What are the key components that make up a ‘dark horse’, and which teams outside the favourites to win Euro 2024 could go deep in the tournament? We take a look at the numbers.

A major international tournament isn’t a major international tournament without at least one country being tipped as a ‘dark horse’ in the lead-up.

A dark horse is a team outside the biggest and most-fancied nations who could upset the apple cart and go further than they were generally expected to. It’s never the case that the best teams all go deep in the competition, so inevitably there is at least one surprise package, even if they don’t actually go on to win it like the ultimate dark horses – Greece at Euro 2004 and Denmark in 1992.

There are plenty of examples of teams who succeeded against the odds without winning the tournament. Think Morocco at the World Cup in Qatar, Denmark at Euro 2020, Wales and Iceland at Euro 2016, Turkey at Euro 2008, Croatia at the 2018 World Cup, Costa Rica in 2014, Uruguay in South Africa in 2010, and South Korea, Turkey and Senegal in 2002.

So, what does it take to overachieve at an international tournament?

More often than not, an underdog overachieving is based on a solid defence. Morocco made it to the last four of the 2022 World Cup keeping clean sheets against Belgium, Croatia, Spain, and Portugal, and the only goal they conceded before their semi-final defeat to France (with a squad depleted through injuries) was an own goal.

They did need a bit of luck, though. Over their first five games, they allowed their opponents 4.8 xG and no opponent scored. Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, they were efficient, with their six goals coming from 6.6 xG.

Morocco xg against World Cup 2022

Costa Rica conceded only two goals in five games at the 2014 World Cup before losing on penalties to the Netherlands after a goalless draw in the quarter-finals. Greece conceded in each of their group-stage games at Euro 2004, but then kept three clean sheets in three knockout games, beating France, an impressive Czech Republic side and Portugal without conceding en route to glory.

However, plenty of the above dark horses succeeded through attacking quality, too. Wales’ Euro 2016 endeavours saw them score 10 goals in their first five games, including a famous 3-1 quarter-final victory over Belgium.

Wales xG Euro 2016

Uruguay were the 2010 World Cup’s third-highest-scoring team, with 11 goals, behind finalists Germany (16) and Netherlands (12). Only Belgium (16) scored more goals at the 2018 World Cup than Croatia (14).

Successful dark horses are always fantastic units that are a greater sum than their parts, but they also will inevitably need a star to score their goals and provide the kind of moments of quality in front of goal that mean they can find a way past opponents who are, at least on paper, superior.

See Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey for Wales in 2016, Diego Forlán for Uruguay in 2010, Mario Mandzukic for Croatia in 2018, Kasper Dolberg for Denmark in 2020, Semih Sentürk for Turkey in 2008 and Papa Bouba Diop for Senegal in 2002.

If a team lacks individual star quality, sometimes they need to rely on set-pieces, much like Greece did at Euro 2004 to devastating effect. Uruguay scored more set-piece goals (five) than anyone else at the 2010 World Cup, while at Euro 2016, only France scored more from dead balls (4) than either Wales or Iceland (both 3).

In tournament football when there is less time to work on the training ground, set-pieces take on even greater importance and certainly shouldn’t be overlooked by any potential dark horse.

At the other end of the pitch, an overperforming goalkeeper will also help. Turkey keeper Reçber Rüstü made 36 saves at the 2002 World Cup, which was 13 more than anyone else, and the second-most by a goalkeeper at any World Cup on record (since 1966). Lee Woon-jae, the goalkeeper for fellow dark horses that year, South Korea, was second to Rüstü, with 23 saves.

Receber Rustu of Turkey at the 2002 World Cup
Reçber Rüstü was key to Turkey’s overachievement at the World Cup in 2002

Peter Schmeichel made a tournament-high 27 saves as Denmark won Euro 92 – and the third-most in any European Championship on record – while the 24 saves made by Iceland’s Hannes Halldórsson at Euro 2016 puts him fourth on that list despite Iceland going out in the quarter-finals.

