By MW Desk
It is the unwritten logic of every FIFA World Cup that one or two of the least favoured teams will come up with unexpectedly great performances, preventing some of the pre-tournament favourites from advancing to the next round
Football, or any sports in general, hard-sells itself as a sealed meritocratic arena where every difference in terms of identity vanishes, and performance remains the only criteria of judgement. But the ubiquity of words like ‘stunned’ or ‘upset’ in sporting parlance tells you the contrasting reality. An explicit demarcation exists between traditional powerhouses and unfancied outsiders. If both teams were equal in every measure, what’s there to be stunned about, say, Austria beating West Germany in the 1982 World Cup, Senegal beating France in the 2002 World Cup, or Croatia reaching the World Cup final four years ago?
The history of the World Cup is dotted with such odds-defying stories. While the names of potential World Cup winners are always on everyone’s lips, here are five dark horses who can spring up a surprise in Qatar.
Group D: France, Australia, Denmark, Tunisia
Current manager: Kasper Hjulmand
Star player: Christian Eriksen
It shouldn’t be counted as an upset if Denmark trounces the defending champion France on November 26 at Stadium 974, since they have already done the same thing twice this year. The unfortunate collapse of Christian Eriksen last year still haunts the collective memory, but the team showed great resilience and unity to reach all the way to the semi-final of the tournament.
Many assumed that incident was the end of Eriksen’s storied career, but the midfield maestro has not only revived his playing career, but also established himself as a pivotal member of Erik ten Hag’s side. For Denmark, he will be paired with Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Sevilla’s Kasper Dolberg. Andreas Christensen and Simon Kjær form the sturdy backline ahead of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. While passing the first hurdle shouldn’t be much of a hassle, a stern test awaits them in the Round of 16, where they may face high-flying Argentina.
Group G: Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon
Current manager: Dragan Stojković
Star player: Aleksandar Mitrovic
Since attaining sovereignty in 2006, Serbia has featured in two World Cups and got knocked out of the first round on both occasions. But with a squad full of game-changers at their disposal, they would aim to break this luckless streak. They were in a scintillating form in the qualifying stage, winning six out of eight matches, including their 2-1 victory against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to top the group. They will be pleased with the current form of their all-time leading goal-scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has already scored nine times in 12 appearances for Fulham. Mitrovic forms one-third of an attacking troika that also includes Juventus’ young gun Dušan Vlahović, and the captain Dušan Tadić.
Group A: Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal,
Current manager: Aliou Cissé
Star player: Sadio Mané
Under the stewardship of Aliou Cissé, Senegal has taken massive strides in the last few years, winning their first-ever Africa Cup of Nation, and also qualifying for the World Cup for the second time in a row. Cissé knows a thing or two about beating fancy opponents, as he was a part of the entertaining Senegalese side that outsmarted France in their opening match of the 2002 World Cup. Sadio Mane remains the focal point of the team that is brimming with confidence, and they have a three- man strong midfield in Idrissa Gueye, Pape Matar Sarr, and Nampalys Mendy. The only real question for them is the form of their goalkeeper Édouard Mendy, who has lost his status as the first-choice goalkeeper for his club Chelsea after a string of poor performances.
Group B: England, Iran, USA, Wales
Current manager: Rob Welsh
Star player: Gareth Bale
Led by the talismanic winger Gareth Bale, Wales has become the perennial team of dark horses, leaving their mark in every tournament they play. To everyone’s surprise, Wales reached the semi-final of the Euro 2016, the round of 16 in Euro 2021, and finally managed to snap their long and arduous wait of playing their first World Cup since 1958. Bale has been the fulcrum of their renaissance, and it was his goal against Austria that secured their place in Qatar. The class of 2016 — Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ben Davies — might not be in their pomp now, but they still remain an integral part of Rob Welsh’s side. The next-gen talents like Ethan Ampadu, Neco Williams, and Daniel James provide much-needed exuberance to the team.
If they advance beyond the group stage, which they should with such a well-balanced squad, the next rounds will set them up for potential clashes against Senegal and France.
Group H: Portugal, Uruguay, Ghana, South Korea
Current manager: Diego Alonso
Star player: Federico Valverde
For a nation with a population of just over three million, winning two World Cups — 1930 and 1950 — is nothing short of an extraordinary achievement. But the last decade or so hasn’t been a smooth ride for the team, and four years ago in Russia, their journey came to an abrupt halt after losing to France in the round of 16. Uruguay is nobody’s idea of World Cup favourites this time around, but the lack of expectations may very well work in their favour. Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani are the attacking royalty of the team, managing a combined total of 126 goals in 265 games. But this is likely to be their last World Cup appearance. They already have the likes of Darwin Nunez and Federico Valverde to take over the mantle from Suárez and Cavani. With Roland Araújo’s participation looking doubtful due to injury, the defence looks a bit shaky. But there’s no dearth of attacking talent, and they go deep into the tournament.
Suárez, of course, will be the centre of attraction when Uruguay takes on Ghana in a Group H fixture, twelve years after the striker’s notorious handball clearance at the goalline dashed the hopes of the African team.
Reproduced with permission from Mansworldindia.com