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.
8. Portugal (Group G — 27/1 odds)
Eusebio, the legendary striker that scored nine goals and led Portugal to third place at the 1966 World Cup, passed away this past January, 20 days shy of his 72nd birthday. No Portuguese squad has replicated or bettered that finish in the subsequent generations.
Eight years after being a win over Germany away from equaling that accomplishment, one is left to wonder whether Portugal missed its window of opportunity with this generation. With one of the world’s best players on the squad, anything is possible. But will that player be fit, along with several other key players nursing injuries? After being drawn into one of the toughest groups in the World Cup, they might have a tall task on their hands merely making it out of the preliminary stage of the tournament.
World Cup History
Eusebio’s revelatory World Cup 48 years ago came in Portugal’s first appearance on the world’s biggest stage. Since then, the country has managed to qualify for just four out of the 11 editions to take place since, and Brazil 2014 will mark just the sixth time overall that Portugal has made it out of UEFA qualifying.
From 1970 to 1982, the country was absent from the World Cup. In 1986, they beat England 1-0 but still finished bottom of Group F (in a tournament where four of the six third-place teams gained passage to the knockout round, nonetheless). The 1990s became another lost generation for the Portuguese, as they failed to return to the World Cup during the last decade of the 20th century.
Finally, in 2002, Portugal returned to the World Cup. They finished 21st of 32 teams in South Korea and Japan. Then they made it to the final of Euro 2004 and entered the 2006 World Cup in Germany as a favorite. They would make it to the semifinals, losing 1-0 to France before falling 3-1 to the hosts in the third-place match.
Four years ago they…
… played goalless draws against the Ivory Coast and Brazil and demolished North Korea 7-0 en route to the knockout round. There they had the misfortune of encountering eventual champions Spain in the Round of 16, to whom they fell 1-0 on a 63rd-minute David Villa goal.
PLAYER TO WATCH: William Carvalho
Cristiano Ronaldo is the obvious answer, but everyone in the world already knows to watch him. So too with Pepe, his Portugese teammate at Real Madrid. Along with Raul Meireles, the world will mainly be watching to see if the trio is fit enough to make a serious impact on Group G.
If Portugal is going to have a shot at advancing beyond the group stage, though, they’ll need someone to mitigate the pressure on Pepe and the rest of the defense and on Meireles and the midfield. They’ll turn to another star who, like Eusebio, hails originally from a former Portuguese colony. Enter William Carvalho, the Angola-born defensive midfielder for Sporting Lisbon who has been discussed for a potential move to England.
The youngest player on Portugal’s World Cup roster at just 22 years old, Carvalho’s defensive skills can open up more of the pitch for the offensive stars to work, and he can relieve the threat of the German, Ghanaian, and American attackers on the back line. Paulo Bento will need him to live up to that promise if they’re going to advance.
COACH: Paulo Bento
Paulo Bento was the type of player he needs William Carvalho to be for Portugal, a lockdown defensive midfielder that does a lot of the thankless tasks that make the difference between contenders and pretenders. After working his way up through the Sporting Lisbon coaching ranks, first as the manager of the youth team there and then the senior squad. After Carlos Queiroz faltered in Euro 2012 qualifying on the heels of a tumble to Iberian rivals Spain in the 2010 World Cup, Bento stepped in to take over the helm of the national team. He righted the ship and took the team to the semifinals — only to lose to Spain again, this time on penalties. Portugal is definitely in strong tactical hands as they return to the land they colonized for this year’s World Cup.
Portugal 23-Man Roster
|4 - Miguel Veloso|
|2 - Bruno Alves||6 - William Carvalho|
|3 - Pepe||8 - Joao Moutinho|
|1 - Eduardo||5 - Fabio Coentrao||10 - Vierinha||7 - Cristiano Ronaldo|
|12 - Rui Patricio||13 - Ricardo Costa||15 - Rafa Silva||9 - Hugo Almeida|
|22 - Beto||14 - Luis Neto||16 - Raul Meireles||11 - Eder|
|19 - Andre Almeida||17 - Nani||23 - Helder Postiga|
|21 - Joao Pereira||18 - Silvestre Varela|
|20 - Ruben Amorim|
How Far Can Portugal Go?
Anyone could technically make it out of Group G, though one has to think that one of the qualifying spots is locked down by Germany. Portugal is certainly the front-runner, but as recent friendlies have indicated there is suspicion about the team’s depth beyond Ronaldo and the other injured stalwarts. If all three players are at less than full strength, one must wonder if Portugal is even getting out of their group. But let’s assume that they trump Ghana and the United States. Do you trust them against Belgium in the next round? The ceiling for this team, in the shape they’re in, is probably no higher than the Round of 16.