There are four teams widely being tipped to lift the World Cup this summer. They are the hosts Brazil, the defending champions Spain and the supremely talented pair of Germany and Argentina.
However, as Italy showed as recently as 2006, an unfancied team can emerge to conquer the world. Many a big team has fallen at the first hurdle in recent years, and emerging nations have shown that they can compete with the very best. It was just 12 years ago that Turkey and South Korea accounted for two of the four semi-finalists at the World Cup, so there is plenty of form for underdogs to prosper.
With the unique and volatile atmosphere that is set to surround a Brazilian World Cup, unexpected results could be all the more likely. This is especially true when it comes to the hosts, who will be experiencing pressure like never before.
Whilst plenty of teams travelling to the World Cup will be dreaming of unlikely runs to the latter stages, below are three that could slip under the radar and do some damage late on in the tournament.
The French always take a talented squad to the FIFA World Cup, but they will always be labelled as dark horses due to their unpredictability. Their last four appearances bear this out, as they won the event in 1998 and finished runners-up in 2006; however, they failed to make it out of the group stage in 2002 and 2010.
It would be a huge shock were they to fail at the first stage this time around, given the level of competition they will face in Group E. Didier Deschamps’ side get their campaign underway against Honduras, before taking on Switzerland and Ecuador. All three of these contests are matches the French are clear favourites to win, per Oddschecker.com.
Assuming they win this group, that will pit them against the runners-up of Group F in the round of 16. This is likely to be Bosnia, Iran or Nigeria; again, France would be clear favourites to prosper against any of these nations.
The easy ride ends there, as their likely quarter-final opponent is Germany. However, with plenty of momentum behind them, upsetting the “Die Mannschaft” is not out of the question.
With stars of the world game like Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Paul Pogba at their disposal and a kind draw, the French have the potential to go a long way at the 2014 World Cup.
It certainly appears that motivation will be no problem this time around, with Deschamps keen to show the world what his side can do, per UEFA.com:
We are 16th in the FIFA rankings, we were eliminated in the quarter-finals at the last EURO by Spain, who then became European champions. The last good result achieved by a France team was 2006. Generations are changing, young players are coming in with a lot of skill. We will need to prove ourselves at the World Cup this summer.
The most talked about dark horse at the World Cup is certainly Belgium. Their crop of world-class youngsters, such as Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois has caught the eye of the football community, and many are excited to see how they will do in Brazil.
Marc Wilmots can call upon quality players throughout his side, although Belgium are slightly thin on the ground up front. Christian Benteke has been ruled out through injury, leaving their only first-choice, out-and-out striker as Lukaku. The on-loan Everton forward has all the attributes to succeed, but it will be a lot of pressure for a 20-year-old to deal with.
Which dark horse will progress the furthest at the 2014 World Cup?
The Belgians will be expected to top Group H, but that is no certainty. They will face South Korea, Russia and Algeria in the group stages, all of which are tricky ties.
With the talent at Wilmots’ disposal, though, he should steer his side through this challenge, and they may well go in as favourites if they are to face Portugal in the round of 16. Spain and Italy are potential opponents in the last eight, but Belgium may prove they are a match for the best in the world.
A lot has been said about the chances of both Chile and Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup. Chile came to Wembley and schooled England, whilst Uruguay’s Luis Suarez runs rings around Premier League defenders each week, so there is little surprise in this. However, the real South American dark horses are undoubtedly Colombia.
Jose Pekerman’s side finished second in the CONMEBOL qualifying section, ahead of Chile and Uruguay and only two points behind Argentina. Since then, they have shown they can compete with Europe’s best, as they beat Belgium 2-0 and earned a credible draw with Netherlands in friendly encounters.
The Colombians’ hopes were severely dented when star striker Radamel Falcao appeared to be ruled out of the competition thanks to anterior cruciate ligament damage suffered in January. However, the Monaco centre-forward may make it back to fitness in time for the World Cup, per Marca (h/t Enis Koylu of Goal.com):
The recovery is going well. I'm happy with the progress I've made. It's going better than expected and I hope to continue this way.
It takes time. I have other procedures in my recovery when the moment will arrive to decide if I'll be available. I'm thinking of my knee, nothing else. I'm thinking of recovering, everything going well and playing at the World Cup.
Colombia have a very winnable group which includes Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan. If Falcao can return by the end of the group stages, then his side will be a real threat at the business end of the tournament.