As we approach the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, the Sports Unbiased Crew will be releasing guides to help make better sense of what you watch as the world’s best soccer players converge on Brazil this summer. Check in regularly as we preview the eight groups, 32 teams, and key players that will play an integral role in determining the next world champion.
Let’s face it. Not every team has the same chances of taking home the World Cup trophy. Australia (1500/1 odds) has far less of a chance of making it to the tournament, having been drawn with defending World Cup finalists Spain (13/2) and the Netherlands (34/1). A team like Iran (1000/1), matched against a perennial powerhouse like Argentina (9/2), would have to upset the entire balance of world football order to advance far in the tournament.
So in that spirit, let’s look at the top 12 teams with the best shot to win the preeminent championship of the beautiful game. But we’re not talking FIFA coefficients here; the real place to look for contenders is with the betting odds. (This might seem odd in light of the New York Times expose about match fixing around the 2010 World Cup… but it is not the legitimate bookmakers that have incentive to fix these matches.)
All odds provided by Unibet. Why Unibet among all possible bookmakers? Well… I’ve been partial to the company since the cycling team they sponsored received a raw deal back in 2007. And their hierarchy of teams is not appreciably different than any other. Feel free to peruse the full selection of odds from around the globe here.
2. Argentina (Group F — 4/1 odds)
Perhaps no team other than Brazil has more pressure to finally live up to its potential than Argentina. With arguably the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, on its side, the Albiceleste are under heavy expectations that they can finally capture the country’s third World Cup victory after waiting since 1986.
The old trope that no European team has ever won a World Cup in the Americas still holds true, and Argentina — along with Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, and Chile — all have a legitimate shot of keeping that streak alive. Perhaps no team is coming into the tournament with more momentum, as Argentina has lost just twice since October 2011. No matter who Alejandro Sabella’s crew plays, they’re bound to be a tough out.
World Cup History
Argentina were there at the first World Cup in 1930, reaching the final against hosts Uruguay. They took a 2-1 lead into the locker room at the half, but Uruguay scored thrice to take the 4-2 win and the inaugural world championship. Four years later, Argentina was bounced by Sweden 3-2 in the opening round of a tournament that had switched from preliminary groups to a straight knockout.
The Albiceleste did not return to the World Cup until 1958. They would not get out of the preliminary stage in either 1958 or 1962, and in 1966 they fell in the quarterfinals to eventual champions England.
While Brazil was dominating in Mexico in 1970, Argentina were sitting at home after failing to qualify for the tournament. They would reach the second stage in 1974, then in 1978 they would host the tournament themselves. On home soil, playing during a time in their country’s history that was ruled by military junta, the Argentinians went on to fulfill their destiny by beating the Netherlands 3-1 after getting goals from Mario Kempes and Daniel Bertoni in extra time.
They haven’t missed a World Cup since. They would capture another title in 1986 thanks to Diego Maradona’s dazzling skills and clandestine handiwork, beating West Germany in the final. He would get them back to the final at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, though West Germany would get the better in the rematch in the nation’s last World Cup as a divided entity.
Since the 1990 final, a generation has come and gone without even reaching the semifinals. Three times Argentina has reached the quarterfinals in the past four World Cups, but only one came close to advancing as the 2006 team lost to Germany 4-2 in a penalty shootout after 120 minutes were deadlocked at 1-1.
Four years ago they…
… looked incredibly strong in a 3-1 win over Mexico in the Round of 16, yet again reaching the quarterfinals and yet again squaring off against Germany. This was a far more lopsided affair, as the Germans opened the scoring in the third minute and didn’t let up in a 4-0 rout.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Angel di Maria
I’ve already written plenty about Angel di Maria recently, but he and the rest of the midfield are going to be an integral part of any success Argentina manages. Everyone thinks about Messi when it comes to this squad’s attack, but Gonzalo Higuain and/or Sergio Aguero will be just as important up top in the formation, and nothing will flow without the creativity of players like di Maria.
The Rosario-born attacking midfielder vaulted his game to a new level with Real Madrid this season; it was his shot on goal that Thibaut Courtois deflected to Gareth Bale for the game winner in the UEFA Champions League final in May, and he was one of the catalysts in Real’s comeback to take the club’s tenth European championship.
He has starred for Argentina at the youth and Olympic levels, and if Argentina are going to advance far in neighboring Brazil they’re going to need more than just Messi to step up and produce.
COACH: Alejandro Sabella
Sabella took over Argentina after a disastrous 2011 Copa America where the team were bounced out of the tournament by rival Uruguay in a penalty shootout. Argentina were the hosts of the tournament, intensifying the pain of the early exit — which only grew more when Uruguay won the title. Enter Sabella, who worked under Daniel Passarella for a long time at both club and national level. In his only prior stint as a head coach, Sabella had guided Estudiantes de La Plata to the 2009 Copa Libertadores championship. Since taking over the Albiceleste in August 2011, for whom he suited up but eight times in his journeyman playing career, he has lost just four matches against 25 wins and nine draws en route to an easy path to the World Cup.
Argentina 23-Man Roster
|5 - Fernando Gago|
|2 - Ezequiel Garay||6 - Lucas Biglia|
|3 - Hugo Campagnaro||7 - Angel di Maria||9 - Gonzalo Higuain|
|1 - Sergio Romero||4 - Pablo Zabaleta||8 - Enzo Perez||10 - Lionel Messi|
|12 - Agustin Orion||15- Martin Demichelis||11 - Maxi Rodriguez||18 - Rodrigo Palacio|
|21 - Mariano Andujar||16 - Marcos Rojo||13 - Augusto Fernandez||20 - Sergio Aguero|
|17 - Federico Fernandez||14 - Javier Mascherano||22 - Ezequiel Lavezzi|
|23 - Jose Maria Basanta||19 - Ricardo Alvarez|
How Far Can Argentina Go?
What is the ceiling for an Argentina team this talented? They’re formidable at all levels, from the goalkeepers to the goalscorers and every position in between. The generation of players that won the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and the 2005 and 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup is in the prime of their careers, and the time is now for Argentina to finally challenge once again for that elusive third World Cup. Drawn against Iran, Nigeria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the group stage, there is no excuse for Argentina to finish anywhere other than first in their group. The semifinals are a bare minimum for Argentina, given how long it has been since they reached the final four, and a trip to the finals almost feels prerequisite to consider this tournament a success.