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Sarath Pookkat picks out the ten must-watch games of the FIFA World Cup's first round. So get to that couch and switch on to the biggest sporting match-ups of the year. The wait is over.

Group A June 22, 7.30 pm Mangaung/Bloemfontein
Welcome to vuvuzelas and drums. Welcome to the carefree spirit and the vibrant colours of the Rainbow Nation. Welcome to African football. The host nation's prime concern, other than making it a grand success, will be to survive the first round.

By the time Bafana Bafana meet France, their fate could be already sealed, but with help from the crowds and their deafening trumpets, Steven Pienaar and his mates may go the extra distance. Naturally, the hosts are considered the weakest team in the group. France arrive in South Africa on the back of the infamous 'hand of Thierry Henry' goal against Ireland in their final qualifying match. The whole of Ireland is still crying foul. These aren't the most auspicious of circumstances for a team which has been less than impressive in its warm-up matches. Coach Raymond Domenech, not the most-loved person in France after leaving playmakers Samir Nasri and Patrick Vieira out, is under tremendous pressure. But they should survive the group hurdles.

Group E June 14, 5 pm Johannesburg SC
The Netherlands were sensational in Euro 2008 and were just as impressive in World Cup qualifying, winning all 8 games. With the likes of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and the influential Wesley Sneijder, the Dutch look to dominate this group. Denmark had finished above group favourites Portugal in qualifying for this year's finals, although Cristiano Ronaldo did not play much of a part because of injuries. Coach Morten Olsen's side showed admirable maturity to deny regular bigtournament qualifiers Sweden a place in South Africa. However, he very much views the Danes as a work in progress. They are a youthful side, but have plenty of experience in Dennis Rommedahl, Jesper Gronkjaer and Jon Dahl Tomasson. While most would think that the winners of Cameroon vs Denmark would take the second spot, this is a tricky opener for Bert van Marwijk's team. Arjen Robben looks set to miss this match, but Olsen has bigger problems. His wards seem to have lost the art of scoring goals and some of his best players are struggling to shake off niggling injuries. But on the biggest stage of all, anything can happen.

Group B June 12, 7.30 pm Johannesburg, JEP
When Argentina played Nigeria last time in a World Cup match, a certain Lionel Messi was just starting to kick the ball around, and his now-famous growth hormone deficiency had not even been diagnosed. The year was 1994 and the place the United States.

Nigeria had superstars in Finidi George, Sunday Oliseh and Jay Jay Okocha, while the Albeceleste had Claudia Caniggia, Gabriel Batistuta, Fernando Redondo and Diego Simeone in their ranks. They also had the original Diego. And sadly, it turned out to be Maradona's final match in an Argentina shirt. The game saw Argentina's football god, then 33 years old, produce a little bit of magic to set up Batistuta, who obliged by scoring the winner. Maradona was then sent home after failing a drug test for ephedrine. He is now back as manager, Messi has come of age and Argentina have a whole lot of other stars.
Nigeria will miss their most influential player John Obi Mikel, who is out with injury. But like any African team, they play without fear.

Group C June 13, 12 midnight Rustenburg
England are one of the hot favourites and they wouldn't want to take anything for granted against a United States team which is capable of staging upsets. England had an impressive qualifying campaign, winning nine out of ten matches and racking up 34 goals.
The US too will look to repeat the impressive form they displayed in the Confederations Cup at the same venue in 2009. Bob Bradley's team stunned European champions Spain in the semifinals and were on their way to a shock victory over Brazil in the final, but were ultimately tamed by Dunga's boys, who rallied home after trailing 0-2 .

Group D June 18, 5 pm Port Elizabeth
England are good, Brazil and Spain are good teams, but we too are a good team and Germany are always a tournament team," says German defender Jerome Boateng. He is absolutely right. Forget injuries to key players and lack of form, Germany are always tough to beat. They know, more than any other team in the world, how to win ugly and at all costs. Things won't be easy, though, for Joachim Loew's boys when they meet Serbia in their second group match. In Milos Krasic, Serbia have a wonderfully gifted ball player and to prevent his passes from reaching the towering forward line of Nicola Zigic and Milan Jovanovic will be tough. When it comes to defence, Nemanja Vidic will give Germany more than a few headaches. The Germans, though, have always been a disciplined defensive side. They also have flamboyance and flair in the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and Piotr Trochowski in the middle of the park while young Thomas Mueller and Brazil-born Cacau could well grab the opportunity to hit the headlines. This match will be a test of their tactical acumen.

