The World Cup shocks began with perhaps the greatest of all time, and then they kept on coming. First it was Saudi Arabia, stunning Argentina and Lionel Messi by ending their 36-match unbeaten run. Then, a day later, Japan upset Germany with another remarkable comeback at half time. By the end of the group stage, Japan had also beaten Spain to send Germany crashing out, Tunisia defeated the defending champions France, Morocco retired Belgium’s ‘golden generation’, and Cameroon recorded their first-ever win over the five-time winners Brazil.
On the pitch, the Qatar World Cup was becoming to be known as the tournament of unpredictability, with each shock a victory against the odds. The World Cup has a rich history of staging upsets of this scale, notably with Cameroon’s win over Argentina in 1990, Algeria’s against West Germany in 1982, even back to the USA’s result with England in 1950, but it seemed that in Qatar the upsets were being delivered with a thudding regularity. Then, once the chaos of the group stage calmed, Morocco beat Spain on penalties to reach the quarter-finals.
In life, we often search for explanations, but in sport the greatest drama is often what cannot be accounted for. It could just be a quirk, as the World Cup has seen some unusual trends in recent editions. In 2006, there were an astonishing 28 red cards across the tournament, an average of over two a game. Then 2018 became known as the World Cup of own goals after 12 were scored overall. In neither case was it suggested that players were becoming more aggressive, or that the standard of defending was on an alarming decline.
Of course, shocks are more likely to happen in international football than they are, say, in the Premier League. One of the intrinsic elements to international football is that teams are stuck with what they have. Every squad will have its strengths and weaknesses, but you can’t just go out to the transfer market to fix them. Spain, for example, can field a legion of technical midfielders, but can’t produce the clinical forwards to put chances away.
That said, this has also been a World Cup like no other. It is the first tournament to be played in November and December, outside of the northern hemisphere summer. European teams had to adjust to the tournament being played midway through their domestic leagues, a situation which has affected almost every team at the World Cup given the concentration of talent in the wealth of western Europe. There was also far less preparation time than in previous years, which has appeared to have levelled the playing field.
Certainly, that may have made an impact in the opening days of the tournament, particularly with Argentina’s stunning defeat to Saudi Arabia. With the results that followed, many could be put down to several teams not entering the World Cup in their peak years. Kevin De Bruyne admitted that Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ were too old to win the World Cup, and so it proved. Spain, with the 18-year-old Gavi and 20-year-old Pedri running their midfield, were perhaps at the opposite end of the scale. Germany were somewhat in between. Eight years on from their World Cup triumph in Brazil, they are still at the point where they must bring through the next generation.
Overall, there does not appear to be an outstanding force, like with Spain in 2010, Germany in 2014 and France in 2018. Thoss teams also can help show the regularity that shocks can, or almost do, appear. While Argentina were stunned, it is a result that may be remembered as a repeat of Spain’s opening defeat to Switzerland in 2010, when La Roja became the first team to lose their first match at the World Cup but go on to win the tournament. In Qatar, France and Brazil were beaten in their third and final group stage match, with qualification to the next round already assured. You could draw parallels to Germany scraping an unconvincing draw with Ghana in 2014, or France edging past Australia four years ago.
Credit, of course, must be given to the teams who are defying the odds. The former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who is now Fifa’s chief of global football development, has pointed to more countries having access to technology and improving their preparation and analysis of opponents. “The outcome of the group stage shows the extent to which more countries have acquired the tools to compete at the highest level,” he said in Fifa’s technical report.
As a result, the last-16 was notably more diverse than last time. While Europe and South America had eight and three teams respectively, Asia had three representatives in Japan, South Korea and Australia, Africa had two teams in Morocco and Senegal after failing to have any in 2018, while the USA returned to the last 16 on behalf of Central and North America.
The performances of Morocco, in reaching the quarter-finals, and Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, in beating Argentina and France respectively, also comes at what is the first World Cup to be held in an Arab country. Qatar have been controversial and problematic World Cup hosts, but the merits of bringing the World Cup to the region for the first time has been clear to see while Morocco have been creating history on the pitch.
It is similar to Ghana’s run at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Ghana, who were a penalty shoot-out away from becoming the first African team to reach the World Cup semi-finals, were motivated by the chance to make history for their continent. That same motivation now fuels Morocco, who remain an extraordinary team in their own right. Although they have been backed by a wall of noise, they have displayed far greater defensive organisation and higher energy levels than any other team at the World Cup.
Results such as their penalty shoot-out victory over Spain have always been possible in football but, while they may be less rare on the international stage, there does tend to be a limit in World Cups. Morocco have made it through to the quarter-finals but it is at this point where the quality drastically improves. Despite the advances of the rest of the world and the steps made to narrow the gap to Europe and South America, there is no poor version of Belgium or Germany here, while everyone else has it all to play for. This has indeed been the World Cup of shocks, but Qatar still looks set to stage a heavyweight final.
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