FIFA World Cups never fail to produce a combination of wonderful surprises and shocking failures – often in the same match.
From Uruguay’s shock victory over Brazil at the Maracana Stadium in 1950 to Spain’s extraordinary collapse against the Netherlands in 2014, the most prestigious tournament in international football has always confounded expectations.
Fortunately for some, and disastrously for others, this summer’s World Cup is no exception.
Here are four sides who fell a long way short of pre-tournament expectations – followed by four sides who far exceeded expectations.
1. Underachievers: Germany – Die Mannschaft Implode as Sweden & Mexico March on
Despite their indifferent run of form in friendlies prior to the World Cup, most observers expected the Germans to raise their game once the tournament had actually started.
Instead, the holders slumped to a deserved defeat against Mexico, looking vulnerable at the back and laboured and predictable up front. Yet when they scraped a last minute win over Sweden, courtesy of a brilliant Toni Kroos free kick, it looked as if the Germans were back on track.
They weren’t. Die Mannschaft were beaten 2-0 by South Korea, bowing out in the first round for the first time in 80 years.
2. Spain – La Furia Roja Run out of Ideas Against Stubborn Hosts
World football’s perennial underachievers were at it again in Russia. An impressive showing in a pulsating 3-3 draw with Portugal proved to be the high point of an underwhelming tournament for the Spanish.
After a deserved but disappointingly narrow win over Iran, Spain scraped an unconvincing draw with Morocco, who had already been eliminated from the tournament. Nevertheless, this was sufficient for La Roja to win a tight group – which earned them a last 16 clash with hosts Russia.
Even though the Russians were eminently beatable, Spain simply didn’t have the guile to unlock them, before losing on penalties.
3. Poland – Robert Lewandowski Fails to Shine as Dismal Poles Fall Apart
It’s impossible to overstate just how disappointing Poland were at this summer’s World Cup. They breezed through qualifying, they had one of Europe’s most lethal strikers in Robert Lewandowski, and they had talent throughout their side.
Yet, once the tournament had actually kicked off in Russia, the Poles offered nothing. Absolutely nothing. They didn’t even score a goal in their first two matches, and they gave Colombia’s talented midfield all the time and space they needed to demolish them.
The Poles’ 1-0 win over Japan in their final match was scant consolation for a desperately poor showing.
4. Argentina – Lionel Messi Cuts a Forlorn Figure as La Albiceleste Are Outclassed
Fourth place in the list of underachievers was a close battle between Argentina and Portugal, which Argentina narrowly shaded because of their dire 3-0 defeat to Croatia in the group stage.
One of the quirks of the current football era is that the two finest players in the world – and arguably in history – look increasingly likely to end their careers without a World Cup win. Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t save Portugal against Uruguay in the round of 16, and Lionel Messi fared no better against France.
It’s baffling that two sides with so much talent could deliver so little.
5. Overachievers: Croatia – Luka Modric Inspires Dark Horses in Shock Run to First World Cup Final
Few expected Croatia to make a huge impact in Russia before the tournament. They only qualified via a playoff against Greece and hadn’t excelled at a World Cup since 1998, when they finished third.
Admittedly, they did have Luka Modric, one of the best midfielders in the world, but could he really inspire a respected but unfancied side to reach a World Cup final?
Well, unfortunately for England, it turned out that he could – although his teammates were also outstanding in their semi-final win over the Three Lions.
He may yet inspire Croatia to even greater glory on Sunday.
6. England – Young Lions Roar Their Way to First World Cup Semi-Final Since 1990
The naysayers will no doubt point out the following:
1. England had a kind draw in the group stage.
2. Colombia missed James Rodriguez but still took England to penalties.
3. Sweden weren’t the toughest quarter-final opponents England could have faced.
4. The Three Lions faded badly in the second half against Croatia, who should already have been put to bed.
This is all true – and completely irrelevant. Until the second half against Croatia, this was England’s most impressive showing at a World Cup since 1990, far exceeding pre-tournament expectations. The Three Lions did themselves and their country proud.
7. Russia – Hosts Make a Mockery of Their Lowly Ranking to Upset Spain & Push Croatia to the Limit
After a feeble showing in the 2016 European Championship, few would have expected Russia to excel at their own World Cup in 2018.
However, after two years of largely uninspiring results, the hosts hit the ground running with emphatic group stage wins over Saudi Arabia and Egypt. After a sobering 3-0 defeat against Uruguay, Russia stunned Spain on penalties in the round of 16.
Their quarter-final with Croatia also went to a shootout – which they lost. Nevertheless, given that many had expected Russia to crash out in the group stage, even reaching the last eight was an exceptional achievement.
8. Japan – Samurai Blue Stun Colombia & Give Belgium the Fright of Their Lives
As with the underachievers, fourth place in the overachievers’ list is also a tough call. Sweden and Mexico were both compelling candidates, having eliminated Germany.
Ultimately, however, it’s impossible to leave Japan out of this list. Few would have expected them to survive a potentially tough group including Colombia, Senegal and Poland.
Yet the Samurai Blue not only beat Colombia 2-1 and squeezed into the last 16. They also came tantalisingly close to their first World Cup quarter-final after taking a 2-0 lead against Belgium – only for the Red Devils to mount a stunning fightback and knock them out.