- Underdogs don’t win the World Cup, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises along the way.
- Michael Goodman pinpoints three teams that could upset the apple cart in the tournament’s early stages.
The World Cup group stage is upset city. By the time the tournament gets to the semifinals it’s always the big boys, and even the last eight teams are usually mostly recognizable. But, the early stages, the round robin style group stages, always lead to an unexpected team or two slipping through. So, here are three underdogs to consider picking to get to the Round of 16.
Peru (+153 to advance from Group C)
Peru are in Group C along with France, Denmark and Australia. While France are the obvious favorites to move on, it’s fairly open after that. Denmark are even money to advance, thanks largely to having Tottenham Hotspur star Christian Eriksen on hand to lead the way, but the quieter Peruvian side shouldn’t be overlooked.
Qualifying for the World Cup in South America is a bruising process. The 18 game schedule makes it harder to just get hot at the right time and sneak through. Peru finished fifth, tied on points with Chile but ahead on goal difference and progressed to a play-off against New Zealand which they won 2-0 on aggregate.
Peru’s chances got a boost with the reinstatement of their star, Paolo Guerrero, who was supposed to miss the World Cup through suspension. In addition to Guerrero, Los Incas have a lot of attacking firepower. Youngsters Edison Flores and Christian Cueva are electric on the ball and veteran Jefferson Farfan rounds out the attacking corps.
This isn’t a team that is likely to stage a big upset. They are a high scoring side, their 27 goals was the third highest total in South America’s qualifying, but they don’t have a particularly stiff spine. The 26 goals they conceded were sixth most in CONMEBOL qualifying.
Had Peru drawn a group in which they had to face two powerhouses they would have been unlikely to cause any problems. The stereotypical way to stage dramatic upsets is to defend tightly and then counter-attack effectively. That’s not what this squad wants to do. They want to get up and down, and run and score, and they’re better at doing it than casual observers might expect.
But, they didn’t draw that group. Instead, assuming France is as dominant as people expect, they simply have to be better than Australia and Denmark. That’s a pretty doable task. Neither of those sides are particularly athletic, and if Peru can bait them into playing an open game, they’ll be in pretty good shape.
Iceland (+295 to advance from Group D)
Iceland’s main claim to fame is their 2016 run to the Euro quarterfinals. They famously beat England in the Round of 16 before being dumped out by the hosts, France, in the next round and along the way introduced the world to the thunderclap and became the darling of neutrals everywhere. What people don’t realize it that their encore may have been even better.
Iceland waltzed to World Cup qualification, winning a tricky group that included Croatia, Ukraine, and Turkey (as well as Finaland and Kosovo). They only lost two games and drew one more, while scoring 16 goals and conceding seven across ten matches. This tiny island team is legit.
They’ve been drawn into a very difficult group, with Argentina as the unquestioned group favorite and Croatia and Nigeria as talented competitors. It’s understandable why Iceland might be getting written off, even though they finished ahead of Croatia in qualifying. It’s simply hard to believe that a team as small as Iceland fields enough talented players to bring home the performances they’ve been bringing home over the last three years.
It’s also entirely unknown how healthy their best player is. Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iceland’s attacking midfielder, playmaker, and all around doer of cool things, is included in their squad. He was injured on March 14 but has appeared in Iceland’s friendlies ahead of the tournament.
The biggest thing Iceland have going for them is that they know their identity and are entirely comfortable playing to their strengths. They’re disciplined defenders who rely on creating Sigurdsson all sorts of opportunities to put his ball striking power to good use. They maximize the value of their set plays, including using long throw-ins to beat up on defenses. And they simply don’t give anything away for free.
The fact that Iceland are a tiny country and play a conservative brand of soccer makes it easy to underrate them. But, take the name away and what you’re left with is a European country that qualified for Euros and made it to the quarterfinals, with a signature victory along the way, and then won their group to comfortably qualify for the World Cup. It’s hard to imagine a European team with that profile being the longest shot to advance from a relatively evenly split group. But, that’s what they are.
Costa Rica (+395 to advance from Group E)
What do you get when you combine one of the world’s best goalkeepers, an effective and cynical defense, and just enough scoring to get by? Four years ago Costa Rica got a shocking quarterfinals appearance out of it. This time around they’ll be hoping to do the same.
In 2014 Costa Rica managed to get out of a group with England, Italy and Uruguay and then beat Greece on penalties in the Round of 16 before losing to the Netherlands on penalties in the quarterfinals. That team wasn’t good. They scored three goals in the opening game, when Uruguay suffered a red card, and two goals for the rest of the tournament. But you don’t have to be good. You just have to be good enough.
Keeper Keylor Navas is still the team’s best player. The Real Madrid net minder has a preternatural ability to always get to the right place at the right time despite the fact that he’s listed at only (a very generous) 6’1”. The seemingly ageless Bryan Ruiz remains an attacking influence at 32, and ex-Arsenal man Joel Campbell is always recognizable. But, most of the squad is a list of Major League Soccer contributors and other players who ply their trade in lesser known Western Hemisphere environments.
Costa Rica are absolutely miserable to play against though. They are difficult to break down, and, violent when they need to be. Costa Rica will put the impetus on their opponent to beat them, and then kick them as much as possible while they try and do it. Brazil, with all their attacking firepower, will probably be fine with this approach. It’s less clear that either Switzerland or Serbia will have the attacking firepower to break Costa Rica down. That doesn’t mean the Central American side will go through of course. A couple of hard fought low scoring draws against those sides probably won’t be enough to get it done. Their going to need to scrap a goal from somewhere. But, if they do that, if they get one moment where they can break through, then they’ll be will equipped to claw their way past the two mediocre European sides ahead of them.