10 biggest surprises of the FIFA World Cup
The 2018 FIFA World Cup has been one of the most enthralling and surprising tournaments in recent memory. That includes good surprises, like underdogs who weren’t expected to do much and players who are breaking out on the international stage. There are also bad surprises, which is inevitable when so many favorites crash out of the tournament early.
Here are the ten biggest surprises, both positive and negative, of this year’s World Cup.
A definite disappointment, Argentina never looked like a team likely of getting out of their group, much less winning the World Cup. They did so on a late goal against Nigeria, and they did lead France at one point in what was ultimately one of the tournament’s most entertaining games. Still, we expected much more from an Argentina side that still possessed a lot of attacking talent. Unfortunately, Jorge Sampaoli seemed to lose the team and didn’t get the best out of any of their players.
Sweden makes up for what they lack in talent with their teamwork and tactical ability, and it’s gotten them to the last eight of the World Cup. They lack standouts, but they have beaten very good teams. They deserved to beat Germany despite falling short, and their win over Mexico was also well-deserved. They ably handled a strong Switzerland team in their first knockout game, and while England ultimately ended their tournament run in the quarterfinals, it was an outstanding run that the country can be proud of.
This World Cup was supposed to be a breakout moment for Neymar. He’s come of age as a global superstar and had gotten healthy just for this moment, with Brazilians having dreams of their generational star carrying them all the way to their first World Cup in 16 years. Instead, it produced what the man himself called the saddest moment of his career. He scored only twice in five games and became more visible for his on-field histrionics than for his skill or accomplishments. Neymar undoubtedly comes away from the tournament with his image taking a bit of a hit. He has plenty of time to turn it around, but many will now think of his theatrics before his undoubted talent.
Expectation management was in full force for England ahead of the tournament. This was a young side with a favorable group, but that was about the extent of it. Now that they’ve ended up on the weaker half of the draw with the major contender for the title knocked out early, people are dreaming again. They’ve relied a lot on corners and penalties, but there is talent here, and they looked like a controlled, mature, and confident side in a convincing 2-0 win over Sweden that punched their ticket to the semi-finals. Getting this far is a huge accomplishment and their best World Cup performance in 28 years. A Croatia team that has played back-to-back 120-minute contests could ensure that the dream continues.
6) Robert Lewandowski
Lewandowski was expected to lead Poland to the knockout round and contribute to their status as a pre-tournament dark horse. His 16 goals during qualification counts as a European record. Despite that, he promptly failed to score at the World Cup in what was a very surprising lack of contribution. Lewandowski is one of the best strikers in the world, and he deserves those plaudits, which is why so much was expected of him at the World Cup. His inability to deliver was a huge disappointment.
Spain’s World Cup got off to a poor start when their national federation elected to fire Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament for taking the Real Madrid job and destabilizing the team. Perhaps they shouldn’t have. The pre-tournament favorite never looked right in the group stage, even though they topped the group, and then crashed out on penalties to a Russia team that had nowhere near as much talent. After a second consecutive disappointing World Cup, the nation that ruled world soccer between 2008 and 2012 will have a lot of questions to answer.
4) Harry Kane
Anyone who pays attention to Kane’s play at club level could have told you that he is a quality goalscorer, but nobody could have reasonably expected him to do what he has done on this stage. Kane’s six goals lead the field in Russia, even if half of them have come from the penalty spot. It can be fairly said that his scoring has dragged England to the last four. Nobody can dispute his credentials as a top forward now.
3) Lionel Messi
Messi scored just once at the World Cup, an excellent goal in the team’s final group stage match against Nigeria. He missed a penalty against Iceland and was kept off the scoresheet in Argentina’s 4-3 loss to France in the Round of 16. Much was expected of Messi at what could prove to be his final World Cup. Even if it isn’t, it was likely his final bow in the peak of his career, and it was wasted, leaving everyone wanting more but failing to deliver.
Saying Germany’s early exit came as a surprise is underselling it. The reigning World Cup winners had what looked like a deep and versatile squad, and were tipped as a favorite to win it again. That they didn’t get out of a group that featured Mexico, South Korea, and Sweden was a stunner. That they finished last in it is nothing short of shocking. They never even looked sharp, even in their lone win, so it wasn’t as if the three results were flukes. Their exit was deserved, and now, their future seems murky.
As hosts, Russia received automatic entry into the World Cup, which was good for them — there is a debate to be had over whether they’d have even qualified if they had to do so through the typical avenues. Even in their own country, it would be fair to say that getting out of the group was looked at as more of a dream than an expectation. They proved their credentials with two emphatic wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt, then stunned Spain on penalties in the knockout round. Even factoring in their home-field advantage, Russia was clearly the most surprising team to reach the quarterfinals. They managed to take Croatia all the way to penalties despite falling behind in extra time, and while they fell there, their resiliency throughout the tournament was unparalleled. For a team that wasn’t supposed to get to the knockout rounds, their run to the quarterfinals — and so nearly further — deserves to be praised. They belonged.