The World Cup is the biggest event in men’s football in the world. Held only every four years, the event captures the world’s attention for a month as the FIFA member teams strive to earn one of the 31 slots open to them. The 32nd slot is automatically awarded to the host team, in this case, Russia. Like most sporting events, the World Cup has its fair share of surprises. Some teams do much better than anticipated while others who were seemingly favourites, fail to succeed. For instance, this year at the 21st FIFA World Cup, Croatia proved to be the team with the most surprising performance. For the first time in the team’s history, they made it all the way to the final but suffered a heart-breaking loss to France, losing 4-2. So, let’s take a look at some other nations who shocked the world, and how they did it.
Mexico have long been fairly inconsistent in previous campaigns, so few people suspected that the defending world champions, Germany, would suffer a shock defeat in their first game of the tournament against Mexico. In a surprising victory, the Mexican team shut out the Germans to win 1-0, causing a small artificial earthquake in the capital of Mexico City from the mass jumping of fans as Mexico scored their first goal. Germany had 26 attempted shots but failed to put any in the net due to the prowess of Mexican goalkeeper, Guillermo Ochoa. Unsurprisingly, memes quickly hit social media comparing his skills to President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. A game that Mexican team fans will remember for many years to come.
England faired rather well at the 2018 Cup. Harry Kane leading the line meant that they always had a chance. Last season, he played in 48 matches scoring a total of 41 goals. With such a brilliant athlete up front, England has some tools at its disposal to propel them to victory. Raheem Sterling, Manchester City winger, was also key in England’s success although he drew some criticism in the quarter final win against Sweden as he failed to capitalize on several opportunities he had to score including a one-on-one. However, former English captain, David Beckham, was quick to defend Sterling. Sterling is a vital player to the team providing a constant threat to opponents as well as providing space from which other players are able to benefit. Making it all the way to the semi-final for the third time in history, they fell to defeat against Croatia in extra-time. As a result, England played in the third placed play-off against Belgium, succumbing to a 2-0 defeat.
This year Sweden qualified for the first time since 2006 by narrowly defeating Italy. After missing two consecutive World Cups, the team did much better in its 2018 quest with a place in the quarter finals. Although losing to England 0-2, it was a huge improvement on their last finish in 2006. It was seen as a new era, as they attempted to move on after the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimović. The squad seemed to find their stride as they adopted a 4-4-2 system that has served them well and got them to Russia for the competition. By the round of 16, the Swedes had taken the second highest percentage of shots within the 18-yard box. The team was only second to Japan in this feat. In the end, it was the young English team that eliminated the Swedes with a 0-2 victory. Sweden’s success was a surprise to everyone, the numbers pointed towards another disappointing campaign, emphasising just how difficult it is to predict the outcome of a World Cup.
It’s hard to not include France when acknowledging improved teams at the 2018 Cup. While the team hasn’t had a championship win in two decades, the team was eliminated in the quarter final in 2014 after a dismal campaign in 2010. Of course, 2018 proved to be their year when they defeated Croatia to win the World Cup. Two top goal scorers in this run were Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe, each scoring four goals. Mbappe ended up winning the Young Players of the Tournament Award with all four goals coming at pivotal moments within the matches including his last one in the Final. The future for the French national team, the young squad has been tipped for further success in the coming years. Balancing out the young energetic performance of Mbappe was Griezman who has been a top level footballer for several years. His experience proved invaluable with momentous performances including winning a free kick in the final which resulted in a goal. Many see this victory as an impetus to lead the team on to an even brighter future. Who knows how they will do in 2022?
With so many European teams dominating at the World Cup, will teams from other continents break out and fare much better at the 2022 World Cup? With four years to go, a lot can happen to build up and even break down some of the high-performing teams. The future of the FIFA World Cup is anybody’s guess but one thing is for certain, the 2018 World Cup didn’t disappoint with its share of upsets and surprising victories.