Can Colombia win the World Cup? Examining 2014's dark horses
Or: If your country was on the winning side of the Thirty Years War, look away now
Everybody's talking up Colombia at the moment, and it's not too hard to see why. As well as the obvious in Falcao, the team are also blessed with two solid centre-backs and a decent goalkeeper, a very serviceable midfield, and some excellent other attacking options in James Rodriguez, Jackson Martinez, and Juan Fernando Quintero. They've got a very small pool of players to draw from, but their first XI plus three substitutes is arguably good enough to match the best.
Arguably. The problem is exactly where this talent lies. To begin with, nobody should doubt that Falcao will be the player on which this team lives or dies. His performance in carrying Atletico Madrid last season shows that, in the manner of Robin van Persie, he's not someone who particularly needs his supporting cast to be at their best to shine, an invaluable asset in a striker. And his supporting cast probably will be fine.
Simply put, Colombia have exactly the sort of side that gets found out in big games. It's easy to see them being picked apart by Spain or Brazil, their best players isolated and their defence eventually undone with a single pass. They'll have, if not quite a home advantage, a European-teams-never-win-the-World-Cup-in-South-America advantage. But they still look every inch a team that'll be brushed off with a fairly comfortable 2-0 by the first truly top-tier side they encounter.
It's odd to see Italy listed among the dark horses, but that's where they've been for a while now, and will be for the foreseeable future. Italy have always had an impossibly deep talent pool, vying with Spain and France for the deepest per head of population on the continent. Now they seem to be producing quality rather than quantity - there's no possible golden generation of stars like there is in England, but the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia de Sciglio are or are near-certain to become wonderful players.
In addition, there's also the time-honoured Italian tradition of later developers, so we can add Davide Astori, Riccardo Montolivo and so on to the old leather-faced veterans like Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon. Add in some youngish proven talent like Mario Balotelli, and some old-but-not-too-old stars like Giorgio Chiellini and Claudio Marchisio, and you've got quite the mix of ages in the squad.
And no doubt, this is a very good group of players. The best, and most promising for quite some time. Throw in the favoured Italian position of being underdogs, and a manager who doesn't have the old-Italian-guy/Trappatoni/Lippi trait of taking a completely irrational dislike to players who should start every game for no reason, and it's all looking ominous. Italy only ever triumph against the odds or suffer utter humiliation at World Cups - even when they go close, they lose in the stupidest way possible, and when they win, they look like they're not even trying. They have a good side, but also a deeply flawed, inconsistent one, a class below the all-conquering automatons of Spain and Germany. And that'll suit them just fine.
Something is wrong with France. Not just the fact they all drink UHT milk, but also the football team. Their first-choice striker hasn't scored for fifteen games. Franck Ribery plays like a shadow of his German self. Their defence look like they can't be bothered. The whole team appears affected with some deep, terrifying malaise that means whenever they play well it's through some joker like Mathieu Valbuena having the game of his life.
On the other hand, they do have a recent history of bringing their A-game to the big clashes with the likes of Italy and Spain. Even those seemed like against-all-odds underdog stories though, a ridiculous situation for a team with as much talent and so many options as France. They don't even really need to improve to stand a chance of victory - they just need to find a bit of that esprit de corps they used to be so big on, which actually directly translates in English as "swearing in the right direction." When was the last time you saw a French player in the national team level a volley of effs and cées at the opposition, rather than a teammate or his coach? At this point, we'll even take a referee. It's really not a good sign.
Well, they fired their useless manager, and that's always a good start. José Manuel de la Torre was an appalling blight on the side, showing Raymond Domenech levels of incompetence. A few teams have gone on to do well from a seemingly hopeless point after taking exactly that sort of step, but of course, those that followed Domenech were not among them. Perhaps he wasn't that bad after all. Or perhaps he was so bad that he salted the earth on the way out. It's hard to tell, and it's equally hard to tell what'll happen to Mexico under their new direction.
The introduction of some fresh meat will be a good start. Mexico have an underrated depth to their squad - their talent pool is enormous compared to a lot of the not-Argentina-or-Brazil nations South of the USA, so they've got plenty of alternatives to choose from. The first ones might be some of their best players who simply stayed at home because of the old boss, like Guillermo Ochoa and Carlos Vela.
With the right direction, and avoiding getting a difficult draw like usual, then Mexico could certainly go further than the typical forgettable First Knockout Round exit. But only a genius could lead them to actually win the thing. Some sides, like England, go out to the first decent team they meet. Mexico go out to the first very good team they meet, and in all likelihood, the same thing will happen again. It just might be a bit later than usual, if they're lucky.
Denmark and/or The Netherlands
Or should that be Either/Or, in the case of the former? Anyway, getting away from that sort of talk, if the 2014 World Cup were divided by religion, rather than nationality, then Catholicism would wipe the floor with all comers. Comfortably in second place, however, would be Sunni Islam. Protestantism would be forced to battle it out with the strange Afro-Russian Orthodox Christians in the third place playoff, both grateful that nobody more competent than Philippe Senderos converted to Shia Islam.
Quite simply, we live in a bad era for Protestant (for which you can read 'Northern European') teams. Sure, Germany and Belgium are making waves, but they're doing so as their teams are becoming far less homogenous. Scotland have gone away for a very long time, Sweden and Norway aren't much cop, and so it's left to Denmark, The Netherlands, and England to fill in the gaps. And when they're your friends... well, you ain't got no friends.
In 2013, at least. Denmark are quietly nurturing a group of excellent youngsters, while the Netherlands are producing another deep pool of talent from which to take over from the old horrible side which died forever along with Mark van Bommel in perhaps the one game you'd have wanted them to win in the 2010 World Cup Final. It's just a bad tournament for anyone who fought on the winning side in the Thirty Years War, that's all. They come along every now and again, nothing to be afraid of.
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