An end of game goal from defender Marcos Rojo saw Lionel Messi’s Argentina team through the group stages of the World Cup. A team that boasts Messi, Dybala, Aguero, and Higuain shouldn’t have struggled against Nigeria, Iceland and Croatia but they did. As much as it took a toll on Argentina fans hearts, for neutral viewers this World Cup may be the best in recent memory, and it’s all about the open doors elite teams are leaving the underdogs – or rather the doors the underdog teams for smashing open.
As fun as the round of 16 should be, few days will have as much tension and excitement as June 25th – the day Iran almost topped Portugal and Spain. Group B, the Group of Death was aptly titled but for all the wrong reasons. Spain and Portugal were in hot water on the final day of group play with Iran threatening to not only eliminate one of the two Iberian footballing giants, but win the Group! The football gods would not allow this to happen, however the thrill of a no call red card, or un-disallowed goal made tuning in and switching between the two simultaneous games a thrilling experience.
Like group B, groups E and F are full of potential world class upsets. Group E had bookie favourite to win the World Cup Brazil slotted in alongside Serbia, Switzerland, and Costa Rica. Despite Keylor Navas, Costa Rica was written off from the start, and it was believed that while Brazil would easily grab top spot, the group would have an interesting battle for second place between the Serbians and the Swiss. Fast forward to the final day of group play and we see the likes of Brazil facing a real threat of missing the group stages by losing to Serbia and Switzerland. Although this did not happen, Costa Rica who was out of contention to move on had a terrific final game and fought back to earn a 2-2 draw against Switzerland.
Group F was similarly destructive to “safe” sports bets all over the world and exciting to onlookers around the world. Germany have looked less than their elite selves leading up to this World Cup and started off poorly by dropping all three points against Mexico and needing a stoppage time free kick winner to defeat Sweden. Germany’s disappointment has translated to Mexican and Swedish joy as the unlikely happened. Germany needed to win against South Korea after Mexico put up a shockingly bad performance in a 3-0 loss to Sweden. To shock the work Germany fell 2-0 to South Korea in a result that saw Sweden and Mexico move on to the round of 16 while the defending champions go home.
France has made it through the group stages, but has done so in unimpressive fashion. They narrowly defeated Australia in their opening match 2-1, a close 1-0 win over Peru, and a 0-0 draw with Denmark. No one would have predicted that such a young, talented squad would be challenged when it came to goal scoring. But, the struggles for France meant an underdog team like Denmark were able to shut them down with strong defensive play and escape through to the round of sixteen.
Denmark’s spot through group play is an example of what some might call a symptom of a better World Cup – underdog success. But, It is hard to say “better” since enjoyment is so subjective based off of national support of each viewer. If we look at this World Cup objectively up to to this point it is a more competitive tournament that has made matches that include teams like Iran, Morocco, Sweden, and Switzerland much watch viewing.
Realistically there have only been three big-dogs who have gotten to eat so far – Uruguay, Belgium, and England. Uruguay were tagged as the group A favourites and haven’t disappointed going unbeaten in group play and not yet conceding a goal. Belgium and England reside in group G together and have collectively put up 16 goals (8 a team) against Panama and Tunisia. Sure their competition hasn’t been great, but both teams looked comfortable so far, and just have each other yet to play to determine who takes first in the group. So, a massive accolade to the the less elite ranked teams; you are making this World Cup different and exciting, not the football superpowers.
What Russia 2018 is proving is that the gap between the world elite and the underdog countries is quickly closing. Does this mean it is a better tournament? Maybe not, but more exciting? Absolutely. What this World Cup should be remembered for (so far) is the smaller nations having success on the world stage, upsetting the heavy favourites along the way.