Will an Underdog Like Mexico Rise This World Cup?


Will an Underdog Like Mexico Rise This World Cup?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

Davor Suker spent the 1990 World Cup, sitting on the bench, watching a promising Yugoslav side almost reach the semi-finals. A year later, he scored his first senior goal, but for a team that wasn’t even a country recognised by FIFA. Seven years after that unnoticed solitary goal and a dissolved Yugoslav republic, Sukur made his debut at the World Cup and so did an un-fancied, unknown Croatia. By the end of the tournament, Sukur was top-scorer, winner of the golden boot ahead of the much popular Brazilian Ronaldo.

More than his individual accomplishments, however, the tournament is largely remembered, not just for France’s usurping of a prodigiously talented Brazil, but one of the most inspiring performances, by a little known country, let alone a football team – Croatia’s annihilation of Germany in the quarter-finals. A good underdog story often feels therapeutic, not just because it offers the profane pleasures of watching dynasties and reputations crumble, but because they are also the kind of raw stories we want to live and tell.

Over the years, the Football World Cup has largely bowed to the narrative of the usual. Traditional favourites eventually slug it out in the final. Evident from the fact that even though 79 teams have played at the World Cup since its inception, and at least double that number enter the qualifying campaign every year, it still feels like an elite table of poker-buddies who simply take turns winning.

Get this: Only eight countries have won the tournament in its nearly 90-year-old history. Two of those (France and Spain) were added in the last two decades. Naturally, someone who comes along and even fleetingly offers to unseat one the big boys, the jargonised labels of footballing folklore, must be celebrated.

Dial back to Korea-Japan in 2002. Perhaps, the definitive image of the tournament wasn’t delivered by the peerless Brazilians, but Ahn Jung-hwan’s extra-time winner against an incredulous Italy. With the likes of Maldini, Nesta, Pirlo, Vieri, Totti etc in their ranks, it seemed a feat so implausible there are documentaries on the scandal of the century. Having a roster of talent as great as some of the powerhouses of the world dole out, it must feel like unfamiliar territory to have that superiority checked.

But shouldn’t that be the natural order? Shouldn’t the World Cup be as democratic in its outcome, as it may seem in design?

Though Korea went further than anyone would have predicted in 2002, co-hosts Japan and debutants Senegal, sent shivers down the sturdiest of spines as well. And all of them largely felt welcomed. Because there is something endearing in watching an unknown entity spring a surprise, or overawe with fearlessness that is rare to any profession, be it sport. It is akin to finding that uncommon, untapped talent in a reality TV show that we love to guffaw over, or perhaps that new colleague at work who, despite years of presumably “knowing-better”, sticks it to the man.

Because for qualities we may not enjoy, but yearn for nonetheless, best manifest in things that are alien.

someone who comes along and even fleetingly offers to unseat one the big boys, the jargonised labels of footballing folklore, must be celebrated.

Since Korea-Japan in 2002, to Brazil in 2014, the tournament offered little in the way of romancing the un-fancied, the unlikely. Each of these tournaments, though iconic for their own takeaways were thin on stories that could meld wounded hearts or motivate even the defeatist. Which is why nihilistic neutrals, like India, have perennially played safe and vetted for teams they know will do well. Not only does it point to supremacist indulgence, a glass-half-empty kind of insecurity, but an inability to see the bigger picture.

For a football fan in India, pragmatism comes naturally. Cricket offers the only success story in sport, but it is so overwhelmingly manufactured and vague (South America, a whole continent is yet to be represented at the cricket world cup) that a football fan’s cynicism must always lead to certain reward, or so he or she thinks. Hence, the interest in Brazil, Spain and even the perennially uninspiring England, as compared to a Japan or an Iran. In effect, wishing for the hierarchies to continue, the same old boring dichotomies to repeat themselves and us Indians, to get a kick of the ball.   

This year, Iceland, perhaps the rarest of rare stories in sporting history, and Mexico have already blown the trumpet on those who consider their footsteps on arrival to be authoritative through reputation. Iceland might have lost, but the beauty of football lies in the fact that you are always only one match old. The big boys have been found wanting, hoping their natural talents can overhaul grit and determination. For at least a week, it hasn’t seemed so.

And what a week it has been for football in general, because the underdog story is truly underway, as it must be, regardless of the walks of life, it stutters and sweats in, across the world. Let us hope a Japan or an Iran can pull-off the unthinkable.

That said, the World Cup will probably be won by one of the usual contenders, a boring, pulse-less parade of footballing generations that has now clogged the pipeline of imagination. For the sake of a little adventure, though, a levelling act of footballing grace by a god who must be unbiased, let us hope this World Cup writes a glorious chapter through one of its unfavoured heroes. Because where else would love at first sight now be a possibility?