x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

World Cup 2014: Hard to shed light on meaning of ‘dark horse’

Pre-tournament dark horses rarely deliver at the Fifa World Cup. It’s the teams who emerge during the tournament that defy the odds. This year’s could be far more obvious than most people think.

SPAIN - JUNE 18:  FUSSBALL: WM 1986 SPANIEN - DAENEMARK (ESP - DEN) 18.06.86, Preben ELKJAER-LARSEN/DEN  (Photo by Bongarts/Getty Images)
SPAIN - JUNE 18: FUSSBALL: WM 1986 SPANIEN - DAENEMARK (ESP - DEN) 18.06.86, Preben ELKJAER-LARSEN/DEN (Photo by Bongarts/Getty Images)

So, Pele, who do you think will win the World Cup in Brazil?

“It’s very difficult to say who’s going to win,” the world’s greatest player and worst pundit answers. “But normally you have Italy, Brazil, Argentina, Germany.”

Anyone else?

“Maybe you have some surprise, you have some good teams like Yugoslavia, USA.”

The English television interviewer is agitated. Anyone else, anyone at all? Pele shrugs.

It’s a fictional prediction about a fictional World Cup, from the 2001 comedy, Mike Bassett: England Manager.

The joke? Not even Pele, in a self-deprecating cameo, could bring himself to fancy England to spring a surprise.

In fiction and in real life, England should be grateful for such small mercies. Nothing dooms a team to failure quite like the dark-horse tag. Especially when it comes from Pele.

In 1994, he fatefully chose Colombia, who went on to have a disastrous World Cup in every sense.

This year he has given his blessing to Chile, news that must have sent chills down the spine of their coach, Jorge Sampaoli.

Pele or no Pele, the dark-horse label is a poisoned chalice. It aids a team not at all. Instead, it seems to heap pressure on a usually young, talented team that, with the best will in the world, is highly unlikely to win the World Cup.

For the past two years, Belgium has been Brazil 2014’s team of choice. But do they genuinely fit the description of a dark horse? Can a nation that boasts the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas really be that much of an underdog?

And can you really be underrated if the whole world thinks you’re underrated?

As it is, pre-tournament dark horses have rarely delivered.

The real dark horses are the ones that tend to emerge during the World Cup itself.

Pele would have witnessed at first hand the brilliant Portugal team of 1966. Sure, they kicked lumps out of him in the group stages, but inspired by Eusebio they went on to reach the semi-final, where they lost to England.

In 1974 in West Germany, Poland finished third by beating Brazil 1-0. Few would have made that call pre-tournament.

In Mexico ‘86, it was Denmark’s wonderful team of Michael Laudrup, Preben Elkjaer Larsen and Morten Olsen who won the hearts of the neutrals. Certainly, they were already an excellent team, yet few predicted they would win the World Cup.

The Danes beat Scotland by solitary goal, Uruguay in a fabled 6-1 annihilation and eventual finalists West Germany 2-0. Halfway through a tournament where most people expected Argentina, Brazil or France to win, a real dark horse, one seemingly capable of lasting the distance, had emerged.

Typically, they they fell at the next hurdle, a comical 5-1 loss to Spain.

At USA ‘94 it was Sweden and Bulgaria, losing semi-finalists to Brazil and Italy, respectively. In 2002, co-hosts Korea reached the semi-finals before losing to Germany 1-0. All three emerged as dark horses during the tournament.

But it’s important to note no dark horse ever wins the World Cup.

For years, Spain were the “perennial dark horses”, and then “perennial underachievers”. It was only after the world gave up on them that they could not stop winning every trophy in sight. There is hope for England yet.

Four years ago, Uruguay came as close as a dark horse could to seriously upsetting the odds. They could yet this year.

At the risk of getting bogged down in semantics, perhaps the whole idea of nominating a dark horse is inherently paradoxical. Anyone thought to have a chance to win are not dark horses.

We may just live in an era were surprise packages are no longer possible. Today, the Belgian players are as recognisable as the Brazilians.

So with Chile burdened by the Pele curse, Belgium by expectation and Uruguay by injuries, will this World Cup see a dark horse bolt from the field?

History suggest there could be one.

A team that defies categorisation. At once, a nation of genuine football pedigree but seemingly never the favourite. A footballing Schrodinger’s dark horse.

If you’re looking for a team who often qualifies unimpressively; struggles in warm-up matches; starts slowly; and yet somehow retains the capacity to go on and win the whole thing, you need to go back to the last two occasions the World Cup was not won by one of the favourites.

Think 1982, 2006.

But can we really call Italy a dark horse?

akhaled@thenational.ae

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