Which team is the best team to fail to qualify for the 2014 World Cup? Looking at almost any ranking system provides the same answer: Ukraine. They began their World Cup qualification in England’s group but failed to qualify despite not losing either match to the English. Ukraine were then eliminated by France in the play-offs despite winning the first leg 2-0. Both of the teams that ended Ukraine’s dreams are relatively unfancied at the World Cup but could they actually be the true ‘dark horses’?
It is unlikely that a World Cup dark horse will be a team that can win the competition but will have relatively little known about them. Therefore, if the definition is altered to being a team outside the big four who have a bigger chance of becoming World Cup winners than odds suggest, this would provide some potential for analysis.
Belgium are the team who have become this year’s cliché of a dark horse just as Colombia were in 1994 or the Czech Republic in 2006. This seems, however, to be more due to the names of the players that they have in their squad than any evidence of actual achievement in results. The Belgians did top their qualification group ahead of fellow qualifiers Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Wales and Scotland but this hardly hints at the possibility of winning or even going a long way in the tournament. Friendly results also fail to bolster the ‘Belgium as dark horses’ argument with very few victories in the last year or so and none against genuinely testing opposition. Furthermore, the draw has not been kind to Belgium if they progress from Group H as Germany or Portugal are likely to be waiting in the second round.
If a dark horse refers to an unlikely potential winner of the World Cup, the argument returns to France. The French had the misfortune to be drawn in a qualification group with Spain and then in a play-off against Ukraine as I wrote about here (https://scoreboardjournalism.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/are-france-bad-or-just-unlucky/) but still managed to qualify. The French have now been rewarded with a straightforward looking group in Brazil and what appears to be a favourable second round match should they win the group. However, they are less fancied than Belgium by both experts and the betting markets.
Similarly, the other conquerors of Ukraine, England, are unusually flying under the radar. Normally an England team is hyped up at home to the extent that they are expected to have a chance of winning the tournament. This time though, nothing is expected from England due to the perception of the difficulty of their group and a lack of faith in many areas of the team and, perhaps, the manager. However, rankings suggest that England are the best team in the group and Uruguay may well be overrated. The perception of Uruguay comes from their reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2010 and winning Copa America a year later but who did they beat in those two tournaments without the need for penalties? The answer is South Africa, Mexico (twice), South Korea, Peru and Paraguay. Not exactly testing opposition with three of those five not even managing to qualify for Brazil 2014. Uruguay did admittedly win on penalties against Argentina at the 2011 Copa America but this is their sole impressive victim in either tournament.
Looking at more recent performances, Uruguay finished South American qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in fifth position and needed a play-off against Jordan to qualify. If Ecuador, who finished fourth in qualifying, were in England’s group, would the perception of the difficulty of the group be any different? Despite the 2-2 friendly draw between England and Ecuador earlier this week, I think it would.
However, the Uruguay argument aside, Group D is a tough pool because of the quality of the teams but also the conditions in which some matches will be played. The teams that qualify though will arguably have an easier second round task than many of the other groups and thus England, or indeed their group rivals Italy, should be regarded as potential dark horses.
Belgium are currently fifth favourites with the bookmakers which, given their achievements to date and ranking in most systems makes them hugely overrated and in no way a dark horse for the competition. Can you see Belgium winning the World Cup on July 13? No, neither can I. The true dark horses are sixth favourites France with perhaps England or Italy also vying for the title. Can one of that trio win? Probably not but they have more chance of doing so than Belgium.