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Major Tournament 'Dark Horses' Who Actually Turned Up Down the Years

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Croatia 2018

Croatia’s class of 2018 can argue to be the best performing dark horse that never actually came away with the trophy when they made it all the way to the World Cup final in Russia. They became the first side outside of the established elite to make the final in the modern era, a minor miracle for a nation who only became independent in the 1990s and have a population of just four million.

It was a true golden generation though for a country with such a small population, with big name players all over the squad, including Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic. Zlatko Dalic was the man who masterminded their journey, and they remained unbeaten up until their 4-2 defeat in the final to France. A commanding 3-0 win over Argentina in the group stage was the result which made people sit up and notice, especially after this same group of players flattered to deceive in 2014 and 2016.

Their three knockout round wins were all full of drama and nail-biting finales. The 115th minute in both their Last 16 and Quarter-Final ties produced moments which prevented a smooth progression to the next round. Modric missed a penalty against Denmark, and Mario Fernandes scored an equaliser for Russia, moments which caused both matches to go to penalties. Rakitic remained cool and composed to score the clinching spot kick in both ties to set up a semi-final clash with England, a game that would go to extra time once again, with Mandzukic scoring the winner on 109 minutes.

Wales 2016

Expectations were realistic but optimism was high when Wales made the short journey to France for the European Championships five years ago. They had a tie with England to get excited about but also had group opponents they fancied their chances against in Russia and Slovakia, and they would go on to beat both of them.

Despite losing to them in the group stage, Wales became the first home nation to outperform England at a major tournament since 1978, when Scotland managed to reach the World Cup while England stayed at home. England’s demise in 2016 was just as embarrassing, and their 2-1 defeat to Iceland clearly went down well in the Wales camp when footage emerged of them celebrating at the final whistle in the team hotel.

Just four days later, they recorded the national team’s most famous ever victory when they beat highly-fancied Belgium 3-1 in the quarter-finals. Hal Robson-Kanu, a man who had just been released by Championship side Reading, scored one of the goals of the tournament, Cruyff turning away from Thomas Meunier, Marouane Fellaini and Jason Denayer all in one movement before slotting Wales in front.

Their semi-final defeat to eventual champions Portugal did nothing to dampen the spirits and affection towards the squad who massively overachieved in just their second-ever appearance at a major tournament, 58 years after their first.

Poland 1982

After Robert Lewandowski was unable to drag his nation past the group stage for a second consecutive tournament this summer, their star man from the 1980s, Zbigniew Boniek managed to take them all the way to a third-place finish in Spain in 1982.

With a bizarre second group stage format in place, Poland had to play five matches just to reach the semi-finals. They remained unbeaten throughout both group phases, drawing with Italy and Cameroon before hammering Peru 5-1 to win Group 1, then a 3-0 win over Belgium thanks to a Boniek hattrick saw them win their subsequent group too ahead of the USSR on goal difference.

However, Paolo Rossi’s Italy awaited once again and this time the eventual champions had too much for Poland, with Rossi scoring twice in a 2-0 win. However, there was more positivity to come for Poland, as they defeated France in the third place playoff to secure the bronze medal.

Boniek went on to enjoy great success as a Juventus player following his move from Widzew Lodz after the tournament, but the same could not be said for his country. A round of 16 exit in 1986 is the furthest they have ever gotten since.

Bulgaria 1984

One of the more overlooked overachievers is the Bulgaria side of 1994. Led by talisman Hristo Stoichkov, they managed to go all the way to the semi-finals, knocking the holders out in the process.

In their five previous World Cup appearances, Bulgaria had never won a game, and they looked set to continue that trend when Nigeria beat them 3-0 in their opening match. However, they followed it up with convincing wins over Greece and Argentina, scoring six without reply, to progress as runners-up.

After seeing off Mexico on penalties in the last 16, the World Cup winners from four years earlier awaited them, Germany. With Lothar Matthaus, Rudi Voller and Jurgen Klinsmann in the side, it looked as though Bulgaria’s journey would end here, especially when a Matthaus penalty put Germany ahead in the second half.

Stoichkov levelled before Jordan Leckov added another just three minutes later to leave the Germans shell shocked and crashing out of the competition.

Facing the current Ballon d’Or winner at the time, Roberto Baggio, was a step too far for Bulgaria, as the Italian netted a double to help his nation progress to the final at their expense, but 1994 will always remain one of the highest points in the history of Bulgarian football.

By Andrew Delaney