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German forward Lukas Podolski (C) looks on as German players celebrate after the friendly football match against Hungary in Budapest on May 29, ahead of the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Germany won the match 0-3. ((JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images) )

To be one of 32 countries to qualify for the World Cup is one of soccer's greatest achievements, but no nation enters FIFA's showpiece content merely to participate — every country embraces the dream to become world champion.

But those countries drawn into the proverbial Group of Death have the toughest road to overcome, and in World Cup history many pre-tournament favourites — Ivory Coast and Serbia in 2006, Argentina in 2002 and Spain in 1998 — have fallen at the first hurdle.  

In 2010, an unprecedented number of favourites will tumble after three games, because there is not just one Group of Death in South Africa, there are three. 

Group A

Heads will roll on any of these teams that fail to make it past the group stage. South Africa is the host and will feel the pressure to continue the tradition of host nations making it past the group stage; Mexico has the offensive strength to prevail but lacks discipline; Uruguay boasts its best squad in a generation, but hasn't succeeded at this stage for as long a time; and France should progress, but has failed to impress before.

South Africa

  • FIFA ranking*: 83
  • World Cup appearances: 3
  • Round of 16: 0
  • Quarter-finals: 0
  • Semifinals: 0
  • Major international trophies: 1996 African Cup of Nations

Why they are dangerous: No host nation of the World Cup has failed to make it out of the group stage, and what's more, the chance of hosting the world's biggest sporting event has propelled several host nations to unexpected heights — six teams have won the tournament as hosts, two finished runners-up and four have made it as far as the semi-finals. And the last time South Africa hosted a major soccer tournament — the 1996 African Cup of Nations — the Bafana Bafana prevailed. This team can boast decent quality in most positions: Bernard Parker up front, Steven Pienaar orchestrating the offence and Matthew Booth anchoring the defence.

Why they could fall: South Africa is ranked 83rd in the world (Canada is 63rd) for a reason: South Africa didn't qualify for the 2010 African Cup of Nations and, inexplicably, failed to make it past the second round of qualifying for this World Cup. The Rainbow nation is chided for its inconsistency and appalling organization, which is due in large part to the revolving door outside of the head coach's office — since Jomo Sono coached the team in Korea and Japan in 2002, seven coaches have failed to help the team gain back respectability.       

Mexico

  • FIFA ranking: 17
  • World Cup appearances: 14
  • Round of 16: 5
  • Quarter-finals: 2
  • Semifinals: 0
  • Major international trophies: 1999 Confederations Cup and 1965, 1971, 1977, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2003 and 2009 CONCACAF Championship/Gold Cup.

Why they are dangerous: Mexico's game will be about smooth passes and hoarding possession. Head coach Javier Aguirre wants El Tri to tilt the field with a 4-3-3 formation that bewilders and frightens. Fearlessness is entrenched in every Mexican soccer player, and Carlos Vela, Javier Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos will expend every ounce of themselves from whistle to whistle.

Why they could fall: Mexican soccer players love to make bold pronouncements, but rarely deliver: El Tri's history on the international stage is best described with these adjectives: reckless, sloppy and undisciplined.   

Uruguay

  • FIFA ranking: 16
  • World Cup appearances: 11
  • Round of 16: 2 
  • Quarter-finals: 3
  • Semifinals: 2 
  • Final: 1
  • Major international trophies: 1930 and 1950 World Cup and 1916, 1917, 1920, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1935, 1942, 1983, 1987 and 1995 South American/Copa America championships.

Why they are dangerous: Not since the 1970 World Cup, when La Celeste Olimpica (the Olympic Sky Blue) made it to the semifinals, has Uruguay been able to boast such talent and depth: Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez, Walter Gargano, Jorge Rodriguez and Diego Lugano are all top-quality players. What is reassuring is head coach Oscar Tabarez's eagerness to use an offensive 4-4-2 formation, a departure from Uruguay's aggressive (some might say devious) defensive philosophy.

Why they could fall: If the pressure mounts, La Celeste Olimpica might discard energetic, free-flowing passes for elbows-up, studs-raised force.   

France

  • FIFA ranking: 9
  • World Cup appearances: 8
  • Round of 16: 3
  • Quarter-finals: 6
  • Semifinals: 5
  • Finals: 2
  • Major international trophies: 1998 World Cup, 2001 and 2003 Confederations Cup, 1984 and 2000 European Championship.

Why they are dangerous: France is a favourite to win the World Cup, for good reason; from one end of the pitch to other talent abounds in a mix of precocious youth (Hugo Lloris, Gaël Clichy, Yoann Gourcuff and André-Pierre Gignac) gilded experience (Thierry Henry, Franck Ribery and Patrice Evra). On their best day, no one can beat Les Blues.

