The 2014 FIFA World Cup begins next week with Group A kicking off the first round of matches, and Group E play starts on June 15, as four FIFA underdogs battle to advance to the round of 16 in Brazil. One of these four teams has never made it out of group play, while two others have never advanced past the round of 16.
Honduras is the underdog of the underdogs for this year’s World Cup. Ranked at 30 overall out of FIFA teams, Los Catrachos failed to qualify for four out of the last five tournaments, and had the unfortunate luck of being grouped with Chile and Spain in South Africa in 2010. They finished last in the group in what was their first World Cup Finals appearance in nearly 30 years, and second appearance overall.
A small comeback began taking shape during qualifying, however, with Honduras grabbing the third and final qualifying spot. Their journey to Brazil included a historic 2-1 win over Mexico in Azteca. The addition of Coach Luis Fernando Suarez in 2011 helped bolster the side, as Suarez took a special interest in the youth clubs and brought fresh, young players to the qualifying roster.
A couple of players to watch for are Emilio Izaguirre, 28-year-old Celtics midfielder who played two World Cup finals matches in 2010, and Wilson Palacios, midfielder from Stoke City who is finally completely healthy and whose play is described as a “hunter stalking his prey.”
Ecuador is trying to forget South Africa after failing to qualify following a 2006 appearance in the round of 16. La Tricolor won the final automatic qualifying spot by keeping their home record spotless, but they floundered on the road, collecting no wins there. FIFA has them ranked 28th overall.
The death of Christian Benitez last July shook the team hard. “Chucho” was rushed to the hospital in Doha, Qatar, with abdominal pain, and later died there of a heart attack. Footballers worldwide mourned the loss of the talented striker, and Ecuador followed his passing with a heartbreaking loss to Colombia before snatching a win and a draw to take the final qualifying spot.
The Ecuadorian side has a promising young striker in Felipe Caicedo, who leads the team in goals scored for the current World Cup with seven. Twenty-four year old winger Jefferson Montero, who plays for Monarcas Morelia of Mexico, could prove to be an interesting player in the finals, particularly after his smooth goal against the Netherlands in the eighth minute of their May 17 matchup.
Switzerland has had a better time in the FIFA World Cup Finals than their South and Central American Group E opponents, but can still claim the underdog title based on their lack of appearances outside of the quarterfinals, and the fact that they have only qualified for three of the last five tournaments. Die Eidgenossen has not made it past the round of 16 since the 1954 Cup, held in their homeland.
The eighth-ranked Swiss team qualified in the penultimate match with a 2-1 win against Albania, going 7-0-3 in qualifying—albeit in one of the easier qualifying groups of the World Cup and by far the easiest of Group E.
Bayern Munich midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri has seen only 10 caps in qualifying and finals, but had a late goal in a tune-up match with Peru and could see a few starts in the upcoming finals. Granit Xhaka, the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder dubbed the “young Schweinsteiger” by Swiss Coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, fired in the goal that eliminated Slovenia in qualifying and, with Shaqiri, could make for a formidable middle for the Swiss side.
France is easily the favorite in Group E, given their superior experience and their two championship appearances—one of which resulted in France lifting the FIFA World Cup trophy in 1998. Still, Les Bleus are shaking off their nightmarish 2010 experience in South Africa, where they failed to win a single game in group play and took last place. FIFA currently has France ranked at number 16.
Perhaps channeling their near-win in 2006 in the final match against Italy, France dominated in qualifying and even managed a 1-1 draw with reigning champion Spain in Madrid back in 2012. Their only losses came by way of Spain five months later in France and Ukraine in Kiev, after which they defeated Ukraine at home on aggregate to win their place in the World Cup finals.
Possible game-changers on the French side include Liverpool center back Mamadou Sakho, who scored twice in the play-off win against Ukraine, and Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane. Varane and Sakho are expected to play at center back in France’s new 4-3-3 scheme.
All four teams in Group E can hold their own in FIFA international play, but can still be considered underdogs with the challenges and failures they have experienced in recent World Cup tournaments. France and Switzerland seem to be the favorites to take the top two spots and advance, but Honduras and Ecuador cannot, and likely will not, be counted out when the group’s matches begin in just over a week.
Commentary by Christina Jones