The Time Has Come For The Dark Horses To Have Their World Cup Moment

The World Cup is almost 100 years old, and yet only eight nations have ever managed to scale the summit. In the past forty years, only two teams have added their name to the honours list since Argentina’s first triumph in 1978.

Even so, those countries – France and Spain – had won the European Championship in the past. They had some pedigree already, producing outstanding talent and teams over the years, just never capable of getting over the line. Either super powers like Germany, Italy and Brazil got in the way, or there was a phenom like Maradona, or worse, they just bottled it.

If anything, the long road to world glory for those two bordering states illustrates the difficulty in making that last step. They finally escaped the moniker of dark horses in 1998 and 2010 respectively, but others are not so lucky.

This might finally be the year we get a new winner though. The reigning champions are kaput. None of the favourites look especially threatening. The gap between the upper ring and the middle-class has certainly closed, with a host of teams ready to capitalise.

Who’s In Contention For The World Cup?

Belgium have come attached with for so long now that it would make a fitting nickname. The Belgian FA should trademark it and sell t-shirts emblazoned with a black horse, leaping over a giant replica of the World Cup trophy on it as flames rise all around it. Fans could bring inflatable horses, a la the big inflatable hammers that became common place on the terrace in Lansdowne Road in the late nineties. It would make for a far more original marketing campaign than anything you can do with the Red Devils monikers, already made famous by a certain English football team.

Should Belgium not take home the biggest prize in the sport, then they may have to take such ownership of the slogan before it becomes an albatross around their neck. They will end up on the heap of ‘Golden Generations’ that never attain tangible success. The term in itself is an oxymoron; no trophy-winning country ever refers to their team as the Golden Generation, as it tends to describe teams that ultimately underachieve and never end up winning any gold.

The darkest of all horses will never have a better chance to make use of their golden generation talent pool of players. Their best players are either entering or already in their prime, joined by a good mix of youthful exuberance and experience. Their first task is Japan, which is no gimme, but a relatively easy draw considering who’s left in the competition.

If we plot a route to the final, they will have to play Brazil/Mexico in the quarter-finals. I have Brazil nailed down to make the final, but we have yet to be impressed by a Selecao having met inferior opposition up to now. Mexico themselves can be considered dark horses; a talented squad of players who we know will rise to the occasion, and have already eliminated Germany from the equation. The 3-0 drubbing to Sweden is a worry however, and one can’t help but feel they are going out in the last 16 for zillionth time in a row.

Even if Mexico or Belgium make it to the semi-finals, they will have to contend with one of either Uruguay/Portugal or France/Argentina. Intimidating, for sure, and a tough route to glory, but none of those sides are unbeatable. In any case, to be the best you have to beat the best.

Uruguay themselves have a touch of Portugal 2016 about them; an unadventurous, even boring team who rely on the individual brilliance of their best players, they obtain the nous and experience to make their way through the treacherous waters of knockout football. I could see either side spoiling match after match on the way to the final, employing cunning tactics to get past teams containing greater quality than they do.

On the other side of the draw, Spain look the best bet for a run to a second final in three attempts this year. And yet, despite all their talent and their legion of born winners — some of whom have probably got more Champions League medals than goals scored — we all know the cloud hanging over them since the sacking of manager Julen Lopetegui. They are not the imperious Spain of 2010, with clear weaknesses being highlighted in each of their three group games thus far. That’s good news for their potential opponents in the last eight.

Croatia are another member of the Dark Horse Club, threatening to make an impact at major tournaments, then bowing out before the serious business even gets underway. Not only have they failed to replicate their best ever performance at a World Cup, third place at France 1998, they have not gotten out of the group stages until this summer, at the fourth time of asking twenty years later. Their Euros record only makes for slightly better reading.