Why they could fall: Throughout World Cup history, France has either blown hot or cold, looking capable of effortlessly conquering the world or appallingly unable to score against Senegal. And since Raymond Domenech still looks to the heavens for tactical advice, all of France might plead on bent knees for divine intervention to save them from a shocking, early exit.   

Group D

It is often said that the only thing certain during the World Cup is that German efficiency will drive Die Mannschaft (The Team) to the latter stages of the tournament. But on this occasion in South Africa, the resilient Australians, obstinate Serbians and resolute Ghanaians may halt the great German machine from building championship momentum.    

Germany

  • FIFA ranking: 6
  • World Cup appearances: 17
  • Round of 16: 6
  • Quarter-finals: 6 
  • Semifinals: 11
  • Final: 7
  • Major international trophies: 1954, 1974 and 1990 World Cup and 1972, 1980 and 1996 European Championship.

Why they are dangerous: Playing Germany is like battling a tank: unless you possess bigger, effective weapons Die Mannschaft's methodical possession game will inch toward triumph and crush you. Like all of Germany's great World Cup teams, the 2010 version is disciplined and skilled; and it can now kill with speed on the feet of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Bastain Schweinsteiger

Why they could fall: Many are still not convinced Joachim Low is a competent tactician who can manage tricky situations. He will surmount all criticism if he can lead Germany far into the tournament without captain Michael Ballack and first-choice goalkeeper Rene Adler.   

Australia

  • FIFA ranking: 20
  • World Cup appearances: 2
  • Round of 16: 1
  • Quarter-finals: 0
  • Semifinals: 0
  • Major international trophies: 1980, 1996, 2000 Oceania Nations Cup

Why they are dangerous: Even in the four-year span since Australia returned to the World Cup after a 22-year absence, the Socceroos have developed tremendously and are now one of Asia's top sides. The Aussies are strong and fast and now play with the panache of a country confident it can win on any pitch. Players like Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Mark Bresciano, Brett Emerton, Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell are not among the pantheon of European stars, but they are all talented players who ply their trade at the highest level.

Why they could fall: Australia is talking like a team that isn't looking beyond the group stage: Mark Schwarzer said the Aussies will need " a little bit of luck" to get to the Round of 16 and then head coach Pin Verbeek said Australia won't win the World Cup. Granted, both statements are realistic, but should be left unsaid for morale's sake.    

Serbia

  • FIFA ranking: 15
  • World Cup appearances: 11: 9 as Yugoslavia; 1 as Serbia and Montengro; and 1 as Serbia.  
  • Round of 16: 2 as Yugoslavia
  • Quarter-finals: 4 as Yugoslavia
  • Semifinals: 2 as Yugoslavia
  • Major international trophies: 0

Why they are dangerous: This team knows what it's like to suffer in a Group of Death and will be eager to exorcise the nightmare of 2006. Serbia loves to control the run of play, effectively winning possession at the back and moving the ball forward as if it were on a conveyer belt — the systematic delivery between Nemanja Vidic, Dejan Stankovic, Milos Krasic and finally Nikola Zigic or Marko Pantelic was near unstoppable during qualifying. 

Why they could fall: Think of Serbia as Germany light — same sturdy defence, same cunning midfield, same powerful forwards, but less of the fortitude. In 2006, Serbia went to Germany with the strongest defence, but crumbled under the pressure of that tournament's Group of Death, conceding 10 goals in the group stage. Again, Serbia comes to the World Cup after one of the strongest qualifying campaigns, but a pre-tournament loss to New Zealand — when the White Eagles were grounded by a dogged performance from the All Whites —  will do little to relax fears.  

Ghana

  • FIFA ranking: 32
  • World Cup appearances: 2
  • Round of 16: 1
  • Quarter-finals: 0
  • Semi-finals: 0
  • Major international trophies: 1963, 1965, 1978, 1982, African Cup of Nations

Why they are dangerous: Ghana is strong in the purest physical sense — this is a team of strong men who will not be intimidated by any country, especially those who flaunt pedigree. Michael Essien's injury hurts Ghana's depth, but Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari and Kwadwo Asamoah are capable of enduring the added pressure. And watch for Dominic Adiyiah — the young Milan striker led Ghana to the under-20 World Cup last year and might use the South African stage to announce himself to the world. 

Why they could fall: This team's greatest enemy is itself. Egos and petty squabbles have been a burden to head coach Milovan Rajevac, and if he can't inspire the Black Stars to create a beautiful on-field constellation the black hole inside Ghana's locker room might devour the country's lofty expectations.     

*FIFA rankings current to May 28, 2010.