls on Cech to ´get over´ Chelsea|
|Marlos double sinks Monaco|
|Mauritius 0 South Africa 2 (agg 0-5): Bafana set up Angola qualifier|
|Keane relishing Gerrard arrival|
|Palace confirm Cabaye interest|
|Hamburg bring in Spahic after head-butt ban|
|Blatter hits out at France and Germany over World Cup votes|
|Sanchez: World Cup exit spurred Chile to Copa glory|
|Jojic makes Cologne switch, Santana move falls through|
|Carrillo keen to get going at Monaco|
|Micronesia thrashed 38-0 as Fiji triumph in Olympic qualifier|
|Schalke stunned by ´machine´ Caicara|
|MLS Review: Keane shines at Gerrard´s Galaxy unveiling|
|Counter-attacking the key for Japan|
|Jimenez happy at Atletico|
|Gerrard predicts ´successful future´ with Galaxy|
|Iniesta can´t see Real selling Ramos|
|Keshi sacked as Nigeria coach|
|Three finals, three defeats for Messi, Mascherano|
|Nani close to Fenerbahce move|
|Sampaoli revels in ´unbelievable joy´|
|Bravo: Copa victory a dream|
|Martino: Argentina should have won|
|Chile 0 Argentina 0 (4-1 on penalties): Hosts end trophy drought|
|Germany 0 England 1 (after extra time): England make World Cup history|