Fishing For Minnows

As a fan of FC Bayern Munich and the German Bundesliga, I always support Die Nationalef von Deutschland in international competitions.  And, of course, as a proud and patriotic American, I also root for team USA.  But ahead of the 2014 World Cup, there is so much great international football going on that it feels like time to expand my circle a bit.  What every football fans needs, if they don’t already have one, is an underdog to support: a lesser-known national side whose ambitions don’t compete with the team you’re already supporting.  During the World Cup qualification and finals, it’s always good to have a new club to watch, read about, and take an interest in (even if it’s just on your main team’s off days).

Fortunately, the upcoming qualification campaigns offer a bunch of very interesting low- and mid-level national teams to root for.  Climb aboard as we sift through some of the contenders.  But first, here’s a brief run through of what we’re looking for in such a side-project:

They must be a true minnow

Meaning you can’t say “well, France hasn’t won anything for a while, so they’re sort of underdogs now!”  No.  France is one of the big boys.  And you couldn’t say, before the 2010 World Cup, “Spain has never won the World Cup, so they have to be seen as outsiders!”  No way. 

In choosing an unlikely team to support, they have to be a truly unlikely team.  They must be consistently ranked outside of FIFA’s top 20, they must have little or no hardware in the trophy cabinet, and any statement that you’re interested in this team must elicit a raised eyebrow from people who follow the game.  If you say “I’m keeping an eye on ____ this year,” and people just nod and say “yeah, they’re good,” then you’re doing it wrong.

But they also must have a good shot at making the tournament

While you don’t want your selection to be obvious, you also don’t want them to have no chance whatsoever.  It would be fun to support Rwanda or Faroe Islands, but you’d be lucky to find a few of their qualification games on TV.  All of which they’d likely lose, and then the whole thing would be over.

Ideally, you want to pick a national side that’s fun to watch, that comes across as an underdog against the truly big teams, but that still has a good chance to make Brazil and maybe a shot at actually making some noise once they get there.

They need to have at least a few guys who play in a big league

Part of the fun is to be able to mesh your interest in this newly-adopted underdog with your regular football fandom.  So it’s much better if your adopted minnow team has at least one or two guys who regularly play for a team in one of Europe’s bigger leagues.  If they have guys who play in the MLS or in a Latin American league, that’s cool too, as long as it’s a team you at least have a chance of watching or reading about sometime.

They must have a cool kit

OK, this one isn’t really a “must.”  But it would be fun if, upon adopting your minnow side-project, you could show your support with a replica jersey (or even just a scarf or team t-shirt).  And any such purchase is more enjoyable if it comes with a wild color combination, crazy pattern, weird logo, or otherwise would be a fun item to wear.

With those criteria established, I considered the following clubs.  Here’s a detailed analysis of each:

HUNGARY – one-time giants looking to regain a seat at the table

Truly minnows? Definitely.  The Magical Magyars are currently ranked 46th in the FIFA world rankings, and haven’t qualified for a World Cup since the 1980s.  Alert students know that Hungary was once among the game’s elite, dominating the game in the 1950s under manager Gusztáv Sebes, including famous wins over England and Italy.  But their lack of recent success and their absence from this past summer’s Euro 2012 mean that they certainly qualify as true minnows.

But with a chance to make some noise? A possibility.  Their qualification group consists of traditional powerhouse Netherlands and a dangerous Turkey side.  But the Hungarians have picked up a few promising wins over the past couple years, including a victory over Sweden in the Euro qualifiers and a win over Czech Republic in a recent friendly.

Notable players? A few.  National captain Zoltan Gera still stars with West Brom in England, and striker Ádám Szalai is making some noise for Mainz in the German 1. Bundesliga.  In any given match, Hungary usually has maybe four to six guys on the roster who play in England, Germany, Spain, or Italy.

Interesting strip? Kinda.  Everyone has white, red, and green, though, so it’s not that distinctive.  Apparently they had green and white vertical stripes about a decade ago, but those are long gone.

The verdict: An interesting team, but advancing in their qualification campaign looks like a tough sell.  Now, if they still had that green and white candy-striped kit, it might be a different story.  I’m gonna keep looking, Hungary, but best of luck.

JAMAICA – the Reggae Boyz hoping to make some noyz

Truly minnows? Ranked in the low 50s in the current FIFA rankings, so, yes they are.  They’ve made it to the WC Finals only once, in 1998, and never past the group stage.  If you started supporting Jamaica now and they made it to Brazil, you’d definitely be in on the ground floor.

But with a chance to make some noise? With their staggering win over USA a month ago, they certainly have a shot.  But the subsequent loss on the return leg hurts them, and they have a tough battle in Guatemala City coming up.  That’s one of the biggest matches in the next round of qualifying, with Jamaica having a good chance to stamp their ticket if they can pick up a win or a draw.

Notable players? Several Jamaican guys are playing in the MLS, including veteran Omar Cummings of Colorado.  And tough-tackling middie / defender Rodolph Austin is raising some eyebrows with good play for Leeds in England’s second-best division.  No world-class stars here, but a few guys you could follow if you like some of the middle-rung leagues.

Interesting strip? Absolutely.  The primary kit has a bright yellow body with sleeve cuffs of black on one site and green on the other.  You’d definitely turn some heads if you showed up at the bar wearing one of these.

The verdict: Unfortunately, their advancing to the World Cup finals would very possibly come at the expense of the USA, so I can’t bring myself to support them.  But if they get to Brazil and get a favorable first-game matchup, the party is on in Kingston.

COLOMBIA – stretching the definition of “minnows”

Truly minnows? Unfortunately, probably not: they’re currently ranked in FIFA’s top 10, and have already been tagged as a “team to look out for” by several observers. It’s worth noting, though, that Colombia hasn’t made a WC finals in over a decade and their team has sort of stunk for much of that time.

