The 2022 World Cup is now over, but it has, unquestionably, delivered some of the most astonishing results ever recorded during football’s greatest showpiece. With the dust now settled in the Middle East, inquisitions will now begin as to why this was the case and whether this trend could potentially spread into the domestic leagues around the world.
In particular, all eyes will be on the Premier League when it resumes and whether an upset could be on the cards during the 2022/2023 title race. The latest football odds do, of course, price Manchester City as just 2/5 to win their third league title in a row, but following the shockwaves that the unprecedented winter World Cup has sent through the footballing world, there is a growing feeling that all may not go as once expected.
Still, these odds and the upcoming title showdown in England don’t answer the question on everyone’s lips: what was the catalyst behind the status quo of world football being turned on its head in Qatar? First, let’s look back at some of the greatest shocks in the desert to get a better idea of what could have been behind the resurgence of the underdog in world football.
Drink it in, Casablanca…
Going back and at the top of this extraordinary list of upsets in Qatar is undoubtedly Morocco’s journey which saw the country reach the semi-finals before losing to France. Nevertheless, reaching the last four is a historic first for any country from Africa since the World Cup began in 1930.
In short, it was a spine-tingling run from the Moroccans that has secured this team’s legacy but perhaps more significantly, proved that a hard-working team can beat a technically superior one.
Brains and brawn
It should be stressed that this isn’t in any way suggesting that the Moroccans were without a strategy in Qatar because they most certainly did have one. Indeed, head coach Walid Regragui proved himself to be one of the most astute managers at the World Cup and this was especially evident during the quarterfinal win against Portugal when Morocco effectively nullified the attacking threat from wide spaces that Fernando Santos’ side had become famous for.
However, it takes an incredibly fit team to execute their plans when competing against players of a higher technical ability. In other words, every well-thought-out plan has to be backed up by unwavering levels of physical commitment. Morocco proved this theory once more against Spain when they were able to take the game to penalties after 120 minutes, and then win the shootout owing to having higher energy levels after an exhausting tie which took its toll both physically and mentally. Crucially, having clarity of thought during penalty shootouts is key to progressing in the knockout rounds of any major tournament. Essentially, an exhausted body normally means an exhausted mind which often leads to players being unable to stand up to the psychological demands of a shootout owing to the overall fatigue they’re experiencing at the time.
Marcelo Brozovic has covered more ground in against Japan than any player in a World Cup match since records began, beating his own record from 2018:
🥇 Marcelo Brozovic – 16.7km vs. Japan 2022
🥈 Marcelo Brozovic – 16.3km vs. England 2018
Workhorse. 🇭🇷 pic.twitter.com/eT5yboiwML
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) December 5, 2022
Croatia run Brazil out of town
Croatia was the next team at the World Cup to show how beneficial it is to be able to withstand 120 minutes of grueling football before having the presence of mind to win a penalty shootout. On this occasion, Zlatko Dalic’s charges successfully beat pre-tournament favourites Brazil and in doing so, marched on to the semi-finals of the World Cup where they would lose to eventual champions Argentina.
The above case studies of Morocco and Croatia offer us insight into the benefits of being able to go above and beyond physically in the knockout rounds but tellingly, it’s not just the all-or-nothing stages where shock results have been influenced by better fitness levels given that an exceptionally well-drilled Japan team were able to beat Germany in the group stages. On that occasion, it was Takuma Asano who popped up with the winning goal in the 83rd minute of the game after getting to the ball first before a German defence that was visibly tired.
Continuing with this trend, who can forget what the hardworking Saudi Arabians did to the 2022 champions Argentina in the group stages when they recorded a famous 2-1 win?
Only one man scored a winning goal against Argentina 🇸🇦🚀 pic.twitter.com/g6SxjoXBNp
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) December 21, 2022
Yes, the Saudis coped better in warm conditions they have grown accustomed to in the Middle East but they also never stopped working off the ball which meant that the likes of Lionel Messi were ruled out of the contest.
The future belongs to those who are the fittest
The above examples are a hair-raising reminder of how fit teams are seemingly able to overcome greater opposition. Needless to say, this is a World Cup that will never be forgotten with a new trend in global football likely to sway results in the future.