A FIFA World Cup™ group stage tends to be fertile ground for surprises. Call them minnows, outsiders or underdogs, but teams unused to gracing the global showcase come determined to prove their worth and, every now and again, manage to leave the most prestigious sides on the planet licking their wounds.
That was undeniably the case in the opening match at Italy 1990, when Diego Maradona and then holders Argentina were unexpectedly turned over by Cameroon. Korea/Japan 2002 is now fondly recalled for being closely associated with upsets as both Turkey and Korea Republic reached the semi-finals, and South Africa 2010 has no reason to be envious of those past competitions in terms of group-stage shocks.
Back home already, for example, are Italy, still coming to terms with becoming only the fourth defending champions to stumble at the first hurdle. The Squadra Azzurra failed to record a single victory for the very first time, and their record of two draws and a loss will enter the history books as their worst at this level. They also shipped five goals in three outings, compared to just two in seven en route to glory at Germany 2006.
The experience was not an altogether new one for La Nazionale, as they likewise relinquished their crown in 1950 after lifting the Trophy in 1938. Brazil will know how they feel too, having suffered a group-stage exit in 1966, four years on from their second title, while France were sent packing following three games in 2002. Roger Lemerre’s troops also set the sorry record of being the only reigning champions unable to notch a single goal.
Like Italy, Les Bleus will be watching the rest of the tournament from home as South Africa 2010 became the first edition in which both the holders and the runners-up were eliminated before the knockout phase. Beaten finalists in 2006, France collected just one point this time around, while tasting defeat at the hands of Mexico and South Africa.
This is also the first final tournament in which the hosts have failed to advance, Bafana Bafana needing to content themselves with third spot in Group A and denied second by Mexico on goal difference. Their fellow African sides have suffered as well, with only Ghana able to progress through to the knockout stages, and even the Black Stars flirted with disaster, after only edging out Australia on goal difference. The various predictions anticipating a summer of success for the host continent have thus proved overwhelmingly inaccurate.
That said, many observers expected Algeria to find life difficult in a section featuring England and the United States, but Les Fennecs failed to find the back of the net in any of their three encounters. As for Cameroon, they experienced their worst ever FIFA World Cup finals, bowing out on the back of three straight reverses, and Nigeria did only marginally better by earning a solitary point. Lastly, Côte d'Ivoire were unable to ruffle group favourites Brazil and Portugal and finished third despite fleeting moments of brilliance.
In addition, those teams were joined on early flights home by a number of participants used to figuring in the latter stages. Denmark reached at least as far as the Round of 16 in all three of their previous appearances (1986, 1998 and 2002), but they must now start planning for Brazil 2014, while Switzerland departed having conceded just one goal and beaten European champions Spain along the way. In Australia’s case, they proved incapable of building on their feats from 2006.
A glance at the last-16 line-up reveals that European teams have been the big losers overall. Old Continent contenders have tended to hog the knockout berths since the tournament was expanded to accommodate 32 sides in 1998, but just six survived the group stage this time around: England, Germany, Slovakia, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. By way of comparison, ten advanced in 1998, nine in 2002 and ten again four years ago.
Their number is destined to shrivel even further in the near future too, with three all-European ties on the cards in the Round of 16: England-Germany, Netherlands-Slovakia and Spain-Portugal. Europe will therefore possess merely three representatives in the last eight, the lowest total of any edition in which a knockout format applied at the quarter-final stage: there were four in 1970; five in 1966 and 1986; six in 1954, 1962, 1990 and 1998; and seven in 1938, 1958 and 1994. Europe also led the way when the quarter-finals took the form of a second group stage: there were six European aspirants among the eight sides in two pools in 1974; five in 1978; and ten among the 12 teams in four pools in 1982.
No doubt the suspense will continue in the coming rounds, and who knows how many more upsets will send ripples around the world before the winners emerge on 11 July?