If they are ever going to do it, this is the year to do so. This writer, erm, wrote them off before a ball was kicked, predicting that the troubles of Euro 2016 might reemerge in Russia. If anything, they have looked one of the most assured sides so far, tossing aside Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland with ease. Luka Modric is playing at his wonderful best, while the squad is peppered with some excellent players, such as Perisic, Mandzukic and Rakitic, to name a few. The timing could be just perfect: Modric, 32, is still at the point where he can play 90 minutes every game while bossing the midfield with his incredible passing, while their star players are currently in their prime, or as close to it as they are going to get.

Denmark, more outsiders than dark horses, face them in the second round. The Danes won’t be overawed on Sunday night, but given their lack of goals in the group stage, it’s difficult to see how they can find a way past the Croats.

Goals have not been a problem for Colombia thus far, scoring five times in three matches. The South Americans are one of the most attractive sides in Russia right now, their ambitious range of passing causing football fans to fall in love with their style of play and adopt them as their second team.

Los Cafeteros are sweating on the fitness of James Rodriguez, a critical cog in their free-flowing machine. The Bayern Munich loanee has only played one full game up to now, but the Colombians managed without him just fine against Senegal following his 30th minute substitution. His teammates appear more than capable of picking up the slack, such as Juan Fernando Quintero who has become something of a revelation in the past couple of weeks. The question is, do they start Rodriguez and hope he comes through unscathed, or rest him in the hope that he can be fully fit for later down the line? Either option is a risk.

The big advantage Colombia have over England is there wont suffer from the same level of expectation. While everyone is fully aware of the talent this squad possess, they don’t carry the same burden as the English, perennial underachievers at this level. The Three Lines don’t even fit the tag of dark horses, or favourites, or even rank outsiders. They fall into their own little category; they arrive amidst a hive of hype and leave after four games at the most. It’s a team that can’t be analysed in the way other contenders are; they’re just there.

England may think they’ve got an quarter-final lined up with Sweden (provided they beat Switzerland), and an easy route to the semi-finals, but they underestimate the ambition and ability of the teams around them, even if they are in the ‘easy’ side of the draw. The Swedes were rank outsiders before leaving for Russia, but their 3-0 demolition of Mexico just about elevates them to the status of dark horses.

With such a strong field it is almost impossible to guess who will go all the way. Even if we don’t get a new winner, we’re going to have one hell of a journey finding out who does.

Listen to our latest episode of the podcast, where we talked about Ireland vs Spain at the 2002 World Cup: 

#9: The Last Great Tears Of An Irish Fan

LISTEN – Episode 9, Ireland vs Spain, World Cup 2002:

Subscribe on iTunes; find us on your Android app; or download directly here.

Intro theme by The Shaker Hymn.

When the next World Cup comes along, it will have been twenty years since Ireland last appeared at the tournament.

More time will have passed between our jaunt in Korea & Japan and Qatar 2022, than between Italia ’90 and 2002. The more you think about it, the worse the reality gets. It is an absolute age to have not competed at a World Cup.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Ireland’s last game in the competition, a penalty shootout loss to Spain, has become one of the most reminisced upon games in Irish sporting history.

ireland vs spain

It might seem somewhat glib to speak of it in those terms. After all, a defeat is a defeat. But much like the quarter-final loss to hosts Italy three decades ago, Ireland’s final game at the 2002 edition was the side’s best performance of the tournament.

The void, that absence of similar moments on the world stage, and the wider it becomes, the more importance we attach to it.

We recall the moments, the big chances, Duffer’s stellar performance on the right wing, the elation of Robbie Keane getting us to extra time, the penalties – those scored and, regrettably, those missed. But most of all, we remember the tears. The ones shed by the players, but mainly the ones shed by us, the fans.

ireland vs spain

It had been a rollercoaster of a month for Irish supporters, between the seismic activity of Saipan and the opener against Cameroon, Keane’s last minute equaliser and the rout of Saudi Arabia, so much had happened. We — all of us, fans, players, staff — were tired and emotional by that stage.

But we didn’t want it to end.

Anything but that.

Then Gaizka Mendieta showed up. He didn’t even start, but then again it’s all about where you finish. And he finished with the ball, slowly bobbling over Shay Given’s outstretched leg, passing him by centimetres. “By fuck all” as he puts himself.


ireland vs spain
16 June 2002; Gaizka Mendieta, Spain, puts his penalty past Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given to win the penalty shoot out. FIFA World Cup Finals, 2nd Round, Republic of Ireland v Spain, Suwon World cup stadium, Suwon, Korea. Soccer. Cup2002. Picture credit; David Maher / SPORTSFILE *EDI*

The collective regret has been enormous ever since. What could have been? A quarter-final with South Korea. And then what? A possible semi-final with Germany? Sure we already knew they were no great shakes.

It hurts to think about those possibilities, even still. Because we haven’t been able to fill that void. 16 years and no World Cup. Germany, South Africa, Brazil, Russia. They all got on grand without us. Ouch.

Sure we had Euro 2016, and we’ll always have it. The night Robbie Brady put that that ball beyond the Italy keeper with that beautiful mallet head of his. The emotion on that night was incredible, a few tears were shed on that occasion alright.

But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t the World Cup.

The longer the wait goes on, the more you wonder “will it ever happen again?”

Oh, what I’d give to cry like that again.

Absolute must-watch; Japanese highlights of Ireland vs Spain, great quality too. The commentators get very excitable at times:

Highlights of the game, featuring commentary from Ian Darke, which i didn’t know existed until now:

RTE’s incredible montage from the 2002 World Cup. We dare to watch this and not well up with emotion. Go on:

The BBC highlights of Spain vs Ireland, 16 minutes long and with Barry Davies commentary. Oddly, this video doesn’t include the Morientes goal:


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World Cup Snobs Miss The Point About ‘Lesser’ Nations

The best moment of a lopsided encounter between England and Panama came not from Harry Kane, or Jesse Lingard, or John Stones. But from a 37-year-old defender with over a hundred caps for his national team.


The seventh goal of the game, a mere consolation, a meaningless occurrence in a match long settled by then.

Try telling that to Felipe Baloy, who will go down in history as the first ever Panamanian to put the ball in the back of the net at a World Cup.

Try telling that to the Panamaniacs (that’s a thing, right?) in the stadium and watching at home, going absolutely apeshit at seeing one of their own score against the bloody creators of this beautiful game at the World bloody Cup. Seeing the crowd throwing all sorts of shapes, losing their minds at that moment, is one of the most charming, delightful moments we’ll see this month.

And yet there are those who rail against the inclusion of these so-called weaker countries in FIFA’s premier competition.

Jimmy Bullard isn’t the only one to hold an opinion like this, so I don’t mean to pick on him, but his tweet Sunday was typical of much of the reaction to Panama’s appearance at this tournament.

The problems with such a take are manifold. No country has a divine right to be at the World Cup. Italy and Netherlands knew the score when the qualification process started almost two years ago. As did the USA, who finished two places behind Panama in the CONCACAF group, failing to even make the playoff spot.

Other World Cup regulars, such as Ghana, did not make it. Neither did Copa America champions Chile, or Afcon winners Cameroon. Sometimes big teams miss out, that’s the name of the game.

This is emblematic of an invisible tension that exists in competitions like this. We consider the World Cup to be the zenith of the sport, where the best of the best duke it out to determine the true number one.

The reality is, in a sporting sense, that’s not completely true. Arguably the 32 best sides in the world are not present in Russia right now. Panama, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia are all weaker than the aforementioned national teams.

But does that make their qualification for the World Cup any less worthy? One can argue the relative strengths of the respective confederations, of the difficulty their qualification processes require from their member nations. Yet if we start taking away spots from these confederations, as suggested by Miguel Delaney, when does it stop being the ‘World’ Cup and start becoming the “Cup Of European Nations And Others”?

