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.
11. Netherlands (Group B — 34/1 odds)
The Netherlands has long been perceived as a powerhouse on the world stage. Since reaching the World Cup final in South Africa, however, the team has taken a nosedive. The Oranje lost all three of its matches at Euro 2012; it was the first time in history that the Dutch had been held winless at the European Championships in nine appearances.
Since then, however, fortunes have turned once again. The Netherlands went 9-1-0 in UEFA qualifying, easily booking its ticket to Brazil. They have lost just once since August 2012, falling in a friendly 2-0 against France in March. Though they may have fallen out of the top ten of the FIFA World Rankings this year, the Dutch are on an upswing that could result in another long run. First, though, they have to advance out of a tough Group B that includes the team that defeated them in Soccer City four years ago.
World Cup History
When people think about the Dutch, they think of the two-time losing finalists in 1974 and 1978. What they fail to realize is that the generation defined by Johan Cruyff and crew was hardly the norm at the time. Prior to the 1970s, the Netherlands had reached the World Cup just twice before, losing immediately in 1934 and 1938. And after 1978, when they lost to Argentina, the Oranje would not qualify for the next two tournaments.
The team would return to the World Cup in 1990, reaching the Round of 16. Four years later, they made it through to the quarterfinals. In both cases they were defeated by the eventual champions. It appeared that the same thing would happen in 1998, when Brazil once again knocked the Dutch out in the semifinals. (Then the Brazilians failed to show up against the French in the final, and the Netherlands finished fourth after losing the third-place game to Croatia.)
They missed out on the 2002 World Cup, finishing third in their UEFA qualifying group behind Portugal and Ireland. Their return to the World Cup in 2006 saw the team advance once again to the knockout stage, where they would fall 1-0 to eventual semifinalists Portugal.
Four years ago they…
… were drop-kicking their way to second place against Spain in the 2010 World Cup final. They won all three matches in group play before rolling through Slovakia, Brazil, and Uruguay to reach the final. There they would take Spain to extra time, but Andres Iniesta struck the 116th-minute winner past Maarten Stekelenburg for the 1-0 victory that prevented the Dutch from finally capturing the World Cup title in their third finals appearance.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Arjen Robben
The team that will compete in Brazil this summer has been almost completely overhauled, looking little like the roster that took the field at the World Cup final in Johannesburg. One player that remains from that squad is Arjen Robben, the Bayern Munich winger that remains one of the top players in the world at his position despite turning 30 this year.
With fellow 2010 stalwarts Wesley Sneijder and Nigel de Jong having regressed from their 2010 form and Robin van Persie not certain to be completely match fit after a groin injury in the team’s final pre-World Cup friendly against Wales, Robben will have to take charge of the attack if the Dutch are to have a shot at going far in Brazil.
COACH: Louis van Gaal
Louis van Gaal previously managed the Dutch national team from 2000 to 2002; on his watch the Oranje failed to qualify for the first World Cup of the 21st century. He has spent most of his career managing at the club level, winning the 1995 UEFA Champions League with Ajax and also spending stints at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He returned to coach the national team in July 2012, after the Netherlands’ disastrous showing at Euro 2012. After losing his first friendly back at the helm, van Gaal has led the Dutch to a 13-7-2 in his second stint in charge. He will return to the club ranks with Manchester United after the World Cup, regardless of how far the Netherlands go in Brazil.
Netherlands 23-Man Roster
|2 - Ron Vlaar||6 - Nigel de Jong|
|3 - Stefan de Vrij||8 - Jonathan de Guzman|
|4 - Bruno Martins Indi||10 - Wesley Sneijder||9 - Robin van Persie|
|1 - Jasper Cillessen||5 - Daley Blind||11 - Arjen Robben||15 - Dirk Kuyt|
|22 - Michel Vorm||7 - Daryl Janmaat||16 - Jordy Clasie||17 - Jeremain Lens|
|23 - Tim Krul||12 - Paul Verhaegh||18 - Leroy Fer||19 - Klaas-Jan Huntelaar|
|13 - Joel Veltman||20 - Georginio Wijnaldum|
|14 - Terence Kongolo||21 - Memphis Depay|
How Far Can the Netherlands Go?
The Dutch are hardly as strong a squad as the one that reached the final four years ago, and they’ve been done no favors by being drawn in the same group as both Spain and Chile. They’ve shown new life under van Gaal, though, and having scored 34 goals during UEFA World Cup qualifying against just five allowed the Oranje are on better form than they have been in years. They should manage to get out of Group B behind the Spaniards and ahead of the Chileans. Once they get to the knockout round, though, the best-case scenario is probably a quarterfinal appearance — if they don’t lose to an opponent like Croatia in the Round of 16.