We look at who the most likely first-time World Cup winners will be in Russia this summer and assess their chances of glory.
By Chris Hammer
Of the 32 nations represented in Russia this summer, only seven have a history of winning it.
And with two of those many people will immediately strike a line through their chances of doing it again in Moscow on July 15.
The other five are, in odds order, Brazil (9/2), Germany (5/1), Spain (11/2), France (6/1) and Argentina (8/1).
No other competing nation is above this quintet in the betting.
Even the other historical champions England (16/1) and Uruguay (28/1) are in the top nine, with only Belgium (10/1) and Portugal (25/1) straddling them respectively.
Rewind eight years and as we headed into the 2010 World Cup, there were really only two traditional powerhouses left who hadn’t won it. Spain and Holland.
Typically, they would meet in the final.
Both football-loving populations had spent decades expecting their time to eventually come round, but Spain had never previously gone beyond the quarter-finals and Holland hadn’t reached the final since 1978.
On that tension-filled night in Cape Town, it was Spain who shook off the unbearable weight of history thanks to the brilliance of Andres Iniesta as they finally got their hands on the most prestigious trophy of all.
Having impatiently waited for decades, success was sandwiched by two European Championships, while the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona on the club scene meant Spanish football’s stock couldn’t be higher.
Holland, meanwhile, managed a third-place finish four years later but are in the doldrums right now having failed to qualify for their second major tournament in a row.
So could there be a first-time winner in Russia?
It's hard enough for the plethora of also-rans to reach the final. Apart from the eventual past winners, only Sweden, Czech Republic, Hungary and Netherlands have got that far, and the latter three aren't competing in Russia.
According to the betting and general consensus, Belgium and Portugal are the only two who could feasibly upset the usual suspects but neither has been knocking on the door throughout history.
We'll assess both nations' chances shortly but if you've ended up with anyone from 33/1 shots Croatia or down in your sweepstake then, let's be honest, you won't be scooping the top prize.
Belgium's Golden Generation worth a shot
The stars have certainly aligned for Belgium, with a squad packed full of quality players with an abundance of big club and big match experience, all coming through the ranks at pretty much the same time, or closely staggered, over the past few years.
Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini, Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Dries Mertens are the most familiar names who'd all stand a very good chance of getting into every other top nation’s squads and even first XIs.
Mousa Dembele, Michy Batshuayi and Nacer Chadli are known well by followers of the Premier League while Youri Tielemans and Thomas Meunier have earned praise for their efforts at Monaco and PSG respectively.
And don't forget the former £40million man Axel Witsel, who is currently earning fortunes in the Chinese Super League.
Together they romped through a qualifying group comprising of Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar with 28 points from a possible 30 and scoring a joint high of 43 goals alongside Germany.
- FIFA World Ranking: 3
- Sky Bet outright winner odds: 9/1
- World Cup appearances: 12
- Best World Cup finish: Fourth-place (1986)
- Coach: Roberto Martinez
- Qualifying: Won Group H with nine victories and just one draw - scoring 43 goals and conceding six
- Fixtures: Panama (4pm, June 18, Sochi), Tunisia (1pm, June 23, Moscow), England (7pm, June 28, Kaliningrad)
It’s no wonder they call it a golden generation and this is as good as it’s ever got. But do they have the all-important strength of character to do something no group of Belgians have ever done?
Practically speaking, the baggage of history really shouldn’t be a factor.
For a start there’s only a relative handful of players heading out to Russia with actual experience of putting their hands on the trophy. Any of them who do are either German or Spanish.
No Brazilian knows how to win it, no Argentine and no Frenchman. And you’d struggle to find many English or Uruguayan fans alive today who truly remember their respective World Cup glories.
But as we witness time and time again in major tournaments – history and past reputations just have a habit of latching onto new generations, creating either fear of failures or bullish confidence of triumph.
With England it’s almost always the former. With Germany and Brazil, it’s regularly the latter.
