x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Four teams that could surprise in South Africa

We profile four sides - none from Africa - who have an outside chance of pulling the rug from under their stronger opponents.

Honduras have a stingy backline, a factor that would be key to the team's hopes of qualifying for the second round.
Honduras have a stingy backline, a factor that would be key to the team's hopes of qualifying for the second round.

From Zaire's exuberant but embarrassing World Cup excursion in 1974 to Senegal's shock success against France, the world champions, in 2002, the African continent has been central to some of football's biggest surprises in recent times. With the game's grandest showcase being held there for the first time this summer, the 19th World Cup will be no different: Africa will remain integral to the impact of the tournament. But this year, unlike previous competitions in recent memory, the shocks will not stem from the continent's teams.

Long gone is the novelty factor; banished is the label of underdogs. Instead, the six African nations competing in this summer's showpiece will need to endure exaggerated expectations. Teams such as the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon are predicted to at least make the second round, Nigeria have a point to prove after missing out in 2006, and South Africa are sure to benefit from a passionate home support.

Bafana Bafana - the nickname for home nation - will also be intent on avoiding the unfortunate achievement of becoming the first hosts in the tournament's 80-year history to fail to get past the group stages. So with Africa unlikely to offer a surprise package, should spectators suppose this summer's showcase will be short on upsets? In a word: no. Here we look at four countries that have the potential to prosper from their position of under-analysed underdogs:

Looks can be deceiving. Honduras have appeared at a World Cup once in their history, in 1982. Back then they failed to progress past the group stages after finishing bottom. But delve deeper and they were by far from humbled by their vastly more experienced European competition. Two draws and a 1-0 defeat by Yugoslavia saw them finish on two points, while a Pat Jennings-inspired Northern Ireland topped the table with four. Spain, the tournament's hosts, finished second with three.

Spain will again provide strong and highly fancied opposition this time around in South Africa. The Central Americans have retained the grit and physical dominance that saw them hold their own against their Spanish-speaking cousins 28 years ago and can comfortably approach the game with little to lose. "Spain is the best team in the world, that's clear," David Suazo, the 30-year-old striker, told reporters recently. "But it would be a lie to say that we can't beat Spain. Anything can happen."

During the Concacaf (North and Central American) qualifying stage for 2010, where Reinaldo Rueda's men finished third behind the United States and Mexico, the Hondurans boasted the confederation's stingiest backline. Rueda has his side defending from further up the park, capitalising on the European experience that comes from the likes of Wilson Palacios, Tottenham Hotspur's dominating defensive midfielder, and Maynor Figueroa and Hendry Thomas, Wigan Athletic's physical duo.

Palacios, whose brother Jerry has also played for his national team, has endured a horrific relationship with his home country of late. Edwin, his younger brother, was kidnapped in 2007 and the Palacios family were held to ransom. When Wilson paid £125,000 (Dh663,000) for his brother to be released, the kidnappers refused. His brother's dead body was found two years later. Palacios said recently he is determined to do well in South Africa in memory of his brother.

"For my country this is an amazing achievement," he told The Guardian. "We know we're in a tough group, but we're looking forward to it. For my family, this is also a special moment, especially after what happened to Edwin. He is with God now but he is also with us, all the time and wherever we go." If the Spurs midfielder can keep things compact, Honduras have every right to believe they have the attacking aptitude to break down Switzerland, the European minnows, and neighbours Chile.

Rueda's first-choice forward pairing of David Suazo and Carlos Pavon certainly offers a goal threat - Suazo is a clever, pacy forward currently registered to Inter Milan, club football's European champions, while the 36-year-old Pavon defied critics to become top scorer in Concacaf qualifying, netting seven times in nine games. Between them they have 73 international goals in 148 matches - although, notably, neither has ever scored against European opposition.

North Korea's 22 million residents, even if their country crash out of the World Cup this summer without scoring a goal, will be left with the impression their team was talented enough to return with the trophy. That, at least, appears to be the objective of Kim Jong-il, the country's leader, who has reportedly prohibited any highlights being broadcast in North Korea in which the team representing the dictatorship are portrayed in a negative light.

