Powerhouse nations like Brazil, Germany, Spain and Argentina were expected to dominate the tournament but have all underwhelmed so far

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on June 21, 2018

When Mexican winger Hirving Lozano cut inside German maestro Mesut Özil and coolly scored a goal to give Mexico a 1–0 lead over Germany, he sparked wild celebrations among Mexican supporters and provided the impetus for an improbable win for the 15th ranked nation over the current number 1.

The goal was no fluke; over the course of the match the energetic counterattack of the Mexican side made their highly touted German opposition look “antiquated and creaky”, according to The Guardian.

The result was no one-off either and is central to an ongoing narrative at the tournament of the big sides either outright struggling in their group matches or failing to get out of second gear.

Argentina have the world’s highest paid player in quicksilver forward Lionel Messi and are ranked fifth on the FIFA rankings but could only manage a 1–1 draw with Iceland, playing in their first ever World Cup match. With only around 335,000 people, Iceland ranks as the smallest ever (in terms of population) to qualify for the tournament and their disciplined approach was highly praised after the unexpected draw.

Elsewhere, pre-tournament favourites Brazil continued the trend of heavyweights faltering as they were held to a 1–1 draw with the underrated Switzerland. It marked the first time in four decades the five-time tournament winner Brazil has not won its opening match at a World Cup. With superstar players such as Neymar (who cost club side Paris St. Germain a record US$254 million transfer fee) Marcelo Vieira and Philippe Coutinho, they are once again considered one of the main contenders.

Similarly, the most expensive team at the tournament, France, rarely looked dominant in their first group match against Australia and only ended with a 2–1 victory on the back of a contentious penalty goal to Antoine Griezmann. The French squad has a collective salary of US$1.24 billion, more than 20 times the combined salary of the Australian Socceroos.

Fourth-ranked Portugal are also yet to show their best form and only escaped with a draw in their opening match. The 3–3 result came against European neighbours Spain in a highly entertaining clash. Cristiano Ronaldo scored all three goals, including a spectacular penalty kick which curled into the corner of the net. On the day of the clash, the Spanish media reported that Ronaldo had been stung with a US$21.7 million fine for tax evasion.

Ronaldo also scored the only goal for Portugal in its 1–0 win over comparative minnows Morocco, currently ranked 41st. It was widely considered his goal saved Portugal’s blushes in a match where Morocco were on top for large stretches.

Analysis from data journalism site FiveThirtyEight suggests that Brazil, Germany and Argentina all need to improve significantly if they are to contend for the title. The site’s algorithm now rates Germany a 9% chance to win the tournament, down from its pre-tournament figure of 24%.

While the heavyweight sides may yet find form and impose their will on the tournament, for now the relative struggles of the top sides are making for an entertaining and unpredictable World Cup.