The World Cup has been loaded with storylines. The biggest trend, however, have been the upsets. Here’s why it has made the tournament better.
The World Cup in Qatar is a little over one week old. There’s already been plenty of action and drama on the field, including a growing number of scoreless draws, some lopsided scores and a ridiculous number of stoppage time attached to the end of matches.
While those two trends are disturbing for the game, another one that’s been welcome are the upsets.
Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 shock win last week against Argentina set the tone. It has to rank among the top three upsets in tournament history. Even Lionel Messi fans had to smile at the sight of the Saudi players and their fans celebrating at the sound of the final whistle.
That was followed up with Japan’s 2-1 win against Germany, a four-time World Cup winner. Costa Rica, 7-0 losers to Spain in their opener, then went on to beat Japan 1-0. It was on Sunday that Belgium, a contender the past few editions and third-place finishers four years ago, lost to Tunisia 2-0.
World Cup upsets so far:
🇧🇪 Belgium 0-2 Morocco 🇲🇦
🇩🇪 Germany 1-2 Japan 🇯🇵
🇦🇷 Argentina 1-2 Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦 pic.twitter.com/g3xNEfXV6x
— World Cup Updates (@wc22updates) November 27, 2022
World Cup 2022: Upsets make the tournament better
This has made for a wide-open tournament and made the group stage competitive throughout its three matches. As of Monday, only France, the defending World Cup champions, had clinched a spot in the knockout round. Only two teams, host Qatar and Canada, had officially been eliminated.
It should be noted that the World Cup has only been won by an elite club of nations. Only eight countries (Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Uruguay, France and Spain) have ever lifted the trophy over its 92-year history.
That’s how hard it is to win this thing. It also shows how much tradition can matter in this sport.
Nonetheless, we haven’t had this many upsets since the Korea/Japan 2002 edition. It’s true that the final saw Brazil defeat Germany, but Turkey finished third at that tournament. South Korea, the co-hosts, ended up fourth, which remains the best finish by an Asian nation at the World Cup.
Upsets make the tournament more fun and less predictable. It gives neutrals, the vast majority of those watching, something to enjoy. It’s like when a Cinderella team makes a deep run during March Madness.
Michael Cox, writing in The Athletic on Sunday, made the opposite argument. This is what he wrote:
When there’s a highly dramatic group stage, with several favourites falling, the knockout stage tends to be underwhelming. World Cup 2002 is a good example. The two tournament favourites, France and Argentina, both crashed out in the group phase. Portugal did too, while Italy squeezed through their group but then lost in the second round. It was brilliant entertainment. Only four of the eight pre-tournament favorites reached the quarter-final stage — Brazil, England, Germany and Spain.
There were only two knockout clashes between those sides: Brazil 2-1 England in the quarter-final, and Brazil 2-0 Germany in the final. Significantly, those were also the only two of the seven knockout matches that featured more than one goal. The other five results, all involving an outsider, finished 1-0, 0-0, 1-0, 1-0 and 1-0. They weren’t walkovers, clearly, but they were characterised by the underdogs playing defensively. It was notable that Senegal, an unfancied side who became the neutral’s favourites, played overwhelmingly defensively in their quarter-final loss to Turkey. Afterwards, a couple of Senegal players lamented their team’s lack of belief. And you don’t want quarter-finalists who don’t truly believe.
Fear of defensive tactics is worth being aware of, but that isn’t the entire story. The 2002 edition, as noted, did feature two heavyweights in the final. What marred that tournament was bad officiating, something that doesn’t happen much anymore because of VAR.
Qatar 2022 is proof that entertaining soccer and upsets can co-exist. It has made for an unpredictable tournament. It’s also a sign of how much the rest of the planet has caught up with the mighty Europeans and South Americans.
It doesn’t mean we will see Senegal take on Japan in the final. The knockout stage has a way of lifting the stronger teams. After all, you need to go undefeated to lift the trophy. Cinderella teams can try, but it’s always teams like Brazil, Argentina and France that find a way to get to the big game.
Before then, just enjoy the upsets from the African and Asian nations. The group stage ends on Friday. Expect a few more Goliaths to suffer defeats between now and then.
It’s what makes sports fun. It’s also another reason why this unusual fall World Cup is must-see TV for billions across the world.