It seems like yesterday when Germany defeated Argentina 1-0 in extra time in front of 75,000-odd fans at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro and a TV audience of millions to win the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the most prestigious international football tournament on the planet. Now, four years later football fans the world over are happily preparing for the 2018 FIFA World Cup which will be hosted in Russia from June 14th to July 15th of this year.
The billion dollar question, of course, is which teams will go into the tournament as the favourites and which will go in as the longshots or ‘dark horses.’ The favourites are easy to determine which are led by defending champs Germany who’ll be seeking their fifth FIFA World Cup title to tie second favourites and current record-holders, Brazil. The third favourite is France, followed by Spain and fifth favourite Argentina.
Much more difficult to predict is how well the dark horse teams will perform in Russia this year, i.e. which of them has the most realistic chances of excelling in the group and knockout stages. Of the 32 teams entered in the tournament, we’ve identified the 4 FIFA WC teams we consider the most promising dark horses of this Summer’s World Cup in Russia. Chief amongst these is Australia, a team few expected to qualify.
Despite being considered more of an Aussie rules football, rugby (union + league) and cricketing nation, Australia has seen its national football (soccer) squad improve in leaps and bounds over the last decade. In fact, its national team or ‘Socceroos’ as they’re known down under have managed to qualify for every FIFA World Cup since 2006. Prior to that they only managed to qualify in 1974.
In the 2014 World Cup the Socceroos found themselves in Group B where they faced some tough competition in the form of the Netherlands, Chile and Spain. Although the side failed to win a single game scuppering its World Cup aspirations, many fans believe the Socceroos have a far better chance of making it through the group stage this year when they face France, Peru and Denmark.
While France is a formidable team, Australia should be equally matched against Peru and Denmark. In fact, according to the Socceroos Predictor, an algorithm that has analysed the squad’s past international and World Cup games to calculate its offensive and defensive strength, the Socceroos have a 42% chance of progressing past the Group Stage, which is why they’re a fan favourite.
Even though Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest longshots to win the FIFA World Cup in Russia this year, the Green Falcons have more than their fair share of supporters who believe they can make it through the group stage and beyond. When the national football squad of the sovereign Arab state qualified for the 2018 World Cup in September last year, Saudi’s football fans couldn’t believe it.
This year’s competition will be the fifth that Saudi Arabia will compete in, having previously qualified in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006. Although the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cup campaigns eluded the Green Falcons, they did enough in 2017 to secure their place as one of the 32 teams that will face off in Russia this summer. As part of Group A, Saudi Arabia will take on Russia, Egypt and Uruguay.
Statistically the easiest group in the tournament, if the Green Falcons can hold off the tournament hosts as well as their African and South American rivals, they have a good chance of shocking their detractors. In preparation for the 2018 World Cup, several Saudi players have gained invaluable experience by being loaned out to play for various clubs in the Spanish premier league, La Liga.
Come 6pm local time on Thursday, June 14th, millions of Russians will be hoping that their national football squad, Sbornaya, chalks up a solid victory against Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Favoured to beat Group A rivals the Green Falcons, Sbornaya are considered to be one of the competition’s anomalies that will either rise to the occasion or crash and burn.
A big question surrounding Sbornaya is if it will be boosted by its home team advantage to make it through the group stage. Another is whether it will have anything left in its tanks if it does. While few fans or bookmakers expect Russia to excel in this year’s FIFA outing, a handful of crafted goals plus consistent saves from team captain and star goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev could change all that.
Despite coming into the 2018 competition as the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams, having never made it past the group stage in its previous World Cup outings in 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 or 2014, Sbornaya will be high on the list of dark horses. Losing streaks exist to be broken and what a coup it would be if the Russian national football squad played turned their fortunes round come June.
In the 2014 FIFA World Cup the Nigerian national football squad reached the knockout stage before being unceremoniously dispatched 0-1 by France in the round of 16. This means the Super Eagles have had four years to plot their revenge and be better and stronger than ever before. Fans of this African team were thrilled when they secured a coveted spot in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
As part of Group D, the Super Eagles will face Argentina, Iceland and Croatia, and while the South American team will be tough to overcome, their European rivals should be less so. That said, it should be noted that when in November last year Nigeria played Argentina in a friendly hosted in Krasnodar, Russia, the Super Eagles overcame a 0-2 deficit to trounce the La Celeste y Blanca 4-2.
Whether the West Africans can repeat the feat later this year remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that hopes will be high in the Nigerian camp. This will be Nigeria’s sixth World Cup outing and the squad will be looking to progress for the first time from the round of 16 to the quarter finals. Along with Senegal, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, Africa’s World Cup hopes lie with the Super Eagles.