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Luka Modric of Croatia. Photo: AFP
Luka Modric of Croatia. Photo: AFP

Who will win World Cup 2018? A new team, please

Croatia, Mexico, Portugal, Belgium and even Nigeria have shown the tenacity to become the ninth nation to win a football world cup

Bengaluru: Only eight teams have won the Fifa World Cup since the tournament began in 1930: five from Europe, including Italy, Germany, England, France and Spain, and three from South America, which includes Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. That’s out of the 79 nations, which have appeared at least once in a World Cup fixture.

The last time we saw the emergence of a new champion was in 2010, when Spain brought its tiki-taka to the world stage. Before that France won its first title in 1998, and England in 1966. Undoubtedly, it’s a rarity.

But the 2018 World Cup in Russia has thrown up the intriguing possibility of a ninth winner. The gap between the traditional favourites and others has narrowed, thanks to the growth of club football. Talented players from around the world are nurtured in the European leagues, and they create outliers when they represent their countries in the World Cup.

Italy failed to qualify for this World Cup, and the big four—Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain— have already faced severe tests at the group stage. Reigning champions Germany were on the brink of a knockout, having lost to Mexico, before coming back from a goal down against Sweden. And the 2014 runners-up Argentina will need to beat Nigeria and hope that Croatia beat or hold Iceland to a draw.

Brazil began with a zing, but were held to a 1-1 draw by Switzerland. Then they went 90 minutes without scoring against Costa Rica, before netting the ball in added time. Neymar was in tears at the end.

Spain played some of the best football of the tournament in their opener with Portugal, but that could not stop Cristiano Ronaldo from forcing a 3-3 draw. Only England, France, and Uruguay, among the past World Cup winners, have had it easy, but they have played against some of the weakest opponents.

The cup is definitely up for grabs, but who’re the most promising candidates at the halfway stage of the tournament?

Belgium are no dark horses, having been a serious contender in past World Cups, reaching the semi-finals in 1986. What’s new is the flair we usually associate more with fancied teams like Brazil.

Romelu Lukaku produced two brilliant finishes, one with the right foot and the other with the left, against Tunisia. He had two goals in the earlier game, too, making him the first player to score back-to-back braces since Diego Maradona. Besides, his rags-to-riches story is equally compelling.

Eden Hazard is another stylish finisher for Belgium, and the tall Michi Batshuayi, who replaced him, also added to the tally of eight Belgian goals in two matches. Admittedly, Panama was a weak team, but the 5-2 win over Tunisia, who had come close to holding England to a draw, was impressive. Belgium have the squad to go all the way.

European champions Portugal are obvious contenders, too, but the team seems to be over-dependent on Ronaldo. The world footballer of the year will have to do a Maradona act to take Portugal through.

More exciting for me is giant-killer Croatia, which humiliated Argentina 3-0. The first goal was a gift from Argentine goalkeeper Willy Caballero, but the second one—a long-range curler from Real Madrid star Luka Modric—was as good as it gets.

Croatia have top-notch talent from club football, and combine well as a team playing attractive football. They have beaten two strong teams in Argentina and Nigeria without conceding a goal, showing solidity in defence to go with their attacking flair. This makes Croatia a dangerous opponent for any side.

It’s a young nation, but its roots go all the way back to the inaugural Fifa World Cup in 1930, when Yugoslavia finished fourth. After Yugoslavia splintered into several nations, Croatia came third in the 1998 edition with David Sukor, the current president of the Croatian football association, emerging as the top scorer.

A fourth outlier is Mexico, which produced a 1-0 stunner against Germany. What’s more, it wasn’t the sort of freak win a counter-attacking defensive team can produce at the group stage. The Mexicans got the better of the Germans with sheer speed on the ball, and could have won by a bigger margin. Can Mexico keep this up?

It would perhaps be too much to expect an African team to win the World Cup, yet. But Nigeria showed exceptional skill in its 2-0 win over Iceland, which had held Argentina to a draw. Both the goals by Ahmed Musa were things of beauty.

This World Cup has the makings to produce a new champion.

Sumit Chakraberty is an author and independent writer based in Bengaluru.

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