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.
3. Spain (Group B — 13/2 odds)
The defending champions enter the 2014 World Cup with a bulls-eye on their jerseys. No team has ever won back-to-back European and world championships in a consecutive time span; Spain already has the Euro 2008 and Euro 2012 crowns, and if they win in Brazil they will have completed the successful defense of the country’s first-ever World Cup title won in South Africa.
They weren’t done any favors by the draw, with the Netherlands and Chile a pair of top-15 squads. If they fail to make it to the top of Group B, they could then potentially face hosts Brazil in the Round of 16. A path to the World Cup final is going to be a lot harder to come by than it was four years ago, especially now that everyone expects Spain to be in contention.
World Cup History
Until four years ago, Spain was largely an afterthought at the World Cup level, a team viewed as underachievers. They reached the quarterfinals in 1934 — meaning they won one match, 3-1 against Brazil, before falling in a replay against hosts and eventual champions Italy. They withdrew in the midst of civil war in 1938, and their next chance wouldn’t come until 1950.
The last time they played in Brazil, Spain fared better than ever before. They won all three of their group-stage matches, against England, Chile, and the United States. Advancing to the final round robin of group winners, Spain drew 2-2 to Uruguay before losing 6-1 to Brazil and 3-1 to Sweden to finish in fourth.
They would fail to capitalize on the success of 1950 over the next two decades. Spain missed the next two World Cups, failed to get out of the group stage in 1962 or 1966, and then failed to qualify for two more World Cups. They returned to the tournament in 1978 but couldn’t get past Austria and Brazil in Group 3.
They would once again break through to the second stage on home soil in 1982 — but just barely. A 1-1 draw to Honduras and 2-1 win over Yugoslavia had Spain top of their group, but a 1-0 loss to Northern Ireland nearly put them out of the tournament. (Had Yugoslavia won by two goals over Honduras or Northern Ireland scored another, Spain would have been knocked out.) They flopped against West Germany and England in the three-team round robin in the second round, and missed out on the knockout stage.
Until 2010, Spain hadn’t made it past the quarterfinals since that zenith in 1950. They have now qualified for the World Cup for 10 straight tournaments, but there has been just one breakthrough in that period.
Four years ago they…
… finally made that breakthrough, playing tiki-taka and knocking off (almost) everyone in their path to claim the country’s first World Cup title. Spain would actually lose their first match 1-0 to Switzerland before taking out Honduras and Chile to reach the Round of 16. Four straight 1-0 victories — against Portugal, Paraguay, Germany, and the Netherlands in the final — put the World Cup trophy in Spanish hands for the first time in history.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Diego Costa
Diego Costa, the Brazilian-born striker who switched allegiances in 2013 after gaining Spanish citizenship, offers Spain a strong target up top to complete the plethora of passes they are bound to connect. He has appeared just twice for Spain (after appearing twice for his native Brazil), injury and a wealth of talent limiting his opportunities.
But after a season for the ages with Atletico Madrid, where he was the third-highest goalscorer in La Liga with 27 goals in league play and an instrumental part in Atletico’s first title since 1996, has put him squarely on Vicente del Bosque’s radar. The 25-year-old, 6’2″ forward is a bigger target than either of the other true strikers on the club, David Villa or Fernando Torres, and he is on better form than either despite a hamstring injury suffered in the final league match against Barcelona that rendered him useless in the following UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid.
If Costa is on form, he offers La Furia Roja a dimension that they have long eschewed in favor of the possession game. Utilized correctly, the Spaniard from Lagarto could help Spain make history — and simultaneously break the collective hearts of the populace in the land of his birth.
COACH: Vicente del Bosque
Vicente del Bosque has had two successful periods in his career that have made him perhaps the most successful Spanish manager in history. First, when he was in charge of Real Madrid from 1999 to 2003, the former defensive midfielder for Real Madrid led the club of his playing days to two league titles in 2001 and 2003 and two UEFA Champions League titles in 2000 and 2002. Then, after a spell with Besiktas in Turkey where he lasted just 17 matches, he passed up the offer to coach Mexico and was in the running for a return to Real Madrid before taking the Spanish job he first turned down in 2004. Since the start of his tenure in July 2008, just after the country won Euro 2008, del Bosque has continued the momentum of predecessor Luis Aragones. He was in charge at the last World Cup, where Spain finally realized its full potential, and backed it up with a European championship of his own in 2012.
Spain 23-Man Roster
|4 - Javi Martinez|
|6 - Andres Iniesta|
|2 - Raul Albiol||8 - Xavi Fernandez|
|1 - Iker Casillas||3 - Gerard Pique||10 - Cesc Fabregas||7 - David Villa|
|12 - David de Gea||5 - Juanfran||13 - Juan Mata||9 - Fernando Torres|
|23 - Pepe Reina||15 - Sergio Ramos||14 - Xabi Alonso||11 - Pedro Rodriguez|
|18 - Jordi Alba||16 - Sergio Busquets||19 - Diego Costa|
|22 - Cesar Azpilicueta||17 - Koke|
|20 - Santi Cazorla|
|21 - David Silva|
How Far Can Spain Go?
Spain has a tough road to travel toward a successful defense of its World Cup crown. They face the Netherlands, the team that took them to extra time in the final four years ago, as well as Chile and Australia in Group B. If they win that group, they’re likely to face either Croatia or Mexico. That would be far preferable to taking on Brazil should they fall to second in the group. And if they do manage to win Group B and get past their Round of 16 opponent, Uruguay is their likely opponent in the quarterfinals. That’s probably the best-case scenario for a team that is on the tail end of a long ride of dominance.