Sports

Why Do the World Cup’s Big Underdogs Look So Much Better Than the Favorites?

The heavyweights can’t take these upstarts for granted.

Lionel Messi, Hakim Ziyech, Luka Modric, and Kylian Mbappé, with a soccer-net octagonal scrim illustrated behind them
Lionel Messi, Hakim Ziyech, Luka Modrić, and Kylian Mbappé. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images, Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images, Francois Nel/Getty Images, Francois Nel/Getty Images, and Getty Images Plus.

The best part about the 2022 World Cup semifinals is that every potential outcome from this point on is a good one.

Let’s use the France-Morocco game as our variable. If Morocco upsets France, we end up with possibly the biggest underdog victory in the history of the World Cup. This will be true whether it plays another potential first-time winner in Croatia or has to deny Lionel Messi on the doorstep for the second time in his career. It’s exciting! Feel free to root for this outcome.

Advertisement

A France win, on the other hand, would mean a rematch of either the 2018 final against Croatia, which finished 4–2, or a chance for Argentina to avenge its 4–3 loss in what might have been the best game of that tournament in 2018, a game that featured two assists from Messi, two goals from Kylian Mbappé, and the single best goal in Benjamin Pavard’s vertiginous volleyed slider. Either of those options … also seem exciting! We’ll take it!

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Whichever final we get, the paths to it appear broadly similar: a favorite—two of the favorites for the entire tournament, in fact—matched up against an impressive and indomitable underdog. It is a strange quirk of how expectation functions that the flaws of Argentina and France seem more apparent than those of their adversaries. If Croatia and Morocco keep playing like they have been, then how on earth is anybody going to beat them?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Take Croatia, which at this point is less a soccer team and more of a pitch-covering oobleck globule: Press it gently and it offers little resistance except to stick to you; hit it hard and find to your surprise that you’ve crashed into a wall. In this tournament, Croatia went down to Japan and scored 12 minutes later. It went down to Brazil and scored 11 minutes later. It would beat both on penalties handily, thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Dominik Livaković. If you do just enough to beat Brazil, you still beat Brazil.

Croatia, much like its star midfielder Luka Modrić, appears immune to pressure both from opponents on the pitch and from inside the mind, whatever the stakes are at a given moment. The team seems to relish taking the hard way every single game. Since the 2014 World Cup, when it failed to advance out of its group, Croatia has played eight knockout-round games across two different European Championships and two different World Cups. All of them but one—its 2018 World Cup Final loss to France—finished tied at the end of regulation. Nobody has beaten them in extra time at the World Cup in the past five tries: not Japan, Russia, or Denmark, not England or Brazil.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Statistically speaking, this feels like it should be impossible. None of those tired players made a fatal mistake? None of them missed a crucial penalty? Croatia is like the marathon opponent of your nightmares, lurking 10 yards behind through all your spurts and slowdowns, trusting it can beat you to the finish. If it’s an amorphous blob, then it’s one in the vein of Robert Patrick’s T-1000.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Argentina then has to figure out how to create enough separation to withstand a comeback attempt. It has not been very good at this so far. The Netherlands scored two goals in the final 10 minutes plus added time of their quarterfinal to send the game to extra time, even though Argentina won on penalties. Australia pulled a late own-goal back in the Round of 16 to make Argentina’s 2–1 win nervier than it needed to be. Presuming that this isn’t the game when Croatia’s magic grind sauce runs out—and at this point, who’s betting against it—this semifinal feels like it’s going to need an extra moment of Messi magic: for him to go somewhere not even Croatia can follow.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

France has a different problem against Morocco. Morocco has not been impossible to escape from, but rather impossible to crack in the first place. The only goal Walid Regragui’s team has given up in his eight games in charge is an own-goal, a cross deflected into his own net by center back Nayef Aguerd against Canada. Portugal, Spain, even Croatia couldn’t find the Moroccan net in this tournament (The two semifinalists drew 0–0 in their first group stage game).

Sticking that defense against tournament top scorer Mbappé has real immovable object–irresistible force energy, but the matchup gets even juicier. If Mbappé lines up on the left as he has all tournament, then he’ll be going directly at Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi, his Paris Saint-Germain teammate, good friend, and one of the only players in the world fast enough to keep up with him. (Hakimi once set the record for top speed recorded in the Bundesliga. According to match reports, he and Mbappé have topped out at the same speed in this tournament.) What does Mbappé think of the challenge?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

England corralled Mbappé relatively well, all things considered, but he still made the exceptionally fast Kyle Walker look as helpless as a Washington General a couple of times in the quarterfinal. England’s plan was both to attack down Mbappé’s side, knowing he wouldn’t be tracking back on defense, while keeping Walker back to make sure he was contained. But Morocco likes to start its attacks there too, particularly through Hakimi and winger Hakim Ziyech. France might be vulnerable, but if Morocco tries to press that advantage, then it in turn could make itself vulnerable. That could leave even more of an opportunity for Hakimi and Mbappé to get matched up in the open field, the World Cup’s own Flash vs. Superman.

Advertisement

But France is not invincible. It rode its luck against England, and not just on Harry Kane’s blown penalty that would have tied the match. France kept goalkeeper Hugo Lloris busy, giving up a number of shots and set-piece opportunities. It doesn’t feel as defensively switched on as it was last tournament. Morocco is well placed to take advantage of any inattentiveness. Its players counter with clarity and purpose, as though they’ve just been told there’s never more than 12 guards between them and the goal. The results can be thrilling, if they don’t allow France to finally catch them going the other way. The fact that Morocco has never trailed in this tournament also means that Morocco hasn’t had any reps at how to play when trailing. Perhaps they can take notes from Croatia.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Argentina and France are big favorites to meet in the final in part because they can afford to make more mistakes. Their talent, their depth, and their stars can paper over occasional sloppiness. Pump in enough chances and eventually one is bound to hit. The paths for Morocco and Croatia are narrower. They have to continue playing perfectly, or at least close enough to perfect to keep their opponents in reach. They’ll have a smaller pile of opportunities to draw from. So far they’ve been good enough for whatever the tournament has thrown at them. To shake up the World Cup once again, they’ll have to keep finding ways to hit that shifting standard.

Advertisement