Recently, I had a cousin ask if there was a power shift in world soccer this year, noting that many World Cup results were out of the norm. Her observations are not wrong:
DRAWS and UPSETS
-Argentina (5th in FIFA Rankings) 1-1 Iceland (22nd)
-Mexico (15th) 1-0 Germany (1st)
-Brazil (2nd) 1-1 Switzerland (6th)
-Japan (61st) 2-1 Colombia (16th) (1st Asian nation ever to defeat a South American team at World Cup Finals.)
-Croatia (20th) 3-0 Argentina (5th).
-France (7th) 2-1 Australia (36th)
-Tunisia (21st) 1-2 England (12th)
-Uruguay (14th) 1-0 Saudi Arabia (67th)
-Iran (37th) 0-1 Spain (10th)
-France (7th) 0-1 Peru (11th)
-Germany (1st) 2-1 Sweden (24th)
Her first thought, and a reasonable one, is that there is a growing parity in world soccer, as lower tier teams keep getting better. To use an American example, we are no longer surprised to see a mid-major Gonzaga, Wichita St., Butler, etc. in the Final Four. In fact, it’s a point of discussion to pick the one mid-major that will advance that far. However, I think these odd World Cup results are the result of a few different factors.
The groups for World Cup Russia were drawn on December 1, 2017. The first game was played June 14, 2018. That gave teams six months to prepare for their first match. Theoretically, teams were still fine-tuning rosters, confirming travel arrangements, and handling other routine business, and they also were preparing for the other two group stage games. However, statistics show that teams that win their first match advance at an outrageously high percentage compared to teams that lose. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that teams spent most of the time preparing for the first game.
Iceland and Switzerland had the perfect game plans to neutralize Messi, Neymar, and the rest of those nations’ offensive talent. Mexico talked about how meticulous they prepared for Germany, and the benefit to controlling their group with the early win.
I think the top teams were all guilty of overconfidence after seeing their groups. Who out there wouldn’t have expected Argentina to advance? Or Spain and Portugal to escape their group? Even Germany and Brazil are not 100% safe.
In my mind, there is no other reason why the top teams aren’t scoring more, or at least dominating close victories. The overconfidence is evident when you see players attempting individual feats of brilliance rather than making the simple, safe pass. Overconfidence is evident when a team “flips the switch” and finally seems to come alive in the 70th or so minute. It’s in the goalies who look at their defenders with wonder when a ball goes in their net It’s in the faces of players who pass the ball to Neymar, Messi, Suarez and Cavani, or Pogba and Griezmann and wait for them do something amazing.
(Yes, this may seem counter-intuitive to the above point, but just remember that the top nation’s had six months’ preparation time, too.)
There are always unforeseen variables that can affect any team.Some teams may succumb to travel weariness. Red card suspension and yellow card accumulation can affect others. Injuries are always possible. Own goals have been in an abundance so far. Specifically, Argentina is mentally shaken, and several members of Sweden even got food poisoning! Is there some x-factor out there for the other tournament favorites yet to be reported?
There has definitely been a trend of odd results this World Cup. And the mid-major soccer nations are undoubtedly getting better. However, we’re only through half of the second round of group stage games. I fully expect the favorites coming into the World Cup to re-assert themselves and advance to the knock-out rounds. (Well, maybe not Argentina.)