World Cup shocks: Do group stage surprises make for a less entertaining tournament?

The opening week of the 2022 World Cup was a mixed bag and difficult to characterize as a whole.

A worrying number of runs have ended in goalless draws, and there have been a couple of knocks by England and Spain. But two real surprises that have never been forgotten, both are similar in nature. Saudi Arabia and Japan lost 2-1 to Argentina and Germany respectively and both trailed 1-0 at half-time. Both are undoubtedly the most famous World Cup victories in the history of the two nations.

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All of this inevitably led to a debate about the biggest concussions of all time at the World Cup. The usual candidates spring to mind – Senegal against France in 2002, Cameron against Argentina in 1990, USA against England in 1950. But perhaps there’s a broader question that should be asked: Are multiple concussions really good for a tournament?

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Soccer, and the World Cup more generally, is built for shocks. Football’s status as the lowest-scoring sport means that quality doesn’t necessarily translate into good results. Of course we’ve always known that, but we can find that both Saudi Arabia and Japan actually ‘lost’ in terms of xG in the expected target era – but that shouldn’t take anything away from their performance. Neither Argentina nor Germany will get a single player into the starting XI – perhaps you could make an argument for a Japanese defender – and by reducing the xG difference between the sides, they gave themselves a chance to upset.

Japan defied the odds to come from behind against Germany (Image: Getty)

The knockout phase, by its very nature, allows for concussions. But even the group stages are played in a short span of three matches, and we draw great conclusions from that. It is worth considering what club football would look like if the main competition was decided within three games. Arsenal, who are currently leading the Premier League, started last season with three consecutive defeats.

However, three matches qualify for the World Cup group stage. It allows a big side to be beaten once by an outsider without definitively eliminating them from the competition. For example, it allowed Spain to recover from a 1-0 loss against Switzerland in their first match at the 2010 World Cup, eventually winning the match. It’s good for us as moderates because, after all, the knockout stages are ideal when the pre-tournament favorites play each other.

If that sounds harsh to the underdog, it’s worth remembering that shocks usually come in two different forms. Either way the underdog’s win is a bit lucky considering their performance, and they’ve defied the xG gods. In this case, the result is very unlikely for future classics.

Alternatively, it’s a park-the-bus job, and while a clash of styles can be interesting, you usually don’t want two defenses playing each other in the knockout rounds.

Alas, it is rare for an underdog to win by outright beating a favorite. The best example of such a match is Canada’s excellent performance against Belgium in this tournament which somehow led to defeat. Somehow, big sides often manage to find a way.

The knockout stage is low-key, with a very dramatic group stage, where several favorites fall. The 2002 World Cup is a good example. The two tournament favourites, France and Argentina, were both knocked out in the group stage. Portugal did the same, while Italy squeezed out of their group and then lost in the second round. It was great entertainment. Only four of the eight pre-tournament favorites – Brazil, England, Germany and Spain – have reached the quarter-finals.

Senegal’s win over France was one of many shocks in 2002 (Image: Getty)

There were knockout clashes between those sides: Brazil 2–1 England in the quarter-finals and Brazil 2–0 Germany in the final. Notably, those were the only two of the seven knockout games to feature more than one goal. The other five results, involving an away team, ended 1-0, 0-0, 1-0, 1-0 and 1-0. They were clearly not walkers, but they were characterized by weak players who played defensively. Senegal, favorites of the neutrals, were conspicuously defensive in their quarter-final loss to Turkey. Afterwards, several Senegalese players bemoaned their team’s lack of confidence. And you really don’t want quarter-finalists who don’t believe.

The opposite of the 2006 World Cup. Do you remember much about the group stage? Maybe not. Of the nine most fancied sides, seven made the last eight. The two exceptions were Spain and the Netherlands, who were knocked out by fellow favorites in the second round. True, maybe it was a little predictable. But since then, Argentina somehow failed to beat Germany despite their talented squad, we had Zinedine Zidane against Brazil, we had Fabio Grosso’s curler against Germany, we had a final involving unparalleled drama.

The irregular nature of international football means it is a different situation to the club game. The constant competition between Europe’s elite makes the Champions League boring and repetitive, and there’s nothing better than a team like Villarreal fighting their way to the quarter-finals, providing a good story and saving us from a competition we’ve seen too many of. An earlier time. But internationally, we only get one opportunity every two years to see the big European sides face each other, and Argentina and Brazil only get one every four to face Europe’s best. The Giants’ early exit provides short-term excitement, but then things become compromised.

Ultimately, it’s about performance. No one has an automatic right to go through it. Belgium, for example, were lucky to beat Canada and lost to Morocco. If a great nation is self-destructing because of its own incompetence, we are better off with a united weakling. If someone is actually capable of doing a 1992 Denmark, that would be great. But the World Cup classics come when the big boys face off. It’s great to suffer shock defeats like Argentina and Germany – but I’d love to see Leo Messi and Manuel Neuer one last time.

(Artwork: Sam Richardson, Getty Images)


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