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.
5. Belgium (Group H — 18/1 odds)
When people think of Belgium, they’re more likely to think of riding bicycles over cobblestones and drinking potent beers than world-class football. Yet while historically the Belgians have been an afterthought in the World Cup, they’ve also never had this much talent stacked on one roster at one time.
Only four times have the Belgians made it beyond the group stage. Only once have they made it further than the Round of 16. In essence, Belgium is the nouveau riche of soccer, suddenly glutted with a wealth of riches. The team has one of the more favorable draws, plenty of momentum, and a dark-horse candidacy that has suddenly become full-fledged support as one of the prohibitive favorites in the field. Can Belgium shuck decades of indifference and ineffectiveness to blossom into a world power in the beautiful game?
World Cup History
Belgium has a long history with World Cup play… but it is not necessarily an inspiring history. The Red Devils were at the first World Cup in 1930, one of just four European teams to make the long trek to Uruguay. They returned to the tournament in 1934 and 1938. Yet it wasn’t until 1954, in their fourth appearance, that they earned so much as a draw in World Cup play.
By the time Belgium finally won its first-ever World Cup match against El Salvador at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, they had played six straight winless matches in four tournaments spread over four decades. Naturally, they lost their other two matches of group play and were eliminated before the second stage.
The 1980s mark the halcyon days for Belgium. The crew that advanced to Round 2 of the 1982 World Cup and followed it up with a trip to the semifinals in Mexico in 1986. They would play three more World Cup matches in the 1980s than they had in the previous five decades combined, yet were never seriously in the running for the championship. On the path to the semifinals in 1986, the Belgians would need extra time against the Soviets in the Round of 16 and penalty kicks to beat Spain in the quarterfinals before getting shut out by Argentina. After extra time, France would relegate them to fourth in the tournament in the consolation match.
At that point it seemed like Belgium’s trajectory was on a firmly upward path. They would reach the next four World Cups during the 1990s and into the beginning of the 21st century. Three out of the four times they qualified for the knockout stage; all three times they failed to get beyond the Round of 16. But at this point merely making the tournament is beneficial.
Four years ago they…
… were sitting at home for the second straight World Cup, having finished fourth in their group in UEFA World Cup qualifying. It was effectively a repeat performance of the 2006 World Cup, where Belgium again finished fourth of six teams.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Thibaut Courtois
There is plenty of firepower in the opposite direction for Belgium, as the attack is loaded. With the 22-year-old Thibaut Courtois at the back end, Belgium really become a threat to contend this year.
Courtois, who had a breakthrough season for Atletico Madrid in Spain, helped the other team in the Spanish capital to claim its first La Liga title in 18 years. He was also an integral part of Atletico’s run to the UEFA Champions League final, where they faced crosstown rival Real Madrid.
How will losing the Champions League affect Courtois as he tries to rebound with the national team? If we see the Courtois that is capable of beating the best in the world, the Belgians could go far. If we see him giving away juicy rebounds like the one that Gareth Bale tapped in for the winner, it could be a shorter trip to Brazil than expected.
COACH: Marc Wilmots
Marc Wilmots, the former Belgian international who scored a total of four goals in two World Cup appearances for the Red Devils in 1998 and 2002. He also was selected for the 1990 squad (but didn’t leave the bench) and played on the 1994 team. As a coach, Wilmots has been a bag of mixed results. His first stint lasted all of eight games, when he took over interim duties for Schalke 04 in the German Bundesliga and led the squad to a 1-3-4 record. A year later me was managing Sint-Truiden in Belgium… at least until February, when he was sacked at midseason. It was his time as an assistant to Dick Advocaat and George Leekens when they coached the Belgians that eventually landed him the job rather than any inherent show of skill. Yet since taking the job in May 2012, first on an interim basis and then later on a full-time contract, he has blossomed as a coach. Under Wilmots Belgium has gone 11-4-4 in 19 games.
Belgium 23-Man Roster
|2 - Toby Alderweireld|
|3 - Thomas Vermaelen||6 - Axel Witsel||9 - Romelu Lukaku|
|1 - Thibaut Courtois||4 - Vincent Kompany||7 - Kevin De Bruyne||10 - Eden Hazard|
|12 - Simon Mignolet||5 - Jan Vertonghen||8 - Marouane Fellaini||11 - Kevin Mirallas|
|13 - Sammy Bossut||15 - Daniel Van Buyten||16 - Steven Dufour||14 - Dries Mertens|
|18 - Nicolas Lombaerts||19 - Mousa Dembele||17 - Divock Origi|
|21 - Anthony Vanden Borre||22 - Nacer Chadli||20 - Adnan Januzaj|
|23 - Laurent Ciman|
How Far Can Belgium Go?
The group stage shouldn’t be much of an impediment for the Belgians. Drawn against Russia, Algeria, and South Korea in Group H, Belgium will be the clear favorite against all three of those opponents. Players like Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, and Romelu Lukaku should be able to put plenty of goals past these teams, and Courtois should make most of the necessary saves. It ought to be no problem for Belgium to reach the knockout stage as group winners. There, they’ll likely have to face Portugal (or the United States or Ghana). Belgium has a deeper roster from top to bottom than any of those three Group G teams, but waiting after that will almost certainly be Argentina. Belgium are good, but the Albiceleste are better. It won’t be quite as far as 1986, but for a team that hasn’t done much since a quarterfinal appearance is nothing to scoff about.