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: