The month of June is normally a slow-down period for sports bettors. The NHL and NBA playoffs are finishing up leaving us with just baseball to pick from on the daily betting board. But once every for years, soccer saves us from the summer blues.
The World Cup begins on June 11 and we're doing our best to prepare bettors for the premier best-on-best world tournament. Each week we'll examine one group. Here's a breakdown of Pool A.
2006 World Cup: DNQ; Best World Cup finish: 1-1-1 (2002); Qualifying record: Automatically qualified as hosts
Odds: To win Group A: +740; To win the World Cup: +15500
Style of play: Bafana Bafana play a conventional 4-4-2, which relies heavily on man-to-man marking and a strong counter-attack. With Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira at the helm, though, pragmatism outweighs strict adherence to tactical dogma. He will adjust accordingly.
Strengths: South Africa's strength is its unpredictability. Few would have pegged the host side to fail in qualifying for this year's African Cup of Nations. Yet there is an abundance of talent to prevent complacency among opponents. Manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, who has plenty of World Cup savvy as being only the second person to have coached four different teams (Brazil [twice], Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) in the world event. With the vuvuzela-tooting Bafana Bafana faithful behind them, South Africa could surprise.
Weaknesses: Amid a foreboding group, South Africa potentially faces the dubious distinction of being the first-ever World Cup host team not to advance from pool play in recent history. Team preparation has been chaotic as scheduled friendlies in Germany failed to materialize. Benni McCarthy, the team's veteran striker, can't get a game with West Ham.
Player to watch: Steven Pienaar is considered a midfield maestro. His clever passing and ability to score make him one of the more dangerous attacking midfielders in the game.
2006 World Cup: 1-2-1, lost 2-1 Argentina in Second Round; Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals in 1970 and 1986; Qualifying record: 11-2-5
Odds: To win Group A: +354; To win the World Cup: +15500
Style of play: There's always been plenty of sizzle in the Mexican attack, but not enough steak. The El Tricolor rely on the plodding small-pass buildup towards goal, which works well against Central and North American foes but hasn't produced the necessary success against stronger international sides.
Strengths: After a disastrous stretch under Sven-Goran Eriksson, Javier Aguirre has righted the ship. The former Atletico Madrid manager's keen eye for talent has allowed Javier Hernandez, Guardado, Efrain Juarez and Giovani dos Santos to develop while luring 37-year-old Cuauhtemoc Blanco out of retirement has lifted team spirits.
Weaknesses: Mexico's striking options are limited. At 37, Blanco is seen largely as a spiritual leader who's deft on the ball and provides flashes of brilliance. Guillermo Franco (West Ham) has been battling an Achilles injury and hasn't been in consistent form for the once relegation threatened Hammers. A solid midfield contingent, notably dos Santos, will heavily be relied upon.
Player to watch: Rafael Marquez is team captain and an anchor of the El Tri's backline. The Barcelona defender can provide the stability and leadership to give Mexico a serious shot at advancing out of the group.
2006 World Cup: Did not qualify; Best World Cup finish: winners in 1930 and 1950; Qualifying record: 6-6-6 fifth in CONMEBOL; beat CONCACAF Costa Rica 2-1 aggregate in playoff for World Cup place.
Odds: To win Group A: +393 To win the World Cup: +12500
Style of play: La Celeste opts for a 4-3-1-2 formation with Nicolas Lodeiro in the midfield attacking role.
Strengths: The team has two superb strikers in Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid) and Luis Suarez (Ajax). Forlan, a two-time European Golden Shoe winner and last season's La Liga leading scorer, is a danger in and outside the box while strike partner Suarez nailed six goals in a Dutch Cup game this campaign.
Weaknesses: As evidenced in the 4-0 drubbing by visiting Brazil in CONMEBOL qualifying, La Celeste's defense can be picked apart. The team's inconsistency during qualifying (particularly home draws to Chile and Bolivia) is also troubling.
Player to watch: Nicolas Lodeiro, who made his club team debut at age 16, is primed to showcase his myriad of talents as the architect in Uruguay's attack. Liverpool is one of a number of top-flight clubs looking to land the 20-year-old Nacional star.
2006 World Cup: lost 2-1 to Italy in finals; Best World Cup finish: 1998 World Cup winners; Qualifying record: 4-3-0 (won second round 2-1 aggregate over Ireland)
Odds: To win Group A: -104 To win the World Cup: +1800
Style of play: France plays a direct style that incorporates a 4-3-3 with an emphasis on controlling midfield.
Strengths: Thierry Henry captains Les Bleus veteran-laden outfit, which includes members of 2006 World Cup runners-up squad. Henry's associates upfront Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery comprise one the most lethal attacks in international soccer while there is stout leadership at the back with William Gallas and Patrice Evra.
Weaknesses: Henry and Gallas, who are 32, are advancing in age and the hullabaloo surrounding the team's qualification – via Henry's indisputable handball against Ireland – casts a pall. Added to France's cloud are unsavory reports about some players – namely Ribery – being linked to a case involving child prostitutes.
Player to watch: Yoann Gourcuff is the wild card in the mix. The highly skilled Bordeaux midfielder is likely to find open areas with the ball while opposing teams focus on shutting down Henry, Anelka and Ribery.