Belgium, the 5th favorites for the World Cup, has been touted as the tournament’s ‘dark horse’ by pundits and fans alike. The ‘dark horse’ tag is a bit of a misnomer though as the Belgians possess a squad replete with talent, but the title could fit quite comfortably on shoulders of their neighbors to the south, France.
Underestimate or overestimate the French at your peril. In recent times it’s either been feast or famine for France with respect to the World Cup. Consider their record over the past few tournaments:
USA ‘94 – Did not qualify (famously needing only a draw in their final qualifier against Bulgaria, France lost 2-1 in the last minute of the game to a goal from Emil Kostadinov. The Bulgarians qualified at Les Bleus’ expense.)
France ‘98 – Winners
South Korea/Japan 2002 – Knocked out in the group stage without scoring a goal
Germany 2006 – Runners-up
South Africa 2010 – Went on strike and knocked out in the group stage.
If this crazy sequence of events is anything to go by then France is a shoo-in for the finals at the very least. Of course soccer doesn’t work like that, but the relative lack of attention and expectation could work in France’s favor.
The French did make heavy work of getting through to this year’s World Cup, qualifying via the play-offs with a 3-2 aggregate win over Ukraine. Lest we forget, the French lost 2-0 in the first leg but managed to become the first European team to overturn a two goal deficit to reach the World Cup, winning 3-0 at home. The tie typified the French team’s character in recent tournaments: producing nothing when heaped with expectation and then grasping victory from the jaws of defeat when their backs were against the wall.
Why should France be considered the ‘dark horse’ for the World Cup? Firstly, they’ve been drawn in Group E, which is not the toughest group in the tournament by any stretch of the imagination. The French play Honduras, Ecuador, and Switzerland and possess the quality to beat all three sides. However, if France lapse into complacency then there’s always the chance that they could implode.
Let’s assume that France do qualify top of Group E. They would most likely face Bosnia and Herzegovina or Nigeria in the round of 16. Difficult opponents, granted, but certainly beatable. The Bosnians playing in the first World Cup could be overawed by the experience, whilst African champions Nigeria are just as capable at imploding as the French. It’s the quarter finals, should Les Bleus progress that far, that would provide France’s first real test, a potential clash against Germany.