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Jack: World Cup darkhorses aim to cross very narrow line

Kristian Jack
5/28/2014 12:42:29 PM
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There is a fine line that every World Cup gives birth to.

A line, if crossed, that can mean so much. A line that can be approached, stared at and almost touched, but come the final whistle, can seem so far away no matter how near a team can get to it. A dream crushed.

The right side of the line produces emotions of joy, relief, and satisfaction.

The wrong side of the line leaves players in tatters, full of disappointment and despair.

In the sport, there is nothing quite like the fine line between success and failure at World Cups.

For every nation, the line is different, placed perfectly in tandem with their expectation.

For Brazil, the positioning of the line is clear. It is placed at 18:00 hours local time inside the Maracana in Rio de Janiero on Sunday July 13. Win the World Cup and it is a success; anything else and it is a failure.

Past World Cups have shown us just how close winners have come to falling on the wrong side of the line as their journey across it takes shape.

In 2010, Spain became the first ever champions to lose their first game of the tournament and they had an Iker Casillas penalty save to thank for them not going behind to Paraguay in the quarterfinals.

In 2006, Italy flirted with both sides of the line in the knock-out stages, scoring goals in the 95th minute (vs. Australia) and in the 119th and 121st minute against Germany in the semifinal before winning it all on penalties in the final.

It is worth remembering this when making predictions of a winner during this upcoming World Cup; Brazil of 1970 and 2002 are the only champions to ever win every game in a World Cup (minimum of five games played).

The line, however, is not placed for all at the final stage.

For some teams, the difference between success and failure is simply getting out of the group stages and reaching the last 16.

For others, it is the next step, winning a knockout game and reaching the quarterfinals; suddenly doing something few expected you could do.

At this point, a country's entire success on the tournament is based around one game. Lose it and you may have underachieved. Win it and you may have overachieved. It is such a small margin, one that has led teams in the past to continue on a run that goes a long way beyond their initial expectations.

In South Africa 2010, Uruguay, Paraguay and Ghana all fell into that category. Ukraine surprisingly reached the last eight in Germany 2006 while in 2002, hosts South Korea, Senegal and Turkey all went much further than most predicted.

Croatia got to the semifinals in 1998, Sweden did the same in 1994, as well as Bulgaria at USA '94. Cameroon had a memorable run to the quarterfinals at Italy '90.

It could very well happen again. There is likely one, or possibly two, teams in the World Cup this year that will make it past their line of success and reach the quarterfinals and, maybe even, the semifinals.

Many people's pick for a dark horse in Brazil is Belgium because a lot of their current crop of players now belong to well-known club teams, particularly in the English Premier League.

Belgium, however, were seeded for this World Cup. That meant they were considered as one of the best eight teams. Yes, they have not been to a World Cup since 2002, but that seed, coupled with a much weaker group than others, ensures that this team should not be considered a surprise if they reach, for example, the quarterfinals. The semifinals? Yes. Then two games would have to be won to cross the line.

Here is my top five teams that have a chance to go beyond that line and become a surprise member of the final eight or last four in Brazil.

5. England - It has been some time since expectations were this low for England heading into a World Cup. In fact, they are so low, you get the feeling something has to happen for them to rise again before, as usual, it all goes up in flames. If England gets to the quarterfinals, it will be a surprise but if they are to achieve it, the biggest hurdle will be getting past one of Uruguay or Italy in Group D. Once through, a game against any team in Group C will seem easier than what they faced in the groups.

4. Switzerland - There are few easier paths to the quarterfinals than winning Group E. Paired in the last 16 with Group F, likely won by Argentina, the group winner would play one of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran or Nigeria for a spot in the last eight. Switzerland hasn't reached that stage since hosting the tournament in 1954 but with a young group, a terrific coach and this path, they may finally do something they should have done in 2006. Yes, like Belgium, they are seeded but this was much more controversial and few expect the Swiss to do something in Brazil that they haven't done for 60 years.

3. Chile - No team will be more fun to watch than the one run by the excellent Jorge Sampaoli. Placed in a very difficult group alongside 2010 finalists Spain and Netherlands, Chile has one mission – win the group. They simply cannot beat Brazil and too many World Cups have ended at the feet of the South American powerhouses, so to avoid them this time, they must finish top of Group B. It sounds like a difficult task but this team can do it and after that, the draw really opens up for them, likely playing one of Mexico/Croatia in the last 16 and then, probably, the winner of Group D. This is a breathtaking team to watch and if they start well and complete their first mission, then a semifinals berth would not surprise me.

2. France - Like Switzerland, France also must travel on the same path to the last eight and, after an embarrassing 2010 World Cup, coupled with a late comeback in the playoff game against Ukraine in qualifying, a place in the last eight in Brazil would be a real success for Didier Deschamps' team. They are handed a comfortable start, playing Honduras, and then get the familiarity of opponents in Switzerland next. Win the group and they will be favored to reach the last eight and will likely only have the winner of Group G standing in their way of a trip to the semifinals. That would represent a remarkable turnaround following the dismal night in Kiev last October but they have a core group of genuine stars that could carry them deep.

1. Portugal - Speak to fans in the USA and they say Portugal won't get out of the group. The same is being said in Ghana. That's what happens when you are in a group with Germany. Nobody predicts the Germans will get knocked out at that stage (it's never happened, by the way). That leaves one spot between three competitive teams. For me, Portugal are in a different class to the other two and this team will qualify for the last 16. They would then be paired with a team from Group H, none of whom would worry a team that has some proven experience at how to navigate to the late rounds in major tournaments. A quarterfinal berth would be a major success for Paulo Bento's team and, for me, they are the best suited to go even further than that. Don't be surprised to see the world's best player lining up in a World Cup semifinal in the final week of Brazil 2014.




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