Live coverage is completely banned, while highlights will be heavily edited to ensure The Chollima appear to be the better side. Placed in the obligatory "Group of Death" with Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast, that means the Dear Leader's highlights package could be very short indeed. Ranked 105th in the Fifa world standings - six places below the UAE - North Korea surprised everyone in 1966 when they knocked Italy out of the World Cup and they will need to cause an even bigger shock, especially as they face three of the tournament's most respected sides with worryingly little competitive preparation.

A series of ill-fated occurrences in recent times has seen them struggle for opposition ahead of their trip to South Africa. A friendly with Oman, the Gulf Cup champions, was cancelled in September after the Koreans came down with food poisoning then a friendly with Chile was aborted following March's devastating earthquake near Santiago, the Chilean capital. Jong-hun Kim, the coach, favoured a 5-3-2 formation in qualifying; playing a catenaccio tactical system that is more common in Italian sides.

The highl organised defensive approach paid off, with the East Asians conceding just five times in 14 games, but against markedly stronger opposition, they cannot expect to bolt the door. They will have to attack. "Our technique is not better than the likes of South Korea and Japan," striker Tae-se Jong told The Guardian, "but in terms of mentality and physicality, we are better than any other in Asia.

"Nobody really expects us to do much at the World Cup and there will be little criticism even if we lose all the games. If we win, that will be beyond our wildest dreams." The most mysterious team in the history of the World Cup will play with no inhibitions. A surprise win could even see them progress, so don't rule them out - Kim Jong-il's highlights package may be better, and longer, than people expect.

Raddy Antic, the venerated former Real Madrid and Barcelona coach, will lead Serbia to their first World Cup since the country declared its independence in June 2006. It will mark the latest chapter in the country's complicated history, which has, until now, seen them compete under the flag of, among others, Yugoslavia and Serbia & Montenegro. But the new kids on the block should not be dismissed as under-experienced also-rans.

The Serbs, teamed with Germany, Ghana and Australia in Group D, would have wished for an easier draw. All four sides have realistic hopes of progressing, but it will suit Serbia if they are able to go about their business relatively under the radar. They have no star players, but they do have a spine of experience in Nemanja Vidic, the Manchester United defender, Dejan Stankovic, Inter Milan's midfield schemer, and Nikola Zigic, the 6ft 7ins striker, who has just joined Birmingham City, the English Premier League side, from Valencia in Spain.

All three went to the 2006 World Cup in Germany (although suspension and injuries prevented Vidic playing a single match), and while the team crashed out in the group stages - a campaign which saw them humiliated 6-0 by Argentina - they have grown in strength and stature. All the signs indicate this time will not be so easy. Antic has compiled a squad capable of competing: from his grossly talented full-backs of Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea and Real Zaragoza's Ivan Obradovic, to his young, ambitious midfielders such as Zoran Tosic, who impressed on loan from Manchester United, at the Bundesliga side Koln last season. Add in their top-scorer, Milan Jovanovic - who has agreed to join Liverpool next season, and few would expect a repeat of 2006 when they went home without a point.

"I am really keen to achieve some kind of success with the national team and reaching the last 16 in South Africa would be a good result," Vidic told reporters on Tuesday. "No matter how much silverware you in win your career you always want more." Antic, who was appointed to the team in 2008 and brought stability to a country that is used to changing name as well as coach, led his charges to finish first in qualifying, ahead of France. They lost just twice, conceded eight goals and scored 22 - a record bettered only by England, Spain, Ukraine and Germany.

Uruguay (18) No team in the 80-year history of the World Cup has experienced such a fall from grace as the South American two-time world champions. On their way to winning the inaugural tournament in 1930 on home soil, Uruguay scored 15 goals in just four games, including a 6-1 semi-final triumph over Yugoslavia. In 1950, having not entered the global showpiece for 20 years due to first a political boycott and then the First World War, they returned and reached the final again, this time upsetting the hosts, Brazil, 2-1.

