When Qatar was picked to host the FIFA World Cup 2022, it was a massive surprise. It was in 2010 that the tiny Arab nation won the rights for the football’s premier event. Now, as the tournament is underway, there are more surprises, this time on the field.
If you look at the past 21 editions of the FIFA World Cup, the title winners are either from Europe or South America, with the dominance of the former. European teams have won the trophy 12 teams with Germany and Italy on top with four apiece. However, Brazil is the most successful team with five titles.
This year, the FIFA World Cup is being played in winter, and that too in Arab World, both firsts in the tournament’s history. As a host, Qatar got an automatic qualification and made its debut in the tournament.
Due to extreme weather conditions prevailing in the Middle East, the traditional June-July competition was moved to December.
In the cooler confines of Qatar, so far, the heavyweights of football, be it the Europeans or South Americans, are not having an easy ride on the field.
One of the biggest shocks in the football world was delivered by Saudi Arabia on November 22 when it stunned two-time champion Argentina 2-1. It was a result that was never expected. But Lionel Messi and his teammates were floored by Saudi Arabi’s attacking game and stout defending.
What Saudi Arabia did in the process of its famous win was to halt Argentina’s 36-match unbeaten run.
Portuguese legend Luis Figo, on Sports18, heaped praise on Saudi Arabian players’ commitment.
“I think this is what football is about, sport is about. In the beginning, nobody could say that this result would happen. But watching the game, it was not a surprise at all. I think we have to congratulate Saudi Arabia for its excellent work. All the players were very committed with the idea of the coach. They were very physical and surprised me that they could hold the game at this level. I am really surprised and just want to congratulate the spirit,” Figo said.
According to Saudi Arabia’s French coach Herve Renard, the key to the team’s win was not playing under pressure.
“This is football, sometimes totally crazy things can happen,” he said.
“Congratulations to these fantastic players. I decided to come to this country three and a half years ago and since this time I have had the management, an amazing president and the ministry of sport always behind us,” Renard was quoted as saying by Sky Sports.
“Even when we visit our prince two, three weeks ago he did not put any pressure on us. This is the way you have to work in football because when you are putting too much pressure it is not working all the time… we prepared very well and today all the stars in the sky were in the same line for us.” he added.
Another big upset was witnessed in Qatar when Asian powerhouse Japan handed a 2-1 defeat to four-time winner Germany.
South Korea too was on top of its game when it held Uruguay to a goalless draw. And on Friday (November 25), Iran overcame its big loss to England to defeat Wales 2-0.
Apart from the two upsets, the games so far in Qatar, barring at least three, have been well-fought. This is a clear indication of the growth of non-European teams that have prepared well for the big tournament.
Ghana put up a spirited display against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal before going down 3-2. And, there were Canada and Cameroon narrowly losing (1-0 margins) to Belgium and Switzerland.
What Mourinho said
One of the greatest football coaches, Jose Mourinho, acknowledged the growth of Asian football while commenting on Japan’s win over Germany and said it was not a “big surprise”.
“I didn’t see the game (Germany vs Japan), I was in bed, the television was on but I fell asleep, I was absolutely destroyed after the trip,” said Mourinho, who is now the coach of Italian Serie A club side Roma. “Congratulations to Japan, but it’s not such a big surprise, it’s a good team that is growing.”
Mourinho highlighted that European football focused only about individuals and “big egos” of them.
“I think at this moment in European football, there is a big focus on the individual, a big focus on egos, and when I look at your profile as people, your profile as country, I have never coached Japanese players, but I’ve coached Asian players.
“I’ve coached Asian players and I’m lucky because I’ve coached the best, they have the right mentality, so I think yesterday (Japan’s result) wasn’t a big surprise,” he explained.
Asian football’s ‘capability’
Japan’s coach Hajime Moriyasu too said Asian football was showing its capability on the world stage as he cited results of Saudi Arabia and Japan.
“Yes, I believe it is a historic moment, a historic victory, to say the least. If I’m thinking about the development of Japanese football, we’ve been building up. It’s a big surprise,” he said.
“We are reaching to the global standard – and also, we of course saw the Saudi Arabia surprise win. We are showing our capability from Asian football,” he added.
Japan ‘inspired’ by Saudi Arabia
Japan’s match-winning goalscorer Takuma Asano admitted that Saudi Arabia’s result inspired them.
“It is a dream come true. We knew we could do it; we had a dream like this. We watched the Saudi game and thought we can do it – then we just did it today,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
Though these are good signs to break the duopoly of Europe and South America at the World Cup, there is still a long way to go in the tournament in Qatar. But the future looks bright.
The next edition of the FIFA World Cup in 2026, to be jointly hosted by the US, Canada and Mexico, will see the participation of 48 teams. This means slots for Asia are set to be increased, from the current five.