The FIFA World Cup Football has never seen upsets of this order before as the 22 edition now being held in Qatar is witnessing. Only three teams ---England, Portugal and Brazil --- still remain unbeaten in the group stage. But there is no guarantee all of the three will do so. England is assured of remaining unconquered at the group stage but the other two still have a chance of joining the league of the more fancied teams which have gone down to the so-called minnows or unfancied competitor. (Four more matches are yet to be played before completion of this write-up).
When Argentina came to this World Cup with no loss at a stretch in 36 matches---only one fewer than Italy's record 37 ---who had the temerity to predict that the Albiceleste would lose to Saudi Arabia? Many were quick to recognise it as the greatest ever upset in World Cup Football history. Even if it is not the most surprising result of all, it surely is one of the most unthinkable ever.
Did the Saudi Arabia-Argentina match set the tone of this WC? Not exactly. If it had, how could England and Spain go on a rampage against their opponents? England humbled Iran 6-2 in their first encounter and Spain demolished Costa Rica 7-0. As if brands of football of different continents were yet to narrow the gaps between and among them! Injury-afflicted France also started with a bang with a score of 4-1 margin against Australia and only confirmed the notion of gap in football standards.
But lo and behold, Japan ---the apprentices in the words of their coach --- bring down their 'masters' Germany 2-1. Looked as if it was also an upset of the order of the Argentina-Saudi match. When Japan went down to Costa Rica--- the team that got 7-0 thrashing from Spain--- 1-0, the win of the land of sunrise against Germany looked more a fluke than a demonstration of its prowess. But what happened on Friday was the ultimate twist in the tail ---Japan not only defeated Spain but also topped the group with six points against Spain's four. Both teams proceeded to the nock-out round but Spain and Germany which beat Costa 4-2 had four points. Spain qualified on better goal average.
Similarly France, the reigning champion, marched to the round of 16 before all and emphatically with two wins but who could imagine that they would bite the dust against Tunisia? France and Australia from the D group qualified for the knock-out stage with equal 6.0 points but the champions held the top spot on better goal difference.
Germany's exit from the tournament may give the impression of a misfortune like Italy's failure to qualify for the WC when in fact the latter were the reigning European Champions. But even their reversals are no match for what Belgium has suffered. It is the end of a dream of that country's golden generation footballers. Ranked second in the world football, the team still boasts Kevin De Bruyne, the general of midfield, talented Eden Hazard but their departure was indeed a sad story.
It is still premature to guess which team will emerge as champion and how the stars will shine finally. But there is one thing that will hardly be disputed. It is the narrowing of gaps between and among teams of different continents. Football, after all, is unlike cricket where the unthinkable can happen anytime because of the nature of the game. Football at the highest level leaves no such room for wide uncertainty. Yet on a certain day, luck plays a part in deciding the fate of contending teams. This is exactly why Lionel Messi has stated on occasions that a touch of luck is also needed to win the football's ultimate trophy.
It is indeed gratifying to see that football teams from Africa and Asia this time show greater promise than they ever did. There is no harm to hope now that a team either from Africa or Asia will hold the trophy aloft in the near future. One African coach is convinced that a turn of a nation from that continent is round the corner. Indeed, it will be a justice to the game because the discrimination in this people's game is anachronistic. Let the psychological barrier before the footballers of the two continents crumble and the ultimate dream of glory come true.