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World Cup 2014: Who’s your dark horse of the tournament?

May 23, 2014, 1:45 PM EDT

Modric is a machine in midfield. Can he deliver for Croatia this summer? AP

According to Wikipedia, a “dark horse” is “a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence, especially in a competition of some sort.” In the context of the World Cup, it’s the countries that are unlikely to really lift the trophy, but still could give the big-shots a decent scare. 

In other words, the phrase “dark horse” doesn’t apply to the likes of Brazil, Spain, Germany or Argentina. It’s not usually used to describe England, who’ve got a solid history but rarely come close to the Cup, or to talk about France, who also have history but are in a bit of a rebuilding phase.

And it’s probably a bit of a stretch to talk about, say, Honduras as a “dark horse”, as they’re highly unlikely to suddenly “emerge to prominence.”

Finally, Belgium? Colombia? Please. These teams no longer fit the distinction of “little-known,” with their names being bandied about since before they even clinched a trip to Brazil.

So with that criteria set out, let’s talk about four teams that really could cause a few upsets in the 2014 World Cup:

Could the world’s most neutral country really produce a team that wins such a prestigious tournament? It’s possible. First, Switzerland are drawn into the “Group of Life,” with Ecuador, Honduras, and a France side that could very well repeat its disastrous performances of 2010.  Group E’s winner goes on to face the runner-up in Group F, likely to be Bosnia or Nigeria. Right there, you’ve got the possibility of the Swiss advancing further than they have since 1954, when they went out in the quarter-finals.

Then, take a look at their side. If you’re not a fan of German or Italian football, a quick glance might not impress you. But Switzerland have some fantastically talented individuals: Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus in defense, with Napoli’s midfield trio of Gokhan Inler, Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami available to break up play in front of the back line. Gladbach’s Granit Xhaka can link up play, while Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri joins in the attack. Up front could well be young Josip Drmić, third top-scorer in the Bundesliga this season – 17 from a club that scored just 37.

Ouch. Chile got drawn into Group B, together with Spain and the Netherlands: the two sides that played in the 2010 World Cup final. But there’s a vital piece of information to remember, here: Holland’s performance in Euro 2012. The team was a shambles, and while much of the defense has been given a shake-up, Louis van Gaal is still relying on some rather tired players.

Unlike Chile, whose squad has remained rather consistent. For the most part, they’re not a flashy side, but they do love a good attack. That’s led by La Roja‘s biggest name, Alexis Sánchez from Barcelona. Eduardo Vargas is one to watch as well – the attacker’s been on loan away from Napoli for the past two seasons, something that most fans of the Italian side don’t understand, as he’s an exciting talent who’s already scored 11 goals in 28 appearances for Chile. And, of course, they have Arturo Vidal, a lynch-pin in Juventus’s title-winning side, and one who can both create and destroy an attack.

Ivory Coast
Any squad with Yaya Touré included must be up for discussion. Sure, soccer’s a team sport, but the midfielder almost seems to create a team around him. It seems as though Ivory Coast has been mentioned has having an outside shot ever since Didier Drogba came into prominence, qualifying for the first time in 2006.

But they’ve never made it past the group stage – is this their year? Their back line looks rather weak, but their attack could more than make up for it. In addition to  Touré, they’ve got Gervinho, who’s been an absolute beast for Roma this season, starting 30 games, scoring nine goals, wracking up ten assists and just generally terrorizing defenses. There’s also something to be said for Drogba’s remaining magic. At 36 years old, it’s difficult to believe he can still create a splash, but you just get the feeling that he’ll inevitably score some crazy goal in Brazil.

It’s hard to imagine that a side that could barely make it past Iceland in their UEFA playoff match could emerge as a true challenger in the World Cup. But those were Niko Kovač’s first games in charge, and there’s a feeling that under the new manager, Croatia might really flourish. He’s got a plan and he’s sticking to it, and with that clear guidance comes confidence amongst his team.

