The world turns its eyes on South Africa Friday as the 2010 World Cup finally gets underway. With the hosts in action in the first game and some of Europe's big guns opening their campaigns, it could be quite a weekend.
Get your ear plugs out: The World Cup is about to kick-off
If you haven't heard about the World Cup yet, the roar and deafening noise of vuvuzelas which will come out of Johannesburg's 90,000-capacity Soccer City stadium on Friday will probably reach your ears, wherever you may be on the planet.
South Africa take on Mexico in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup and as well as a continuous, manic bee swarm blast of plastic trumpets, the hosts are guaranteeing an atmosphere and spectacle second to none. South Africans are counting down the seconds until the tournament begins not just out of pride but because they are truly excited about Bafana Bafana's chances.
South Africa and Mexico are two attack-minded sides whose commitment to offensive play is matched only by their apparent indifference to defending. Following the age-old plan of victory revolving around the "score more than we concede" ethos, this could be a free-flowing opener with more than a few goals. Both teams have also seen an upswing of form ahead of the tournament, so while it may be high-scoring, spectators will not be forced to watch a pub match. These are two sides coming into the opening game with their tails up.
South Africa are unbeaten in 12 matches since November and as such are favorites for the first victory of the tournament - but still strong outsiders with the bookies for the title. Mexico, however, have held their own against world champions Italy and title contenders Holland and England in recent friendlies. Both squads are at full strength and there are no major injuries to report.
Controversial French face tricky opener against Uruguay
Thierry Henry's controversial handball against Ireland in the crucial qualifier still hangs over France
The second game of the tournament features the other two Group A teams, France and Uruguay, who play in Cape Town on Friday evening.
The clash of two former world champions - France in 1998, Uruguay in 1930 and 1950 - is already laced with controversy due to Le Bleus contentious qualifying exploits and the sex scandal which threatened to engulf a number of stars. These dark clouds hanging over France are unlikely to be blown away by anything less than victory - which is far from a forgone conclusion.
Raymond Domenech's team have been in underwhelming form both in qualifying and in subsequent friendlies ahead of the tournament, most embarrassingly losing 1-0 at home to China last week. But with a talented squad featuring the likes of Franck Ribery, Yoann Gourcuff, the rejuvenated Nicolas Anelka and 1998 stalwart Thierry Henry, France would need to seriously implode not to escape the group stages.
However, their campaign faces a tricky start. Uruguay may not have set the world alight since their last World Cup title 60 years ago but the 2010 vintage has more than a few players to catch the eye. No longer burdened by history and without too much pressure emanating from home this time, coach Oscar Tabarez has nurtured a team blended from youth and experience into a relaxed, confident unit.
Spearheaded by star striker Diego Forlan of Atletico Madrid and Luis Suarez, who scored 35 goals for Ajax in the Dutch league last season, Uruguay will certainly test the French defense. Playing a 3-4-1-2 formation, they will also make France work hard for any opening. A Uruguayan victory is not out of the question - and if they do win, expect first outrage, then mounting fatalism in the French press to follow.
Europe 's contenders open against strong opponents
The opening weekend also sees some intriguing clashes featuring some of Europe's hopefuls, most notably Germany versus Australia in Durban on Sunday night and before that, England against the United States in Rustenburg on Saturday.
Germany is set to send out a youthful, attacking side in its bid to win its first World Cup since 1990
Germany, crippled by injuries before even arriving in South Africa, will send out a predominantly youthful side to face the Aussies with coach Jogi Loew keeping his pledge to blood new talent in the cauldron of World Cup competition this summer. The chances of seeing the likes of Mesut Oezil, Thomas Mueller, Marko Marin and Toni Kroos let loose on the Socceroos are high and a high score for die Mannschaft cannot be ruled out.
Germany qualified with typical efficiency and without much fanfare but Loew seems to have kept his powder dry for the main event by unveiling what could be the most thrilling Germany line-up for many a year. With a lot of the old guard from qualifying left at home either through injuries or by the coach's choice, the task of winning the cup will rest on speedy, young shoulders.
Australia may fancy their chances against the Germans even if this new attacking mentality is not what they were expecting from their opponents. A physical side which mixes equal parts muscular skill with intimidation, the Socceroos may feel that a robust approach to Germany's young guns may knock them off their stride.
They'll draw upon their strong showing at the 2006 World Cup to give the Australians extra belief, but in all honesty, this is a team which doesn't lack self confidence. It will be a tough match for both side but for different reasons.
England and US prepare for crucial Group C clash
England and the USA will forget about any kind of 'special relationship' in Rustenburg as the Group C rivals and expected qualifiers face their toughest challenge of the stage. With no offense to Algeria and Slovenia, the winner of this match will be in a very good position to progress.
England's firebrand striker Wayne Rooney will have to watch what he says to refs in South Africa
England have been hit by the World Cup injury curse with captain Rio Ferdinand ruled out after a training session injury left him with ruptured knee ligaments. However, coach Fabio Capello has probably the strongest England squad at his disposal for some time and a true superstar in striker Wayne Rooney. Now if only the Manchester United forward can keep his cool…
The Americans will need no motivation to get up for this match. Their squad is peppered with impact players from Europe's top leagues (Clint Dempsey of Fulham, Borussia Monchengladbach's Michael Bradley, etc.) and on their day, Team USA can give anyone a game so no-one will consider them poor relations in this clash.
Both teams can turn on the skill and play silky, attacking football when the mood takes them but both are capable of turning games into running battles. Depending on whether the rivalry remains friendly or not, we could see either a great game of soccer or the biggest bust-up since the War of Independence.
Elsewhere over the weekend, former European Champions Greece take on South Korea in Port Elizabeth on Saturday while fellow Group B opponents Nigeria face Diego Maradona's Argentina in Johannesburg's Ellis Park. On Sunday, Algeria and Slovenia meet to complete the opening games of Group C in Polokwane and Germany's other Group D opponents Serbia and Ghana clash in Pretoria.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann