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: 

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.

panama

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.

https://twitter.com/johngosullivan/status/1010884200579457024

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:

Gigi Buffon: When Greatness Ends

In the aftermath of Gianluigi Buffon’s  likely final ever appearance in the UEFA Champions League, no superlative is too excessive to describe the Juventus legend, the greatest goalkeeper of all time, writes Ste McGovern.

In football lexicon, the word ‘genius’ might just be the most overused phrase of all. We often hear “that was a piece of genius skill” or “that goal was genius”, when such a term should be used as little as possible, reserved for only the finest moments from the finest players.

End Of An Era is another term that gets overplayed. Someone retires, “we’ll never see his like again, it’s an end of era.” A team loses a knockout tie, and it’s “that’s it, thanks for everything, bye forever”, even though it’s not always so clear cut. Eulogies were delivered on behalf of the Spain team after both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, and yet they look like one of the top contenders at Russia next summer. Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and others from that glorious team are still present. So is the old era dead or is it still ongoing?

Listen to Episode 4 of Nostalgia Ultras podcast: The Milan Derby

For one man though it is less overstatement and more absolute. Buffon has been a staple of the sport, making it almost impossible to separate the position from the man. Strike up a conversation about goalkeeping with a mate and see how long it takes for the Italian shot-stopper’s name to come up. Not since Lev Yashin has someone come to define the position so comprehensively; he is the goalkeeper.

That much was evident last November when Italy drew 0-0 with Sweden at the San Siro in a playoff for the World Cup. Out of the 359 clean sheets he has amassed thus far, this must have been the worst one he has ever kept. There was the 0-0 versus AC Milan in the 2003 Champions League final that Juventus lost on penalties, but this loss cut deeper than perhaps any. The realisation that there would not only be no World Cup, but no more appearances for the Azzurri must have dawned on him at that moment.

Afterwards there was a lot of talk about how bad this team had been over two legs and the poor decision making of their manager, Giampiero Ventura. But most of the conversation centred around Gigi and the tragic end to a glorious international career that included the greatest prize of all in 2006. He won’t get one last shot at winning it again, for which everyone mourned at full-time.

It was typical of the man that in such a painful moment Buffon’s first action after the match ended was to console his teammates, many of whom will get more opportunities at major tournaments, before congratulating the Swedes one by one. He embraced Martin Olsen, his opposite number, as he fought a losing battle to hold back the tears. It’s easy to be happy for the opposition when it’s, say, Ireland who has beaten you and it has no effect on your progression to the next round of the competition, but he’s shown grace and humility in the face of bad times too.

His reaction to the penalty awarded to Real Madrid in injury time, with the score delicately poised at 3-3 on aggregate, might say otherwise. The physical nature of his confrontation with Michael Oliver was over the top, but let’s not forget his clapping of the Swedish national anthem as Italian fans unceremoniously booed it. He exuded immense character on the night, an aspect of his personality that isn’t mentioned nearly enough.

Gianluigi Buffon (via Sportsfile)

Buffon commands respect from everyone on the pitch without demanding it. That much was evident in the Sweden game when even the referee gave him a hug. That level of respect has been well earned too; it’s hard to think of anyone who has matched their longevity with such incredibly consistency. The World Cup in Brazil appeared to be a nadir for the Italian legend, a poor overall performance that indicated a career finally on the slide. But the slide never arrived, and he seemed to be better than ever at times these past few seasons as he and his beloved Juve chased European glory.

Heading into the final stretch of the season, and thus the twilight of the great man’s club career, the spotlight refocused on Gigi’s mission to finally get his hands on the famous mouse ears. It would have been a fitting end, but instead it all finished in even more ignominious circumstances at the Bernabeu Stadium tonight. Possibly the greatest player to never lift the trophy, failing to win it should not define him as a player. If there was one footballer whose career was far greater than the contents of his trophy cabinet, then it’s Gianluigi Buffon.

In many ways, the past 12 or so months has been edging closer to the end of a very special era. Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli have retired from international duty. Giorgio Chiellini might not be far behind. Last May Francesco Totti played his last match. Andrea Pirlo did so too later that year. After giving us a lifetime of memories these incredible talents will be gone in a flash.

The era is ending, but there’s still just enough time to appreciate it.

@TheNoveltyAct

This is an updated version of an article written in 2017.

EURO 80: The Tournament That Time Forgot

Did you know that Belgium have reached the final of a major tournament? Don’t worry if you didn’t, because no one ever seems to remember EURO 80, writes Ste McGovern.

General consensus insists that this generation of Belgian players are the best bunch that the small country has ever produced, and that may be proven to be true in due course. But you would be forgiven for forgetting, or just outright not knowing, that Belgium have in fact reached the final of a major tournament before.

That success must be put in its proper context, however.

EURO 1980 is a long forgotten competition, and perhaps with good reason. The football was mediocre, the format was odd, and, well, the Germans won, so as you were. It happened to be sandwiched in between two famous European Championships: Antonin Panenka’s winning penalty for Czechoslovakia in 1976, and Michel Platini’s France in 1984.

