While there is much debate around who will lift this summer’s World Cup, for most people that discussion ends with four teams: Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Germany. There is then perceived to be a big drop to the rest of the countries competing for the game’s most celebrated prize. But, if not a surprise winner, there is more often than not at least a team that surprises by reaching the last four. Think Uruguay in 2010, South Korea and Turkey in 2002, Croatia in 1998, and Sweden and Bulgaria four years before that. Here’s a rundown of the nations who could follow in that tradition this time around and why they may and may not pull a surprise.
Odds: 18/1 (provided by bovada.lv)
Why they could go far: This current Belgium generation has long been hailed as a golden one, and under coach Marc Wilmots they finally delivered in qualifying for their first major tournament in 12 years. Their star man, Eden Hazard, has developed into a player who can now more consistently have a decisive impact on matches, while at the other end of the pitch they now one of the world’s best goalkeepers in young Thibaut Courtois. A soft group -- featuring Russia, South Korea and Algeria -- is accompanied by an equally kind schedule that sees them play all three games in the cooler south of Brazil.
Why they could flatter to deceive: There is huge expectation on Belgium this summer, and it remains to be seen whether they can handle the pressure. The team’s best player on paper, Hazard, has so far failed to reproduce his best in a Belgium shirt, and the squad also has a weakness at full-back, where two center-backs, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, are likely to be deployed.
Why they could go far: Utilizing the proactive, attractive style of coach Cesare Prandelli, Italy surprised many by reaching the final of Euro 2012, playing some of the best soccer in the tournament. On its day, their midfield, featuring the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Daniele de Rossi, can be a match for any in the world. As well as exciting young players like Marco Veratti and Ciro Immobile, Italy also has a vast amount of experience coupled with an almost unparalleled record of consistent success in major tournaments.
Why they could flatter to deceive: In addition to Mario Balotelli having a tough season with Milan, there have been signs that 35-year-old Pirlo and 36-year-old Gianluigi Buffon are beginning to decline. One of the oldest squads at the World Cup will be tested by a draw that sees them play all three group games in the hot and humid north of Brazil. Italy’s organizers have not helped by basing the team on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, ensuring three long flights.
Why they could go far: Coach Roy Hodgson has shown himself to be more adventurous both in tactics and personnel than he has often been portrayed. That could be rewarded, with an exciting group of players from Liverpool and Southampton breathing fresh life into a stale, under-achieving generation of previous tournaments.
Why they could flatter to deceive: The flexibility and pace brought about by the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling threatens to be undermined by Wayne Rooney, who is struggling for form ahead of his attempts to deliver at a major tournament for the first time in 10 years. A suspect defense and a challenging group should also dampen expectations.
Why they could go far: On the talent of the squad alone, there is every reason to think that France will exceed expectations. Karim Benzema is coming off his best season yet for Champions-League winning Real Madrid, midfielder Paul Pogba and defender Raphael Varane may just be the best young players in the world in their positions, while Franck Ribery was a contender for the Ballon d’Or last year. A favorable draw means they will be expected to emerge from a group also containing Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras.
Why they could flatter to deceive: Where to start? France have exited the last two major tournaments in ignominious fashion after ill-discipline and in-fighting. Coach Didier Deschamps attempted to ward off such problems this time around by leaving out the previously disruptive Samir Nasri, but his subsequent legal action taken against the Manchester City midfielder’s girlfriend for comments she made on Twitter only continued the unwelcome distractions ahead of the World Cup. Doubts remain over whether Deschamps can unite the squad to at least play to the sum of its parts.
Why they could go far: Not only are Uruguay playing in their home continent, but the country has fond memories of the last World Cup to be played in Brazil, when they claimed the second of their two World Cup triumphs. Most of the squad have the experience of reaching the semifinals four years ago, while their star forwards Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani have grown in stature since.
Why they could flatter to deceive: While Suarez and Cavani have improved since 2010, much of the rest of the squad is now undoubtedly the wrong side of their prime. The aging legs of center-back Diego Lugano will be a particular concern. A tough group, featuring Italy and England, together with a worrying knee injury to Suarez, means Uruguay have their work cut out to match their achievement in South Africa.
Why they could go far: Simply put, they have the best player in the world right now in Cristiano Ronaldo. And coming in off the back of getting his second Champions League winners medal, Ronaldo could not be in better spirits. Ronaldo’s supporting cast is also not as bad as is often made out, with Joao Moutinho, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao more than capable of making an impact.
Why they could flatter to deceive: Ronaldo, still hampered by late-season injury issues, has thus far struggled to produce at major tournaments, often becoming frustrated that his teammates fail to match his brilliance. The continued absence of a top quality striker also means there is too much onus on Ronaldo going forward, allowing opposition teams to focus on stopping the Real Madrid man and only adding to his frustration.
Why they could go far: Netherlands impressed in qualifying as coach Louis van Gaal injected a new group of young players into a squad that underperformed at Euro 2012. Meanwhile, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie have shown that they can still make big contributions at the highest level.
Why they could flatter to deceive: The young players have yet to show they can match the quality of previous generations and the defense once again is a major area of concern. An incredibly tough group, where they’ll take on the team that best them in the final in 2010, Spain, and an impressive Chile side, means making it to the second round will be tough enough. Even if they do get there, hosts Brazil could well await.
Why they could go far: Second only to Argentina in qualifying, Colombia has a startling array of talented players, led by the man who guided Argentina at the 2006 World Cup, Jose Pekerman. Even without the injured Radamel Falcao, the likes of James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado, Jackson Martinez and Carlos Baccao still make them a frightening prospect going forward. They were also handed a fairly kind group alongside, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan.
Why they could flatter to deceive: Although they have the players to overcome Falcao’s absence, it will none the less be a psychological blow and also require a tinkering in tactics. Still, it is their defense that is the main worry, where 38-year-old captain Mario Yepes is on his last legs and his regular partner in qualifying Luis Perea misses out on the tournament through injury. In their first World Cup since 1998, Colombia also lack any previous experience.
Why they could go far: Coach Jorge Sampaoli has continued the attacking, high-pressing philosophy of Marcelo Bielsa that made Chile one of the best sides to watch at the last World Cup. In the intervening time, the key players of the team, namely Juventus’ Arturo Vidal and Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez, have gone onto establish themselves as genuine world-class players who can be decisive at the very highest level.
Why they could flatter to deceive: Chile could certainly have done much better with the draw, having been challenged to negotiate a group featuring both finalists from 2010. While Chile can be exhilarating and hard to stop when swarming the attacking third, if the opposition can play out of the pressure, they can be crudely exposed defensively.