Uruguay rates as Group A favorite
The group that drew hosts South Africa, rather than one of the seven other seeded teams, was supposed to be among the easiest in the World Cup. Instead, Group A will be one of the toughest and certainly among the most competitive. Consider that this group could have consisted of South Africa, New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay. Instead, the hosts are paired with three teams that place in the Soccer Power Index's top 17. And South Africa itself will be no pushover, as it's playing better football of late and is poised to take advantage of its home status. A quick look at each of the teams:
Uruguay (61 percent chance to advance, 34 percent to win group). It will come as a surprise to some, but the SPI has Uruguay, by a small margin, rated as the best team in the group. Uruguay was a constant source of debate during the creation of the SPI; the formula always liked it -- mostly because of its excellent goal differential against a tough schedule -- even though its results during South American qualifying were maddeningly inconsistent. But Uruguay has solidified of late, closing out qualification strongly and recently winning a road friendly over Switzerland. The team is no deeper than you'd expect from a country of 3.5 million people, but the front-line talent (particularly the strikers) is strong. Look for Uruguay to go for the win in its opening match against France, while the French may be content to play for a draw.
France (57 percent chance to advance, 30 percent to win group). The French haven't made it look easy, qualifying for the World Cup only after beating Ireland in controversial fashion following earlier indignities such as a loss to Austria, a draw with Romania and a narrow escape against the Faroe Islands. The French talent is certainly there in the European club leagues, but the team gave the impression of coasting its way through qualifying as a playoff-bound NBA team might coast through the regular season. Perhaps, as in 2006 and 1998, the team will peak at the right time, or perhaps, as in 2002, its indifference will get the better of it. A recent 2-0 defeat in a home friendly -- even if it was to Spain -- was not the right way to reset, but the French will play three more friendlies in an effort to shape up.
Mexico (44 percent chance to advance, 20 percent to win group). Speaking of inauspicious results in friendlies, a recent scoreless draw against Iceland -- not Ireland, but Iceland -- was the latest inconsistent result from a notoriously inconsistent team. Can El Tri get it together for three tough matches in South Africa? The formula says they're only marginally behind France and Uruguay. But Mexico plays more matches than just about any team in the world: essentially a full schedule of friendlies in the United States in addition to at home (sometimes with subpar lineups), and it often plays in both the Gold Cup and Copa America. I worry about fatigue and focus, particularly because Mexico drew the short straw, and its match against South Africa is the opener in front of what is sure to be a raucous crowd in Johannesburg. If the Mexicans at least draw that match, they should be fine, but a loss would put them in a devastating position.
South Africa (38 percent chance to advance, 17 percent to win group). How much does home-field advantage matter? If the South Africans were playing on neutral turf like everybody else, they would have just a 5 percent chance of winning the group (not 17 percent) and just a 17 percent shot to advance (not 38 percent). But they will be at home, and the performance of recent hosts like France and South Korea suggests that home-field advantage is no less important during the World Cup than it is ordinarily (perhaps the contrary, in fact, because their opponents will be away from home for weeks at a time). Not only that, but the South Africans have had their share of impressive results of late, having gone undefeated in their past five matches (although with four draws), including a 1-1 road draw in a friendly against Paraguay. The tricky thing is that South Africa can struggle to score goals, and it almost certainly will need at least one win to advance; it also might need a well-timed penalty or a nervous team like Mexico to concede a dodgy goal.
Nate Silver is a renowned statistical analyst who was named one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" by Time Magazine in 2009. He gained acclaim for outperforming the polls in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and created baseball's popular predictive system, PECOTA.