If you’ve been following international football these past two years then chances are you will have spotted the rise of Belgium, an upheaval which has led many to proclaim them as the dark horses for Brazil. But are a side now ranked six in the world, albeit by the dubious FIFA rankings, really outsiders? Here are five proper underdogs to consider when making that cheeky pre-World Cup punt…
Chile – FIFA ranking: 16, Odds for World Cup glory: 66/1
Cast your mind back to the 2010 World Cup. It was a tournament which failed to live up to the hype with anti-football and the vuvuzela drone making it pretty frustrating to follow. Now that the event is returning to the home of flair football for the first time since 1950, it is only fitting that it boasts sides intent on outscoring the opposition rather than quaking at the thought of defeat. In Jorge Sampaoli, Chile boast a manager who rarely cares for defensive duties and encourages free-flowing football. And it works too. Since the dawn of 2013 they’ve lost just once – a limp 1-0 defeat to Peru – but since then they’ve gone eight matches unbeaten, a run which includes credible draws with Brazil and Spain.
Yes, they might occasionally get a bit carried away, highlighted by them throwing away a three goal cushion in Colombia on Friday, but they possess creative players like Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez and Juventus’ Arturo Vidal who are cut out for the main stage. And their philosophy of gung-ho football might just surprise a few sides who head to Brazil intent on keeping it tight.
Japan – Rank: 42, Odds: 150/1
But for defensive howlers, Japan might have left the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil with more to show for their efforts than a goal difference of minus five and a points haul akin to any nation who didn’t participate. Anyone who watched their clash with Italy will recall how the Japanese tore their more illustrious opponents apart at times with exciting offensive football. If they can instil a touch of defensive know-how into their armoury then the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda can do the rest.
They have made short work of qualification for the past three World Cups, becoming the first team to qualify on each occasion, and now look set to burst beyond their tournament best performance by making the quarter-finals.
Bosnia and Herzegovina – Rank: 18, 150/1
For Bosnia the task is simple: win away in Lithuania to qualify for their first World Cup as an independent nation. Their dreams were dashed by Portugal in a play-off four years ago but this time they top their group with just one game remaining.
In Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, they have a striker capable of finishing the moves their attacking tactics continue to provide. Their qualification goal tally of 29 is only bettered by Germany and Netherlands and whilst they might lack the stand-out names of the European giants there is a growing optimism around the country that this could be the year they stamp their mark on international football.
Egypt – Rank: 50, Odds: 500/1
Seventy-nine people died in the Port Said Stadium riots in Egypt in February 2012, an event which shook African football to the core. Played against the backdrop of ongoing political instability and violence in the North African country, the rest of the 2012/13 domestic season was cancelled and Egypt’s national players faced the prospect of months without competitive action. This allowed coach Bob Bradley to spend a vast amount of time with the players, fostering a club-like environment and building belief throughout the squad. Egypt’s players responded by sailing through their group with a 100 per cent record – the only African side to achieve this feat – and set up a World Cup play-off with Ghana.
Beating their African rivals is no easy task – Ghana were one Asamoah Gyan penalty away from the semi-finals in South Africa – but with Basel star Mohamed Salah making waves for club and country, the Egyptian team are emitting a real sense of harmony, a far cry from the political unrest going on in the country, and are arguably Africa’s best hope for success in Brazil.
And… England – Rank: 17, Odds: 25/1
Yep, England are clear outsiders. For the first World Cup in a long time there is no sense of misguided optimism and it is now more trendy to suggest England will be eliminated in qualifying rather than claim they will storm to the title.
The debate about home-grown players and technique rages on, but England do not lack individual quality - it just seems the players are trapped by inhibitions as soon as they pull on the Three Lions jersey. Without any real expectation in Brazil – assuming they make it of course – Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and co. can play without fear of a national backlash, whilst the new young recruits attempt to do what the so-called 'golden generation' could not. They might lack the talent of their Spanish or Brazilian counterparts, but perhaps the nationwide pessimism will allow England to enjoy a decent campaign this summer.
Ben Snowball (on Twitter @BenSnowball)