So close, yet so far, is probably the cruelest state of being for any national team at a World Cup. In that spirit, spare a thought this summer for those big stage bottlers, the continual chokers, and England in every penalty shoot-out ever.
Portugal, before June 5th, were a scandalously high third in the FIFA world rankings, only to be ousted by tournament favourites and hosts Brazil. They remain a more than respectable 4th, above teams with plenty of trophies in their storied histories, like Italy and Argentina. Since the start of 2013, they have only lost twice. Crucial to their success is Cristiano Ronaldo, but they are far from a one-man team. Boosting the star quality are Ronaldo’s Madrid teammate Fabio Coentrao, ex Liverpool midfielder Raul Meireles and Nani, to name but a few household names. Their high FIFA ranking belies a history of comparative underachieving. Their best finish in the World Cup was third place in 1966. In recent times, they haven’t managed better than fourth in 2006. Portugal are one of the toughest ‘losers’ to call – if their friendly form and their sky rocketing FIFA ranking is anything to go by, they’ll go far, but can they win it? The outlook is bleak. Their road to the final is hypothetically paved with booby traps. A second place finish in their group (remember, they’re in there with ze Germans) could see them up against hipster favourites Belgium and if they pass that test, they could face off against fellow underachiever Argentina in the hopes of facing (most likely) Spain in the semi finals. Knockout prediction: A Selecçaão will come second in their group after Germany and will face Belgium in the first knockout round – if they pass that test, they’ll beat Argentina in the quarter finals but will lose to Iberian rivals Spain in the semis.
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride; the Dutch have made it to three World Cup finals only to leave the tournament with silver medals. Extraordinary bottlers they may be, but it must be said that they never had it easy in the final. They lost in 1974 to an unflappable West Germany side. In 1978 they were only defeated in extra time by Argentina. In 2010, they were unfortunate to come up against a Spanish team at the very peak of their pomp, and their battling, tackling style – far removed from Total Voetbal – was both uninspiring and ineffective. Arjen Robben personifies Oranje’s choking habit. He was through on goal and looked certain to score in regular time of that 2010 final, but couldn’t beat Iker Casillas one-on-one. In the Champions League final in 2012, Robben failed to score for Bayern Munich from the penalty spot during the game and when the tie went to penalties, refused to take one and watched on as Chelsea won the shoot-out 4-3. Earlier that year, he had also missed a penalty during a key title face-off in the Bundesliga against Borussia Dortmund, helping Bayer’’s rivals to the head of the table that season. Robben seems to have shifted that choking tag – he’s helped Bayern Munich to two straight league and cup winning seasons – and will certainly have plenty to prove in Brazil. So too will the other veterans on the Dutch side, including Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt (both now in big-league exile in Turkey), and Robin van Persie, who will look to put memories of a grim Manchester United season firmly behind them. Like Portugal, the Netherlands won’t have it easy and are likely to face a big rival early on. If they too come second in their group, they’ll have to eke it out against a Brazil side that stamped their mark on the competition in typical dramatic fashion with a 3-1 win over Croatia on opening day. Knockout prediction: Second in group after Spain. Knocked out by Brazil in the round of 16.
Oh, England. The World Cup has no more endearing narrative than that of their complete lack of grace under pressure. The mere word ‘penalties’ would make an Englishman do a Gary Lineker. They have lost in penalty shoot-outs in six of the past ten major tournaments, three of those were in World Cups (1990, 1998 and 2006). If that wasn’t enough, they’re also in one of the tournament’s most difficult groups, lumped in with Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy, and they have one group game in the heart of the Amazon, where temperatures average at 32°C. There’s something more promising about England this year. Maybe it’s the absence of less-than-likeable stalwarts like John Terry and Ashley Cole, or the rise of a new breed of young, talented English footballers. Being hopeless in the World Cup is as quintessentially English as Stephen Fry, or fish and chips. No matter how much more capable the squad appears, they’re probably never going to shake that failure tag. Their group is tough enough, but getting out is harder than progressing past that point. Coming second would mean they would face the winner of the decidedly weak Group C (Colombia, Greece, Japan and Cote d’Ivoire); even better, coming in first would pit them against the runner up in that group. But it would only delay the inevitable – coming up against either Brazil or Spain in the quarter finals, and going back to the homeland with red faces and begrudging acceptance that football is probably never coming home. Knockout prediction: Third in group after a defeat to Uruguay and a draw with Italy
Argentina used to be one of the closest things to a safe bet when it came to the World Cup. Far from their heyday, they’ve fallen at the quarter-finals hurdle or earlier, and haven’t looked like much of a credible threat beyond that stage, lacking the cutting edge to take them over the line into the semis and on to the final. They may have Messi, but not even the world’s best player himself can make a winning side out of the Argentines, which says a lot. It’s not as if he’s their only threat either. Javier Mascherano, Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero will line out alongside him for La Albiceleste this summer. In 2010 and 2006, the side reached the quarter-finals. In the latter, they were knocked out in a tense affair by Germany on penalties. Argentina have, in recent international tournaments, seemed to be lacking a little something that the Argentine sides of the 70s, 80s and 90s had in spades. This year, however, the travelling support is expected to be huge; they may as well be playing in Buenos Aires. A European team hasn’t won a World Cup on South American soil to date, so those sides are ripe for the picking. If there was ever a time to iron out those creases, it’s now. Knockout prediction: Will make it to quarter finals and beat Belgium or Portugal, setting up a tense South American semi-final showdown with Brazil, which the hosts will just edge. We have illustrated some key statistics on the teams who should win, but might not. These include underachievers Portugal (a huge 28/1), the squabble-prone Netherlands (best price 35/1), penalty-shy England (28/1) and not-quite-sure-why-we-included Argentina (4/1). Must be the pretty colours.