Aside from the games involving Italy, the matches were poorly attended as well. Only 4,726 people would witness Czechoslovakia’s 3-1 win over Greece, whereas 46,816 were in attendance to see the Italians play Spain two days beforehand. Looking back at the images now, it is painfully obvious how empty the grounds are for some of the games.

For the first time ever, eight countries would compete in the finals in Italy. They were split into two groups of four. But instead of four teams progressing to the semi-finals, the winners of each group would go straight to the final, while the two second-placed teams would face off for third place. It’s a far cry from this year’s edition, where 24 teams will compete for 16 places in the knockout round.

While it was a relatively boring edition of Europe’s premier international tournament, it did have its moments. Ray Wilkins scored one of the best goals ever by an England player against Belgium. He gently lobbed the ball over the defenders and, upon retrieving it, casually struck it on the half-volley into the top corner. He beautifully assisted his own beautiful goal.

The lead only lasted three minutes though, as Jan Ceulemans grabbed an equaliser from a corner in the 29th minute. Afterwards fighting broke out behind the England goal and the police fired tear gas into the crowd. It was a sign of things to come in English football for the decade ahead.

For England the draw was a terrible result and they would end up finishing third in the group, losing 1-0 to Italy and beating Spain 2-1 in a dead rubber. Belgium, on the other hand, were invigorated by the result.

“England had a better side so we were surprised to hold them to a draw,” Ceulemans later said. “It was then that we started to believe in our chances.”

Crucially the Red Devils would follow it up with a win over Spain, Eric Gerets and Julien Cools scoring either side of a Quini goal to win 2-1. All they needed to do in their final game with the hosts was not lose. The emphasis was therefore on Italy to go and win, but having only managed one goal thus far — Marco Tardelli’s winner against the English — it was a step too far. A heroic performance from goalkeeper Theo Custers helped them secure a 0-0 draw. The Belgians went through on goals scored, while Italy would finish runners-up in Group B and go into the third place play-off.

Meanwhile in Group A, West Germany were making hay in what was a difficult group. Aside from whipping boys Greece, they would have to contend with holding European champions Czechoslovakia and Netherlands, who had reached the last two World Cup finals.

The Dutch, perhaps more than anyone else at the time, deserved some silverware to match the elegant and excellent football they displayed over the previous decade. They made a good start, with a 1-0 victory over Greece. The real test would come on matchday two, however.

Knowing that, realistically, only victory over West Germany would give them any chance of making the final, it could not have gone worse for the Oranje. Klaus Allofs opened the scoring after 20 minutes in a dominant first half, although the game was still there for the Dutch. That was obliterated in the second half, when in the space of five minutes Allofs would score two more goals to get his hat-trick.

Netherlands would get two goals back late on, but it wasn’t enough. All they could hope for was the playoff, but a 1-1 draw with the Czechs in the last group game closed that door. It was the end of an era. They would fail to qualify for another major international tournament until 1988, where they would finally win the European Championships in Germany.

The third place playoff, which was scrapped after this tournament, ended in a 1-1 draw between Italy and Czechoslovakia. It went to penalties, where of course Panenka would score the fifth. That didn’t decide it this time, though. 17 penalties would be taken and scored, until AC Milan’s Fulvio Collovati stepped up and missed. It was a fairly disappointing tournament for the host nation, although they would go on to win the World Cup just two years later.

Having won the competition in 1972 — with a World Cup win in 1974, don’t forget — West Germany reached their third consecutive Euros final in 1980. It was a nation used to success, but this was also a young squad, the average age of which was just 24.5. Lothar Matthaus, aged 19 at the time, was their youngest outfield player and had yet to win a cap before the tournament.

“We had a new and very young team,” Karl-Heinz Rummenigge later said of the West Germans. “We weren’t favourites to win at all. Everyone thought that if we could make it to third or fourth place in the tournament, then that would be success.”

Belgium had finished third in their home Euros in 1972, but that was out of four teams. On that occasion they lost to West Germany, who they would face in the final this time around. They had been solid, if not spectacular, up to that point, and would need to up their game if they were to spring a surprise.

It didn’t look likely early on, as Horst Hrubesch scored after just ten minutes. The Hamburg striker, who only made it into the squad as a late replacement for the injured Klaus Fischer, latched onto a chipped ball from Bernd Schuster and hit it on the run. That lead would last for over an hour.

René Vandereycken would equalise from the penalty spot and extra time looked likely from there. That was, until Hrubesch popped up again. Back home he was known as the Kopfball-Ungeheuer, or Heading Monster. A charming nickname, but one with good reason. So confident was Rummenigge that Hrubesch would score the winner from his corner, he apparently told a cameraman next to the corner flag to aim his lens at his teammate.

And so it was. With 88 minutes on the clock, Hrubesch headed home the decisive goal to clinch the country’s second European Championship. The 29 year old had only acquired 7 caps before the tournament, but who knows how this game might have gone had he not been called up?

@TheNoveltyAct