By Tushar Bhaduri
Seldom has footballing royalty been humbled so frequently on the big stage as has been the case over the last couple of weeks. Aristocrats from Europe and South America have been brought to heel by upstarts from Asia, Africa, and the rest of the world. Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon, and Australia have turned the script on its head, to such an extent that teams like Germany and Belgium have had to take an early flight home.
The location and timing of the 2022 Qatar World Cup were supposed to be great levellers, but hardly anyone expected the underdogs to have such a big say in matters. The World Cup in the Gulf has proved that the gulf between the traditional footballing powerhouses and the rest of the world is not as wide as it was thought to be, and any of the 32 teams, including the so-called minnows, present in Qatar can upset the big guns on any given day.
Granted that the host nation itself turned out to be the weakest link, becoming the first team to bow out of contention and finishing their league engagements with three defeats, but it has been proved beyond doubt that the days of tennis scorelines are in the past.But this almost-level playing field has not emerged overnight. Countries have complemented their love for the game with conscious steps to ensure that fans are not reduced to just cheering for big European clubs and traditional footballing powerhouses at the time of big tournaments. Some like Japan have invested in a competitive domestic league, while side by side sending their elite players for exposure on the European circuit. Others like Morocco have benefitted from quality players born and bred elsewhere using their Moroccan roots to return to play for their country. Of course, having a group of talented and driven players doesn’t hurt either.
Whatever be the path chosen for improved competitiveness, the desire, and passion to excel in the country’s shirt and make an impact on the biggest stage are evident for all to see, traits in which they could beat some top European teams, such as Belgium. That’s what pushes Son Heung-Min to play with a mask despite a fractured eye socket. For these teams and players, who are often considered also-rans on the big stage, the World Cup is often their only opportunity for stardom or catching the eye of some big European club. Hence, they put everything on the line in the lead-up and during the tournament itself. One wonders if there is such desperation among players earning millions at big-name clubs, who didn’t always show the same energy and feeling. Maybe, coming to the World Cup midway through the European club season left some of them a bit knackered and carrying a niggle or two that compromised their performance.
Teams rather than collection of individuals
That in no way undermines the achievements of the underdogs. There were concerns over how Senegal would cope without their talisman Sadio Mane, the runner-up in the Ballon d’Or voting, who was ruled out due to injury just days before the tournament. But the setback seemed to bring the squad together and here they are in the Round of 16, where the much-hyped England better not take the African champions lightly. Nobody would have predicted that Japan would top their pool ahead of Spain or Germany, or Morocco would do so ahead of Croatia and Belgium. Australia, who hardly boast of a name known beyond the die-hard support back home, advanced at the expense of Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark, beating them in their final group encounter. Energy, effort, and a never-say-die attitude were their biggest strengths.
Defending champions France may have given the reserves a run in their final pool game after securing a spot in the next round, but Tunisia outclassing and defeating them is still an eye-catching result. The same can be said about Cameroon taking down mighty Brazil on the last night of group-stage action. And let’s not forget how the Koreans came to the party, beating Portugal with a 91st-minute goal to advance.
The African teams have given the bigger teams a run for their money, even if not always getting the result their effort demanded. That’s why Spain, who started their campaign with a 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica, will do well to be wary of Morocco in their last-16 game.
The one area where Asian teams can still improve is consistency. Saudi Arabia beat Argentina in probably the biggest upset in the history of the World Cup but followed that result with defeats at the hands of Poland and Mexico. Japan shocked the footballing world order with come-from-behind wins against former champions Germany and Spain, but sandwiched between the two results was a defeat against relatively lightweights Costa Rica. Iran showed what they were capable of, beating Gareth Bale’s Wales before coming up short against the United States. Korea beat Portugal but lost to Ghana.
As the World Cup gets into its business end, maybe the usual suspects left in the draw will get better and the quarterfinals and semifinals will see the names one is more used to seeing. Only one Asian team – South Korea in 2022 – has made it to the World Cup semifinals while Africa is still awaiting its own representative at the last-four stage. The Qatar edition may not be the one where teams from outside Europe and South America make the proverbial big leap, but maybe it’s just a matter of when rather than if.