When a debutante nation keeps the world’s greatest forward at bay, when the underdogs send the defending World Cup champions scrambling, when the grit of newcomers cannot be broken by the skill of legends... is it not then that World Cup football sees its best?
When David dribbles past Goliath.
When Goliath can’t break his defence.
When it’s David - 1 and Goliath - 0.
Five days into the World Cup, and look what we have already!
- Five-time champions Brazil with their samba halted at 1-1 by the Swiss.
- Defending champions Germany stunned to a 1-0 defeat by Mexico.
- And Lionel Messi’s Argentina held to a 1-1 draw by Iceland, a country with a population of less than 0.35 million.
Russia 2018, The Underdogs are here.
Hell, England won their opener against Tunisia too!
Jokes apart though, upsets have been the norm, and expected results the exception, in the opening week of this World Cup. To top it all, titleholders Germany are the latest to be battling against ‘the curse of the defending champions’.
Wondering what that is? Well, it’s the odd tendency of teams to crash out in the group stages of the tournament just four years after winning the World Cup.
Previous victims of ‘the curse’ include France (2002), Italy (2010) and Spain (2014). And already, Germany are showing symptoms of it this year!
But for a change, instead of discussing the teams getting upset, let’s talk about the teams that are doing all the heavy upsetting!
The total population of Iceland is 3,30,000. That’s less than three and a half lakh people. For context, as per India’s 2011 Census, the population of the city of Mumbai alone is over 1.2 crore (12 million).
1 Mumbai = 37 Icelands
Let that sink in for a second. Now think national.
1 India = 3,667 Icelands
Don’t worry, I’m not starting the tirade of “Agar Iceland kar sakta hai, toh hum kyun nahi”. That’s not even the point of this article. The statistics above are just to underline the awesomeness that is Iceland’s football team.
Visualise it this way.
Size matters? Clearly, not always. And I’m talking about size of country, not size of the players. Because nine players in Iceland's starting 11 against Argentina were 6-ft or taller! As someone joked on social media, “Going by how they outsized Argentina, it was hard calling Iceland the underdogs!”
Part-time Footballers, Full-time Inspiration
Iceland’s goalkeeper Hannes Thór Halldórsson worked as a film director. In his early days at Leiknir, the club he played for, there was no focus on teaching a goalkeeper what to do. So he would simply kick a ball into a wall next to the training ground and try to catch it.
Birkir Saevarsson, one of the defenders who kept the great Lionel Messi at bay in Iceland’s first ever World Cup match last weekend, works a day job packing salt into jars in a warehouse. Part-time salt packer, part-time Messi-stopper. How’s that for a CV, mate?
I’m not even making any of this up. Rubbing my eyes right now – this is the team that held two-time World Cup champions Argentina to an incredible 1-1 draw.
The Beauty of Underdog Triumphs
From Senegal in 2002 to Iceland in 2018, here’s a look back at some astonishing underdog stories from World Cups gone by.
Flashback 2002: A Dramatic Opening
In the opening match of the 2002 World Cup, defending champions France locked horns with a nation that had been a French colony till 1960.
World Cup debutantes Senegal had a score to settle.
Zinedine Zidane’s side had thrashed then four-time champions Brazil 3-0 just four years ago for France to lift their maiden World Cup. What’s more, the Frenchmen had won Euro 2000 too! So naturally, as the 2002 edition of the FIFA World Cup kicked off in Japan and South Korea, France were billed as one of the favourites.
Thierry Henry. Patrick Vieira. David Trezeguet. On paper, France looked formidable. But those in the stands that day at the Seoul World Cup Stadium had another thing coming. Senegal was about to make history on their World Cup debut. Incidentally, all of Senegal’s players played for French clubs!
When in the 31st minute, El Hadji Diouf sent the ball into the box, and Papa Bouba Diop scrambled to put it in, the celebrations were euphoric. Senegal held on for the remainder of the 90 minutes, and recorded one of World Cup football’s greatest upsets.
