The 2014 edition of the FIFA World Cup would make an excellent TV show. As any good narrative does, it started by luring the viewer into a false sense of confidence. After spending the past year hearing about players, teams and formations most were convinced they had some kind of idea as to how the story would evolve. The first act was executed perfectly, with Brazil winning 3-1 and tournament poster child, Neymar, scoring a pair of goals, it stuck to the script religiously.
Then, on the second day of filming, just when everyone thought they had the script figured out, the entire tournament got turned on its head. One of the main storylines in the build up to the tournament was whether or not this was the swansong for the era of Spanish domination. With an aging roster, few expected Spain to win their second straight World Cup, and fourth straight major tournament.
But even fewer still expected them to lose any match at this tournament by a scoreline of 5-1, no matter who was standing on the other side of the pitch. It turned out to be the Dutch who pulled off the improbable, a side who most thought they had pinned as an underachiever. Even despite the warning call Spain seemed poised to recover and still be a major force in Brazil 2014.
That is until yesterday, only a couple of hours after yet another major upset almost got orchestrated by the Australians over the very Dutch that had put the first wound in the Spanish. Spain looked mighty comfortable with their backs against the wall, and not in a good way. In a stunning 2-0 loss to Chile that eliminated the defending champs after matches they looked like they had grown comfortable leaning on the wall of elimination, and didn’t have the urge to push themselves off it.
While they are the biggest “outlier” from expectations so far this tournament, the Spanish are far from exception in a World Cup where unpredictable has become the new normal. After playing just one match, both Uruguay and Portugal have major uphill battles ahead of them if they want to reach a knockout round that is the minimum expectation for either. Those are simply the headliners of the growing base of surprising results that is increasing almost on the daily.
Why the unpredictability? It would be impossible to ignore the “advantage of the Americas” that has been talked about so heavily in this tournament. So far, teams from North and South America have a record of 8-3-1 and this tournament while Europe is a mere 8-7-1. It has been teams from the Americas providing the surprises as well: the aforementioned Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico to name three.
The other conclusion, and the one that is more favourable for the sport itself, is that the globalization of soccer continues to evolve in a positive direction. Parity within the tournament is starting to become more and more common, making the tournament less and less predictable. This all translates into a higher level of entertainment value.
Globalization can be seen in the breaking down of barriers, as skill is now weighed over passport in the club edition of the sport. An example of this is Real Madrid, who had only four players, three of them Argentine, on their 23 man roster when they won their first European Cup in 1955-56. When they claimed La Decima earlier this year, they did so with players from France, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Croatia, and even Wales. On a macro level, since 1992 players from over 100 different countries have played in the English Premier League.
The internet age has also helped to bridge the talent gap in world football. Teams from all over the world now have an incredible amount of technological resources and funding at their disposal which helps them perfectly prepare to despatch their opponent in any condition. Tactics and strategies can now easily be identified and countered. Players also all now have a high level of fitness, which means the physical abilities of teams now make less of a difference.
Will this frequency of surprise results continue at the tournament? Most certainly. They will likely not be to the same magnitude, as it is hard to beat an early exit of the defending champions, but they will still cause jaws to drop. Now every match seems to be asterisked with a certain degree of uncertainty as the same individuals who had their tournament completely predicted for months want to be the first to foresee the next upset.
The 2014 World Cup has not gone as planned in the best way possible. Plan B will continue to be complex, unpredictable and improbable as it unfolds, all the way to its thrilling conclusion.
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