Calling the long shots: U.S. among World Cup-contending underdogs with oomph


The 32-team World Cup basically can be divided into four unequal groups. There are the favorites, there are those who very easily could win, there are the long shots, and then there are the rest.

By consensus, European champion Spain and South American champion Brazil are the two favorites.

Then there are what French Coach Raymond Domenech calls the second tier, namely Argentina, England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and France.

That leaves 24 teams, and among them are perhaps half a dozen that can be considered legitimate long shots. Chile is one of the six. Here, in alphabetical order, are the other five:

Greece: This is not an attractive team to watch. It has no recognized stellar player. Greece’s strategy is based on not allowing its opponent to play a normal game. But the Greeks’ “defense is everything” approach has carried them to unexpected heights before. They won Euro 2004 in Portugal against all odds, and the German who took them to the title, Coach Otto Rehhagel, is still in charge.

Ivory Coast: Of the six African nations in the tournament, the Ivory Coast is the one most likely to reach the quarterfinals, as long as it can survive the first round. It will be up to Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson to chart the course and striker Didier Drogba to lead the way. The key will be overcoming a Portuguese team that also has an experienced coach and a goal-scoring forward of renown.

Portugal: Coach Carlos Queiroz and striker Cristiano Ronaldo are under the gun. A 0-0 tie with the Cape Verde Islands signaled that all was not well in the Portuguese camp, and Ronaldo had talked about feeling the pressure. But he is the sort of player who can change a game and a tournament, so Portugal cannot be ruled out just yet. A fourth-place finish in 2006 attests to the team’s pedigree.

Serbia: Yes, the Serbs were upset, 1-0, by 2000-to-1 shot New Zealand in a warm-up in Klagenfurt, Austria, the other day, but still they were being talked about as the lightest of the dark horses. Hard-nosed Coach Radomir Antic has more than a few players of genuine pedigree, and in key positions. In a group with four physically imposing sides, Serbia could emerge on top, ahead of Germany, Ghana and Australia.

United States: Before the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, the idea of including the U.S. among the long shots would have been considered ludicrous. But the semifinal victory over Spain and the two-goal first-half lead built against Brazil in the final changed the landscape. Given the right set of conditions, given the players rising to the occasion and given a fair share of luck, the unthinkable is not altogether impossible.