The Tournament pt 1 - Dark Horses

The World Cup soon cometh. And in the downtime between Spurs’ latest epic, era-changing victories, it’s a nice distraction. There will be a fair few players on show that we have an interest in, but more importantly it’s simply the greatest celebration of football ever created. I know it’s the fashionable thing to say that the Champion’s League and club football has surpassed the World Cup and the international game.

To that theory I say this – bollocks. International football is still the ultimate proving ground for the best players in the world. We’ve see countless ‘top top’ players succeed on a domestic and European level, only to be totally shown up by some minor former Soviet republic in a World Cup Qualifier.

This World Cup has all the ingredients of a straight-up banger. Wild fans, all the best teams, evenly matched groups, an element of danger and games at a reasonable hour. I will be surprised if it’s not seen as the best one so far. So who will succeed? Who will fail? And what the hell is going to happen? In a series of frankly scintillating previews, I will tell you. First of all, I would like to deal with that group of teams that everyone is always ranting on about – The Dark Horses.

The first World Cup I ever watched in detail was Italia ’90. And the ‘Dark Horse’ for that tournament was Yugoslavia. In reality, they were not a dark horse – they were a strong contender. But not much has changed. The lazy answer to the dark horse question seems to be, for this WC, Serbia. But trust me, Serbia will not make it out of the group stage, despite the fact that their main rival has just lost their best player. They (still) haven’t got a centre-forward to match their decent midfield and excellent defence. Zigic doesn’t count; he’s just a shit Peter Crouch.

Also, discount Cameroon and Nigeria – they had good teams 20-odd years ago, but have since suffered from the disease of ‘thinking you’re too good to listen to any form of coaching’. Ivory Coast are probably better placed to succeed, but suffer from the similarly specific African disease of ‘good team, shit keeper’. However similar the outfield skills of teams are, expect Chris Ronaldo and co to completely sodomize Boubacar Barry. Of the African teams, I would have tipped Ghana to have the most success, coming through their group and losing in a great game to England in round 2. But that was before Essien was injured. But who knows, maybe the stage is set for the Ghetto Kid to make himself a hero…

The group that I think could provide the most unexpected surprises is Group A. Mexico showed flashes of what they are capable of against England, and in the past 2 WC’s they have practically eliminated themselves due to pure psychological incontinence. If they can overcome these demons, I could see them beating Uruguay, Argentina, and maybe even Germany. They have a better team now than in the past 2 tournaments, but the mental weaknesses still remain.

Uruguay may well be a better bet. Despite the bizarre decision not to take the brilliant Christian Rodriguez, they could still be a force. Whoever qualifies 2nd in that group will have to play Argentina – a team blatantly there for the taking. Then after that it’s Germany, who technically should be underdogs for a lot of games these days. Unfortunately no one seems to have told them. If either Uruguay or Mexico can raise themselves out of their collective psychological pits of despair, expect significant things to happen.

One thing is for sure, and that’s whoever meets Argentina in round 2 will give them a hell of a game. The Mexico-Argentina game in ’06 was a wonderful game of football, and one that Mexico really should have won. If they can carry that experience through, and really believe in themselves, they will expose Diego Maradona’s side. Then on to Germany…

While on the subject of Germany, let’s mention another Dark Horse. Germany. Whilst there is no way my logical football brain can entertain the prospect of them winning it, I’ve seen enough in the last few years to tell me that they will do better than they should. They are a very pedestrian team. They lack anything but the most basic kind of firepower up front. Their CBs are cumbersome.

But they have that mentality of superiority. It has carried them to WC and EC finals in this decade that they had no right to be in. And it will probably propel them to at least another semi. Ballack’s absence is irrelevant. You could put a team of German pub players in the WC and they would probably beat the majority of African, Eastern European and South American teams. They are the Martin O’Neill of international football – built for tournament play, essentially inferior, but don’t know when they are beaten (a potent mix).

Now onto 2 teams which are the antithesis of the German side – South Korea and Japan. South Korea remains the last true enigma of World Football. People will always tell you that their achievements in 2002 were due to dodgy refereeing, but that is mostly elitist football propaganda. They rode their luck against Spain, but beat both Spain and Italy fair and square, and were the better team in both games. They have those performances in them. They are quick, strong, and technically good. But they have the crumble factor.

As do Japan. In the last WC, Japan comprehensively outplayed both Australia and Croatia, but failed to win either match. They are a brilliant passing team, and they actually have pace and great organisation too. Sooner or later they will learn to shoot and then we’re all in trouble. Along with Russia and England, they are the great inadequates of world football. All the talent and tangible resources you could want, but lacking any form of winner’s mentality.

If you really pressed me, I would tip both Greece and Denmark to come through and the 2nd place teams in their respective groups. The experienced European bully-boys boring everyone on their way to routine 2nd round elimination. But if either of Japan or Korea brings their game-faces, then we could be pleasantly surprised. Korea should beat Nigerian and Greece comfortably, but something tells me Greece will old-man their way through. Not a dark horse so much as a shit horse.

Dark horses are notoriously tricky to predict. The problem lies in the fact that whenever a team is tipped as a dark horse, they suddenly are put in the pressure situation, and the freedom that they would have experienced is taken away. This usually leads to a total breakdown, the most famous example being Colombia in ’94.

The teams that make a good fist of being dark horses are usually the teams that no one in their right mind gave a chance to – Cameroon in ’90, Bulgaria in ‘94 and Senegal in ’02. This is where, paradoxically, the Asian teams could have the advantage. No one, quite rightly, is tipping them to do anything, so the pressure is off and anything they do achieve will be a bonus.


by guest-blogger Chrisman


Still to come – The Favourites, The Fakers and the The Players.