After exploring the Top Contenders and The Underdogs, the last article in this 3-part FIFA World Cup preview series will discuss the Dark Horses. These are teams that have talented individual players but struggle to achieve silverware when participating in major international tournaments. When performing at their best, the Dark Horses are capable of beating the Top Contenders, but often lack the winning mentality possessed by the latter.
Like the previous two articles, the teams were selected based on my preferences and supported with moderate statistical reference. These teams will be explored through brief summaries of their international records and their players to watch.
- England aka The Three Lions:
Player to watch:
- Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur): Currently the captain of the England team, Kane is expected to bear the responsibilities of leading the English attack. A goal-scoring machine, the 24-year old is a 2-time Premier League Golden Boot winner (league’s top goalscorer). With 41 goals in 48 games for Tottenham in all competitions this year, only Mo Salah’s incredible season kept Kane from his third Golden Boot award in a row.
Being the country credited with the invention of football and home of the most popular football league in the world, it is surprising that England has only won the FIFA World Cup once (1966) and has never lifted the UEFA European Championship. Adding to the misery of English fans is that the team doesn’t lack the talent nor the experience to play at the highest level, but nevertheless, rarely makes it to the finals of major international tournaments. Playing under the microscope of an influential British media will only make matters worse since every game will be heavily scrutinized by pundits.
With a new crop of talented youngsters and blend of experienced veterans, the Three Lions will hope that they don’t repeat the mistakes of their predecessors who often failed to progress during the knockout stages of the World Cup. Playing a group that consists of Belgium, Panama, and Tunisia, the team is expected to qualify to the knockout rounds. England will have to play their ultimate best if they hope to lift their second World Cup trophy.
2. Colombia aka Los Cafeteros
Player to watch:
- James Rodriguez (Bayern München): After becoming a sensation to football fans worldwide with his exceptional performances during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, 26-year-old James knows he must replicate his goal-scoring and playmaking abilities to help his country compete this year. Being the vice-captain of the team certainly adds more responsibilities, but James will depend on his co-stars, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado, to help ignite their attack.
Having participated in several FIFA World Cups and CONMEBOL’s Copa America tournaments, Colombia is a team that knows it’s capable of competing with the best. Arguably the surprise package during the 2014 World Cup, Colombia will hope to replicate their outstanding performances that led them to the quarterfinal that year while scoring 11 goals. As a team that loves playing an attacking-style of football, Colombia is considered a favorite to qualify from its group that consists of Japan, Poland, and Senegal.
3. Portugal aka Selecção das Quinas
Player to watch:
- Cristiano “CR7” Ronaldo (Real Madrid): Currently one of the most popular football players in the world, CR7 has won it all except the FIFA World Cup. At 33 years of age, this may be his last chance at lifting the trophy given that 35 is the average retirement age for footballers. Blessed with incredible pace, intelligent movement, and physical strength, CR7 has a great eye for goal and has scored a whopping 398 goals in 515 games for club and country. Every opponent will be wary of him during the tournament as he seeks to lead Portugal to their first ever World Cup trophy.
By lifting the UEFA European Cup trophy in 2016, Portugal succeeded in winning its first major tournament. Along with Cristiano leading their attack, Portuguese fans will be putting their trust in a similar squad that led to their European Cup success. They can also rely on the pace of rising stars such as Gonçalo Guedes (Valencia FC) and the technical skill and trickery of Bruno Fernandez (Sporting Lisbon). Portugal can also be confident in their defense that was key in securing the European title and consists of experienced players. With Spain being their only real threat during the Group stages, Portugal is expected to beat Iran and Morocco to advance to the knockout stages.
4. Mexico aka El Tri
Player to watch:
- Hirving “Chucky” Lozano (PSV Eindhoven): Just 22 years old, this former Pachuca player is an exciting prospect that has represented Mexico’s national youth teams in major tournaments and plays as a winger. Blessed with impeccable dribbling skills, pace, and an ability to shoot from distance, Chucky will add speed and directness to Mexico’s swift counterattacking style and will be a thorn in the sides of opposition teams if left unmarked.
A familiar name at the FIFA World Cup, Mexico has participated in 16 World Cup tournaments. However, they have never made it past the Round of Sixteen, having been eliminated at this phase four times in a row. The current squad is mature enough and has enough experienced players that can lead them beyond the Round of Sixteen. Additionally, the current squad has an aggressive style of play that quickly switches to a quick counterattack when the opposition loses the ball. This makes Mexico a dangerous opponent to face. However, Mexico is in a tricky group and will need to be at their best to progress to the knockout stages. Their group consists of current champions, Germany, and two teams with a lot of World Cup experience in South Korea and Sweden.
5. Japan aka Samurai Blue
Player to watch:
- Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund): Probably the most well-known Japanese player on the squad due to his time playing for Manchester United and his current club Dortmund, Kagawa is a technical, creative, and versatile playmaker. The 29-year-old is an attacking midfielder whose style of play consists of excellent tactical positioning and picking out key passes. He will be instrumental in this Japanese team that relies on team cohesion to win games.
Considered to be one of the most successful Asian national teams, the 4-time AFC Asian Cup champions are one of the few teams capable of replicating the 2002 South Korea side that made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup. Given the not-so-imposing physique of most Japanese players, their team style is based on fast, incisive, possession-style football that allows them to maximize their talents. Playing in a group consisting of Poland, Senegal, and Colombia, Japan will hope to impose its style of play in order to advance to the knockout stages.
6. Uruguay aka La Celeste
Player to watch:
- Luis Suárez (FC Barcelona): The 31-year-old striker is a controversial player. In the 2014 World Cup, he received a 4-month ban from all competitions after infamously biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. He was also shown a red card in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final against Ghana when he handled the ball at the goal line, preventing Ghana’s progression to the semi-finals. But to many Uruguayans, Suárez is a hero who will stop at nothing to win games. The striker is Uruguay’s all-time leading goalscorer with a career total of 372 goals in 561 games. His ability to influence games is one of the factors Uruguay will count on during the tournament.
Unlike other CONMEBOL teams that play an attacking style of football, the 2-time World Cup champions are quite comfortable absorbing pressure from their opponents and hitting long balls towards their strikers. This game plan works since Uruguay has the defensive pairing of their captain, Diego Godin, and José Giménez who both play for Atletico Madrid—a team known for its rock-solid defense. In addition to Suárez in attack, Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint Germain) is another goalscoring threat that will cause problems to the opposition. Uruguay definitely fancy their chances of qualifying to the knockout stages given that they are in the same group with Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
We hope you enjoyed this article, as well as the rest of RayMoN’s 2018 World Cup preview series. Enjoy the Cup, and check back into ATC for more quality football content!