With a World Cup on the horizon, it is time to look at some of the countries hoping to spring a surprise in Russia, spurred by passionate fans and star players they worship like national treasures.
South Korea and Turkey both reached the semi-finals in 2002, Ghana were agonisingly close to making the final four in 2010 and some of South America’s best — namely Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay — illuminated Brazil’s carnival in 2014.
And once again there are a cluster of nations heading into this summer’s highly-anticipated tournament, with the pressure off and the chance to showcase their talent on the world stage.
Our three underdog picks are Iceland, Senegal, and Egypt – none of whom have appeared in any of the previous three World Cup competitions.
Iceland: Together as one
A stupendous wave of Viking-like applause from the crowd rolled over France at the 2016 European Championships, Iceland’s first major tournament in their history.
That unbelievable support, which England won’t look back at as fondly as others, buoyed Iceland to reach the quarter finals in a debut display that was fuelled by immense scenes off the pitch. And an astonishing following in the stands sparked impressive, mature performances on the turf.
It wasn’t a one-hit wonder, either, as it has been for many countries, as Iceland are returning to compete in a debut World Cup in hopes of continuing their surge to international prominence.
For a country with a population of well under half a million, Iceland’s firepower is fearsome, and their Nordic flavour is unlike anything football has seen before. They are set to add another dimension to a competition that is hardly lacking in subplots alongside the typical footballing feast.
The atmosphere created in the terraces was raucous two years ago, and on the pitch a promising squad including Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Berg Gudmundsson (who both ply their trade in the Premier League) can aid the Icelanders in causing Russian rumbles.
Sigurdsson has, admittedly, endured a difficult campaign with Everton. A switch from south Wales didn’t prove as successful as originally hoped, however trouble behind the scenes, as well as end-of-season injury, played a part. His first chance at a World Cup, though, could bring out the best in the former Swansea man and glimmers of his prime were seen throughout the season.
Iceland’s magnificent burst on to the international scene has warmed many hearts to the glacial nation. They will aim to emerge from the cold and erupt just as they did in 2016.
Iceland World Cup group stage fixtures
vs Argentina (Saturday 16th June)
vs Nigeria (Friday 22nd June)
vs Croatia (Tuesday 26th June)
Egypt: All eyes on Salah
Egypt’s chances in the upcoming World Cup have been significantly propelled by the awe-inspiring season of Mohamed Salah.
His importance on the international stage was proven when his spot kick against Congo clinched the Pharaohs’ spot in this summer’s festival of football, and an exemplary first term at Liverpool leaves fans all over the world anticipating more from the sparkling winger.
It is difficult to look past the magic of Mohamed Salah when Egypt come to mind, and that is credit to the ex-Roma speed merchant whose 32 Premier League goals broke the record for the amount scored in a 38-game season.
That alone is enough to convince anyone to tune into Salah during the World Cup, and Egypt could well be indebted to his services if his majestic Liverpool displays translate to the international side. In an even-looking group containing hosts Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia, it could take the wizardry of the winger to prise open some potentially cagey matches and reveal his trademark quality once more.
Whilst Salah is expected to dazzle at one end of the pitch, Egypt can look to others for pragmatism and resolve. Mohamed Elneny might not be Arsenal’s first choice defensive midfielder, however for the Pharaohs his resilience could be vital.
Stubborn centre half Ahmed Hegazi is also a man Egypt can rely on — he is unlikely to remain amongst the shadows of local side Al Ahly, as a fine loan stint at West Brom has opened the eyes of Europe.
Egypt World Cup group stage fixtures
vs Uruguay (Friday 15th June)
vs Russia (Tuesday 19th June)
vs Saudi Arabia (Monday 25th June)
Senegal: Rolling back the years
Senegal’s one beacon of light in a relatively quiet history is their valiant performance at the 2002 World Cup, where they made the quarter finals on their debut.
Sixteen years on and they are back, and for a fresh crop of players it must feel like a World Cup bow for Senegal yet again.
It is certainly the best bunch they have had in some time – Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Idrissa Gueye, Mame Biram Diouf and Balde Keita are amongst the world-renowned names in an encouraging squad.
Mane has been part of an electric Liverpool trio alongside Salah and Firmino — also at the tournament — and a remarkable statistic, perhaps showing Senegal’s strength in depth, is that all of their selected midfielders play in England. Idrissa Gueye has impressed for Everton, Kouyate is at West Ham, Badou N’Diaye plays at Stoke, whilst Cheick N’Doye and Alfred N’Diaye competed in the division below for Midlands rivals Birmingham and Wolves respectively this season.
A steadfast spine coupled with an attacking vigour in the likes of Mane and Diouf to get the goals, Senegal could be a force and look strong enough to follow in the footsteps of Ghana and heighten an already respectable advert for African football.
It has been a long time since Senegal have been on the world stage, and it would be a missed opportunity if they don’t relish it.
Senegal World Cup group stage fixtures
vs Poland (Tuesday 19th June)
vs Japan (Sunday 24th June)
vs Colombia (Thursday 28th June)