With the 20th edition of the FIFA World Cup set to kick-off on June 12th at the Itaquera Stadium in São Paulo, Brazil, throughout the course of the next few weeks, footballing analysts, media personnel, fans and yes, even those with no customary interest in the beautiful game outside of the quadrennial tournament, will attempt to accurately predict the successful candidates at each stage of the competition.
The Group stage, which consists of eight groups, made up of four teams per group, will indeed be crucial, not just in terms of setting up the grand finale for July 13th, but also in showing us from the get-go which of the thirty-two national sides and their respective players will be able to meet the expectations of their specific countries, as well as the footballing public and world at large.
The 2014 Group stage is undoubtedly one of the most challenging in recent years. So much so, that, in an online post from December 2013, ProSoccerTalk‘s, Nicholas Mendola aptly categorised three of the groups as follows:
• Group B: ‘Group of Death’
• Group D: ‘Group of Deadly Death’
• Group H: ‘Group of Deadliest Death’
Wordplay aside, the groups for the up-and-coming tournament do look much tougher in comparison to the 2010 compilation because this time around: there are no ‘easy’ ones.
This is where the competition’s dark horses will rear up because even though they do not have the same degree of natural flair and top footballing skills, like their more acclaimed opponents, they too have recognisably good players amidst their ranks and they are more than capable of providing us with added entertainment, unexpected drama and even possible heartbreak.
These so-called ‘minnows’ have brought some of the most unlikely results and victories to the tournament’s varied history.
More often than not, what has added to the sense of joy is the fact that the larger-than-life wins have come to these ‘small sides’ in their home countries’ most desperate moments of need, such as when there has been civil and political unrest or instability.
A prime example of this is West Germany’s first-ever 1954 World Cup Final victory over Hungary, one of the best national teams in history and a team that, at the time, had been undefeated for 5 years and were strong favourites.
Not only were West Germany fierce underdogs heading into the match, but they had the added burden of representing one-half of an internally divided nation that, on a global scale, was enduring widespread international mistrust and ill-will in the post-WWII climate, thanks to Adolf Hitler and his former ‘Nazi Germany’.
The win was so uplifting for the people ‘back home’ that it is considered by German historians Arthur Heinrich and Joachim Fest to be a key turning point in Germany’s post-war history.
In the 2002 World Cup opener, Senegal beat France, the then-European and World Champions and given that Senegal had been colonised by France from the mid-17th century right up until April 1960 when the African nation gained independence, it was a particularly sweet victory and one that sparked nationwide celebrations.
Another remarkable result came in the 1990 Group stage when the relatively unknown Cameroon beat Argentina, the reigning World Champions and the match’s overwhelming favourites- but what made the win even more impressive was the fact that Cameroon only had 9 men left on the field.
It would be impossible to list all of the potential dark horses for this year’s edition, so I have selected three sides that are relative ‘newbies’ as far as World Cup appearances go and that are being touted as potential underdogs, but that, nevertheless, will be sure to both surprise and charm spectators and experts alike, however far they may go in this tournament.
‘Dark Horses’ of the Competition:
• Côte d’Ivoire
First up is Côte d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast.
This top African side, ranked 15th in FIFA’s standings, is simply spoilt with talent at present, with names such as: Didier Drogba, brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure, Gervinho, Cheick Tioté and Wilfried Bony likely to represent them in Brazil.
Under former French national and Inter Milan player, Sabri Lamouchi, who assumed the role of head coach in May 2012 just five days prior to their opening World Cup qualifier, they have reached the AFCON quarter-finals and in the 2012 edition, under then-coach Francois Zahoui, they lost in the final on penalties.
In just two previous World Cup appearances, ‘The Elephants’ have suffered the great misfortune of ending up in the ‘Group of Death’ twice and were unlucky to be dumped out by top duos, Argentina and the Netherlands in 2006 and then again by Brazil and Portugal in 2010.