A goalless draw against Uruguay and a 2-0 loss to Denmark later, the French side were on the flight back home.
The defending champions of the World Cup and the holders of the European Football Championship had a solitary point to show at the end of three matches. And it was the newest entrant into World Cup football that had begun their collapse out of the Cup.
They drew 1-1 with Denmark. And 3-3 with Uruguay. Storming through to the Round of 16. There, they defeated Sweden. And broke into the quarters. They faced Turkey, and held them to a goalless 90 minutes.
In extra time, in the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Cup, Senegal finally succumbed as Turkish forward İlhan Mansız found the back of the net.
It was a dream run that came to a close, magnificent by any measure. Sixteen years later, the 2018 World Cup will be their first time at the event since then, and their second time ever. The squad has changed, the faces aren’t the same, but can Senegal recreate the magic they wreaked in Japan and South Korea?
When Slovakia Sent Italy Packing
Four years after their first-round exit, France were back, and Zidane was brilliant. The French were in the final again, eight years after their first World Cup victory. The 2006 final saw them face an Italian side led by the dogged defender Fabio Cannavaro.
A hundred and twenty minutes of football, an infamous headbutt, and a penalty shootout later, Italy called the World Cup their own for a fourth time.
But ‘the curse of the defending champions’ would not let them get anywhere close to the title in 2010. Between them and the Round of 16 stood Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. You would expect Italy to cruise through that group, right?
But a gritty New Zealand and an aggressive Slovakia had other plans. The Kiwis held Italy to a 1-1 draw and Slovakia beat the four-time champions 3-2.
The defending champions were out again. And yet again, it was the group stage that’s so often considered a formality by pundits and commentators.
Eight years later, New Zealand and Slovakia haven’t made it to the list of 32 playing the World Cup. Ironically enough, neither have Italy.
When La Roja Lost, and La Roja Won
There was a time when Spain could do no wrong. They won the Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. La Roja (The Red Ones) were unstoppable.
Their opening match in 2014 reversed the trend, and how. Spain were demolished by a flamboyant Netherlands side. At the end of 90 minutes, the scoreline read 5-1. Dutch stars Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben had scored a brace each.
Spain would have to win their two remaining games - against Chile and Australia - to survive.
But the La Roja wouldn’t be able to. The La Roja would stop them from doing so.
Confused? There are two international teams whose fans claim ownership over the term ‘La Roja’. Both wear their reds with pride. Spain, being the footballing giant that it is, is more widely associated with the title.
But on that fateful day in June 2014, exactly four years ago, the underdogs of the match would reclaim the title as their own. Chile would score twice to progress to the Round of 16, and send ‘the other La Roja’ back home.
Another defending champion had bitten the dust. Another titleholder had faltered at the group stage. And ‘the curse’ had become quite a phenomenon.
2018: The World Cup of The Underdog?
It's teams like Senegal, Slovakia and Chile that make the World Cup what it is. The tournament wouldn't be half as exciting without its underdogs and the upsets they cause. But what if one of 2018’s underdogs - Iceland, Mexico, Switzerland, Senegal, take your pick - what if one of them goes a step further than any underdog has gone before?
Remember, no one ever said Leicester City would win the Premier League. But they did. At odds of 5000:1. Today, the list of World Cup winning nations is a short one.
Brazil with 5, Italy and Germany with 4 each, Argentina and Uruguay with a couple each, that’s 17 World Cups just between these five nations.
The only other countries to win the Cup are England, France and Spain, each of whom have won it once each. And all three of these European countries are traditional football powerhouses.
So will 2018 break the mould and give us a new titleholder? Could this, possibly, possibly, be the World Cup of the underdog?
Can an Iceland defy every algorithm in this world and go on to win football’s most prized? Can a Mexico build a wall so strong that it lets no forward through? Can a Senegal bring the title to a continent that has never won it?
Stop yourself from saying no just yet. And give this beautiful, unpredictable game a chance. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll prove you wrong.