It’s almost like a national psyche unavoidably being drilled into us from an early age. The media, fans and pundits will continually talk about what has gone wrong in years gone by, the agonising near misses and the spectre of penalties.
The seeds of doubt are planted and are allowed to blossom inside the brains of the youngsters who don’t actually have a real recollection of these failures.
Fortunately, from a Belgian perspective, they don’t have the same history of mental blocks and spurning great chances.
Sure, Euro 2016 didn't go well just a year after they climbed to the top of the world rankings but apart from that they've meandered along down the years with expectations of perhaps just qualifying, getting out of the groups or maybe, in a good year, reaching the quarter-finals.
What more could anyone expect?
Now it’s all clicked for them, they should be in a prime mental state to potentially make history.
VERDICT: A great run to the final (4/1 - click here to bet with Sky Bet)
Can Portugal go from Euro kings to world beaters?
Obviously the Portuguese - and Greece to a bigger extent in 2004 - have already upset the odds in international football by winning Euro 2016 while Spain proved that such success helps create a mentality for further glory.
However, while the Spaniards have been spoilt for choice with the out-and-out brilliance available to them, Portugal's triumph was based around a certain Cristiano Ronaldo and an extremely strong team ethic.
It's worth reminding ourselves that they didn't win any of their three group games in France two summers ago, drawing with Hungary, Iceland and Poland. Those three points saw them progress so narrowly as one of the 'best' third-placed sides.
They scraped past the talented Croatians deep into extra-time, knocked out Poland on penalties, were too strong for Wales and then pipped the hosts 1-0 thanks to Eder's 109th minute goal.
Hardly exhilarating but they got the maximum reward for being that hard to beat - and indeed score against. They conceded just five goals and three of those game in a crazy 3-3 draw with Hungary in the group stages.
- FIFA rankings: 4th
- Sky Bet outright odds: 25/1
- World Cup appearances: Six
- Best finish: Third (1966) & Fourth (2006)
- Coach: Fernando Santos
- Qualifying: Won nine and only lost once but they had to beat Switzerland 2-0 in their last game to top the Group B on goal difference. They scored 32 goals and conceded four.
- Group B fixtures: Spain (7pm, June 15, Sochi), Morocco (1pm, June 20, Moscow), Iran (7pm, June 25, Saransk)
That defensive trend continued during the World Cup qualifiers as they only shipped four goals in 10 games, with half of those coming in their opening 2-0 away defeat to Switzerland.
They recovered fantastically to win their remaining nine, which culminated in a 2-0 triumph under immense pressure over the Swiss to pip them to top spot on goal difference.
Ronaldo bagged 15 of their impressive tally of 32 goals that belied their safety-first and defensive tactics, albeit a glut of those were against Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra.
AC Milan striker Andre Silva is also prolific up front while Manchester City's Bernardo Silva and either Joao Mario or Ricardo Quaresma are the key creators, with Joao Moutinho and William Carvalho in holding midfield roles.
You wouldn't think the ageing Pepe (35) and Bruno Alves (36), who now play for Besiktas and Rangers respectively, can still maintain such a tight ship at the heart of the defence but when neither played in a friendly against the Netherlands, they were battered 3-0.
The pairing of Pepe and Jose Fonte kept a clean sheet in a goalless draw with, you've guessed it, Belgium, recently so that'll re-establish some confidence in the backline.
From a phycological point of view, the heart of this squad know how to get through a major tournament and win it. That's not to be underestimated.
Historically, the nation has a pretty poor World Cup record, qualifying for it just six times previously although this will be their fifth successive appearance and they did reach the semi-finals back in 2006.
It takes some leap of faith to think they can repeat their heroics of two years ago but if they can battle their way through the group stages with Spain then you'd fancy them to get past potentially Russia or Uruguay in the last 16.
After that, well, it gets serious with whoever they face and if they can embroil their opponents in a low-scoring contest then don't be surprised to see them match their previous best of the semi-finals.
VERDICT: Semi-finals at best (7/2 - click here to bet with Sky Bet)
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