At Wednesday’s rehearsal for the World Cup draw, actress Charlize Theron raised a smile when she plucked France’s ball from the hat and said ‘Ireland’.
The South African star, whose boyfriend is Irish actor Stuart Townsend, will be assisting at Friday’s draw and she won’t be the only one hoping that France land themselves in a testing group after the controversy surrounding their play-off victory over Ireland.
At the last World Cup, France were drawn in statistically the easiest group alongside Togo, South Korea and Switzerland, but they made heavy weather of qualifying for the next stage, eventually scraping through with one win and two draws.
Yet they still made the final, and therein lies one of the seldom spoken truths of World Cup football: it doesn’t matter what you do in the group, as long as you get through.
Italy topped Group E but were in danger of going out of the competition after being held to a 1-1 draw by the United States in a fiercely competitive second group match that featured three red cards. After limping past Australia in the last 16 thanks to a hotly debated 95th-minute penalty they brushed past Ukraine in the quarter-finals before finally clicking in the superb semi-final victory over Germany. The rest, as they say, is history.
Brazil, Argentina, Spain and England all cruised through the group stage – Brazil and Spain with 100 percent records, Argentina after thrashing Serbia and Montenegro 6-0 – but none of them made it beyond the last eight. Since the 1958 World Cup, when the group stage was introduced, only Brazil (in 1970 and 2002) and France (in 1998) have gone on to win the tournament after winning all three group matches.
The key to World Cup success is momentum. Build it up too soon, like Argentina did, and you risking losing it in the knockout phase. Build it up at the right time, like France and Italy, and the final awaits.
Italy are the experts when it comes to building momentum and nowhere was that more apparent than at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Having not won a match in six months prior to the competition, they staggered through the group stage after drawing against Poland, Cameroon and Peru but caught fire in the second round before going on to defeat West Germany in the final.
All of the top seeds in Friday’s draw fear being drawn in the dreaded ‘Group of Death’, whether it be France, Portugal, Ghana or Ivory Coast that stalk their particular nightmares, but a bruising group campaign might just be a better introduction to the tournament than three easy wins. Provided they get through, of course.