We’re in a World Cup year, and even if we have to wait longer than usual for the tournament this year, the hype is already becoming palpable. One week before Christmas, the world champions of football will be crowned, and there are already plenty of theories as to who is best placed to lift the trophy. France are the current holders, and have a team good enough to do it all over again. Brazil haven’t won one in twenty years, so they’re due, and though their squad is ageing in parts, they have enough young talent to do the legwork. There are also enough squads packed with superstar players to make a well-timed run, and any of at least six countries could rival those two without raising many eyebrows.
We’re not going to look at those teams right now. This, instead, is a guide to the teams who are behind the main pack and will need a big shock to even reach the final. These teams are the ones best placed to take a big step forward and perform better in this World Cup than they ever have before. Theoretically, with a fair wind, they could reach the final and win it, but for the most part, these teams are more likely to win hearts and minds – and at least one shock victory – than make it all the way. If they do well enough, they might be contenders in 2026, but let’s be realistic for now.
If you were to build the model of a World Cup dark horse, it would look a lot like Denmark. They have a lot of the things you need if you want to be a top-tier football team. In Kasper Schmeichel, there is an experienced goalkeeper who has won a major title against the odds. In front of him, there is a defence that while not star-studded, is exceptionally well-drilled and battle-hardened. They also have a midfield which is both functional and capable of some magic. In addition, they have Christian Eriksen, whose horrifying on-pitch collapse during Euro 2020 has been followed by a gradual reintroduction into the game and some superb displays. What they lack is a proven international striker, which is why they’re dark horses.
While the United States national team has more World Cup experience and will have fans cashing in their NY sports betting bonuses in huge numbers, their northern neighbour may have the better chance to make a splash in Qatar. What they have, that the USA continues to lack, is a bit of extra magic that can win games that should be draws or losses. Cyle Larin and Jonathan David have international scoring records that stand up with the best. Alphonso Davies, still only 21, is a key member of the Bayern Munich side that continues to dominate German football. They’re probably too limited in defence to go beyond the quarter-finals, but they could certainly get that far with just a little luck.
Twenty years ago, Senegal reached the quarter-finals, where they were eliminated by a golden goal (remember those?) against Turkey. While that Senegalese side was talented, this one is probably better than the 2002 vintage. As well as some excellent attacking players led by Sadio Mane, they have a very solid midfield and more defensive nous than the previous incarnation. Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly is good enough to grace any defence in any league, while Edouard Mendy in goals has impressed as part of an improving Chelsea side. Could they be the first African side to make the semi-finals? They’ve got an easy group (Netherlands, Qatar, Ecuador), and with some momentum, who knows?