The Surprise Contenders of the World Cup

With the exhilarating 2022 World Cup now over, it is fascinating to return to our expectations and predictions before the first match had begun. Football fans often make rational predictions that take into account club performance, recent international competitions, and trends from previous World Cups. With cogent scrutiny, a couple of nations emerged as World Cup favorites, and many were anticipated to fall short. But football is irrational – this World Cup has proven that to us. True, the two finalists, France and Argentina, were always heavy favorites. However, this edition was rife with both extraordinary upsets in the group stage and incredible runs to the semifinals for teams few guessed would compete with football’s traditional powers. The success stories from the underdogs in this World Cup might symbolize a new direction for international football.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 win over Argentina was one of the biggest upsets not just in Qatar, but in World Cup history. Argentina entered the World Cup undefeated in its last 35 matches but unbelievably fell to the 51st ranked team in the world in its first match. Saudi Arabia’s win over the Albiceleste side was statistically the greatest upset in World Cup history, with Saudi Arabia’s chance of winning at only 8.7% to begin the match. This win can be explained by a match plan respected perfectly by the Saudi Arabia players and a beautiful motivational halftime speech by coach Hervé Renard. Renard has proven to be an excellent international coach after leading Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015 to win the African Cup. He became the first coach to win two African Cups with two different countries. Down 1-nil at halftime, his fiery speech (and its translation) uplifted the players’ spirits to come back stronger and more aggressive in the second half. That’s precisely what they did, scoring two goals against the eventual champions. Although they lost their next two matches and finished last in their group, and Argentina won the entire tournament, this Saudi Arabian group will be remembered for pulling off one of the most improbable victories in World Cup history. 


Another team that defied expectations was Japan. Japan had advanced to the last 16 in the past two World Cups but were placed this time in one of Qatar’s most daunting groups. The European titans of Spain and Germany were the clear favorites to knock out Japan, as well as Costa Rica. Yet, Japan started their campaign with a remarkable 2-1 upset over the Germans. Much like the Argentina-Saudi Arabia match, Germany was in front 1-nil at halftime but conceded two goals to the underdog in the second half. Japan had only 26% possession and four shots on target against nine for the Germans. Yet, goals from their two substitutes, Takuma Asano and Ritsu Doan, quickly changed the direction of the match. Japan lost its next match 1-nil against Costa Rica. This is in spite of the fact that Costa Rica had just one shot on target and 43% possession against Japan, and had lost 7-nil in its previous match to Spain. This group perfectly embodies the irrationality of international football.

Matches that appeared to be easy wins for top teams became some of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.

Before the last match day, Costa Rica and Japan each had three points, Spain had four, and Germany had one, meaning that any team could still qualify. Spain against Japan and Costa Rica against Germany were played at the same moment. The changes in the scores of the matches led the table to change to an astonishing nine times during the afternoon. Much like their match against Germany, Japan conceded one goal at halftime before scoring two goals after the break. This was due to Japan’s “super sub,” Ritsu Doan, who scored only two minutes after being subbed on, and Ao Tanaka, who scored three minutes after that. Against the Spanish, Japan only had 17% possession, proving to Spain that ball control does not necessarily lead to team success. In the other match, Costa Rica held a 2-1 lead against Germany for just three minutes. For those brief moments, Germany and Spain were both eliminated from the World Cup. If Costa Rica against Germany ended 2-1, two World Cup favorites and football powerhouses would have been eliminated – a monumental upset. Germany scored three more times and beat Costa Rica 4-2, but still finished third in the group. They had the same number of points as Spain, but a much lower goal difference. The Mannschaft won the entire tournament in 2014 but have not made it out of their group since then, a surprising disappointment. Japan, against nearly all predictions, topped the group.

South Korea

Another thrilling group stage sensation was South Korea. Many predicted Portugal and Uruguay to emerge from the group over Ghana and South Korea. South Korea drew in their first match against Uruguay and lost their second match against Ghana. South Korea was at the bottom of its group alongside Uruguay, both with only one point after two matches. Going into the last match, only Portugal was guaranteed to advance, but the other three teams could still qualify. It was Uruguay who seemed poised to join Portugal after scoring twice  against Ghana. South Korea, for their part, was tied with Portugal until the 91st minute. In added time Hee-chan Hwang scored the winning goal on a counterattack led by captain Heung-min Son. 

Football is irrational – this World Cup has proven that to us.