The group stages of the World Cup will always feature weak teams. Panama are perhaps one of the weakest to ever feature, up there with El Salvador. The Central American nation have appeared at two World Cup finals, in 1970 and 1982, exiting without a single point on both occasions. Their last finals appearance included a record defeat, losing 10-1 to Hungary in Elche, Spain.

Did their performance really sour anyone’s experience, aside from their own?

There are many, many reasons to be cynical about the World Cup, and there are legitimate reasons to worry about the expansion of it to 48 teams come 2026. It does however, embody one of the great things about football, in that it is a truly global game. It creates the possibility for amazing moments and memories for nations who otherwise rarely feature on the world stage in any way shape or form.

Few competitions grant the smallest nations the chance to compete with the very best in the sport; where else would you get a country with a population of 300,000 putting it up to a side containing the greatest player in the history of the game? Where tiny island nations can eliminate two states with a combined five World Cups, as Costa Rica did to Italy and England in 2014.

Quality is not guaranteed at the World Cup by any stretch, but that’s not even what makes it so good; it’s the stakes of a short tournament, the national fervour it manages to drum up, and the narrative — so often derided in club football — that it creates from game to game.

If we decide that the World Cup is to be comprised of the ‘actual’ best teams, we would be sacrificing inclusiveness for exclusivity. Although we might gain a greater quality in football terms across the board, we would lose something fundamental as to why it is just so special.

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Listen: Episode 8 – Celebrating England’s Glorious History Of Failure:

#8: Celebrating England’s Glorious History Of Failure

There’s just something about cheering on whoever the English is playing against at a major tournament that adds to the enjoyment of it all. Everyone loves an underdog, but everyone loves to hate the villain even more. For many countries, but especially Ireland (and to a similar extent Scotland and Wales), that villain is England.

LISTEN To Podcast #8 — Celebrating England’s Glorious Failures At Major Tournaments:

Subscribe on iTunes; find us on your Android app; or download directly here.

It’s pretty much a national pastime at this stage, especially when Ireland aren’t at the World Cup themselves. So what is it about the Old Enemy that we get so much joy out of their oft-repeated demise?

england world cup
via Wayne Mulligan/Ireland Simpsons Memes

Well, for one, they are known as the Old Enemy for a reason. Centuries of colonialism and imperialism have not won them too many fans, not least in this country. The legacy of bastardry doesn’t really dissipate much over time.

In fact, it still influences how the English view their football team today. As a former conqueror of the world, many of their fans feel they should be on top of the pile more often than not.

This leads to the usual hype and hysteria that we see from England supporters every other year. Ireland are no strangers to over-estimating ourselves before performing meekly on a big stage (see: our blasted optimism heading into Euro 2012, or the recent drubbing at the hands of Denmark), but there’s something unbearably grating about the English attitude when it comes to international football.

england world cup

Yet there are many football fans in England who don’t actually support the national team. If you are a fan of one of the major clubs, your passion is likely sated by the drama and glory experienced on a yearly basis in the Premier League and Champions League. But there’s also the fact that so many of them just don’t identify with this team and never have, partly down to the record of violence and hooliganism displayed by certain sections of their travelling contingent.

That, and the never-ending cycle of failure.

For our latest podcast we decided to chronicle this unwanted record of their’s: England have only won two knockout games of football, against Denmark and Ecuador, in the last twenty years.

Why twenty years? Euro 96 was the last time that the English national team warranted any sense of true optimism. Not only was the side pretty decent, they were hosting the tournament during an era of unprecedented positivity for the island as a whole. It was the era of Britpop and New Labour, replacing post-punk and Margaret Thatcher as the signposts for a new generation. And best of all, a football song that didn’t make you want to burst your own eardrums.


One line at the start of that famous song that has always resonated with me: “Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before.” Which is exactly how I’ve felt watching England fail to clear every hurdle put in their way over the past two decades. It’s the same thing happening over and over again.

Excluding 1966, England’s greatest moments have come in the near-misses of Italia 90 and Euro 96, where they reached the semi-finals on both occasions. The buoyancy gained from the latter tournament didn’t last much longer after France 98, however.

