Brazil and Croatia are set to kick off the 2014 World Cup on Thursday, ending a four-year wait for football fans all around the world. Punters have spent the last few weeks looking for diamonds in the rough going into the tournament, and several teams have a good chance at pulling off an upset of epic proportions.
Betting on the hosts to make it out of the group stages is easy, but the return on such an investment is minimal. Let's have a look at a couple of underdogs who could make a number of punters very happy in the next couple of weeks.
Group A gives us our first strong long shot, with Cameroon entering the group stages with the worst odds to win the group at 25-1.
While Brazil are the obvious favourites to win this group, the race for the second ticket to the knockout stages is more open than people think. Croatia were solid in their qualifying group but fell apart late, and issues with concentration played a big part in that.
A loss against Scotland and struggles against Serbia and Wales showed that this is a good, but not great team.
Mexico struggled mightily during qualifiers and have been only marginally better in their final friendlies before the start of the tournament. As talented as this Mexican side is, their ongoing struggles are a reason for concern.
Cameroon's 1-0 win over Moldova wasn't wildly impressive, but their 2-2 draw against Germany was. Eyong Enoh held his own in midfield, while Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting made Jerome Boateng look like an amateur.
Croatia and Mexico might be more talented than the Indomitable Lions, which is reflected in the odds, but momentum is squarely in the corner of the African side.
Chile have been called dark horses in Group B for so long that websites like Odds Shark have taken notice. There's too much talent in this group for Australia to have a good chance of making it to the knockout stages, and the odds for Spain, the Netherlands and Chile will not give punters a strong return.
Greece have looked decisively average over the past few weeks, the team relying too heavily on veteran Giorgos Karagounis to be the creative spark they need in midfield.
An attacking duo of Georgios Samaras and Kostas Mitroglou can be deadly, however, and the Greeks are still a disciplined, well-organised team that don't give up many chances.
Colombia will be playing close to home and have the attacking talent to shred defences to pieces, while Japan are one of world football's most entertaining sides, bringing fans attacking football based on possession.
Both teams would be favoured against the Greeks in a single head-to-head, but as we saw in 2004, Greece have the ability to frustrate even the best attacking units when they're on their game.
Ivory Coast are the wild card in Group C, with more established veteran talent than any of the other teams. Consistency has been an issue, but if they can get that sorted out, they and Colombia should be joint-favourites for the next round.
Costa Rica went into their slate of friendlies in preparation of the World Cup as one of the favourite teams of punters all over the world, but bad performances in those friendlies seem to have changed people's minds.
Unless Joel Campbell is truly at the top of his game, this team struggles to make things happen offensively. Against the experienced Italians, an Uruguay squad loaded with world-class attackers and an English team looking mainly to outscore opponents, that spells trouble.
I'm a big believer in teams elevating their performances when the spotlights are on, like the Italians, but at odds of 3-2, it makes little sense to invest in the Azzurri. Winning nets you very little, and in light of their poor preparations, winning is far from a guarantee.
France are a good pick as dark horses to go all the way, with more talent than people give them credit for and excellent performances in the last few months. But that's not what this article is about.
Switzerland play a strong brand of disciplined, organised football, and they'll be travelling to Brazil with a squad more talented than people give them credit for. Stephan Lichtsteiner, Josip Drmic, Valon Behrami, Xherdan Shaqiri, Gokhan Inler—the list goes on and on.
With odds of 7-2, Ecuador are a feisty, young squad playing close to home, and as they showed against both the Netherlands and England, they're a team capable of playing up to their competition.
The Swiss will not enjoy going up against a team that likes to mark as closely as Ecuador, and the South Americans will have both the fans and the climate in their corner.
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||6-1|
The more I watch Iran play, the more I'm starting to believe in their chances. Argentina are virtually untouchable at the top of Group F, but Bosnia and Herzegovina have no experience on this level and Nigeria's complete lack of consistency is baffling.
Iran don't have the talent their rivals can field, but they're disciplined, high on chemistry and they simply don't concede very often.
While some of that may have to do with a lack of talent in the teams they usually play, the way they handled Trinidad and Tobago was impressive. The Soca Warriors were thoroughly outplayed by Argentina in their friendly, but they were able to put more pressure on the Argentine back line than they did against Iran.
If Nigeria were coming into this tournament high on momentum, the 33-1 odds would look a lot more appealing. As of right now, however, Iran could be worth a gamble for punters looking to score big.
Group G is a dangerous group for the oddsmakers. Germany are supposedly the overwhelming favourites, but injuries have rocked the Mannschaft in recent weeks. The loss of Marco Reus will hurt, but Sami Khedira's lack of match rhythm will arguably be a bigger problem.
Germany are thin on players able to physically handle the trenches in midfield, and it showed against Cameroon. When this team is clicking, there are few teams in world football capable of stopping the waves of attacks the Germans throw their way. But in recent years, this team hasn't always clicked on the big stage.
Portugal still don't know how healthy Cristiano Ronaldo will be for the duration of this tournament, and even though the team is very talented, you simply can't replace the world's best player.
They struggled at times in qualifiers and didn't look overwhelming in their friendlies against Greece and Mexico. The Portuguese will play once more before their first match against Germany, and that match against Ireland will teach us a whole lot about this team.
All of this is sweet music to the ears of the USA and Ghana, who both carry favourable odds going into the tournament. Neither team has a history of success on the world stage, but both are more talented than people give them credit for.
The USA in particular have looked great in recent weeks, with Michael Bradley pulling the strings in midfield and Clint Dempsey providing some much-needed creativity up front. We seem to back the USA to surprise people every four years, but 2014 could be their best chance at actually doing it just yet.
Last but not least, Group H has the darlings of punters all around the world right now—Algeria. At odds of 28-1, the oddsmakers don't seem to give two cents about their chances.
No one is going to argue Belgium are the favourites in this group, easily winning a difficult qualifying group and showing little signs of weakness during preparations for the World Cup.
But Korea Republic have looked positively awful, losing to the likes of Tunisia in recent weeks. For all of their talent, there is little experience on the squad, and synergy appears to be a problem. This will be a good team a few years down the road, but right now, they just don't seem ready.
The Russians lost their captain, Roman Shirokov, just a week before the start of the tournament, and while every injury will hurt a team, losing your captain at this stage can be devastating.
The team has looked solid, if unspectacular leading up to the tournament, but at this point in time, they don't look like a lock for the next round.
As for Algeria? They've been on cruise control, winning every single match they've played preparing for the tournament. Saphir Taider and Nabil Bentaleb may be the biggest names on this squad, but the biggest difference-maker could be stopper Rais M'Bolhi, who seems almost unpassable on this day.