The World Cup qualification campaigns across the world have been completed – with surprising results for many. Italy, the Netherlands or Ghana will miss out on the 2018 tournament in Russia. Why? Because others simply deserved it more.
Italy beaten with their own weapons
After a 0:1 loss on aggregate against Sweden, Italy’s players and supporters will get to watch next year’s World Cup from their very own couches. Sadly so, many would argue: Traditionalists will miss the four-time World Champions that failed to qualify for the biggest stage for the first time since 1958.
On the other side, Sweden did not convince anyone with footballing brilliance. What they showed was a more than solid defensive display by constructing a brick wall at the back. Therefore, they went on and gave Italy a taste of their own medicine. Giampiero Ventura’s team had no answer, despite leading the statistics column with countless attempts on goal.
All that Victor Lindelöf and Andreas Granqvist had to do, was to head out one high ball after the next one. Considering their body size, it was never going to be a problem. Despite all the pressure, the Scandinavians never crumbled, even though they basically lacked any sort of pressure relief throughout the 90 minutes.
When leaving your most dangerous player – Lorenzo Insigne – on the bench for 166 of 180 minutes, there are no excuses. Italy failed horribly, from association to coaching staff to the XI on the field. They received their rightful punishment in the form of staying home.
Debutants and comebacks at the World Cup
Aside from Sweden (last time 2006), many other nations return to the World Cup stage for the first time in a while or ever. The fantastic story of the Icelandic football team continues as they managed to overcome the odds yet again and qualified as group winners. Their debut will see them be allocated to a strong group. However, after what we saw in France last summer, we would be foolish to count them out. Right, England?
Crazy, but true: Even Poland has not seen a World Cup on the pitch since 2006 in Germany. Now, led by Robert Lewandowski, they are back among the greatest teams. Due to their successful run as of late, they will even be seeded as a group head on December 1 in Moscow. Denmark is also back in the competition, after not having played during the last edition in Brazil.
Especially the African qualification is always extremely open and hard to predict. Whoever expected the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Co. at the World Cup will be disappointed. The only returning team from the 2014 edition is Nigeria. They are joined by Egypt (last in 1990), Morocco (1998), Tunisia (2006) and Senegal (2002). Some new faces surely will not hurt the competition or everyone’s motivation to finish their Panini sticker album.
Fresh air for football fans
The 32nd and last squad that booked their ticket for Russia was a Peruvian side struggling with legal trouble as former Bayern striker Paolo Guerrero had been suspended due to a positive doping test. However, he remained ever-present inside the stadium and among his teammates. It was a big moment for a proud football nation that has not seen a World Cup participation since the glory days of 1982. The fact that Chile, two-time Copa América champions, stayed home instead of the Peruvians says it all.
The fact that smaller sides benefit from the weakness of big nations can only be positive news for football in itself. In times of constantly repetitive Champions League matchups, we get to enjoy some fresh air, even if it might well be short-lived. Who would have expected Saudi Arabia or Panama at the World Cup after all? Yes, they will not make it to the round of 16 or even further in all likelihood. But who cares? They bring colour into a tournament that desperately needs it in a country which is not known for its football euphoria.
Back in 2006, I got to see the national team from Angola in my hometown. They did not stand a chance football-wise either, but it was a great experience. Bottom line: The World Cup certainly profited from a team such as them. It will do so again in 2018. Why miss the nations that will not be there, when you can embrace those that are? We will see performance instead of names of the past and that is just how football should be.