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PARTAB RAMCHAND | 29 JUNE, 2018

FIFA 2018: Of Upsets and Shock Victories Amidst Big Excitement

The greatest sporting event in the world.


Defending champions Germany eliminated at the preliminary stage.

Argentina just about making it to the round of 16 by the skin of their teeth.

Poland, ranked No 10 according to the FIFA rankings finishing bottom in their group.


Several surprise results along the way including Japan’s victory over Colombia and South Korea getting the better of Germany. Oh yes, the preliminary stage of the FIFA World Cup threw up more than its share of upsets even as it lived up to expectations in terms of exciting fare, great matches, brilliant individual performances and in terms of garnering worldwide attention.

It is not for nothing that the World Cup is hailed as the greatest sporting event on planet earth, exceeding even the Olympics – also held every four years – in terms of media coverage, comments on social media and general interest. Everywhere one goes, the topic being discussed is only football, be it Brazil’s artistry or Germany’s misery, Neymar or Messi, the high number of penalties to the role of the newly instituted VAR (video assistant referees).

But among all these topics it is the upsets, the shock victories by unfancied teams over the football heavyweights that is being discussed even by those who are not normally interested in football. Stunning results is all what any sport is all about and the World Cup has seen plenty of these over the years. Perhaps the best known would still be the USA’s 1-0 victory over England in 1950 but surely North Korea surprising Italy in 1966 and Cameroon shocking defending champions Argentina in the opening encounter in 1990 cannot be far behind.

FIFA has done well in recognizing that several countries from Africa and Asia have made considerable progress over the years, enough in fact to pose a threat to the heavyweights from Europe and South America, the traditional strongholds of world football.

The number of participating teams has risen from 16 to 24 to 32 and in four years time we are going to have a World Cup with as many as 48 teams. And when the newcomcers are given an opportunity to perform on the big stage it is quite likely that a few of them could pull off major upsets.

Football is the No 1 spectator sport in the world and the most widely followed as underscored by the fact that FIFA has 211 member countries affiliated to it. More and more countries take part at the various regional or zonal levels such as Caribbean or Asia/Ocenia as qualification for the World Cup finals and at times even at this level the little fancied teams strike gold while the traditional heavyweights falter. The fact that four-time World Cup winner Italy could not even qualify for this year’s competition symbolized the serious threat posed by newer teams eager to climb the ladder.

It is true that the 20 World Cup tournaments since the first was staged in 1930 have been won by only eight national teams with Brazil winning it five times, Germany and Italy four times each, Argentina and Uruguay twice each and England, France and Spain once each but the threat from other countries is genuine and it would not be a major surprise if the World Cup has a new winner this time around.

In a way it can be said that there are no favourites and no underdogs. This has increasingly been the trend in the last few editions with the advancement made by the newer teams but this time around it has been more pronounced with the number of upset results.

Indeed David beating Goliath may no longer be big news in the near future. The main reason behind the less fancied teams being able to raise the bar has come about because their players too participate in the big leagues alongside the leading stars and their skills have improved a great deal.

Already in the preliminary rounds one has been impressed by teams who otherwise have been also rans.and whose challenge has generally ended at this stage. They have made it to the round of 16 with at least a couple of them already looking good to make it to the quarterfinals and perhaps even beyond.

Whichever way one looks at it one has to start with Japan’s stunning victory over Colombia for that represented the first by an Asian country over a South American opponent. But close behind will have to be South Korea pulling the rug from under Germany’s feet. Germany in fact could not avoid the jinx that has followed the likes of France (2002), Italy (2010) and Spain (2014) as other defending champions who were eliminated at the preliminary stage itself. .

The fact that Argentina could just about make it to the round of 16 was also symbolic of the giant strides made by hitherto little known sides. Held by rank outsiders Iceland they were on the brink of elimination till they won the last game against Nigeria narrowly. Indeed one of the the most surprising results was the 3-0 thrashing they received at the hands of Croatia.

Of course the competition has not only been about stunning upsets and unexpected results. In most of the cases the fancied teams in the group have made it to the round of 16, some comfortably others after enduring an anxious moment or two. But with the prospect of a draw ruled out in the pre quarterfinals the favourites cannot take things for granted. Indeed more unexpected results cannot be ruled out as the World Cup moves towards its business end.
 

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