Everyone loves a tournament underdog, don’t they? That cheeky football team languishing in the FIFA World Rankings that’s not supposed to leave their mark on proceedings but still manages to upset all the odds and steal the neutral’s heart as they gallop to glory (but in a majority of instances, they fall during the last few hurdles). In 2002, it was the hosts South Korea who overcame the giants of Spain and Italy to set up a semi final with Germany and two years after that in Euro 2004, Greece completed one of the biggest shocks in international football history by lifting the trophy for the first time. Since those golden years of early 21st century, the surprise factor has never really returned with the gulf of class between the main footballing nations and those beneath them widening every year. Ghana were on course to become a successful dark horse in 2010 but were horribly knocked out of the competition by the hand (literally) of Luis Suarez. With the upcoming World Cup due to be among us in just over two weeks (I hope that wall charts are at the ready) The Pig Bladder Project shall analyse any potential threats to the inevitability of a realistic candidate winning the world title in Rio. In order to qualify as an underdog, the team in question should not be the favourite to win their group and also should not be in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings.
5th – ENGLAND (GROUP D) – 25/1
‘No!’ I hear you shout from in front of your laptop/tablet/internet-connected device, but just hold on a minute. For the first time in about a decade, England aren’t expected to set the world alight at a major tournament. This traditional English pessimism will immediately fly out the window if the Three Lions win their first game in the sweltering conditions of Manaus, but the point still stands. England are in a group where they are third best and the manager has picked players with limited international experience, almost as if to say ‘Go on son, have a go’. But, despite this, England are actually a semi-decent team. On their day they can be defensively solid and if the attackers are in-form then Roy Hodgson’s side could come dangerously close to escaping a tough group. Landing pole position would mean that they would probably face Ivory Coast in the last 16 and a victory sets up a quarter-final against an ageing Spanish side… imagine that.
4th – SOUTH KOREA (GROUP H) – 250/1
With odds of 150/1 in 2002, Korea still managed to get to the semi-final which they marginally lost to Germany. To repeat that fete would be a big ask to a team that has one of the youngest squads in the competition and are ranked second lowest in the entire group stage (ahead of Australia). Whether South Korea can advance from the group or not is unforeseeable against the likes of Belgium and Russia, but they are more than likely to give it a very good go. Five wins and five losses from their last ten fixtures shows the sort of form that is to be expected at the World Cup; either outstanding or dreadful. Admirable victories against the likes of Greece and Switzerland are counteracted by losses to USA and an overwhelming 4-0 defeat to Mexico. Nevertheless, a youthful starting XI with the addition of a few big names from the Bundesliga and Premiership will be a combination that could possibly pay dividends for the 55th seeded team.
3rd – NIGERIA (GROUP F) – 150/1
The Super Eagles weren’t exactly impressive during their qualifying campaign. Following the addition of another African Cup Of Nations trophy to the cabinet in 2013 (which seems impressive considering that they failed to even make the 2012 tournament) Nigeria did not whiz past all their continental group opponents with expected ease. Drawing 50% of their games against Malawi, Kenya and Namibia was probably unanticipated in the Super Eagle camp but throughout the last year they have proved to be defensively capable. Stephen Keshi’s side haven’t conceded a goal in 380 minutes of football and have battled valiantly against some of the best sides in the world, drawing 2-2 with Italy and only losing by one against Uruguay in the Confederations Cup. If Nigeria can establish a prolific attacking force (over to you, Emineke and Shola Ameobi) to combine with their solid defence, then qualifying from Group F is easily reachable.
2nd – ECUADOR (GROUP E) – 150/1
The first of two South American-based nations in the top five, it is often believed that weather conditions play an integral part in whether a team does well or not. Ecuador will undoubtedly be used to playing in thirty degrees plus heat and intense humidity, which could give them a much needed advantage as they attempt to try and circumnavigate the obstacles of Switzerland and France in Group E. The whole group is fairly unpredictable: Switzerland arguably don’t deserve to be a top seeded side and lack any impact players whilst France can’t decide if they want to be world beaters or whether they should just self implode for a bit of a laugh. Ecuador, on the other hand, have a great mix of youth and experience from the regional league and draws with Argentina and Holland in recent friendlies show that they are able to compete evenly with the top football nations. Ecuador will also want to put on a good performance in dedication to former striker Christian Benitez, who sadly passed away in July last year, and thus will have the backing of the neutrals in Brazil. If key attackers Felipe Caicedo, Jefferson Montero and, of course, Antonio Valencia can up their A-game (Ecuador scored a measly 20 goals in 16 games during qualifying) then there is no reason why Ecuador can’t advance to the quarter-finals and possibly beyond.
1st – CHILE (GROUP B) – 40/1
If you wanted to put £1 on a massive outsider winning the tournament for the purposes of a sweepstake or just because you’re feeling particularly lucky, then Chile is your answer. Losing just two of their last 13 matches against Brazil and Germany proves that this side is more than capable of taking on the likes of Holland and Spain (who they drew 2-2 with in September) in Group B. A side that has great attacking prowess in the form of Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez, Chile scored 29 goals in qualifying, the second highest total in the CONMEBOL region. Although the Chileans do concede regularly, their offensive style of play is likely to have most opponents on the back foot in the opening stages of a match and it’s then when they can capitalise against defensively weaker teams. During their most recent friendly against Germany, Chile played in a 4-2-4 formation. Vargas and Sanchez were partnered up front but were also supported by Charles Aránguiz on the right flank and in-demand Juventus star Arturo Vidal opposite. Their second game against Spain will prove to be crucial to see if Jorge Sampaoli’s tactics can be executed successfully against a side who prefer to retain possession. If Chile want to avoid the impediment of the home favourites, they will have to top a difficult group. Do that and the path to the semi-finals is fairly simplistic. However, much depends on whether Vidal’s recent knee injury will hinder his performance in the upcoming matches.
(Please note: the odds provided were taken from the William Hill website and were correct as of 28/5/2014)