Group E June 25, 12 midnight Cape Town
Remember Roger Milla and his famous corner-flag dance? That name and that dance still haunts Columbia's Rene Higuita, the most colourful and outrageous goalkeeper ever. The Cameroon legend hung up his boots long back, but his successor Samuel Eto'o is more than capable of giving the success-starved nation a few reasons to smile. When Cameroon play the Netherlands though, Eto'o's chief supplier at Inter Milan, Wesley Sneijder, will be pulling the strings for the opposition. The Netherlands are blessed with rich talent in all positions and although star winger Arjen Robben pulled his hamstring at the wrong time, in Robin Van Persie they have another lethal left foot. Rafael van der Vaart and Mark van Bommel, along with Sneijder, will give the Dutch midfield plenty of solidity and spark. They just have a small problem. Cameroon have a tendency to tear up any script.

Group F June 15, 12 midnight Cape Town
The reigning champions and the four-time winners open their campaign against Latin powerhouse Uruguay. Four years back when Italy won the Cup in Germany, beating France in the final, Zinedine Zidane's head butt swamped out the fact that Italy needed that victory more than any other team. Their clubs were mired in turmoil and scandal, but a World Cup win always works wonders. Their squad hasn't changed much and they don't have any real fresh talent. But like Germany, they too know how to win ugly. In spite of injury to midfielder Andre Pirlo, they are the favourites to top this group. Paraguay have plenty of experience and a fully fit Roque Santa Cruz can test the ageing legs of Fabio Cannavaro. Nelson Valdez, who plays for Borussia Dortmund, is also a tricky customer. For Italy, Gianluigi Buffon is still a picture of poise and confidence in goal and it always takes something special to beat him. But if Paraguay can deliver enough crosses into the box, Santa Cruz's headers might just come into play. At the other end, Vincenzo Iaquinta has an equally powerful header, while the free-scoring Antonio di Natale is opportunism personified.

Group G June 15, 7.30 pm Port Elizabeth
With Ivory Coast, Portugal and Brazil looking to outsmart each other, Group G becomes the veritable Group of Death. The presence of North Korea, who have a history of outrageous upsets, adds more spice.
While the Ivorians are waiting anxiously for Didier Drogba to shrug off the injury to his forearm, Portugal had a heartbreak when it was confirmed that talismanic winger Nani had bruised his collarbone and had been ruled out. That leaves two of the most charismatic players out when the teams meet.
The most charismatic of them all, though, will be raring to show off his silky skills, dazzling runs, wicked freekicks and chiselled torso. Cristiano Ronaldo was just another player with huge potential when Germany hosted the event four years back, but now he is a glowing icon. But here, he must watch his back.
Ivory Coast have Yaya Toure, who plays for Barcelona in the Spanish league and has an imposing presence in midfield. His brother Kolo Toure, who plays in England, is another player who knows a thing or two about Ronaldo.

Group G June 21, 12 midnight Johannesburg, JSC
Play Portugal first, then play Brazil! If Ivory Coast reach the second round, they have a right to feel on top of the world. To make matters worse for the Elephants, Brazil these days play tough and physical, without compromising on their flair. Kaka, the world's best player in 2007, has not lost any of his touch. Robinho, after a brief period of uncertainty in England, has found his scoring touch again, while Luis Fabiano has been in sparkling form for Sevilla in the Spanish League.

Group G June 25, 7.30 am Durban
We are going to play Brazil's B team," Brazil coach Dunga had said, slightly taunting Portugal when the two teams were drawn together in December. And he had a point. But three of Portugal's key players - Deco, Liedson, Pepe - are Brazilian and the ideal way for them to reply would be to beat the Canaries at their own game. This match will pit two of the tournament's biggest stars - Kaka and Ronaldo - against each other. Carlos Queiroz, the Portugal coach, has plenty of firepower at his disposal and even without Nani, Portugal are quite a handful.

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