If during the summer of 2015 you’d claimed Jamie Vardy would break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goal-streak record as he fired Leicester City to the title, there’s every chance the men in white coats would have carted you off to Ramptons.
Similarly, if a decade earlier, you’d piled your life savings on Greece to win the Euros then you’d be lucky not to have seen the inside of a padded cell before the tournament even kicked off, such was the improbability of that bet coming to fruition.
Every now and then though a team defies all logic to the point where football’s illuminati immediately reminds us it was such a freakish occurrence you’ve more chance of spotting Lord Lucan down your local pub riding Shergar than it happening again.
Whether it’s Nottingham Forest in ’79 and ‘80, Denmark winning the Euros in 1992 or Porto creating the Special One in 2004, albeit via the most ludicrous offside decision ever witnessed, occasionally the stars align to give us the unlikeliest of champions.
Looking ahead to this summer’s World Cup and as per usual it’s the same old names being bandied about by pundits when it comes to predicting a winner; Brazil, Germany, Spain, yawn, someone pass me the pro-plus before I lose all interest.
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But what if, ’79, ’80, ’92, 2004 and 2016 weren’t the only years we could witness a shock? What if there was a wild card on the horizon that would leave us all dumfounded and questioning everything we thought we knew about the beautiful game, and indeed our sanity?
A few decades ago, in between flogging pills to help put lead in your pencil, Pele predicted an African nation would lift the World Cup by the end of the 20th century. Maybe the Viagra had gone to his head but the three-time World Cup winner was out by at 18 years – and counting, as an African team has yet to even reach the semis (if you’ll pardon the pun).
But maybe Edson Arantes do Nascimento’s theory wasn’t as ludicrous as first thought, he just predicted the wrong century. After all Cameroon wowed us all the way to the quarter-finals in 1990 playing football in a carefree manner Pele himself would have been proud of. Ten years later Senegal shocked the world by reaching the quarter finals, while in 2010 Ghana were robbed of getting to just one game from the final by that lovable rogue Luis Suarez’s handball.
This year there’s a couple of contenders from football’s underrated continent who have what it takes to get out of their group and then who knows? Admittedly the list of African teams in this summer’s tournament is hardly the most inspiring; Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia could quite feasibly end the tournament without a win between them. However, this is the World Cup, miracles can happen, this is the tournament that gave us one armed strikers – look it up – Gazza’s tears, Milla’s dance, Bobby’s rocket and Ronaldo’s redemption. Anything can happen, even a midfield featuring Idrissa Gueye, Chiekh N’Doye and Cheikhou Kouyaté winning football’s greatest prize.
Despite being spoilt by supporting one of the biggest and most successful clubs in world football many United fans still favour the underdog when it comes to matches that don’t involve the Reds – especially international ones. United > England has already been covered on this blog by Scott, if you’ve not read it you should do, but we all know how the Three Lions are about as relevant Steve Brookstein when it comes to most United fans, including English ones.
If you’re looking for a reason to get behind one of the sides who invariably have the perfect mixture of unbelievable skill and questionable discipline to make each of their games entertaining then a cheeky punt on Egypt to reach the last 16 at 2/1 – apparently, they’ve got some bloke who’s scored a few goals – may be one of the bets worth checking out.
There could also be some value in Nigeria to finish second in Group D (which features Argentina, Croatia and Iceland) at 9/2.
While most of the so-called smart money will be placed on the usual suspects of Brazil, Germany and Spain to lift football’s heaviest trinket, for the romantics amongst us, who remember how United often defied the odds, then betting on a team from Africa could be tempting. Although if you really want a long shot with almost no chance, there’s always England…