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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.

Klinsmann wants top-four finish at Copa America, but can the USMNT do it?

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: The USA soccer team poses for a group photo before taking on Bolivia in the international friendly match between Bolivia and United States on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
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With the United States kicking off the Copa America this Friday, Jurgen Klinsmann has made his goal clear:

Reach the final four.

After a disappointing showing last summer in the Gold Cup and a poor finish to 2015, the USMNT heads into the Copa winners of six of their last seven matches and ready to make a run. But can they really reach the semifinal?

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

The U.S. faces their toughest test in the opening match against Colombia. One of the most dangerous teams in the tournament, few are expecting the U.S. to get a result against Los Cafeteros. Just a draw would be a great result for Klinsmann’s men, but it will be a big ask against the fourth-ranked team in the world.

The second match against Costa Rica is key. The two CONCACAF foes have plenty of experience playing against each other, and it is a relatively even matchup. The last time these sides met in October, the U.S. put in one of their worst performances ever under Klinsmann, and he must avoid a similar result at the Copa. If the United States wants to secure their position as one of CONCACAF’s top two sides along with Mexico, they cannot afford to drop points against Costa Rica.

Paraguay will be the USMNT’s final opponent, a very intriguing matchup for Klinsmann. Paraguay’s recent form doesn’t look threatening on paper, as Ramon Diaz’s side has not won since November, taking just two wins from their last 12 matches overall. However, they reached the quarterfinals in last summer’s Copa, earning a draw against Argentina and knocking out Brazil in penalty kicks.

[ MORE: Klinsmann excited about USMNT’s promising youngsters ]

The two sides that advance from Group A will face off against Group B in the quarters. Brazil are the heavy favorites in that group, paired with Ecuador, Peru, and Haiti. The U.S. beat Ecuador last week, defeated Peru in a September friendly, and are strides above Haiti, arguably the weakest team in the field. With Brazil likely to win Group B, a second-place finish in Group A would give the U.S. a brutal matchup in the quarters. Brazil embarrassed Klinsmann’s side in Massachusetts last fall, walking over the U.S. en route to an easy 4-1 win.

[ MORE: Mexico’s Pulido fought off kidnappers to call police for help ]

With the prospect of potentially facing Brazil in the quarters, the U.S. needs to put all their focus on winning Group A if Klinsmann really wants to reach the semifinals. The only match that the U.S. is not expected to take points from is the opener against Colombia, meaning a surprise result, however unlikely it may be, could kickstart a nice little run for the Stars and Stripes.

Firm issues plan urging companies to let employees watch EURO 2016

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 27:  Wayne Rooney of England celebrates with team mates after scoring his team's second goal of the game during the International Friendly match between England and Australia at Stadium of Light on May 27, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Worried about trying to balance work with EURO 2016 this summer? Acas is here to help.

Acas, a British conciliation firm that helps companies maintain good working relationships with their employees, has called for bosses to allow their staff to watch EURO matches.

[ MORE: Bellerin to make Spain squad ]

Some matches, including England’s Group B showdown with Wales, kick off during the workday at 3 p.m. London time.

Sir Brendan Barber, who is the chairman of Acas, believes workers should be given some time off during games, or work later hours on other days to allow time to watch the EURO.

The EURO 2016 tournament is an exciting event for football fans but staff should avoid getting a red card for unreasonable demands or behaviour in the workplace during this period.

Employers should have a set of agreements before kick-off to help ensure their businesses remain productive while keeping staff happy too.

Our guidance can help managers get the best from their teams, arrange substitutions if necessary and avoid unnecessary penalties or unplanned sendings off.

With the tournament getting underway on June 10, I suggest printing out Acas’ statement and seeing if your boss will follow the sage advice of Sir Brendan Barber.

VIDEO: Payet scores sensational free kick winner for France

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - MARCH 25:  Dimitri Payet of France in action during the International Friendly match between Netherlands and France at Amsterdam Arena on March 25, 2016 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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Don’t let Dimitri Payet get a free kick, because he’s probably going to score.

After scoring four of his 12 goals for West Ham from dead-ball situations this season, his touch has carried over to the French national team.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO coverage ]

With France playing Cameroon and the match tied 2-2 in the 90th minute, Payet stepped up from about 30 yards out and did this:

While there may be some suspect goalkeeping on this one, it’s a stellar strike that found the top corner perfectly from a tough angle for a right-footed shot.

[ MORE: Saints set to give Long new contract as Liverpool, Spurs show interest ]

Payet has three goals for the French national team, with two of them coming from free kicks. After being named to the PFA Team of the Year this season, Payet will be a key member of the France squad that has high hopes as the host nation for the upcoming EURO.

El Tri striker Pulido fought kidnappers, used cell phone to call police

HYERES, FRANCE - JUNE 01:  Alan Pulido (no.19) of Mexico celebrates his goal during the Toulon Tournament Final between  Mexico and Turkey at Stade Perruc on June 1, 2012 in Hyeres, France.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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More details have been released regarding Alan Pulido’s kidnapping in Mexico.

The Mexican international and Olympiakos striker was taken at gunpoint early Sunday morning in Tamaulipas. He was then freed on Monday after a police “rescue operation.”

Seen leaving the police station with a bandaged hand, officials have now given information on how Pulido was injured.

[ MORE: PSG defender Aurier arrested ]

The 25-year-old striker cut his hand while punching through a glass pane in an attempt to escape. Officials also said Pulido fought his kidnapper, doing enough to grab a cell phone and notify police of his whereabouts.

From BBC News:

State prosecutor Ismael Quintanilla said the masked gang had taken Pulido to a house in Ciudad Victoria where he eventually found himself alone with one of his abductors.

“They traded blows. He takes it [the phone] and calls [emergency number] 066. It all happened very quickly,” Mr Quintanilla told Imagen radio.

An official report of the calls Pulido made to the emergency operator, obtained by the Associated Press, revealed that he threatened and beat the kidnapper while on the phone, demanding to be told where they were.

In one of the calls, Pulido said police were outside and starting to shoot so he described what he was wearing to avoid being mistaken for a kidnapper.

A wild situation, but the most important thing is that Pulido is safe while one arrest has been made.