Every team has now played at least one match at the FIFA World Cup, and an unusual trend has emerged. In 2014, eventual champions Germany made a statement early by beating Portugal 4-0. But so far, none of the big teams have stamped their authority on this summer’s tournament. The title seems to be anyone’s for the taking.
The results haven’t been good for the teams with the greatest expectations over the first week: Germany lost to Mexico, Colombia fell to Japan, Brazil and Spain were held to draws, and Argentina tied Iceland before being blown out today by Croatia.
Even the favorites that have won have done so unconvincingly. France has won twice but struggled in both games, while Portugal, Uruguay, and Spain all barely squeaked past opponents that were thought to be far inferior to them in their second matches. But why are so many favorites underperforming?
The gap between world soccer’s traditional powers and the so-called “middle-tier” soccer nations has decreased over the last decade as more players from those countries made their way to Europe’s top leagues. Ten of the 11 Croatian starters in the side’s victory over Argentina play their club soccer in one of the “Big Five” leagues. Eight of the 11 players who started for Senegal in their surprise win over Poland ply their trade in those same leagues.
Though these are upsets, they are not as shocking as they appear. It’s clear that the overall quality of global soccer has improved as the forces of globalization have allowed an increasing number of players to leave their home countries and gain experience in the world’s most competitive leagues.
That pattern is impacting everyone, but each of the heavyweights is certainly facing its own internal issues. Argentina has been the most disappointing. They were runners-up in 2014, and were tipped by many to go all the way this time around for what is likely Lionel Messi’s last opportunity to win an international trophy. After two matches, there’s a good chance they won’t even make it out of their group.
Argentina has plenty of world-class talent not named Messi on its roster. Forward Sergio Aguero and center back Nicolas Otamendi both play for Manchester City, who were one of the most dominant teams in English Premier League history last season. Attackers Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala are regular starters for Italian powerhouse Juventus.
On the pitch, Argentina has looked like a collection of individuals rather than a cohesive team. Manager Jorge Sampaoli has failed to create a squad that is more than the sum of its parts, and they have been exposed by less-talented but hungrier opponents. It feels like this team doesn’t have an established identity to fall back on when things start to go wrong. Sampaoli constantly varies the lineup and the formation in the hopes that something will stick, or that Messi will be brilliant enough to win a game on his own.
These problems didn’t just start – they were evident in South American qualifying, where Argentina clinched its spot at the World Cup by only a single point. However, it isn’t too late to turn things around. Though they need results to go their way in other matches, if Argentina were to somehow fix their issues and make it to the knockout rounds they are capable of competing with anyone when at their best.
The other slumbering giants have time to bounce back as well, like other slow starters have done in the past. The commonly-cited example is Spain losing their 2010 World Cup opener to Switzerland before winning it all, but there are other instances. Germany drew 2-2 draw with Ghana in 2014, and needed extra time to overcome Algeria in the Round of 16. In 2006, Italy tied the U.S. in the group stage and were nearly upset by Australia in the knockout rounds.
The nature of the performances is as worrying for these nations as the results themselves. Germany and Brazil in particular looked pedestrian, complacently knocking the ball about and lacking invention. Both teams need to speed up the tempo of their passing and movement off the ball, and take more risks going forward against opponents that are set up to sit deep and defend.
The second round of World Cup group stage matches continues this week on FOX 43. Brazil are the next favorite with a chance to right the ship in a Group E showdown against Costa Rica on Friday.