Argentina and Germany, two teams considered to be favorites at the World Cup, are facing bleak futures after opening-game upsets.
DOHA, Qatar — The chaos is glorious.
This World Cup was supposed to be a celebration of Lionel Messi, a return to dominance by Brazil or a coronation of France as a team for the ages. Any of which could still happen. In the early going, though, it’s been straight-up bedlam, as if the NCAA basketball tournament broke out on a soccer field.
The World Cup was still buzzing about Saudi Arabia’s shocking upset of Messi and Argentina on Tuesday when Japan knocked off four-time champion Germany on Wednesday. In a span of about 24 hours, two of the favorites were hobbled and other underdogs were imagining what havoc they might wreak.
“Saudi Arabia inspired me a lot, inspired us a lot,” midfielder Kaoru Mitoma said after Japan scored twice in the last 15 minutes to stun Germany. “They won the game, and we thought, ‘Yeah, we can win.’ ”
The most stunning thing, along with the results, is how Saudi Arabia and Japan got them. Both teams were losing for most of the game. Both teams were dominated in every offensive statistic that matters, including possession.
And yet, both won, taking advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves and then hanging on for dear life.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” Germany coach Hansi Flick said, “a bad start for us.”
Yes, but what fun for us!
The sublime performances and the gorgeous goals are what make the World Cup so captivating. Watching talented teams live up to their potential is thrilling, as is seeing our favorite players shine on the biggest stage or young stars emerge.
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It’s why we tune in, even as FIFA is doing everything in its power to make us want to tune out.
But there is also something utterly delightful about seeing an unheralded team upset the expected order.
It’s a sign of the growth of the game, for one. Saudi Arabia has invested considerably in its team, and the investment is paying off. Was Argentina the better team? Sure. But it’s not as if Saudi Arabia won on two own goals. It had a strategy that played to its strengths and it executed it.
Japan, meanwhile, has increasingly sent its players to Europe, where they can benefit from the best coaches and competition in the world. Of the 26 players on Japan’s roster, 19 play in Europe. Eight of those are in Germany, with all but one playing in the Bundesliga.
“I believe those leagues have been contributing to the development of Japan’s players,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said. “We want to continue learning from Germany and learning from the world. That’s our future.”
It’s also a reminder that, for the many, many millions the top teams are worth and for as many players as they have at the world’s most prestigious clubs, the games themselves are great equalizers. Saudi Arabia had won all of three games in its previous five appearances at the World Cup. Japan had never beaten Germany before, and had won just won game at the World Cup since 2010.
But if you have a good game plan and stick with it, anything is possible. It’s no different than what we see, and root for, every March.
“It’s a big surprise,” Moriyasu acknowledged. “(But) we are reaching to the global standard, and also of course we saw Saudi Arabia’s surprise win. We are showing our capabilities from Asia.”
Saudi Arabia’s win hurts Messi and Argentina with Poland and Mexico in their group, though Spain lost its opener in 2010 and still won the title. Germany has work to do to avoid repeating its collapse in 2018 after losing its opener, especially after Spain’s thrashing of Costa Rica later Wednesday.
But if early exits for these two favorites are the price we have to pay for the marvelous mayhem we’ve seen so far, so be it.
This World Cup, the first to be played in the fall, was always going to be the most unusual yet. It has more than lived up to that billing.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.