There was no shame in losing to a side like Argentina, and they were in fact quite impressive in taking them to penalties after drawing 2-2 while playing most of the match with 10 men. But it was the manner of David Beckham’s sending that sent fans and press alike into a frenzy.

Beckham became an easy target following their exit from the World Cup, assuming the role of national hate figure. One tabloid ran the subtle headline: “BECKHAM’S RUINED IT FOR US.” West Ham fans hung an effigy of the Man United star before the second game of the season. Curiously, the man himself calls it one of his top career moments, telling GQ this year that it “made me mature very quickly”.

In this writer’s opinion that tournament and the overblown reaction to it by the English broke something inside the psyche of the team. The football culture changed again, for the worse. Ever since then you can tell the players are playing under enormous pressure, fearing the worst instead of hoping for the best. After all, they know full well that one mistake could see them become the next pariah.

Frank Lampard said as much in a recent interview:

France 98 set in motion the series of events that has lead to England players repeatedly playing within themselves, often making fools of themselves while they’re at it.

Ronaldinho’s shot going over the head of David Seaman in 2002. Going out on penalties to Portugal (twice). Wayne Rooney’s stamp on Ricardo Carvalho. The Golden Generation not qualifying for Euro 2008. That would be enough for most nations to have nightmares for years, but it doesn’t stop there.

Looking back, South Africa 2010 feels like the cherry on top of a mediocre pie. Rob Green’s howler versus a United States team who should have been put to the sword. Drawing 0-0 with Algeria and Rooney saying straight to the camera, “it’s nice when your own fans boo you.” But the pièce de résistance was still to come.

Germany scored an embarrassingly simple goal to kick things off in the round of 16, before Lukas Podolski hit a cracking finish. Matthew Upson got one back, but it was to get worse for the English. Lampard had a shot come down off the bar and go over the line, which should have made it 2-2 but it bounced straight back out. The referee didn’t give it, in a reversal of fortunes from the 1966 meeting between the two countries.

Thomas Muller would go on to score two goals on the counter-attack, inflicting England’s biggest defeat at a major tournament. A particularly pleasing sight was that of Mesut Ozil absolutely roasting Gareth Barry for pace on the fourth and final goal. At that moment I understood the true meaning of Schadenfreude.

Andrea Pirlo panenka’d England out of Euro 2012, while they scarpered out of Brazil 2014 with a solitary point to their name. But nothing could ever hold a candle to 2010, surely.

england world cup

Then came Iceland. A small island nation with a population of 300,000 who had never qualified for anything before Euro 2016. And they beat the English, 2-1.

The delight in Iceland’s victory just about greater than the glee in seeing England lose to a so-called minnow of international football. As everyone’s second favourite team in France, was there anyone could be happier for the land of ice and fire to defeat more than the English? And to cap it all off, there was Steve McClaren.

It’s cruel to point and laugh, but we can’t help it. Here’s to another summer of watching Ingerland making a show of themselves.

Intro theme by The Shaker Hymn.

#7: The Beloved UEFA Cup Winning Parma Side Of 1999

There are many Serie A teams who gained cult status during the golden era of Italian club football in the nineties: Fiorentina and the free-scoring Batigol, Sampdoria with the marvelous Roberto Mancini, and Lazio during Gazzamania to name but a few. The most special and fondly remembered of them all however, is the Parma AC side that defied all expectations in the nineties and challenged for major honours in one of the most competitive eras in the league.

Listen To Our Podcast On The Iconic Parma Team Of 1999:

Between 1992 and 2002, Parma won eight trophies thanks to the financial backing of Calisto Tanzi, but the crowning glory of that period was the UEFA Cup win in 1999. It was a special season that also ended with a Coppa Italia triumph, but it didn’t necessarily look promising from the outset.

