The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is right around the corner, and could excitement really be any higher? Thanks to the soaring summer temperatures in the Arab Gulf State – which can reach upwards of 40 degrees throughout the months of June and July – we will now be treated to our first ever winter World Cup. That will be a spectacle in itself, and while we’d all rather be watching in a packed beer garden with hundreds of raucous fans, a glass of mulled wine or two may have to suffice, just this once. France will enter the tournament as reigning champions, and Oddschecker, which compares odds and provides free offers on the World Cup, have made Les Bleus one of the favorites to retain the trophy they won so impressively in Moscow four years ago.
But Didier Deschamps’ men have an unenviable task ahead of them. No team has won consecutive World Cups, not since Brazil achieved the feat some sixty years ago back in 1958 and 1962. In fact, Kylian Mbappé and co. have a much more pressing matter at hand; avoiding the curse of the reigning champions. The last three teams who have arrived at football’s biggest party with the moniker of tournament holders have all perished in the group stages.
Italy went all the way in 2006, only to depart South Africa in 2010 without winning a game, finishing bottom of a group containing Slovakia, Paraguay and New Zealand. Spain would go on to win the first African-hosted tournament, only for them to lose to the Dutch and to Chile at Brazil 2014, guaranteeing their exit before even playing their third group game. And, after decimating the Seleção 7-1 on home turf, Germany would achieve glory in Brazil, defeating Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the final. Four years later, however, they lost to Mexico in their opening group game and, despite Toni Kroos’ last gasp winner against Sweden, couldn’t defeat South Korea in their final group game, losing 2-0 and finishing bottom of their group.
With all those footballing giants departing in the opening stanza, the door was left open for an underdog to surprise all of us and reach the latter stages of the tournament. Let’s take a look at the most impressive outsiders from the last three World Cups.
2010 – Uruguay – Fourth Place
As the 2010 event approached, Uruguay hadn’t even qualified for three of the previous four World Cups. And the one they did qualify for, they exited at the group stage, finishing behind Denmark and Senegal in the far east. But that poor run of form was all about to change in South Africa.
Led by Diego Forlan – whose brace had just secured Atletico Madrid the Europa League at the expense of Roy Hodgson’s Fulham – and supported by a young Luis Suarez, optimism was high in the camp of the two-time winners, and they did not disappoint.
France held them to a draw in their opening group game, but then the majestic Forlan put the Jabulani ball under his spell, with a double against the hosts securing a 3-0 victory. Suarez took over in the final group game, bagging the only goal as the South Americans defeated Mexico and topped Group A. More Suarez magic saw off South Korea in the second round, with his second a picture-perfect curling finish in a rain-soaked Port Elizabeth. But then, the controversy arose.
Ghana had been winning plaudits across the globe for their performances and secured a date with the Uruguayans at the quarter-final stage. The Black Stars were aiming to become the first African team in history to reach the final four of a FIFA World Cup, and it looked like they would do exactly that when Dominic Adiyiah nodded passed Fernando Muslera in the last minute of extra-time, only for Luis Suarez to club the ball away. The former Ajax-man received his marching orders only for Asamoah Gyan to sky the resulting penalty. Uruguay would go on to win the shootout and the world was left feeling like the West Africans had been robbed.
That was as good as it would get, however, but not without more wizardry from Forlan. His side would lose an epic semifinal to the Netherlands 3-2, and then lost the 3rd place play-off by the same scoreline, but the former Villareal striker netted wondergoals in both games, showing the world his class once more.
2014 – Costa Rica – Quarterfinals
When the draw for the 2014 World Cup was made, Costa Rica must have had a similar reaction to that of SK Slavia Prague when they were drawn against Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan in the UEFA Champions League. The Central Americans were drawn alongside three former winners in that year’s group of death; England, Italy and Uruguay.
Yet Costa Rica went into the tournament with no fear, and a second-half comeback stunned Uruguay in their opening group game. After Mario Balotelli and then Luis Suarez put England to the sword in the Three Lions’ opening two games, Costa Rica knew that victory over the Azzurri would secure their spot in the second round, against all odds. And Bryan Ruiz’s header on the brink of halftime did exactly that, sealing a 1-0 victory and passage to the second round.
There, the heroics of goalkeeper Keylor Navas would take over. Costa Rica’s last 16 tussle with Greece finished 1-1 and went all the way to penalties, and the former Real Madrid-stopper would save Theofanis Gekas’ shot to set up a quarter-final date with the Netherlands. Navas couldn’t repeat the trick though and, after a goalless draw, Costa Rica went on to lose on penalties thanks to Tim Krul’s antics.
2018 – Croatia – Runners-up
Just like many nations before them, Croatia’s golden generation looked set to be a failure. Consecutive group stage exits at Euro 2010 and the 2014 World Cup were much less than the Balkan nation expected. Croatia did reach the second round at Euro 2016 but, for a squad containing the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic, that too was considered a failure.
Four years ago that all changed. After comfortably seeing off Nigeria in their first group game, Croatia would send out a statement of intent, decimating Argentina 3-0, securing passage to the second round, and laying down a marker to the rest of the world.
From there, Croatia’s work ethic and desire was unmatched. In the round of 16 they defeated Denmark on penalties, despite Luka Modric missing deep into extra-time. Then, Croatia turned into the resident heartbreakers. First, they defeated hosts Russia, also on penalties. Then, they stopped football from coming home, defeating England in extra time after Mandzukic’s 116th-minute winner. The final would prove to be a step too far though, with a Kylian Mbappé-inspired France securing a 4-2 victory and sealing the trophy for a second time.