It’s only three and a half months until the World Cup in Brazil finally gets underway, and anticipation is growing around the globe. Fans from every country are daring to dream of a chance of glory, and aside from the obvious best bets – Spain, Brazil, Germany et al – there are a few dark horses who will look to spring a surprise or two. There is no easy game in a World Cup, and teams like Greece and Uruguay have shown in recent years that if you have a well-rehearsed gameplan and you stick to it, you can go far. Iran might still be a bit of a long shot, though.
There have been plenty who have suggested that with €60million talisman Falcao recently having undergone knee surgery, Colombia’s hopes of winning in Rio are barely worth thinking about. However, El Tigre’s surgeon has said that “the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t small,” suggesting that the Monaco forward could be back earlier than originally announced.
That said, Colombia are far from a one man team, and are packed with exciting young attacking talent. Hertha Berlin’s Colombian forward Adrián Ramos is currently top of the Bundesliga scoring charts ahead of Lewandowski, Mandžukić and Kieβling, and Falcao’s Monaco team-mate James Rodriguez has been on great form this season with nine assists already. The Italian Serie A is awash with talented Colombians, from experienced Milan defender Cristian Zapata to Inter’s well-rounded center midfielder Fredy Guarin.
Colombia finished second in the South American qualifying table and don’t have the most difficult group; Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan are all capable of winning games, but it could have been much worse. The Brazilian climate could well play into their hands, and they have plenty of players capable of creating the piece of magic it can take to win a game on the world’s biggest stage – just check out Juan Cuadrado’s stunning strike against Udinese a couple of weeks ago. Colombia are ranked fifth in the World for a reason; rule them out at your own risk.
For regular watchers of the Premier League, it seems incredible that Belgium didn’t even qualify for Euro 2012 or the World Cup in South Africa. They have an incredibly talented young talent pool, although that could prove to be their downfall – they do have a very youthful team. That said, they will be incredibly difficult to break down with a defensive core of Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen lining up in front of arguably the world’s best young goalkeeper in Atlético’s Thibaut Courtois.
Belgium also have a frankly terrifying front line. There isn’t a defender in the world who would look forward to the prospect of keeping hold of Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku while the in-form Eden Hazard pulls the strings, but it is a prospect which Algeria, Russia and South Korea will have to come to terms with.
If there is one complaint you could have about Belgium, it is that their squad is fairly thin. Their first team is fantastic, but a couple of injuries or players suffering from fatigue in the sweltering conditions could be their Achilles heel, especially with star player Hazard caught in a title race which is likely to go all the way and possibly playing in a lengthy Champions League campaign as well. It seems likely that 2014 will come too early for the other Red Devils to have a huge impact on the tournament, but the quarter- or semi-finals are a realistic goal for Marc Wilmots’ men.
An African Team?
Every year, African teams at the World Cup seem to grow stronger and stronger, with only a sickening penalty miss from Asamoah Gyan keeping Ghana out of the semi-finals in 2010. Kevin-Prince Boateng has taken on the mantle of the nation’s hero, and he certainly seems the man for the job with a depth of top-level experience and a good debut season for Schalke under his belt.
English fans will be familiar with Michael Essien and Middlesbrough’s Albert Adomah, and lightning-quick winger Christian Atsu is currently on loan from Chelsea. Perennial African favourites Ivory Coast are also no strangers to the Premier League. Didier Drogba still leads the line ahead of rampaging midfielder Yaya Touré, and although the other Touré brother might be a bit of a liability at the back, the two should make for some great chants at the Brasilia stadium for their first match.
They are blessed with attacking talent with Wilfried Bony impressing in his first season at Swansea and Salamon Kalou impressing this term for new club Lille. Arsenal fans may scoff at the thought of Gervinho at a World Cup, but he too seems re-energized and full of confidence at Roma. The current holders of the African Cup of Nations, Nigeria, must also go into the tournament with a certain degree of pressure on their shoulders. John Obi Mikel can seem a totally different player for his country than when he plays for Chelsea, and they have a frighteningly quick front line, with the experienced Obafemi Martins and CSKA Moscow prospect Ahmed Musa surely one of the fastest potential pairings in the tournament.
Again, Premier League fans might be amused by the thought of a team’s star players being Mikel and Victor Moses, but often the stereotypical team spirit of an African team can mean they add up to far more than the sum of their parts – remember the passion which flowed through Siphiwe Tshabalala’s ‘goal for all of Africa’? With the heat very much on their side, this could be the first time an African country ever reaches the World Cup semi-finals – just hope they don’t take their vuvuzelas with them.
Call me unpatriotic, but personally I think there are countries who haven’t qualified for the tournament that have a better chance of lifting the World Cup trophy in Rio this summer. However, by the time June comes, we’ll all have convinced ourselves that we’re world-beaters again, so I may as well take a look at our chances for posterity’s sake.
With Theo Walcott ruled out of the tournament, the Three Lions have lost a good deal of their attacking verve, but Roy Hodgson could do far worse than centre his team around Daniel Sturridge rather than Wayne Rooney, who must be sick of carrying the nation’s hopes on his shoulders. Sturridge has 16 goals and four assists in the league this term and has truly been on the form of his life – the quality of his goals has been almost as impressive as the quantity. Leighton Baines, Jack Wilshere and Steven Gerrard have all performed reasonably well this term, but the form of Joe Hart could be a major worry, especially considering the recent form of England goalkeepers at World Cups.
That said, the future is brighter than the most cynical England fans may think – Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have impressed of late, and bar the customary campaign to take Peter “He’s Got A Decent Record At International Level” Crouch on the plane, England could take a fairly decent squad to Brazil. They no longer have to carry the pressure-laden tag of the ‘Golden Gereration,’ but they could have hoped for a better group. Italy and Uruguay in the sweltering rainforest area of Manaus is a daunting prospect, and one that will probably be too much for England considering recent results against Germany, Chile and Ukraine. Betting enthusiasts, save your hard-earned cash – it’s not going to be our year.
Of the teams truly classes as ‘dark horses,’ these seem the most likely to make the final, or at least the semis. However, with such an overwhelming majority placing their bets on Spain, Brazil and Germany, it could be argued that even sides like Holland, France and Argentina could be placed into this category. Considering Cristiano Ronaldo’s recent form, Portugal can’t be ruled out, but the prospect of a Barcelona shootout between Messi and Neymar in the Maracana in the World Cup final is simply eye-watering. With so many teams capable of going all the way, it’s set up to be a cracking tournament. As long as all the stadiums get finished, I can’t wait.