Ao Tanaka celebrates with teammates after scoring Japan’s second goal against Spain in Group E of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Doha, Qatar
Ao Tanaka celebrates with teammates after scoring Japan’s second goal against Spain in Group E of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Doha, QatarReuters

FIFA World Cup 2022: Frontrunners on the backfoot

Almost every title contender in the Premier League consists of an African in its ranks and that is saying enough about their footballing prowess.

NEW DELHI: It’s common knowledge that at any FIFA World Cup, teams from Asia and Africa are often portrayed in unflattering light.

Various degrading monikers such as also-rans, whipping boys, punching bags etc. are conferred upon them to ram home their struggling status on the global stage. However, judging by the events of the past two weeks at the ongoing quadrennial event in Qatar, the Asian and African participants have not only challenged the established order of the beautiful game, they have also gone a long way towards scripting their own fairytale wins that will forever remain part of sporting folklore.

Their gutsy display, coupled with meticulous planning and years of perseverance, has made a mockery of pre-tournament predictions with prohibitive favourites like Germany, Spain and Belgium biting the dust, or should we say grass, and making a dash for the exit with the proverbial tail between their legs.

Four-time champion Germany’s loss to ‘perennial’ backbenchers South Korea and Japan in two successive World Cups that resulted in its first-round elimination has also cast doubt on certain age-old aphorisms that we grew up thinking to be the gospel truth such as ‘lightning does not strike twice’.

Ao Tanaka celebrates with teammates after scoring Japan’s second goal against Spain in Group E of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Doha, Qatar
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The ruthless slaying of Germany by two unfancied opponents has merely buttressed the belief that not only will lightning strike at will, it will also steal the thunder of teams perched higher up the pecking order.

Worse still, another four-time winner, and Germany’s next-door neighbour, Italy had failed to qualify for two World Cups on the trot with one leading sports daily in Rome terming the failure as Apocalypse Now.

The Asian teams’ counterparts in Africa were hot on their heels causing monumental upsets of their own with Morocco sensationally prevailing over Belgium, the world’s second-ranked nation in the group stages.

If there were any sceptics who weren’t entirely convinced of Morocco’s might and dismissed it off as flash in the pan, the Atlas Lions, as their nickname goes, duly followed it up by accounting for an even bigger scalp in Spain that culminated in a thrilling penalty shootout victory in the Round of 16.

Cameroon, nicknamed the Indomitable Lions, came up with a lion-hearted performance to upstage the Samba boys from Brazil, although some of its gloss was taken off with Brazil resting nine of its first-choice players.

And rounding out the list of shocks and surprises, Senegal made it to the knockout stage for only the second time in its history and the fact that it made it that far in the absence of renowned striker Sadio Mane made it all the more admirable.

Ao Tanaka celebrates with teammates after scoring Japan’s second goal against Spain in Group E of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Doha, Qatar
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The African teams’ talent and credentials were never in question as just one perfunctory glance at the world’s most popular domestic football league will quell such misgivings, if there were any. Almost every title contender in the Premier League consists of an African in its ranks and that is saying enough about their footballing prowess.

This is fast turning out to be a World Cup where upsets are becoming the rule rather than the exception and maybe the time has arrived for us to stop describing their pyrotechnics as ‘upsets’ or giant-killing acts and instead take cognizance of the strides these countries have taken in their bid to keep pace with the world’s elite.

Backbenchers they may have been once, but at present they are determined to give the front-runners a run for their money.

As for the teams that have endured ignominy, well, they will have to grin and bear that the footballing boot is on the other foot.

Ao Tanaka celebrates with teammates after scoring Japan’s second goal against Spain in Group E of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Doha, Qatar
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