Only six countries have won the World Cup in the last 50 years, but a thrilling group stage in Russia has increased the possibility of a fresh name at least making it to the final. Left out of the excitement, however, are the Arab and African nations who competed in this year’s competition, all failing to progress to the knock stages.
Despite having one of the world’s best strikers, Egypt was eliminated from the World Cup without a win, as were Morocco and Tunisia. Saudi Arabia managed only one victory — over Egypt, after both teams had been mathematically ruled out of progressing. A draw with Portugal in their third match saw Iran also knocked out of the tournament.
2018 was the first time four Arab nations reached the World Cup finals but their stay was short-lived. And the other African nations fared no better.
Senegal’s elimination on fair play rules not only made World Cup history, it is also the first time since 1982 an African team failed to reach the tournament’s second round.
Thirty six years ago such a poor performance by African teams was seen as less shocking.
In 2018, with the current crop of African stars such as Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Senegal’s Sadio Mane, matching the record from the Spanish World Cup underlines what a disastrous tournament this has been for Africa.
In fifteen games, the African teams managed just three wins, one of those a dead rubber.
And this tournament had begun with such high hopes.
Salah was the most talked about star of the game, but his injury in the Champions League final and it subsequent impact on his country’s chances, set in train weeks of unremitting bad news for African sides.
Iran, who qualified as representatives of the Asian Football Confederation, were eliminated as were all the other Asian countries except for Japan, who ended on the same number of points and goal difference as Senegal but progressed to the knock out stage on fair play rules, having received fewer yellow cards.
The elimination of Germany in the first round and several teams failing to shine has left the World Cup wide open.
Of the half-dozen winners of the trophy since 1970, Germany have gone home, while Italy, of course, never even qualified. Meanwhile, France and Argentina play each other next, so only one will make the quarter-finals.
That leaves Spain and Brazil, with the latter fresh from topping their group at a 10th consecutive World Cup even if they have been slow-burners so far.
The standout last-16 tie on paper pits France against Lionel Messi and Argentina, two teams who laboured through the group stage — in Argentina’s case they were lucky to advance at all.
Argentinians might be happier than anyone at Germany’s elimination, having been knocked out by them at each of the last three World Cups.
But they could find themselves on a collision course with Brazil in the semi-finals, as they lie on a side of the draw that features countries totalling 10 World Cup wins between them.
European champions Portugal are there too, and if Cristiano Ronaldo’s side beat Uruguay in what could be a real battle of attrition in Sochi, he might find himself up against Messi’s Argentina in the last eight.
Along with England, Spain are the only past winners in the other side of the draw and they face Russia in Moscow on Sunday, with question marks surrounding their back line, and the form of goalkeeper David De Gea.
Croatia are possible quarter-final opponents for Spain. They won all three group games, and a run to the semis like in 1998 is not beyond them.
Meanwhile, England might feel a route to the last four is opening up nicely, thanks to Thursday’s defeat against Belgium.
But Colombia are not to be taken lightly in what manager Gareth Southgate has called England’s “biggest match in a decade.”
And beyond that could lie Sweden who, it should not be forgotten, have been responsible for knocking out the Netherlands, Italy and Germany from this World Cup.
There are 10 European teams in the last 16, and only one of 10 past European World Cups has been won by a side from another continent. That was Brazil, in 1958.