Why the World Cheers for Underdogs Like Croatia and Kevin Anderson

Sports

Why the World Cheers for Underdogs Like Croatia and Kevin Anderson

Illustration: Arati Gujar

I’m not the type you’d expect to find reading holy books, but there is one story from The Bible that has always stuck with me – the tale of David and Goliath. It’s one of humankind’s earliest underdog stories, and it’s endured for millennia simply because none of us are immune to the appeal of the underdog. The brave, young boy who felled a giant with a stone showed us that with grit, hustle, and hard work, even the worst odds can be overcome. The tale of the underdog – that we all believe we are – gives us hope that we will prevail.

It’s a comforting fantasy, which is why we love to see it play out over and over. And there are few arenas as well-suited to scripting an underdog story like sports. It doesn’t matter what game is being played, an unlikely upset burns brighter than an easy victory. Our moviemakers seem to have wisened up to this fact, evidenced by how all great sports films are underdog stories, from Rocky to Lagaan to Chak De! India.

Real life, however, isn’t as kind to sentimentality as fiction, and yesterday’s World Cup final was a bitter pill to swallow for anyone who isn’t French.

Luka Modric of Croatia in action

Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images

Croatia, a tiny European nation with a population lower than Mumbai’s, found itself in the midst of a dream run at this year’s World Cup, going all the way to last night’s grand finale. Like David, they felled a giant along the way, Leo Messi and his heavily favoured Argentinians, and ended the #ItsComingHome trend by sending England home. By the time they took the field in Moscow, they were daring the world to dream with them, to reach for immortality by writing a fairy tale finish to their unlikely success in this campaign.

It was one of the highest-scoring World Cup finals in recent memory, and probably one of the most exciting ones of all time.

For those who believe in the impossible, those dreams were already on shaky ground. Earlier in the evening, at another high-profile final, South Africa’s Kevin Anderson had a date with Novak Djokovic on the Wimbledon court. At 32 years of age, Anderson is a late bloomer, but after climbing tennis’ Everest, aka beating Roger Federer, and playing a six-hour slog of a semi-final against Jonathan Isner, he had done enough to raise doubts over Djokovic’s supremacy.

Sadly, any hopes for a twist in the tale were dashed as Djokovic made short work of Anderson in straight sets. But the Croatian football team held promise. Ninety minutes of football changed that. Despite having the ball for majority of the match, Croatia’s magic seemed to have deserted them.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Kevin Anderson of South Africa hold their trophies after the Men’s Singles final

Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

To their credit, Croatia went down fighting, just like Rocky Balboa. Even as the hands of the clock were sliding shut their window of opportunity, Croatia was dogged in trying to pry something back from the French. It was one of the highest-scoring World Cup finals in recent memory, and probably one of the most exciting ones of all time. When the dust settled, Croatia, whom many thought would not make it past the quarter-finals, could claim silver medals, a runner-up finish, and the Golden Boot for their captain Luka Modrić.

Even though France will go down in history as the winners of the World Cup, for me and many others, this tournament will be remembered for the tale of Davids from a tiny country, who came to world’s biggest stage unafraid of Goliath. And damn near won it all.

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