Could World Cup of underdogs produce surprise final?

Doug McIntyre

As this World Cup of surprises continues to unfold, with Croatia and host nation Russia advancing to the quarterfinals on Sunday, it’s beginning to feel like an unexpected champion could emerge when the title is decided two weeks from now in Moscow.

Only eight teams have ever claimed the most revered and hardest-to-win trophy in sports. Of those eight, just four – Brazil, England, France and Uruguay – remain alive as the 2018 tournament enters the stretch run.

The last new World Cup champion was Spain in 2010. La Roja’s dream of adding a second triumph ended on penalties against Russia on Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium, site of that July 15 final, a day after two-time winner Argentina was sent packing by France. Speaking of Les Bleus and La Albiceleste, France and Argentina are the only two countries besides Spain to have won a first World Cup within the last 50 years.

The usual suspects produced every single losing finalist during that span, too, with the last 12 title games contested by teams from just seven nations: Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

But the way Russia 2018 has gone so far, you get the sneaking suspicion that things could go differently this time around. Maybe the hints were there when four-time champ Italy didn’t even qualify and neither did the Dutch, the third-place finisher in 2014 after being runner-up four years earlier.

Even those who doubted that Germany would successfully defend its crown this summer surely never envisioned Die Mannschaft losing 2-0 to South Korea and missing the knockout stage for the first time.

Look, it would surprise nobody to see France or Brazil – the latter the most successful of all with five World Cup wins – capture another title later this month. According to the website, those two are the bookies’ clear favorites following Sunday’s matches.

But given what has transpired in Russia so far, would anyone be shocked if Uruguay or Belgium or Croatia ends up on top of the podium instead?

Croatia beat Denmark on penalties to advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. (Getty)
Croatia beat Denmark on penalties to advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. (Getty)

It’s true that Croatia was far from convincing in Sunday’s shootout victory over plucky Denmark in the round of 16. The Croats fell behind in Nizhny Novgorod less than a minute in, and after Mario Mandzukic equalized they survived a miss from the spot in extra time by captain Luka Modric before eventually going through on penalties.

But with Real Madrid maestro Modric and Barcelona mainstay Ivan Rakitic – who converted the decisive strike – running the midfield behind a top-class striker in Mandzukic, there’s no reason to think Croatia can’t at least duplicate the 1998 side’s run to the semifinals.

Uruguay’s team defending is probably the best of any remaining side, and they boast two legit all-world strikers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. If Cavani can shake off the injury that forced him out of Saturday’s 2-1 win over Portugal in which he scored both goals, Los Charruas – a semifinalist in 2010 – could realistically contend for their first World Cup title (and third overall) in 68 years.

Meantime, Belgium might have the strongest and most well-balanced roster left in Russia. Thibaut Courtois is the undisputed best goalkeeper after the departure of David De Gea (Spain), Keylor Navas (Costa Rica) and Manuel Neuer (Germany). Defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are stout, midfielders Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard are as creative as any still in the tourney, and forward Romelu Lukaku is in fine form with four goals in just two games heading into Monday’s match against Japan.

More than a few other teams also seem capable of making a deep run if they get some luck. Russia is playing at home and has a ton of momentum after upsetting Spain. The experienced Colombians showed style and resolve during the group stage. England’s young Lions don’t seem to be fazed by the failures of their overrated predecessors, and it’s easy to see Mexico stunning Brazil or being routed or anything in between. Switzerland and Sweden won’t go quietly, either.

With less than two weeks left in what has already been an immensely entertaining World Cup, there promises to be plenty more drama to come.

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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