The FIFA World Cup is usually associated with large gatherings of fans cheering for their beloved country, top players confirming their club start status in national teams and European or South American sides ultimately clinching the final victory.
Yet, after ten days of competition, these tendencies are far from being confirmed in this odd fixture held in the midst of fall – not without mentioning the underlying political issues surrounding host country Qatar’s alleged disregard of human rights and corruption in the governing institution of soccer, FIFA.
Instead, many opposite patterns have so far invalidated prevailing expectations from bookmakers. Although the magic of summertime World Cup has vanished at the expense of early morning watch parties for Pacific Time soccer fanatics, there is still a lot to grasp from these first games that could set the tone for a surprisingly disputed competition.
1. Upsets and shock wins making the (group) stage
The chances of outsiders and non-traditional teams beating favorites have soared in the Qatari revolutionary air-conditioned stadiums. Just ask the 2014 finalist teams: Germany and Argentina, who were respectively bested by Japan and Saudi Arabia, 1-2 in both games. The common denominator? Both favorite teams had scored the first goal, comfortably managed their possession-based style with a 70% rate and sieged the opponent’s box with double-digit shots on target. Reasons for their losses may differ, but they share the blame for defensive laxity and imprecisions in front of the net. However, credit must be given to the underdogs in Japan and Saudi Arabia, both of who never lost faith in reversing the match outcome and applied an extraordinarily efficient counterattack to beat these front-running teams. On top of that, their squad features promising players managed by an experienced coach, which could pave the way to a surprise qualification into the final stages. Now, these isolated events in previous World Cups are more frequent in Qatar and revive the magical unpredictability of the game of soccer (from a European background but writing for an American newspaper, I have to agree with Christian Pulisic that, yes, it is indeed called soccer).
2. Unsteady favorites composing with crippled squads
The corollary of this first lesson is the unbalance amongst the top teams, capable on some occasions of producing high-level soccer but very frequently failing to unlock the situation against deemed weaker lineups. England, the finalist of last year’s European championships, has produced inconsistent performances in the group stages. It destroyed Iran 6-2 and scored three unanswered goals versus Wales. Yet, it struggled to impose its attacking style versus the U.S. Men National Team and let the Americans lead the dance, at the edge of scoring a goal from Christian Pulisic’s left-footed shot landing on the crossbar. Similarly, Belgium had a hard time finding its way past first-time appearance Canada in a 1-0 win and lost without any arguable debate against a prodigious Morrocan side, 0-2. Most favorites, only gathering as a team one week ahead of the World Cup, have ended in this dreadful situation because of the intense European soccer calendar, depleting squads with injuries and tiredness. The past winning nation in France suffered from notable absences of recent Ballon d’Or laureate Karim Benzema and midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté. Most soccer fans are impatient to see if this unreliability of favorites will continue in the remaining group stages.
3. Outsiders on the lookout
Another fascinating aspect of the World Cup resides in the emergence of outsiders who rise to the top of groups with solid team performances and individual breakthroughs. Despite the absence of Ballon d’Or runner-up Sadio Mané, Senegal reached the Round of 16 against the Three Lions and will try to attain the quarterfinals, like 20 years ago in Japan. Switzerland, too easily dismissed compared to European national soccer, produce stylish attacking momentum and will face Serbia for a qualifying bid.
This strange World Cup has definitely not ended surprise among soccer fans!