By Ben Morse, CNN
From early on in this World Cup, the traditional heavyweights of the game have been up against it.
Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina in what has been described as the biggest shock in the tournament’s long history. The 2022 World Cup truly kicked off at that moment.
In the following days, Morocco beat world No. 2 Belgium and Australia edged past Denmark to assure its qualification to the knockout stages in Qatar.
The epitome of the unpredictable group stage though came from Group E, in which Japan beat both Germany and Spain to top the group and Germany was sent packing, having struggled to beat Costa Rica — the Samurai Blue even found time to lose to Costa Rica, which had been defeated by Spain 7-0 in its opening match.
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 won all its group games — and the first since 1994.
So why have there been so many upsets at this year’s tournament?
A World Cup like no other
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 that’s been held in the middle of the traditional European football calendar.
Because of 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 little over a week’s preparation for what is international football’s premier competition.
As a result, the nations with players featuring in predominately one country thrived early on. Saudi Arabia — with not one player plying their trade outside of the country — and England looked well organized from the outset.
However, host Qatar, who also had every one of its players playing in the country, did not look so organized, becoming the worst ever World Cup host nation in terms of results.
On the other hand, squads with players in leagues from all corners of the globe struggled for cohesion in the early fixtures.
Argentina looked disjointed, Denmark lacked verve and Belgium looked sleepy as some of the bigger nations got off to slow starts as teams missed the usual extra time in early summer after many leagues conclude their seasons to fine tune tactical organization and camaraderie.
Meanwhile, the lack of preparation time meant that players were arriving in Qatar on the back of almost four months of grueling scheduling, with two games played a week for many.
Usually, players get almost a month to first rest, and then physically ramp up for the tournament, but this luxury was nonexistent this tournament.
This has resulted in a general lack of a explosiveness from some of the stars we’d expect to light up the tournament as well as injuries to many we’d have hoped to see grace the world stage.
The general lack of fitness has put an emphasis on managers’ ability to successfully use substitutes, with the introduction of fresh legs often a catalyst for change.
The recent increase from three to five substitutions permitted for teams has aided managers’ desires to change players and tactical systems when they want.
In Japan’s victories over Germany and Spain, manager Hajime Moriyasu added new faces to the team at precisely the right time — when their opponent was tiring — to provide the needed impetus to push for wins.
Although the lack of preparation has been a problem for all 32 teams, it’s been a leveling force for all, perhaps cracking open the door for some of those unfancied teams to compete with the traditional favorites.
For many of the bigger teams, you could correlate their surprising defeats to situational circumstances without taking anything anyway from the victorious nations.
Argentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia, in hindsight, looks more like a freak result. Saudi Arabia converted its two shots on target and Argentina had numerous goals ruled out for tight offside calls — given Messi and Co. won their next two games and Saudi Arabia lost its next two.
In the case of Belgium, the age profile of the team — which had been dubbed a “golden generation” — led some to believe that its window had passed.
In fact, the Red Devils’ star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said in an interview with the Guardian that his side had “no chance” to win the title because the players are “too old.”
De Bruyne’s comments reportedly led to a rift in Belgium’s dressing room, but — whether because of that division or because of flaws in the squad — he was eventually proven right as the European nation was dumped out in the group stage.
For Germany, its disappointing campaign is perhaps less of a surprise.
Aging stars — Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer and İlkay Gündoğan are 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.
Before every World Cup, a group is anointed the so-called “group of death” due to its tricky make-up. And in Group E — alongside Japan, Spain and Costa Rica — Germany just so happened to have been drawn into a tricky environment.
There is often talk that a World Cup has come too early or late for a squad. And in the case of Belgium and Germany, results in Qatar may have shown its roster was not best prepared for a tournament taking place in 2022.
The World Cup’s nature
Given the nature of the World Cup — teams thrown together in a tournament setting from across the globe — fans often see clashes which they’re not accustomed to.
And the same applies to players who, for their international teams, will be used to facing similar groups of players in their localized qualification systems.
But in a global World Cup, nationalities, regions and cultures are thrown together into a huge melting pot of color, noise and beautiful football.
This concoction has, over the 90 years of the World Cup, regularly led to shock results.
It’s part of the reason it is the peak of world football; seeing the biggest footballing nations humbled by teams they would normally expect to beat.
From the US 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 littered with surprises.
Leveling of the playing field?
Since the days of old when scouting was in its infancy and when a nation’s football knowledge was confined to not far beyond its borders, there has been a slow leveling of the playing field.
With more opportunities presenting themselves outside of the traditional footballing hotbeds in Europe and South America, more and more talented players are being produced around the world — no matter where they are from.
FIFA’s chief of global football development, Arsène Wenger, said the group stage “reflected football’s increased competitiveness.”
“The outcome of the group stage shows the extent to which more countries have acquired the tools to compete at the highest level,” former Arsenal boss Wenger said.
“This is the result of better preparation and analysis of the opponents, which is also a reflection of a more equal access to technology. It is very much in line with FIFA’s efforts to increase football’s competitiveness on a global scale.”
Yes, the European and South American teams still produce the majority of the world’s best players.
But gone are the days of easy group stage walkovers, with stiffer tests presented on the whole.
We’re probably not going to see a non-European or non-South American winner of the World Cup in Qatar, but who’s to say it couldn’t be coming in the near future?
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