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2014 World Cup Dark Horses: France, Croatia and four other long shots to consider

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By now, you know the favorites to hoist the 2014 World Cup. More ink need not be spilt on why Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain are the most likely to triumph in this summer’s classic. A good amount has also been written about the chances of second tier candidates, nations like England and Belgium.

But what about the dark horses? Those nations with a chance, albeit a longshot, of upsetting the odds and coming out of nowhere to win the World Cup. Below we take a look at six nations, each of which is listed at greater than 20-1 odds, with a chance of doing the impossible.

LET’S BE REASONABLE…

FRANCE
Fifa World Ranking: 16th
Odds to win Group: 2-3
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 22-1
Why France can win: Sans a storybook run in 1998, France’s worst enemy has forever been themselves. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was shameful and coach Didier Deschamps made sure there wouldn’t be a repeat this time around when he cut clubhouse cancer Samir Nasri from the squad. The mood is right and so is the talent, which Les Bleus have in abundance with the likes of Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba, Mathieu Valbuena, Franck Ribery, Olivier Giroud, Loic Remy and Karim Benzema. Drama-free, deep and talented makes for a pretty good combination for success.
Key factors: Unity and a healthy Ribery.

URUGUAY
Fifa World Ranking: 6th
Odds to win Group: 2-1
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 28-1
Why Uruguay can win: Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan. Those three alone justify the hype. Factor in that just three years ago they ruled South America after winning the 2011 Copa America and La Celeste is a side that’s been there, done that and has the firepower to do it again.
Key factors: Suarez’ health and a defense that doesn’t leak.

source: Getty Images

NOW WE’RE GETTING A BIT RIDICULOUS…

IVORY COAST
Fifa World Ranking: 21st
Odds to win Group: 7-2
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 125-1
Why Ivory Coast can win: Easy, Yaya Toure. Coming off the best season of his career, the City midfielder is capable of anything, especially when paired with the powerful Cheick Tiote and Didier Ya Konan in midfield. Plus with an improved Gervinho flying up the wing and Wilfried Bony potentially partnering Didier Drogba up top, there’s enough talent there to see The Elephants becoming the first African side to win a World Cup.
Key factors: Young guns stepping up to match the feats Yaya and Drogba.

CROATIA
Fifa World Ranking: 20th
Odds to win Group: 15-2
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 150-1
Why Croatia can win: The Blazers arguably have the most underrated midfield in the world. Luka Modric is coming off a fantastic season at Real Madrid, Ivan Rakitic may very well be one of the best playmakers in the world right now, Ivan Perisic has vastly improved since his move from Dortmund to Wolfsburg, and Mateo Kovacic is a highly-touted 20-year-old poised for a breakout on the world stage. Combine that with a formidable defense that contains Darijo Srna, Dejan Lovren and Vedran Corluka and a forward two of Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic and yeah, Croatia has the goods to compete at the highest level.
Key factors: Getting out of the Group and shocking Spain in the Round of 16.

OK, JUST STOP IT NOW; UTTER BLASPHEMY…

source: Getty ImagesUSA
Fifa World Ranking: 14th
Odds to win Group: 10-1
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 100-1
Why USA can win: Having a coach who has won a World Cup is a huge boost but more than that, America’s chances of doing the incredible simply come down to an inherent sense of belief and momentum. Those two qualities carried a US hockey team filled with amateur and collegiate players past a USSR side in the 1980 Olympics. No reason why it can’t happen on the soccer pitch. Plus, with veterans like Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey to compliment upstart players like Fabian Johnson and Aron Johannsson, anything is possible. That’s the motto, at least.
Key factors: Staunch belief, surging momentum and a Germany side that plays its B team in the final Group match.

CAMEROON
Fifa World Ranking: 50th
Odds to win Group: 250-1
Odds to win 2014 World Cup: 500-1
Why Cameroon can win: Because history matters and Cameroon remains one of two African nations to ever make it to the quarter-final of a World Cup, at Italia 1990 when they lost to England in extra time. That year The Indomitable Lions came virtually out of nowhere, led by belief and 38-year old striker Roger Milla. This year the squad is led by another veteran striker, Samuel Eto’o, and has proven a stingy side to get past, as Germany saw this past weekend when they drew 2-2.
Key Factors: A defense that defends and Eto’o turning back the clock, catching fire and ripping hat-tricks throughout each stage.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.