Not many, if any, would have predicted that the likes of Germany, Spain, and Brazil would all be out of the 2018 World Cup before the semi-final stage. If anything, these were the favourites to lift the trophy on July 15. But football, like life itself, never ceases to surprise. Every day brings its own surprises and sometimes things go way beyond what anyone could have imagined. This year’s tournament is turning out to be one of those times.
Who could have imagined that Croatia would beat Argentina 3-0 and, in turn, top Group D with the maximum nine points? Who could have thought that Germany would lose two of their three group stage matches? And this was against Mexico and South Korea? Russia’s winless run heading to the competition was well publicized. The national team even became the subject of ridicule. So how on earth was it that they would be the ones to knock Spain out of the tournament? And as for Brazil, they came unstuck against an underachieving Belgian side that has always come up short.
The mighty have fallen
Fortunately or unfortunately, it has become a time for the underdogs to shine, and the neutrals are loving it. Except for France (and maybe England), the mighty have fallen, and it is now a free for all. Belgium only need to finish the job against France, while two more wins for Sweden or Croatia could result in an unprecedented final. Imagine two countries that have never tasted World Cup glory, and that no one gave a chance of even making it to the semis, getting crowned world champions in Russia.
There is a good reason only a handful of nations have ever won the World Cup: it requires a lot. It takes world-class players, experience, the winning mentality imbued by consistently winning elsewhere, and the right management. And that’s just to make it to the semis! 20 editions of the tournament have been held since its inception and only eight nations have been crowned champions. In fact, Brazil, Italy, and Germany have won it 13 times between them.
The records say it all
It’s not simply coincidence that some of the greatest names to have graced the beautiful game are from these countries. Exceptional players do exceptional things on the pitch. When there is the right mix of quality players, management, and teamwork, the result is usually a victory. No, they don’t win all the time. But they do win most of the time. The records say it all.
But once in a while an underdog comes along and challenges the status quo. Russia 2018 is shaping up to be one of those times. Mexico and South Korea weren’t supposed to beat Germany. The Germans are the world champions, for crying out loud. They are the number one ranked football team on the planet. Mexico are ranked 15th. And for Korea, it’s even worse. The Asians are ranked 57th. Most nations that poorly ranked did not even make it to the tournament. The exceptions are Saudi Arabia and host nation Russia.
Speaking of which, Sbornaya was another underdog coming into the tournament that has stunned many. From putting up a five-star performance against the Saudis in the opening match to forcing Spain to bite the dust in the Round of 16, it’s been a rollercoaster for the Russians. A quarter-final appearance was least expected. But after holding their own against tournament favourites Spain, they can pretty much fancy their chances against Croatia.
One underdog goes through to the semis
The Croats themselves did not make the trip to Russia expecting too much. They had to negotiate a playoff to secure qualification after failing to make it outright. Iceland beat them to top spot. A tricky group made up of Argentina and 2013 African Champions Nigeria was enough reason to keep expectations low. Now, a quarter-final match against Russia sets up a chance to go all the way. Whatever happens here, one underdog goes through to the semis.
Then there are the Swedes. After stunning the Italians to make it to Russia, Sweden is on a mission to shock the world. England will have a say in that, but whatever happens after their match, they would have already overachieved. Even if England wins, they will still pass for underdogs, as the Three Lions were not heavily backed heading into the competition.
The Belgians have the chance to win the championship for the first time in the country’s history. A repeat of their performances against both Japan and Brazil, however, will be necessary to scale over the solid and well-rounded French team.