One final aspect that could provide an underdog with a helping hand is a kind draw. Denmark made it to the semi-finals of Euro 2020 with one win and two defeats in the group stage, before they beat a below-par Wales and Czech Republic in the knockout rounds. Uruguay knocked out South Korea and Ghana on their way to the 2010 World Cup semi-finals. Croatia saw off Denmark and Russia – both on penalties – before beating an England side who were running out of puff in extra-time in their semi-final on their way to the 2018 World Cup final. Sometimes, you need a bit of luck on your side.

So, with all that in mind, who should we be considering the dark horses at Euro 2024? Here are some suggestions.


Hungary look like they could have lots of the elements needed to spring a surprise at Euro 2024. They won their qualifying group without losing, scoring 16 goals and conceding just seven in their eight games.

They have a few stars, including Dominik Szoboszlai, who can produce a moment of magic but didn’t have the best second half to the season with Liverpool, and they are more likely to have to rely on the entire team unit.

They scored more goals from set-pieces (excluding penalties) in Euro 2024 qualifying (seven) than every other team despite playing just eight games (18 teams played 10 games), and that should make them an attacking threat against any opponent.

Hungary also won’t fear anyone, so didn’t necessarily require an easy draw. In the 2022 Nations League, they beat England twice – including a 4-0 away win – and drew with Germany at home and beat them away. They might just have all the ingredients needed to do well back in Germany this summer.

England 0-4 Hungary Nations League stats


Ralf Rangnick’s reputation might have taken a hit with his failed stint as interim Manchester United manager, but he has quietly been doing a good job in charge of Austria. They finished only a point behind Belgium at the top of their Euro 2024 qualifying group, and an impressive nine points ahead of tournament regulars Sweden. They are also capable of producing a really big performance, as they did in their 6-1 mauling of Turkey in a friendly earlier this year.

Rangnick is known for his pressing game, having worked for so long for the Red Bull network of teams who play exactly his kind of high-energy football. He has tried to replicate that style with Austria, selecting squads made up of players who either play for or have played for Red Bull Salzburg or RB Leipzig, including Konrad Laimer, Christoph Baumgartner and captain Marcel Sabitzer. In qualifying, only Spain (13) averaged more high turnovers per game than Austria (11.9).

Austria high turnovers Euro 2024 qualifying

Opponents generally find it difficult to play through them, and their front-footed defensive approach was extremely effective in qualifying. They allowed their opponents only 20 shots on target, a tally only England (9), Spain (15), Portugal and France (both 17) could better.

Their defence could provide the platform for success this summer, though they’ll need a little more help from their goalkeepers, who saved just 65% of the shots on target they faced in qualifying.


Denmark made the semi-finals three years ago, where they were only defeated by a Harry Kane rebound from a missed penalty, so it arguably shouldn’t be a surprise if they were to make it that far once again, so let’s call them a dark horse to win it this time around.

They have a few big names who could provide goals in Rasmus Højlund, Christian Eriksen and – yes – Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (he scored in all three of his side’s warm-up games last week), and they have a mean defence at the other end of the pitch. They conceded just 0.49 non-penalty xG per game in qualifying – the third-lowest tally after Portugal (0.4) and England (0.43), both of whom are among the favourites to win this summer’s Euros.

Still playing with the same back-five shape with which they fared so well at Euro 2020, they will be a formidable opponent once again this time around.

Czech Republic

Czech Republic have plenty of European pedigree, but in truth they come into this tournament as something of an unknown quantity. They have the youngest and most inexperienced squad of every team at Euro 2024.

euro 2024 squad age and experience scatter

But the fact that they don’t have many players with much tournament experience doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be able to handle the pressure. Greece won Euro 2004 despite it being their first Euros participation in 24 years and only their second major tournament in that time, too, having also gone to the 1994 World Cup, where they were knocked out in the group stage.

They have a couple of match-winners in Bayer Leverkusen’s Patrik Schick, who scored five goals at Euro 2020, and West Ham’s Tomás Soucek, but the team only scored 12 goals in their eight qualifiers – including four games against the Faroe Islands and Moldova – so they will probably have to rely on their mean defence. They allowed their opponents just 20 shots on target in qualifying, and just 5.1 xG across eight matches.

In a group alongside Turkey and Georgia as well as Portugal, the Czechs should back themselves to make it into the knockouts as they did three years ago.

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