No World Cup is complete without the dark horse – the team that arrives at the tournament with little or no expectation of their performance, and who continue round after round. Very often this team is the host country itself, riding a wave of sentiment (and, occasionally, a very favorable refereeing decision) very deep in the competition: see, for example, Korea South in 2002 or Russia in 2018. You could say that in a time when football is watched and analyzed more closely than ever, there shouldn’t be any major surprises at a World Cup, but the fact that the dark horse is still going strong is testament to the beautiful chaos of elite sports.
A defining characteristic of the dark horse is that he must start the World Cup at full gallop. While the eventual winners may start off slow, the dark horse explodes into view, knowing that its best chance of success lies in surprising its victims with its intensity. South Korea’s first match of 2002 saw them baffle Poland with the speed of their counterattacks, while Senegal did the same against France in the same tournament, beating them 1-0. In fact, trophy holders should be particularly careful: just look at Argentina, who suffered a 1-0 loss to Cameroon in 1990 as they began their title defence.
At this point, it must be said that there has been some debate about what a dark horse actually is. Belgium, for example, were mistakenly seen by many as a dark horse in 2014, even though almost everyone was aware of their attacking threat: they had a squad consisting of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens. You can’t be a dark horse if the whole world sees you coming. For the same reason, any attempt to classify Senegal among the dark horses must be rejected. They are African champions and their front line is led by Sadio Mané, a man who just finished second in the Ballon d’Or voting. (Although Mané may not be fit for the group stages.) If there really is a dark horse in this World Cup, then it will be someone like Tunisia: a team with good finishers and a fairly average defense, which has recently recorded very impressive results. results against decent opposition, beating Chile 2-0 and Japan 3-0 earlier this year. Crucially, most of their players are at clubs that are just below the casual observer’s radar – in that respect they are similar to Costa Rica in 2014.
2014 was a vintage World Cup when it came to black horses, which at first glance suggests this one might not be. The 2014 World Cup, after all, was a competition in which a staggering number of traditional major teams were a bit past their prime – for example, England, Spain and Uruguay – and were in danger of being knocked out. by younger and more aggressive rivals. . This time, however, those powers are all retconned.
If there really is a dark horse element to this tournament, it will be the World Cup schedule itself. Two years ago my Stadium co-host Ryan Hunn wrote of “the volatility of this unprecedented season”, and his words feel even more applicable to Qatar’s approach. We have simply never seen a World Cup like this, a World Cup coming at the end of a grueling autumn, when several teams looked visibly overwhelmed by the efforts of the last few weeks, and when some players openly expressed their relief at having succeeded in avoiding injury. Many elite footballers are also coming straight out of the intensity of an accelerated Champions League group stage. There has been almost no time to rekindle team chemistry between players who haven’t seen each other in some time, and around half of the teams won’t get the chance to play a friendly before world Cup. This means that some nations will have to start determining their top teams while the contest is ongoing, which could easily lead to a bizarre outcome or two.
In addition, there are key absentees who have weakened the bigger teams. France, for example, have been forced to renew their roster, after losing Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté’s first-choice midfielder to injury which won them the World Cup in 2018. t have replacements ready in the Real Madrid duo of Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga, but it’s a lot to ask players barely out of their twenties to master the tempo of a team that is mounting the defense of the title. Meanwhile, Giovani Lo Celso has been ruled out for Argentina, a blow for them as he’s a playmaker who enjoyed a rare relationship on the pitch with Leo Messi. These uncertainties can pave the way for a less announced opponent, for example Denmark in the group of France, to take advantage of it.
Yet, in the end, Qatar is the real dark horse. No one knows what to expect from this World Cup, whether on or off the pitch. It’s not the crowning glory of the calendar, but something that’s been stuffed into its margins, something to be tackled desperately and out of necessity, like a late tax return. Instead of allowing us a leisurely buildup, it shattered the status quo, slamming across our lawns at full gallop. It’s hard to think of a major event that happened in the midst of so much confusion. After he leaves, we will move quickly to take over the national football juggernaut; but while he’s here he’s guaranteed to leave his mark.