From the start of this World Cup, the game’s traditional heavyweights have been up against it.
Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina in what has been described as the biggest shock in the tournament’s long history. At that moment, the 2022 World Cup really started.
In the following days, Morocco beat world No. 2, Belgium and Australia passed Denmark to qualify for the knockout stage in Qatar.
However, the epitome of the unpredictable group stage came from Group E, which saw Japan beat both Germany and Spain to top the group and Germany was sent off, as it struggled to beat Costa Rica – the Samurai Blue even found time to lose to Costa Rica, who was beaten 7-0 by Spain in the opening game.
We’ve seen plenty of World Cup shocks over the years, but this year’s edition has seen more than most. In fact, this World Cup is only the fourth edition in the tournament’s 92-year history where no team has won all of its group matches – and the first since 1994.
So why were there so many setbacks at this year’s tournament?
This World Cup is a first for many reasons.
It is the first to be held in the Middle East. It is also the first to be held in the middle of the traditional European football calendar.
Due to FIFA’s decision to move the World Cup from its traditional home in July and August due to the temperature in Qatar during those months, most teams have had just over a week of preparation for what is international football’s premier competition.
As a result, the countries with players mainly playing in one country flourished early on. Saudi Arabia – with not one player plying their trade outside the country – and England looked well organized from the start.
Host country Qatar, which also had all its players in the country, did not look very organized and became the worst World Cup host country ever in terms of results.
On the other hand, teams with players in leagues from all over the world battled for consistency in the early games.
Argentina looked disjointed, Denmark lacked enthusiasm and Belgium looked sleepy as some of the bigger nations got off to a slow start as teams missed the usual early summer extra time after many leagues closed their seasons to fine-tune tactical organization and camaraderie .
Meanwhile, the lack of prep time saw players arrive in Qatar after nearly four months of grueling planning, with many playing two games a week.
Usually players are given almost a month to rest first and then physically take off for the tournament, but this luxury did not exist this tournament.
This has resulted in a general lack of explosiveness from some of the stars we expect to light up the tournament, as well as injuries to many we had hoped for on the world stage.
The general lack of fitness has stressed managers’ ability to successfully deploy replacements, with the introduction of new legs often being a catalyst for change.
The recent increase from three to five allowed substitutions for teams has supported managers’ desire to change players and tactical systems when they want to.
Japan’s victories over Germany and Spain saw manager Hajime Moriyasu add new faces to the team at just the right time – when their opponent was tired – to provide the necessary momentum to push for wins.
While the lack of preparation has been a problem for all 32 teams, it has been an equalizer for all, perhaps opening the door for some of those unpredictable teams to compete with the traditional favourites.
For many of the bigger teams, you could relate their surprise defeats to situational conditions without taking anything from the victorious nations anyway.
In hindsight, Argentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia looks more like a freak result. Saudi Arabia converted its two shots on target and Argentina had numerous goals disallowed for offside – as Messi and Co. their next two matches and Saudi Arabia won the next two.
In the case of Belgium, the age profile of the team – which has been dubbed a “golden generation” – led some to believe the era was over.
Red Devils star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne even said in an interview with The Guardian that his side had “no chance” of winning the title because the players are “too old”.
De Bruyne’s comments reportedly led to a rift in Belgium’s dressing room, but – whether over that division or squad flaws – he was eventually proved right when the European nation was dumped in the group stage.
For Germany, the disappointing campaign is perhaps less of a surprise.
Aged stars – Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer and İlkay Gündoğan all in their thirties – combined with a crop of young, inexperienced prospects – Jamal Musiala, Karim Adeyemi, Armel Bella-Kotchap and Youssoufa Moukoko – made for an uneven squad.
For each World Cup, a group is anointed to the so-called “group of death” because of its difficult composition. And in Group E – alongside Japan, Spain and Costa Rica – Germany just happened to find themselves in a tricky environment.
It is often said that a World Cup comes too soon or too late for a team. And in the case of Belgium and Germany, the results in Qatar may have shown that the squad was not as well prepared for a tournament that will take place in 2022.
Given the nature of the World Cup – teams from all over the world coming together in a tournament setting – fans often see clashes they’re not used to.
And the same goes for players who, for their international teams, will be used to meeting similar groups of players in their localized qualification systems.
But in a global World Cup, nationalities, regions and cultures are thrown together in a huge melting pot of colour, noise and beautiful football.
This concoction has regularly led to shocking results in the 90 years of the World Cup.
It’s part of the reason why it’s the pinnacle of world football; watching football’s greatest nations humiliate by beating teams they would normally expect.
From the USA beating England in 1950 and North Korea upsetting Italy in 1966 to Senegal beating defending champion France in 2002 and Algeria – in its World Cup debut – beating West Germany in 1982, World Cup history is full of surprises .
Since the days of yore, when scouting was in its infancy and a nation’s football knowledge was limited to not far beyond its borders, the playing field has slowly leveled.
With more opportunities emerging outside the traditional football hotbeds in Europe and South America, more and more talented players are being produced around the world – no matter where they come from.
FIFA’s head of global football development, Arsène Wenger, said the group stage “reflected football’s increased competitiveness”.
“The result of the group stage shows to what extent more countries have acquired the tools to compete at the highest level,” said Wenger.
“This is the result of better preparation and analysis of the opponents, which also reflects more equal access to technology. It ties in well with FIFA’s efforts to increase the competitiveness of football on a global scale.”
Yes, the European and South American teams still produce the majority of the best players in the world.
But gone are the days of easy group stage walkovers, with tougher tests generally.
We probably won’t see a non-European or non-South American World Cup winner in Qatar, but who’s to say it can’t be in the near future?