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.
6. France (Group E — 22/1 odds)
Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup. France accomplished the feat on home soil in 1998, and since then they are consistently viewed among the top teams in the world. But, after the retirement of that golden generation that led France to world and European glory, are Les Bleus really among the elite teams in this tournament?
They certainly have no excuses this time, earning perhaps the luckiest possible draw. With Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras standing in their way, the French side should be able to use the group stage to hone its talents ahead of the knockout rounds. Then again, we’ve said this before about France… will the world-beaters of 1998 and 2006 show up, or the enigmatic interlopers of 2002 and 2010?
World Cup History
France was at the first three World Cups during the 1930s, finally getting out of the preliminary stages when they hosted the event in 1938. That year Les Bleus beat Belgium 3-1 before losing by the same score to defending (and eventually repeat) champs Italy.
Their start-and-stop history would come into play as they withdrew from the 1950 World Cup and failed to get out of the group stage at the 1954 edition. The 1958 edition would offer the first French breakthrough, as the squad took third place thanks in large part to Just Fontaine’s 13 goals (still a record for a single World Cup).
Of course, then they failed to qualify for three of the next four World Cups, mustering a draw with two losses when they did qualify in 1966. Like Spain they were lovable losers, capable of putting on a good show here and there but unable to put it all together into a modicum of success.
The first truly golden generation for France began, like so many other French teams, with a first-round exit at the World Cup. That happened in 1978; four years later, the generation had blossomed into a group that would reach the semifinals in both 1982 and 1986. Yet they would be unable to get over that last hurdle, and by 1990 they were once again failing to qualify for the World Cup.
They would miss both tournaments preceding their second turn as host in 1998. But that year, with a cosmopolitan crew drawing heavily on players born in former French colonies, Les Bleus finally put it all together to advance to the final. There, heavy underdogs against a juggernaut Brazil side that had been favored entering the tournament, the French shocked the world by not just beating Brazil but blasting them 3-0.
France would be ignominiously bounced from the tournament in the group stage in 2002, their title defense crumbling from the outset. 2006 saw them reach the final in Zinedine Zidane’s last tournament, only to see the legendary midfielder unleash a headbutt on Italian defender Marco Materazzi that ended in ejection. The French would lose in a penalty shootout, and instead of capping a dynasty with a pair of titles France instead was left to rue what an even-tempered Zidane might have done in the shootout.
Four years ago they…
… were a dysfunctional bunch who probably didn’t belong in the tournament. They only got to South Africa after Thierry Henry used a handball to score the winner in extra time against the Republic of Ireland in the second-place playoff in UEFA qualifying. Then, after what in retrospect was an inexplicable draw against Uruguay, France bombed out with two straight losses to Mexico and South Africa to finish at the bottom of Group B.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Paul Pogba
With players like Franck Ribery injured, the time is now for France to start turning toward its next generation of midfield stars. One of the critical kids to watch will be Paul Pogba. Just 21 years old, Pogba is the youngest midfielder on the team and could potentially prove to be the most important.
His career has been one long clandestine saga up to this point, with the moves he made during his youth career — first to Le Havre and then Manchester United — coming under suspicion. Ultimately he moved on from England to Juventus in Serie A, where he has become a fixture for the Turin squad. In 2013 he would earn the Golden Boy award as the top young player in Europe.
With 11 caps for the senior team ahead of the 2014 World Cup, Pogba doesn’t have the most international experience possible. Yet if he can acclimate quickly in South America, the young adult could be the catalyst for an attack that will desperately need a jolt.
COACH: Didier Deschamps
Didier Deschamps became the second player from the 1998 World Cup triumph to go on to manage the French national team when he took over for Laurent Blanc in July 2012 after Les Bleus were bounced from Euro 2012. He was the French Ligue 1 manager of the year in 2004 while leading AS Monaco to second place in the league and victory in the League Cup. Since joining the French team, Deschamps has the team hot at the right time, with four victories and a draw in their last five matches since losing the first leg of the World Cup qualification playoff 2-0 against Ukraine. Deschamps has proven to be an effective coach for France; whether he can be a winning coach is yet to be determined.
France 23-Man Roster
|2 - Mathieu Debuchy||6 - Yohan Cabaye|
|3 - Patrice Evra||7 - Remy Cabella|
|4 - Raphael Varane||8 - Mathieu Valbuena|
|1 - Hugo Lloris||5 - Mamadou Sakho||11 - Antoine Griezmann||9 - Olivier Giroud|
|16 - Stephane Ruffier||13 - Eliaquim Mangala||12 - Rio Mavuba||10 - Karim Benzema|
|23 - Mickael Landreau||15 - Bacary Sagna||14 - Blaise Matuidi||20 - Loic Remy|
|17 - Lucas Digne||18 - Moussa Sissoko|
|21 - Laurent Koscielny||19 - Paul Pogba|
|22 - Morgan Schneiderlin|
How Far Can France Go?
This is not the greatest vintage France has ever produced, to use an analogy that will resonate with the nation’s various vintners. They have the benefit of being drawn into one of the easiest groups possible, drawn against Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras. Then again, that’s what was said about their draw against Uruguay, Senegal, and Denmark in 2002, and history has revealed that belief to be a fallacy. The bookmakers love the French, for some reason, mainly because of this draw. But let’s assume France makes it through the group stage. Are they really going to blow through the entire bracket with this roster? The best they can probably hope for is to make it to the Round of 16… and even that isn’t guaranteed, despite the seemingly easy draw.