However, this year with slightly less fierce opponents in Columbia, Greece and Japan (though this trio is far from being idle pushovers), they can aspire to progress to the knock-out phase, if not further.
Their last 9 match results (taken from June 2013 until March 2014) read as follows:
• Losses: 4
• Draws: 3
• Wins: 2
Although these matches were against capable sides like Ghana, Nigeria and Belguim, they will need to up their game. But with any luck, they can and hopefully will give legendary former Chelsea star, Didier Drogba, a fitting send-off by performing well in Brazil.
Next up is Belgium. They are, in my estimation, the main ‘dark horse’ in this tournament.
This will be Les Diables Rouges (The Red Devils) first World Cup appearance since 2002, but with a 10-match unbeaten World Cup qualification streak, some of the best players (many of whom are under the services of clubs like Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspurs and both Manchester clubs), a FIFA ranking of 10 and the luck of the draw considering that out of their three opponents, only Russia poses a real threat, they can hope to do very well in this tournament should they continue with their impressive dribbling and goal-scoring ways.
The following is merely a sample of some of the players that will make up Belgium’s national squad and they are: Vincent Kompany, Thibaut Courtois, Mousa Dembele, Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen, Kevin De Bruyne, Thomas Vermaelen, Kevin Mirallas, Marouane Fellaini, Daniel Van Buyten and finally, Eden Hazard…
Additionally, since the May 2012 appointment of head coach, Marc Wilmots, whose managerial statistics are noteworthy, the side has not lost a competitive match and so, in this squad, there exists a formidable set-up, although, they do somewhat lack World Cup experience.
Their run of form, taken from October 2013 until March 2014, reads as follows:
• Losses: 1
• Draws: 2
• Wins: 2
Russia is yet another European team that can be expected to fare well in this competition, especially since their 6th appearance finds them in Group H along with Belgium, South Korea and Algeria. They are under the guidance of the vastly-experienced and talented Italian manager, Fabio Capello.
As the host nation for the 2018 World Cup, they will have automatic qualification but for Brazil 2014, they managed to qualify for the first time in 12 years by finishing top of their group, which included Portugal, and conceded just 5 goals in 10 games along the way.
Players such as: Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Roman Shirokov (2012 Russian Player of The Year), Igor Akinfeev, Alan Dzagoev and Alexander Kokorin will feature for them.
Perhaps their main concern will be whether or not they can score enough goals to back-up their impressive defensive play, although, they did score 20 goals en route to Brazil.
Still, it will not impossible for them to reach the quarter-finals should the Group stage, and possibly the Round of 16, go their way.
Here are the results of their Group F World Cup qualification games:
• Losses: 2
• Draws: 1
• Wins: 7
Additionally, I have included one team as my ‘One To Watch’, which just so happens to also be the traditional ‘debutant team’ in Bosnia and Herzogovina. (Note: this is one team, not two.)
One To Watch: Bosnia and Herzogovina
In their first successful World Cup qualification round, Bosnia and Herzogovina finished top of a group that included Greece and Slovakia, but in their official Group stage, they face even sterner tests in Argentina and Nigeria.
Nevertheless, with the likes of Manchester City’s Eden Dzeko upfront and Stoke City’s Asmir Begovic in goal, they may have the necessary depth and hope exists for the ‘Golden Lillies’.
Before 2010, they had never been ranked higher than 44th position in FIFA’s standings, yet they are sitting pretty at number 21, and, regardless of how their debutant World Cup goes, it will be great to have yet another current top striker on show. It is certain to be an exciting time for the fans of the two home nations that this side jointly represents.
I hope that all the teams I have listed above will give their all in this year’s tournament and that, through them, we will be provided with more interesting matches and subsequent talking points.
If they can manage to do that, then, come Russia 2018, we might find the spotlight shifting off the so-called ‘Greats’ somewhat for a change, and shining on the ‘dark horses’ that lurk in their shadows…