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The ‘underdogs’ take the World Cup by storm

While one team faces unexpected struggles, another may find unexpected success

Published: Updated:

Many surprising events have already taken place in this year’s World Cup. As we know, Spain was buried at the legendary Maracaña, and after three matches, the English team went home with one meager point. Moreover, two-time world champion Uruguay, representing a small but proud nation of less than 4 million people, eliminated four-time world champion Italy and advanced to the next round after a valiant 1–0 victory.

Undoubtedly, Spain’s premature elimination has been the biggest surprise in Brazil so far. No one could have predicted that Spain would be out of the tournament even before the last round of matches in the group phase. Many possible explanations for Spain’s failure have been raised. Some have argued that the team was in need of an influx of younger players. Others have offered strategy and tactical elements as reasons for Spain’s demise. A few have placed blame on lack of adequate fitness or even the absence of Spain’s leader, Puyol, in the pitch. In fact, a combination of or even all of these elements could have potentially played a part in Spain’s early elimination.

Also read: Algeria restores Arab pride at the World Cup

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the team’s psychological state during preparation was not at its best. After the defeat by Chile, veteran player Xabi Alonso told media outlets that the Spanish team was not mentally ready for the tournament. It now is evident that the crushing defeat the Spanish team suffered in their first match broke their will. Consequently, they were unable to lick their wounds and recover in time for the match against Chile.

It’s plausible that Spain, having tasted glory when they won the last World Cup and back-to-back European competitions, lost the hunger to win again. The ability to rekindle the drive to conquer a new challenge—winning another World Cup title—was no longer present in this year’s team. For those who have been to the mountaintop, there is a risk of becoming too comfortable with the luxuries and recognition that come with winning the greatest prize in the sport. There is a real danger of becoming complacent.

As the leader, the head coach should be a motivational force for his players and has the responsibility to prevent complacency by establishing new goals following every major victory. The ability to create the spark that will light up a team is important. Of all the elements that make or break a team, it may be this one that Del Bosque lacked. Some coaches may be brilliant tacticians and strategists but not necessarily great motivators, and vice versa. Only a few are gifted enough to superbly possess both abilities in equal measure. However, it takes a certain charisma to fire up a group of players—the charisma that one can observe in the likes of Chile’s energetic Jorge Sampaoli and Mexico’s Miguel Herrera. That type of vitality in a coach can be contagious and inspirational, leading a group of men to greater accomplishments in international competition.

Unexpected success

While one team faces unexpected struggles, another may find unexpected success. In this year’s tournament, some unlikely teams have shown the hunger to win that Spain felt in the not-so-distant past.

The vibrant Costa Rican team qualified for the Round of 16 even before the last match of the group stage. They will face Greece, who shockingly beat the Ivory Coast with an injury-time goal. Colombia, led by the Argentinian José Pékerman, clinched the number one spot in their group to advance to the next round. Moreover, the psychologically resilient United States team, made up of a selfless group of players characterized by a hard-nosed, blue-collar work ethic, has doggedly defied the odds by beating Ghana and coming close to doing the same against Portugal. They need only a draw against Germany today to continue in the competition. Algeria, a team that showed some inconsistencies in match play but nevertheless possesses some talented players, is looking to qualify this afternoon when they face the still alive Russian squad led by Fabio Capello. Finally, Belgium’s tactically organized and consistent play is also somewhat of a surprise in this year’s World Cup.

It may be premature to make any major projections about who is going to win the Cup, especially when unpredictability has been the norm this year. Usually, one of a select group of elite teams wins the prize, but this year could be the year of the underdog—the team that wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Maybe a new country will join the select group of nations that have had the privilege of winning the World Cup. If that happens, the football world order could be completely turned upside down.


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Ricardo Guerra is a journalist and blogger. 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.