Their surprise victory at Estadio do Maracana, however, was the beginning of the end. The most respectable position Uruguay have since managed is two fourth-placed finishes - the most recent coming in 1970 - and next month's tournament will mark 40 years since they last progressed past the last 16. They will, however, approach South Africa with sincere belief that they can better their recent record, having been drawn favourably in a group with France, Mexico and the hosts. Although they struggled through qualifying, requiring a two-legged play-off with Costa Rica to finally secure their place in the draw, they are a resilient side.

On a good day, they can cause problems for any team, as Switzerland discovered in March when they were conclusively outplayed and defeated 3-1, despite leading 1-0 after 30 minutes. "In my humble opinion I think we can make life difficult for France," Oscar Tabarez, the coach, told reporters. "They won't dictate how we play our football. "They'll have a lot of respect for our team and we'd love a repeat of the kind of performances we had against Switzerland."

While Diego Forlan and Sebastian Abreu, the veteran front pairing, offer goals, it is the young forward Luis Suarez that Los Celestes fans will be pinning their hopes on. The 23-year-old has netted 10 times in 29 appearances for his country and, while captaining Ajax this season, he finished top-scorer with 35 goals and was named the Dutch Player of the Year. His performances have seen him linked with Arsenal and Barcelona, and a credible World Cup showing would see his stock rise even more.

Bulgaria in 1994 Bulgaria travelled to the United States having never previously won a match at a World Cup finals and that looked unlikely to change when they were humbled 3-0 by an energetic Nigeria in their opening match. But led by the magnificently talented Hristo Stoichkov, the Bulgarians bounced back to surprise everybody, beating Greece 4-0 and Argentina 2-0 to finish second in their group. Their reward was a second-round clash with Mexico, who they defeated on penalties after a 1-1 draw to set up a mouth-watering quarter-final tie with Germany, the world champions. Few gave Bulgaria any hope of springing an upset, especially when they fell behind. But two goals in three minutes from Stoichkov and Yordan Letchkov, a superb diving header, completed the unthinkable and sent Dimitar Penev's men into the semi-finals, where only a Roberto Baggio brace stopped their surprise surge. Senegal in 2002 Often cited as the biggest upset in World Cup history, Senegal, a side competing in their first international tournament, met France, the reigning world champions, in the first game of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. The French, complete with Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, were expected to begin their title defence in style against an unknown African side managed by a journeyman Frenchman. But Papa Bouba Diop had other plans. The Grasshoppers Zurich midfielder bundled in a cross in the 30th minute to give the Lions of Teranga a shock lead and France failed to recover, sparking a downfall unseen in World Cup history - the French crashed out bottom of the group with only a solitary point. Senegal, meanwhile, went on to reach the quarter-finals before eventually slipping 1-0 to Turkey after extra-time. Bruno Metsu, their coach, was later rewarded for Senegal's displays with a bumper contract from the UAE national team. South Korea in 2002 South Korea recruited Guus Hiddink ahead of the 2002 tournament on home soil and the Dutch strategist worked his magic, delivering Korea their first World Cup victory in an opening win over Poland. They followed it up with a draw against the United States, but the shock of the group stages was saved until the final game against nine-man Portugal. Ji-sung Park brilliantly controlled a cross to the back post, before turning inside and driving the ball past the goalkeeper at his near upright. It was a tremendous goal worthy of winning any match. Next up for the underdogs was Italy, but they too fell at the wayside when Jung-hwan Ahn scored in extra time to set up a quarter-final tie with Spain - Ahn's contract at Perugia, the Italian side, was later cancelled by a furious chairman who blamed his player for "ruining Italian football". Spain were pushed to penalties after a stalemate and when Joaquin missed, the host country went delirious, but a Michael Ballack goal for Germany in the semi-final was enough to end the fairytale. @Email:gmeenaghan@thenational.ae