South Korea was now placed second, but would still be ousted if Uruguay scored again. The South Korean players had to wait impatiently on the pitch watching the Uruguay match against Ghana, praying the score would remain the same. Uruguay could not score again, sending South Korea to the next round. South Korea had the same number of points and goal difference as Uruguay, but had the tiebreaker of more goals scored in the group stage overall. This was an emotional victory for Heung-min Son, who had failed to qualify in Russia four years prior. By contrast, it was a poignant loss for Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, two world class strikers who have played for the best clubs in Europe. The two have carried Uruguay throughout the past decade, the nation that won the first ever World Cup in 1930. The duo are now both 35, and will be 39 in 2026. This will probably be Suarez and Cavani’s last World Cup, a closing page for this generation of Uruguayan football. South Korea qualified for the knockout stage for the first time since 2010. Although they lost 4-1 against Brazil, they were still able to miraculously qualify in extra time of their last group stage match. Truly a story for the history books.


Australia also had an unexpected run. They began their World Cup with a 4-1 defeat against France, yet responded with two consecutive wins over Tunisia and Denmark to advance to the knockout stage. Nearly everybody favored Denmark to top the group with France prior to the World Cup,. Australia, however, was able to advance to the last 16, where they lost 2-1 to Argentina. Australia put up an incredible fight and had one last huge chance to tie the match 2-2 with only 30 seconds remaining. The goal that would have sent the Socceroos into overtime was stopped by Emiliano Martinez. Nonetheless, Australia played a great match and showed a lot of strength and courage for a team whose intrinsic talent level is significantly less than that of Argentina. Australia started the match with strikers Jackson Irvine, who plays in the German division 2 league, and Mitch Duke, who plays in the Japanese league division 2. Yet, they still competed for 90 minutes with an Argentinian roster filled with players from top European clubs, and arguably the best player in the world, Lionel Messi.


The biggest surprise competitor of the World Cup is doubtlessly Morocco. In a group composed of Croatia, Canada and Belgium, an objective eye would have guessed that Croatia and Belgium would top the group. Croatia and Belgium finished second and third in the previous World Cup, respectively, whereas Morocco finished last in its group. Against the odds, Morocco drew against Croatia and defeated both Belgium and Canada. The craziest part of the entire tournament was their run in the knockout stage. In the round of 16, Morocco beat Spain on penalties after finishing overtime nil-nil. Yassine Bounou, the Moroccan goalkeeper, was fantastic in this penalty session, blocking two Spanish penalties. Morocco then faced Portugal in the quarterfinals. Portugal looked confident going into the match after they had smashed Switzerland 6-1. Morocco scored right before halftime and was then able to defend extremely well in the second half. One has to feel bad for Cristiano Ronaldo, aged 37, and arguably one of the best players in the world, who left the field in tears at the end of his probable last World Cup match. Morocco became the first African team to make it to the semifinals. Although they were eliminated by France and lost the match for third place to Croatia, their run will be cemented into football history. Morocco showed a mastery of defensive tactics: just one goal was scored against them until their semifinal match against France.


Even though Croatia had made it to the final in the previous World Cup, few thought they would make another run at the trophy. After defeating Japan, they toppled Brazil in the quarterfinals, unseating one of football’s preeminent juggernauts. With a beautiful Neymar goal in overtime, Brazil thought they had won with only five minutes left. The Croatians, however, are not known for giving up easily and were able to tie the match before winning on penalties. Football can be irrational: a small European country with less than four million inhabitants made it to the semifinals and eliminated one of the biggest favorites and the country with the most World Cups. Croatia not only outperformed expectations in this World Cup, but have been impressive on the world stage throughout recent decades. In the last seven World Cups, Croatia had finished third twice and as runners-up once. Their time to win a World Cup might come soon. 

Surprises in the World Cup have been numerous. Matches that appeared to be easy wins for top teams became some of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. The biggest surprise in this World Cup must be Morocco, who made it all the way to the semifinals and dethroned some of Europe’s strongest teams.

This is the first World Cup where three nations from the Asian Football Confederation have advanced to the knockout stage. Though neither Japan nor South Korea nor Australia made the quarterfinals, their success is still a historic event for Asian football. The surprising success of Asian teams, as well as Morocco, demonstrates the capacity for football’s less traditional powers to veritably challenge for a World Cup. Asia, Africa, or even North America might soon take the title from Europe and South America, the hegemons of football and the only winners of the World Cup.

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