Many football pundits attempt to pick a favorite early in the World Cup competition, but to predict a winner at the beginning of the month-long tournament may be a tricky proposition. Some teams have a slow start but mature as the competition progresses and become front-runners, while others quickly fall from grace.
Spain, which was touted by many to win this year’s Cup, was eliminated from the tournament during the group stage following a loss to Chile yesterday. Many times in World Cup history, teams have failed to live up to the hype bestowed upon them.
Let 1950 be a lesson for all. Brazil, the host country during that Cup, was seen as a favorite to take the title at the beginning of the competition. Before the final against Uruguay, the press, along with the whole country, declared Brazil world champion. But it was not to be. On the fateful night of July 16, 1950, in Rio de Janeiro, Alcides Ghiggia scored the winning goal and silenced the Maracaña. That evening, Uruguay won their second World Cup.
Two other teams that football aficionados romanticized early in previous competitions were Denmark in 1986 and Cameroon in 1990. The Indomitable Lions, as the Cameroonian squad was commonly referred to that year, displayed a magical style of play under the leadership of Roger Milla but were sent out of the competition by a solid England side in the quarter-finals. That year, many commentators were suggesting that Cameroon would be the first African country to win the Cup.
The 1986 Danish team’s style of play, which many compared to Dutch “Total Football,” became part of World Cup history and folklore. That great Danish team, led by Michael Laudrup and Elkjaer Larsen, shocked the world when they routed Uruguay (6–1) and West Germany (2–0) in the group stage but quickly exited the tournament, suffering a defeat by Spain (5–1) in the Round of 16. It all happened so fast that people didn’t have time to digest the beautiful football the Danes had displayed during their previous games.
And no one forgets what happened in the 1982 World Cup. That year, the football world was mesmerized by the Seleção Brasileira and their kamikaze-like attacking machine only to be shell-shocked when Italy’s Paolo Rossi scored three goals to send the Brazilians home. Tele Santana’s offense included some of the best players in the world at the time—Zico, Éder, Falcão and Sócrates—but wasn’t able to defeat the Italians’ rock-solid defense and ruthless counterattacks, masterminded by the great Enzo Bearzot. In fact, no one could have predicted that the Italians were going to win the Cup in 1982. They had a sluggish start in the first group phase, obtaining three meager draws that barely qualified them for the next round, but their game improved and matured as the competition moved into the final stages.
As the history of this year’s competition is still being written, we will just have to wait and see whether a dark horse will emerge as the winner or, better yet, whether or not the media favorite will come through. Currently, the Dutch are the team most pundits are talking about. But that could also change suddenly. Following the humiliation to which they subjected the Spanish team in their World Cup debut, they barely squeezed out a win against Australia yesterday. If the Australian goalkeeper hadn’t bungled the third goal by the Dutch, the match would have been a draw. Will this year’s Dutch team, led by offensive guru Louis van Gaal, eventually become a victim of the early hype experienced by Cameroon in 1990 and Denmark in 1986? The attention they’re receiving seems like less of a blessing when one takes a quick look at the history of the World Cup. It may or may not jinx them.
Ricardo Guerra is a journalist and blogger with degrees in political science, international relations, and physiology. His articles have appeared in several international publications in five different languages, and his writing covers topics related to medicine, science, sports, politics, and current events.