On paper, the most highly-regarded footballing nations are usually expected by many to bring home the coveted Jules Rimet trophy at the World Cup every four years. However, as the biggest showcase in world football has taught us time and time again, games are never played on paper. In fact, there is plenty of room for teams to come out of nowhere and shock the footballing world: we’ve seen countries like Croatia, Senegal and Turkey do exactly that in recent tournaments.
With this year’s tournament in Brazil coming in just a few months, who has the potential to shock football fans this time? In this list, we’ll be profiling the 10 national teams who aren’t necessarily favourites for the trophy, but could very well overstay their welcome if the stars align correctly for them this summer.
Some are teams that come from African nations that have yet to truly show us what they’re capable of on the world stage, while others are teams that failed to qualify for South Africa four years ago and are eager to show the world what they can accomplish in a major tournament with their newfound group of top-class players. One team on this list is a perennial underachiever despite their array of talent, but their tough group drawing will challenge them to compete at the top of their game from the start.
Regardless of each team’s situation here, they have the potential to prove this summer that there is no such thing as a predictable World Cup, and it will certainly be intriguing to see how far each of these 10 teams can go and how much of a smile they can put on their people’s faces. Here are the top 10 dark horse nations hoping to give it a good run at this year’s World Cup.
This may be a slightly odd selection, especially since Nigeria will have to withstand Argentina and Bosnia/Herzegovina to have a chance at even making the Round of 16. However, the defending Africa Cup of Nations champions have a decent array of weapons at their disposal, with John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses expected to lead their midfield and Emmanuel Emenike as arguably their top striker, as well as Vincent Enyeama having put up solid goalkeeping performances for Lille this past year. Especially since their draw could have been a lot worse – just ask Ghana – don’t be too surprised if the Super Eagles put up more of a fight in Brazil than you’d expect.
Two major things are working against Mexico ahead of the tournament in Brazil this summer: their potentially questionable form due to their shambolic qualifying campaign, and Carlos Vela voluntarily pulling out of the national team. In other words, Mexico have a big hill to climb if they hope to make something out of this year’s World Cup. However, that might just be the motivation they need: with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Giovani dos Santos and a host of younger domestic-based players likely to feature for El Tri, they are still not to be counted out despite the odds stacked somewhat against them.
Although they’re stuck in a group with Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire and Greece that frankly could go any which way, Japan has seen more of its players go to Europe and succeed there than ever; a sign that they’re starting to reap the benefits of having co-hosted the World Cup 12 years ago. The biggest examples of this are Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, of Manchester United and AC Milan, respectively, even if both aren’t enjoying the best club seasons this year. Unlucky to lose on penalties to Paraguay four years ago in South Africa, expect Japan to try and make noise this year should they get out of Group C.
The only debutantes at this year’s World Cup, Bosnia-Herzegovina have some deadly offensive weapons that they hope can propel them to a high finish in Brazil this summer. Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko and Roma playmaker Miralem Pjanic are among the very best players their 3.8 million-population country has to offer, and Canadian-bred Stoke City goalkeeper Asmir Begovic is the man they’ll be relying on most defensively. Relatively lucky to be in a group against Nigeria and Iran, expect Bosnia-Herzegovina to make a serious case to finish second behind Argentina in Group F. After that, who knows?
Yes, this is a controversial selection for a “dark horse” in this year’s World Cup, as England’s showings in previous tournaments have often been nothing short of underwhelming. But hear us out: Roy Hodgson and his 23-man squad have been placed in one of the toughest groups in the tournament against Italy and Uruguay, and will be forced to play against some of the world’s top sides from the get go. Since their easy group four years ago against the United States, Algeria and Slovenia saw the Three Lions falter, this group will be a test to see how they can get past their biggest World Cup challenge in some time. If they make it out, plenty else will be possible – as long as things don’t go to penalties.
5. Cote d’Ivoire
Despite perennially having one of the best groups of players in Africa, Cote d’Ivoire have also been perennially unlucky to draw groups of death in their last two World Cups. This time, they’re a bit more fortunate: in a group with Colombia, Greece and Japan, Les Éléphants can easily stake a claim for a place in the round of 16 and beyond. With Didier Drogba in the twilight of his career, Cote d’Ivoire will certainly be determined to make him happy: brothers Yaya and Kolo Touré as well as Salomon Kalou, Seydou Doumbia and Gervinho will likely make up another solid group of Ivorian players this time around.
Although drawn in a tough group with Italy and England among the nations they’ll have to face in Group D, Uruguay are more than up for the task of withstanding them. The nation that finished fourth in South Africa four years ago have a decent cast of supporting players, but they are a team that boast Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani as well as Luis Suarez – arguably the Premier League’s MVP this season by a comfortable margin. With two elite strikers up front, La Celeste will likely go as far as Cavani and Suarez take them in Brazil this summer.
Although they’re drawn in a group with the two finalists from South Africa in 2010, it would be foolish to count Chile out of Group B. They’ve never won a trophy, but they’ve amassed an excellent group of players over the years such as Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla, and will be expected to put up one hell of a fight in one of the toughest groups in the tournament. With Kevin Strootman and possibly Robin van Persie out of the tournament for the Dutch, that could mean a very profitable situation for La Roja, even if they may have to face Brazil in the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup.
The fact that Colombia are this high up on the list even with Radamel Falcao being a massive question mark for the tournament with a torn ACL is a testament to the array of talent that Los Cafeteros have brought up within the past few years. Falcao’s Monaco teammate James Rodriguez, as well as Rodriguez’s former Porto teammate Jackson Martinez would be expected to lead out Colombia’s attack should Falcao be ruled out, and with Fredy Guarin, Juan Cuadrado and Juan Camilo Zuñiga as supporting players, expect Colombia to try and make the absolute best of their circumstances in that case.
One of the deepest teams in the tournament by far, Belgium is arguably the only side on this list to seriously challenge for the final. Although they’re a young team, they’ve got quality players in just about every position: Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Thibaut Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen – the list goes on. Drawn in a relatively easy Group H with Russia, South Korea and Algeria, the Diables Rouges are only going to get even better with time, and this year’s World Cup in Brazil is a perfect opportunity for Belgium to state their case as a new football powerhouse.