But with a chance to make some noise? Obvi.  Colombia currently sits in second place in the CONMEBOL qualification standings, one point off of Argentina’s pace (the top 4 automatically qualify).  They’ve won three of their past four, including a 4-0 beat-down of a very good Uruguay squad.  And, of course …

Notable players? Duh. Colombia is possessed of the planet Earth’s current form striker, “Rowdy” Radamel Falcao.  The explosive Atletico striker has been shredding every defense placed in front of him.  If he stays healthy, Golden Boot, Golden Ball, and a deep run into the tournament are possible.

Interesting strip? Oh, yeah.  The bright yellow shirt with red sleeve cuffs is a nice look, but I like their alternate even better: a dark blue with yellow on the shoulder and bright red on the collar and cuffs.  It shows off the colors of the Colombian flag, without actually looking like a flag itself (something USA has yet to master).

The verdict: Too obvious, too well-known, too good.  If you told a fellow football fan you were supporting Colombia, they’d just be like, “yeah, that Falcao is awesome.”  No fun in that.

MOROCCO – the Atlas Lions want off the “extinct” list

Truly minnows? Oh, yeah.  Despite a good bit of talent, Morocco is languishing in the 70s on the UEFA list and has yet to put it all together.  They’ve made it out of the WC group stage only once, and that was over 40 years ago.

But with a chance to make some noise? If they get their act together, yes.  Two draws in two matches so far in their qualification campaign, although one was a solid result against Ivory Coast, the bullies of the group.  They now have two straight against Tanzania; should Morocco come away with four points from these two, I think they’ll be on their way to Brazil.  And once there, they could make surprise a few people, because …

Notable players? … they actually have several solid players.  Marouane Chamakh has struggled to establish himself at Arsenal, but he’s a big guy who can score with his head and with both feet, and who has a good international record (17 goals in 61 matches).  Morocco also boasts Oussama Assaidi, recently picked up by Liverpool after a solid professional run in the Dutch Eredevise, and Nordin Amrabat, currently plying his trade in Turkey.  Finally, combustible Queens Park Rangers wing Adel Taarabt has made 15 appearances for the Atlas Lions.  His quick temper and unpolished game can be frustrating, but Taarbs is a lightning dribbler who can break down any defense when he’s on.  Adel once resigned from the national side, then went back on that promise and rejoined the team (highly characteristic of him), but was absent from their most recent match.

Interesting strip? Meh.  All red with small white accents – nothing really distinguishing about it.  The logo is cool, though.

The verdict: Very tempting.  These guys have the talent to beat some of the bigger teams and the obscurity to make them fun to support.  But with Taarabt’s status uncertain, I’m going to send them back in line.  For now.

SWITZERLAND – some interesting things going on up in those mountains …

Truly minnows? I think so.  They’re currently in FIFA’s top 20, but they’re largely unknown and have little history.  They’ve only qualified for the WC finals three times in the last 40 years, and haven’t advanced to the quarter-finals since 1954 (a tournament they hosted).  Their most exciting recent win was the triumph over Spain in South Africa in 2010, but they didn’t win another match and failed to get out of the group stage.  They’ve never made it past the group stage at a European Championship, either.  This past summer, they didn’t even make it to Poland/Ukraine.

But with a chance to make some noise? I’m cautiously hopeful.  The Swiss were drawn into a manageable group: several teams that have made the World Cup finals before, including a decent Iceland squad, but none of the true heavy hitters of Europe.  In their two qualifying matches so far, they’ve moved the ball well, received contributions from several players, and defended stoutly.  I don’t often give gambling advice, but if you can get long odds on Switzerland getting to Brazil and advancing past the group stage, it might not be a bad way to spend a few bucks.

Notable players? Pull up a chair, because I’m about to either blow your mind or cause you to think I’m an idiot: I actually think this is one of the dozen most talented teams in the world.  They’re young and unproven, no doubt.  But the roster has a TON of potential.  Consider:

– GK Diego Benaglio is up there with the better ‘keepers in the world.  The Zürich-born Benaglio has starred for VfL Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga for years, and led them to their first title a few years ago, notching 11 shutouts in their title-winning season.  His heroics in the 2010 World Cup kept Spain off the board and nearly pushed Switzerland into the next round.

– Gökhan İnler is Olten-born but of Turkish parents.  As part of SSC Napoli’s quick strike squad, İnler has made a name for himself over the past few years.  The Swiss captain has a dangerous shot from distance and commands the field well.

– Arsenal veteran Johan Djourou seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s still only 25 years old.  A versatile defender who can get to balls in the air and who can play at FB if needed.  He’ll be vital to Switzerland’s effort as they face some of the better strikers in Europe and the world.

– Granit Xhaka is a midfielder who can score, pass, and tackle.  He doesn’t look very graceful and isn’t a fluid runner, but Xhaka has a nose for the ball and just turned 20 years old last week.

– Finally, Bayern Munich’s own Xherdan Shaqiri supplies the speed, touch, and energy from the wings.  The Kosovo-born wing is a quick-moving ball of muscle who can burn you with speed, but who also has a nice touch on passes and free kicks.  If you like football and you haven’t seen this kid play yet, you’re cheating yourself.

Interesting strip? The shirt is pretty standard, but the logo is lights-out: a weird combination of curves and lines that appear to spell “ASF-SFV,” but then with a curly-lined guy kicking a ball coming out of it.  Sort of makes you feel like you’re having an acid flashback. 

The verdict: Yes, I think I’ve found my minnows.  I’ll follow them throughout the qualification and the World Cup, in hopes that they’ll surprise some people and my faith will be rewarded.  And if not, no hard feelings.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a jersey to order.