The 2018 World Cup has got off to a rather perplexing start. This edition of the tournament follows a season of European football in which we saw the big clubs win all the big pots and pans, to quote the legend that surrounds Brian Clough. The financial gulf that exists between them and the lesser clubs was more apparent than ever on the football pitch. In stark contrast to that, the traditional strong hands have fallen limp in the first round of matches at this World Cup.
Argentina’s grossly unbalanced squad makes them vulnerable against any decent counter attacking team but few would have bet on Iceland holding them to a draw despite conceding first. Spain encountered a purring Cristiano Ronaldo who had only a few touches on the ball but made almost every one of them count. The squads that Germany and Brazil possessed looked too good to be true on paper; they fell short as soon as they were taken out of it. France managed to scrape through against Australia and England did the same against Tunisia, surprisingly enough considering their penchant for bottling in major tournaments regardless of the opposition. Belgium looked the only team that could live up to their place in the top three of the FIFA rankings. 2014 quarter finalists Colombia became the only South American team to lose to an Asian team at a World Cup. Senegal beat Poland 2-1 and in the ongoing second round of matches, Spain could only manage a hard-fought 1-0 win over Iran.
These results have not only given a sense of unpredictability to the tournament, but also sent out a message that the World Cup remains in good health.
Football has always worked in strange ways. It is a truly global game and yet, only eight teams have won a World Cup title since the first tournament took place in 1930. Five of these are from Europe while the rest are Latin American countries. In the case of club football, leagues from these five European countries have attracted the best of players and the thickest wads of cash for the duration that the game has been played professionally.
Underdogs are hence the overwhelming majority in all forms of professional football and the game is infused with a sense of freshness when one of them reach up and grab a golden apple. This hasn’t happened often at the international stage with the only case of an underdog truly challenging the big guns in the World Cup the way Leicester City did in the 2015/16 Premier League and the Champions League in the subsequent season, being that of Senegal in 2002. The West African country was making its first ever World Cup appearance and the team made it all the way to the quarter finals, beating defending champions France along the way.
There was predictably a large amount of literature that was written in the run up to this World Cup in the Western media and much of it focussed on the traditional powers. There were articles on Germany’s chance at winning back-to-back World Cups; Brazil’s redemption; Lionel Messi’s quest for that one trophy that might legitimise his billing as Diego Maradona’s equal in the eyes of his countrymen, the tragicomedy that is England’s relation with the World Cup knockouts and so on. But how about, for once, we appreciate the role that an underdog plays in a tournament as big as this.
One of the accusations that were hurled at Europe’s Champions League in the 2017/18 season was that the group stage was starting to feel redundant. There was good reason for that argument because games between favourites and lesser teams often ended up being complete mismatches. In Group B, for example, eventual German champions Bayern Munich and eventual French champions PSG scored 38 goals between them in the 12 matches that they played. The two other teams in that group, Celtic, who won the Scottish league and Anderlecht, who finished second in the Belgian league, ended up with goal differences of -13 and -15 in the six matches each.
The shifts that have been put up by the likes of Iceland, Russia, Senegal and Iran, on the other hand, legitimise the group stage of the World Cup.
Football can be found being played in countries that have playgrounds and facilities as much as between ruins of buildings in a war-torn city. There really is no other sport that enjoys a universal appeal of this kind and it is this very fact that the World Cup celebrates. Once every four years, the tournament provides a platform for these smaller countries to showcase their style of playing and their interpretation of the game. At the end of it all, we might have quarter-finals made up of teams that were expected to make it till that stage of the tournament in Russia. It doesn’t make it any less appealing. Big players delivering in the latter stages of the tournament for famous team colours populate some of the most iconic images in professional football history over the years. The likes of Pele and Diego Maradona have inspired not just Brazilian and Argentine kids to pick up football but even school boys and girls in Kerala and North East India.
But while the champions parade the trophy in their capital city, there would also be a number of other countries filled with people who are just happy that they were represented in the tournament. It is this happiness that puts the World Cup’s value above that of almost any other sporting event. The underdogs make this tournament and in turn, play their role in keeping football alive and kicking.