It’s very rare for a team to come from nowhere – or at the very least, way below the radar – and win the World Cup, but this year it’s a distinct possibility, with many of the traditional footballing powers having reasons for doubt at adding to their trophy collections come mid-July, and a highly competent chasing pack keeping pace and hoping for a great tournament and a bit of luck to swing things in their favour. At TBR we’ve been keeping up with the World Cup for the past few weeks – just take a look at all the detailed previews – but it’s been difficult to choose one particular surprise package. If there was to be one, who would it be?
It’s perhaps been overstated to the point of absolute non-surprise that Belgium could be in with an outside shot at the much-coveted World Champions moniker, but the claims are not without weight. Belgium have a genuinely talented squad – reaching from back to front, with a talented spine featuring well known Premier League names such as Vincent Kompany, Adnan Januzaj, Jan Vertonghen and Romelu Lukaku, as well as bright young goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, Wolfsburg wingman Kevin De Bruyne, the excellent Axel Witsel and a host of yet more exciting young talent waiting in the wings.
What is certain is that based on names alone, Belgium have to be considered among the big name countries for the title. If they don’t win the tournament – which is still, all things considered, reasonably unlikely – they’re still likely to make a good account of themselves. Will that be enough, however? Concerns have been raised about a slight lack of chemistry, with big name players used to being some of the most important men at their respective clubs. Dropped down to mere squad players, it will be interesting to see how they adapt mentally to their first major tournament since 2002. Alongside a relatively young squad, it’s understandable to see where doubts in Belgium’s actual credentials may be founded, but even so, an on-song Belgium later this month is a tantalising prospect.
Another one of the “not quite there in terms of pedigree, but widely acknowledged as being very good” brigade (use that phrase if you want), Chile’s odds were slashed after a comfortable 2-0 victory over England at Wembley in November. It’s perhaps surprising they weren’t reasonably short anyway – their campaign in 2010 was exciting if unfruitful under Marcelo Bielsa, pushing their weight in a tough group containing Spain, Switzerland and Honduras before falling to Brazil in the Second Round, but under new coach Jorge Sampaoli, the Chilean system has strengthened somewhat, Bielsa’s bombastic attacks being replaced with an equally exciting but less reckless approach which will no doubt win over many neutrals if they make it through the competition.
Juventus’ Arturo Vidal will be central to Chile’s hopes this summer, and if his club form is any indication of how his World Cup campaign will go, Chile will be in for a fruitful month with his midfield guidance. Alexis Sanchez continues to make good performances and go somewhat under the radar at Barcelona, and indeed was the best man on the pitch in the aforementioned friendly with England, while ex-Birmingham’s Jean Beausejour remains Chile’s best ever wide man. Like Belgium, Chile may not go all the way but they’re one of the teams most likely to light up the competition.
Graced with a squad packed to the rafters with talent, an excellent manager in Ottmar Hitzfeld, a reasonable if still slightly tough group, and of course the ability to out-yodel the other 31 countries at the tournament this summer, Switzerland travel to Brazil with a real chance of achieving something on an international stage, for probably the first time since the World Cup’s inauguration in 1930.
Switzerland, like Belgium, have a surprising amount of talent in their ranks – this year combining the ex-Basel trio of Schär, Xhaka, Shaqiri, and a handful of the Bundesliga’s bright young things in Josip Drmic and Freiburg’s Admir Mehmedi with the experienced core of Benaglio, Lichtsteiner, Inler, Behrami and Barnetta. What is clear is that the gaps in the Switzerland teams of previous years have largely been filled with real quality; the only area of the team that may perhaps prove a stumbling block for the Swiss this year is the defence, where Phillippe Senderos and Johann Djourou still somehow included in the squad.
Hopefully for Switzerland, though, that pairing are included to bolster a generally youthful squad with know-how of some description, and take them through the knockouts. Who knows – with a weaker than usual France as well as Ecuador and Honduras, Switzerland could even coast to a top placed finish in the group and enjoy a decent cup run. Comparably to Belgium and Chile, though, success wouldn’t necessarily be judged by winning the trophy or not, more doing better than ever before. That’s not an unrealistic expectation, with the Swiss never going beyond the Second Round to date.
Japan’s progression as a footballing nation since co-hosting the World Cup in 2002 has been well documented. One of the most exciting teams at the Confederations Cup last year – who can forget that game with Italy – Japan have every hope of achieving their best result to date (a Second Round berth in 2002 and 2010 currently the furthest they’ve ventured into the competition), especially with one of the weakest groups of the tournament; a Falcao-less Colombia, the Ivory Coast and Greece are all potential banana skins, and will provide tough competition, but if an on song Japan turn up, should prove only a small problem in qualification.
Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa and AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda are the headline names in the Japanese squad, but Mainz forward Shinji Okazaki was a sensation in the Bundesliga this season while the likes of Yuto Nagatomo, Eiji Kawashima and Yasuhito Endo will provide all the know-how Japan need to develop on their previous best qualifications.
Again, merely getting out of the group will be seen as a success but this Japan team can achieve much, much more than perhaps tipped by many; perhaps a poor overall performance in the Confederations Cup will deceptively put people off getting fully behind them, but as a neutral team you can’t do much better than this entertaining Japanese squad.
It’s almost ludicrous to think that England are included on a surprise packages article when discussing this World Cup, surely? Hear me out, though: nobody seems to think England are in with a realistic shot of doing anything this time around – in stark contrast to recent years – thinking the pairing of Italy and Uruguay will make it through the group instead.
There’s a certain level of logic when you consider the last few summer outings (or non-outings including 2008), but given the relative strength of the other squads – who are, at best, as good as England – and their recent performances, both Uruguay and Italy struggling in recent friendlies with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland respectively, there’s absolutely no reason why England can’t hope to top them.
England’s squad is also more exciting than in recent years, with this season’s form players such as Shaw, Lallana, Sturridge and Sterling all included, while coach Roy Hodgson has made the brave decision to cut adrift a few stars, notably left back Ashley Cole, and potentially even abandon the 4-4-2 that has limited England against other technically gifted midfields in decades gone by.
England have arguably as much or more of a chance of lifting the Cup than any of the other four, and have much longer odds than the likes of Belgium. Additionally, finally accepting the underdog tag may free the team up to a certain extent – with a Quarter Final exit maybe actually being viewed as a triumph, performances permitting.