The scrappy youngster who comes of age. The geek that gets the girl. The underdog story.
Euro 2016 saw the perhaps the biggest dark horse in all of world football when a group of guys who grew up playing football together in Iceland, a country of just over 300,000 people, did what seemed to be the impossible by advancing to quarter finals in against England. They were only to be stopped by France, an eventual finalist, but who is to say they couldn’t have made it to the finals themselves if they had gone up against Portugal instead?
This summer should be no different with yet another underdog tale to come. But who will it be?
It has been just under 20 years since we’ve seen Morocco in a World Cup, last competing in the 1998 World Cup in France. Since then, this Moroccan side has benefitted from the rising talent in the French youth as well as the failings to recognize some top talent by the Royal Dutch Football Association. I’ll explain. Most of this Moroccan squad was born and played in either one of France or the The Netherlands growing up. Key players in this squad like Amine Harit, Medhi Benatia, and Romain Saïss saw that representing France at the top level would be near impossible with their current crop of talent. So, they chose to represent Morocco, where their families’ hailed from and therefore were eligible to play for. On the Dutch side, players born in the Netherlands like Hakim Ziyech, Karim El Ahmadi, Nordin Amrabat and Mbark Boussoufa, were always snubbed for the Dutch national team so they decided to again represent Morocco instead. Manager Hervé Renard, although unproven, has made this team defensively sound with Benatia and Saïss at the back. Offensively, his side plays through 25-year-old Ziyech, having racked up 9 goals and 18 assists for Ajax this year, and is set to have a “James Rodriguez” type of World Cup. This team could reek havoc if Renard’s systems allows fluidity in attack and could see the Moroccans go as far as the quarter finals to face France, if all bodes well for both sides.
Watching Nemanja Matić cry tears of joy when Serbia qualified in a group of Wales, Ireland and Austria was heart warming for fans but also makes you realize that it is such a privilege for these players to compete and represent you country in the biggest competition in world football. Mladen Krstajić’s men will be fighting for their lives in a Group E with Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica, but there could be more than just a shining light at the end of their Group Stage tunnel. Serbia have an incredible defensive midfield pairing in Matić and Crystal Palace man Luka Milivojević. These two will cover an already impressive back four of Antonio Rukavina, Branislav Ivanović, Dusko Tošić and Aleksander Kolarov. On the offensive side of the ball, Lazio starlet Sergej Milinković-Savić will be running the show, scoring 14 goals and assisting 9 at Lazio this season, while he has plenty of talent around him to score and create as well with Dušan Tadić, Adam Ljajić and Aleksander Mitrović who played a vital part in Fulham’s promotion push with 14 goals in the 6 months he was there. Serbia can surpass the always goal-deprived Switzerland and grab that number two spot in Group E, making for this experienced, yet youthful side to have some fun going forward in the competition.
After two back to back disappointing campaigns in World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016, Croatia finally look poised for a decent run in Russia this summer. Luka Modrić will man the middle again with many of Europe’s finest as his supporting cast. Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić, and Ivan Peršić in the same starting 11 is scary with the 3-time Champions League winner can only make for an attack. Croatia also have one of the most dynamic full-backs in the competition in Sime Vrsaljko, a menacing force as he bombs down the right flank and whips in pinpoint accurate crosses. Coach Zlatko Dalić still has much to prove with his side, but the Croatians certainly have all the talent to make a deep run and upset some of the tournament’s best.
There are a few honorable mentions to this list including Senegal and Denmark. Both have exciting tournaments ahead, with the former having a bigger task to conquer in Group H with Poland, Colombia and Japan. But, if Senegal were to get out of their group, they could make a run to the quarter finals. Denmark are in the same boat, with Christian Eriksen holding the country on his back. They are expected to fly by Group C against Peru and Australia, but past that may be too much for the Great Dane to handle all alone.
Let us know who are your underdogs for the World Cup by leaving us a comment below!
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