And then there’s the pint-sized pot of magic known as Luka Modrić. The Real Madrid midfielder doesn’t get much of the spotlight, but it’s clear he’s one of the anchors of los merengues. So too with his national team. Playing alongside Ivan Rakitić, the two build up Croatia’s play, and if Inter’s Mateo Kovačić is added to the midfield, things could really get fun. And up front, there’s the man everyone is hoping to sign this summer, Bayern’s Mario Mandžukić.

  1. ws0001 - May 23, 2014 at 2:27 PM

    How about Ecuador? They have the same “Group of Life” as Switzerland. While they are the least glamorous of the South American teams, they finished 4th with wins over Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay. They only gave up 16 goals in 16 games with no overmatched minnows on the slate. All South American teams advanced out of their group in South Africa, and the CONMEBOL teams are obviously most familiar with all that comes with playing in Brazil. Caicedo had a great qualifying run, and Enner Valencia is coming off a spring run in Liga MX where he scored 18 goals in 23 games.

    • Kirsten Schlewitz - May 23, 2014 at 2:30 PM

      Ecuador certainly have a claim as a dark horse, but they just tended to disappoint whenever I watched qualifying. It’s a bias, I admit. But that’s why I like hearing from others.

  2. lorenzo463 - May 23, 2014 at 3:16 PM

    The brackets don’t line up for a deep dark horse run this year, at least to my eye. There’s always a chance that one of the logical favorites (Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and Spain) stumbles in the group stage, but if they don’t, they are going to end up in four different quarters of the bracket. I don’t think there is a great chance for a bracket quarter consisting of four dark horses like we had in 2010 (Ghana, USA, Uruguay, South Korea).

    But if I have to pick a dark horse, I like Bosnia’s chances to make it to the quarters. Two deadly strikers, a clear path to the round of 16, and no chance that they will have to face one of the favorites in the round of 16. I don’t think they replicate Croatia’s run from 1998, but I think they have the tools and draw to impress.

  3. andynormile - May 23, 2014 at 7:06 PM

    What about Belgium, they are laden with talent, but no World Cup history ?

  4. kurgen99 - May 23, 2014 at 8:13 PM

    How about the USA? If we get out of the group stage, which I think we will, it is going to be because Klinsmann has done something special.

    I’m not saying that the US is going into the finals, but I do expect the US to cause a few upsets in the World Cup.

  5. fantom21 - May 23, 2014 at 9:51 PM

    Whenever the World Cup has been hosted in South America, a South American country has been crowned the champs. With that being said, I do feel like a team like Chile can make it to the semis. My personal choice for Dark Horse would be Bosnia, all of their players play for top squads in Europe, mostly in the German league. And to win you need to score, their attack is lethal and young, spearheaded by Dzeko. Pjanic( roma) Lulic(Lazio) Hajrovic( glaatasaray) begovic( stoke), ibisevic( Stuttgart), Spahic( Leverkusen). That team has the experience and youth you look for in a World Cup roster.

    • Kirsten Schlewitz - May 24, 2014 at 6:13 AM

      I didn’t write about Bosnia because Bosnia are my team, and it felt a bit like cheating. That being said, Bosnia scares me a bit because I think the coherence in the squad isn’t there. There are tensions in the dressing room, and Susic is making some strange choices.
      There’s also the fact that they’re so over-reliant on Dzeko that it’s worrisome. Two strikers for the Cup? Dangerous.

  6. bruceboudreauchokejob - May 24, 2014 at 12:08 AM

    USA can win it all

  7. metroplexfrog - May 24, 2014 at 9:13 AM

    I think Ghana is going to be very tough. They have tons of pace and experience. Unfortunately I think they will make life tough once again for the USMNT.

  8. handsofsweed - May 24, 2014 at 1:48 PM

    Shhhhh. Hear that? That’s the sound of the forgotten and lurking Italians. The most dangerous kind of Italians, to boot.


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