The World Cup minnows arrive in Russia with little hope of upstaging the giants of Europe and South America but hope springs eternal, writes WADE PRETORIUS in SoccerClub magazine.
The world’s lower-ranked sides have long struggled to find a place at the main table at the quadrennial spectacular, with the last three World Cups featuring semi-finalists like Germany (three times), Netherlands (2), Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Uruguay, Portugal, Italy and France.
One could make a strong case for an argument that Uruguay, winners in 1930 and 1950, are not world dominators, but they have enough stock to rule them out as ‘minnows’.
2018 might just be the year of the underdog, as the World Cup draw has been kind to the ‘lesser’ nations – offering them a manageable path beyond the group stage.
The upside of competition football is that rankings matter little and no side will hope that rings true more than hosts Russia, who were lowest on the Fifa rankings when the draw was conducted. That ranking, combined with their status as hosts, has given them a fair shot at advancing to the round of 16 with Saudi Arabia, now lowest ranked, and Egypt joining Uruguay in Group A.
Russia are expected to be far more competitive with Stanislav Cherchesov in charge after finishing bottom of their European Championships group in 2016 and third in the Fifa Confederations Cup last year.
A successful World Cup often goes hand in hand with the progress of the hosts and Fifa will be anxious to see how Mo Salah performs against Russia. The Liverpool star has the world at his feet and could help write his own fairytale by guiding Egypt to the next round. It’s likely, though, that either Spain or Portugal will be up next to spoil any lofty goals.
Group C offers Australia, Peru and Denmark the chance to progress with France, while Nigeria will fancy getting past the group phase alongside Argentina. Senegal’s Lions of Terenga could help make 2018 a memorable one should they fend off Poland, Colombia and Japan in the competition’s most open group.
African sides have enough examples of past success, despite inferior rankings, but 2018 could be the Scandinavians’ time, with Iceland making their debut off the back of their European Championship run. They join Sweden and Denmark in the hunt for a place beyond the group phase.
Beyond the group phase anything can happen – and it usually does. We’ve seen it before and now we, and millions of fans around the globe, wait to see it again
Players like Keylor Navas (Costa Rica) (right), Hirving Lozano (Mexico) and Sardar Azmoun (Iran) are but three players who will be desperate to put on a good show in Russia as they look to secure their playing futures. Navas is likely to be moved on by Real Madrid, while Lozano and Azmoun are looking for their first blockbuster move.
The World Cup has acted as the launchpad for the careers of players like Javier Hernandez, James Rodriguez and Mesut Ozil, as scouts from around the world come in search of the next bright talent capable of handling the pressures of the global spotlight.
– This article first appeared in the June issue of SoccerClub magazine
Photo: EPA/CHRISTIAN BRUNA
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