After finishing a disappointing fifth in the league table the season beforehand, Carlo Ancelotti was sacked. Alberto Malesani was brought in, while Carlo went to Juventus. The Old Lady ended the season in seventh position, a total underachievement for a team who had just been in three straight Champions League finals. The two managers would go on diverging paths during the rest of their careers however, as the incredible success of Ancelotti in four different countries illustrates.

Much like his Parma squad though, Malesani peaked in the 1998-99 season while employing a 3-5-2 formation. Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro and Roberto Sensini marshaled a stern back-line with Diego Fuser and Paolo Vanoli on either flank. They were normally shielded by the fearsome twosome of World Cup winner Alain Boghossian and Dino “The Other” Baggio. So far, so great, but it’s the front-line that really catches the eye. Juan Sebastian Veron was in his pomp as the number ten behind Enrico Chiesa and a young Hernan Crespo. Together they created some beautiful patterns of play that year.

Oh, and they had Faustino Asprilla in reserve too. Not bad, like.

In their run to the final, the Gialloblu defeated Fenerbahce, Wisla Krakow, Rangers and Bordeaux, the last of which featured a 6-0 drubbing of their French opponents. The toughest game of all was the semi-final against Atletico Madrid, who had won La Liga in 1996.  Even so, Parma won the tie by a three goal margin on aggregate. They could outscore just about anybody; indeed they did, scoring an astonishing 15 times in their final five games of the tournament.

This was a team who were always up for the big games, which made them perfect for the cup competitions. They did the double over Juventus that season, and beat eventual champions AC Milan 4-0 at home. It was also their undoing however, as consistency was a problem when playing teams they were entirely capable of beating. This is why they never won the ultimate, a Scudetto.

Nonetheless, Marseille would be no match for the Italians. The opening score came after 25 minutes and it was a gift, as if Parma needed one. Laurent Blanc completely misjudges a header back to the goalkeeper with the predatory Crespo waiting to pounce. There could not have been a worse player to intercept the pass at that moment, and the Argentine took full advantage with a lovely little lob over the goalkeeper.

Marseille were mortally wounded, conceding again soon after. This time it was Vanoli in the 36th minute, but the creme de la creme was to come in the second half. Just ten minutes after the interval, Lillian Thuram works the ball up the pitch with both power and grace at the same time. Beating two players, John Motson of the BBC nonchalantly comments, “Oh, knife through butter.” He lays it off to Veron on the right wing, who, instead of swinging one in like you might expect in the Premier League, chips a delightful ball into the path of Crespo. The striker’s intuitive relationship with his strike partner is such that, rather than have a go himself, he dummies it. Taking two defenders out in one go, Chiesa is in the perfect position to thwack it into the roof of the net. It is the perfect finish to the perfect move, exemplifying the best qualities of this Parma team.

The sheer delight on Crespo’s face at the final whistle encapsulates just what it meant for this small provincial side, who played in a stadium with a capacity of 29,000, to conquer one of Europe’s elite competitions. It’s the reason this underdog team has remained in the hearts of neutrals ever since and why so many football fans were so crestfallen to see the club demoted to Serie D following bankruptcy.

There is a counter-argument to the romanticism of this Parma team, however. The club was enriched by the money of Tanzi and his Parmalat company, who changed the kit colours from their classic white to the blue and yellow of the corporation. That money also happened to be somewhat of a myth, as a huge scandal was uncovered regarding the financial mismanagement of the company. It hit the club hard, although it managed to survive.

Two future Balon d’Or winners.

There are also the accusations of doping. In 2005, a video was shown on Italian TV of Cannavaro getting injected with a performance-enhancing substance the night before the 1999 UEFA Cup final. The sequence was shot in a Moscow hotel room and the substance turned out to be Neoton, a creatine phosphate, that was not on any banned lists in Italy at the time.

Nonetheless, these are black marks that barely register for many a football aficionado. Thankfully Parma, under the new guise of Parma Calcio 1913, have risen from the ashes after many tumultuous years as a phoenix club. They return to their rightful place in Serie A once more, but will it ever be the same again?