The preliminary round of the World Cup splits the teams into groups of four. Two of the four will advance, and the worst case scenario for the teams is to be in a Group of Death, where at least three quality teams vie for the two top spots. The opposite situation is where there is a prohibitive favorite that should finish first and might finish second if everything goes wrong, and the other teams are hoping to sneak a few crumbs off the table. I call this a Group of Cake.
What could go wrong in a Group of Cake? Well, ask the French. Here were the odds from the British bookies at Ladbrokes of the teams in France's group to win the whole thing when the match-ups were announced.
South Africa 80/1
Why did I list the French last? Because that's where they finished in their group. After a dull 0-0 draw against Uruguay, Les Bleus proceeded to lose to both Mexico and South Africa and finish at the bottom of the table. This wasn't good, but for many knowledgeable fans, it wasn't a huge surprise. Their coach was widely reviled and after the loss to Mexico, the bad blood on the team was easy to see. But still, the favorite finishing dead last? That has to happen once a blue moon.
Apparently, blue moons happen much more often in the Southern Hemisphere. Here are the odds for winning the whole shebang for the squads in Group F.
New Zealand 1000/1
Again, Italy is list at the bottom because that's where they finished. Unlike the French, the Italians were playing strategically, getting a tie from the next best team Paraguay in the first match, but then letting New Zealand off the hook, a team who were supposed to be complete door mats. (The two other teams at 1000/1 are North Korea and Honduras, who have lost all the games they have played so far. The Kiwis pulled off three draws, a stunningly good result for them.)
The Italians still had their destiny in front of them. Beating Slovakia in the final group match could still give them a ticket to the elimination rounds, where all the uninspired play in the first three games can be forgiven with a few brilliant goals and some solid defense.
Instead, Slovakia scored in the 25th minute to take a 1-0 lead into the intermission, then put in what looked like the winner in the 71st. Italy scored to make it 2-1, then Slovakia again in the 89th for 3-1 and Italy in the 90th for 3-2. But that's where it would end, ending the hopes of the World Champions to repeat.
Along with the Americans' stoppage time heroics yesterday, this is some very crazy stuff, and we haven't even played a game that might be decided on penalty kicks yet.
Stay tuned, but if you have a weak heart, consult your physician first.