David Owen

The World Cup of upsets; I have heard Qatar 2022 described this way a number of times over the past few days.

And indeed, at least three of the matches played so far as I write, after 32 of the 64 scheduled games, can be so categorised: Japan beating Germany; Saudi Arabia beating Argentina; and Morocco beating Belgium, an ageing side nonetheless standing second in the men’s FIFA ranking.

But is the phrase really an accurate description?

After all, I can remember Algeria beating the then West Germany in Gijón over 40 years ago - yet it was still the Germans who ended up in the World Cup final.

This was after that frightfully convenient 1-0 win over Austria in the last group-game, which saw both of those sides progress to the second group stage.

I think it was soon after that valiant Algerian campaign, which also featured a 3-2 win over Chile, that I first predicted that an African team would win the men’s World Cup soon after the turn of the millennium.

I was not alone, yet to date, the coveted gold trophy has remained always in the clutches of a tiny elite of teams from Europe or South America.

Are we at least making progress towards the first African or Asian or North/Central American men’s World Cup winner?

Saudi Arabia shocked Lionel Messi's Argentina in the group stage ©Getty Images
Saudi Arabia shocked Lionel Messi's Argentina in the group stage ©Getty Images

Those early results would suggest that Qatar 2022 - which after all is taking place in the vast Asian zone - may come to be seen as something of a breakthrough tournament for the continent; this in spite of the disappointing showing of Qatar itself.

What would need to happen for us justifiably to conclude that the grip of Europe and South America on what is probably still just about football’s most sought-after trophy is at last somewhat closer to being prised off?

First, some statistics.

Since the first World Cup, in 1930, 160 squads all told have progressed to the last eight of the competition or beyond.

By my count, only 11 of these - so just under seven per cent - have not been European or South American.

The all-time record, three out of eight, actually came in 2002, the last time the men’s World Cup was staged in Asia.

Since then, we have regressed, with no non-European/South American quarter-finalists at all last time around in Russia.

By this yardstick, for the other regions to justifiably feel they are at last within striking-distance of providing a men's World Cup winner, I think Qatar 2022 would have to at least match the 2002 tournament’s tally of three quarter-finalists, with co-host South Korea becoming the only non-European/South American side in history to play a semi-final.

Analysis of appearances in the Round of 16, introduced at the 1986 World Cup, should offer an indication of whether progress at a lower level of attainment is at least being made.

Japan defeated 2014 champions Germany to begin their World Cup campaign in style ©Getty Images
Japan defeated 2014 champions Germany to begin their World Cup campaign in style ©Getty Images

Usually there are enough European and South American sides at a World Cup competition to fill just about all these places if their representatives are of sufficient calibre, so for a nation from another region to get that far, they may well have had to outdo a European or South American challenger.

In these nine most recent World Cups, the sequence of non-European/South American sides in the Round of 16 has gone as follows: two, two, four, two, five, three, five, five, two.

At this level then, there is some evidence of a broadening geographic spread of teams that are at least somewhat successful.

All of the three most recent occasions when the total of non-European/South American representatives has failed to reach five, incidentally, have been in competitions staged in Europe.

So the increased diversity of World Cup hosts in recent decades appears to be helping.

Based on such figures, I would say that one way in which Qatar 2022 might justify its billing as a World Cup of upsets would be if an unprecedented six non-European/South American teams could make it to the knockout stages.

What are the prospects of that happening?

Well it is possible, indeed as many as eight could go through, but four or five - par for the course for recent World Cups based outside Europe - looks more likely.

Groups B and F will almost certainly contribute to the tally.

In the former, either Iran or the United States will progress with England, unless they draw and Wales spring a surprise on Gareth Southgate’s men; in the latter, Morocco could conceivably lose to already-eliminated (but talented) Canada and still go through, while a draw or win would guarantee it.

Morocco pulled of a shock 2-0 win over second-ranked Belgium ©Getty Images
Morocco pulled of a shock 2-0 win over second-ranked Belgium ©Getty Images

In Group C, Saudi Arabia may need to beat Mexico to survive, in spite of their exploit against Lionel Messi’s Argentina.

A Mexico win, meanwhile, could take them through, but probably only if Poland beat Argentina.

The second qualifying slot along with France in Group D is probably a straight shoot-out between Australia and Denmark; the Danes have a touch of class, but a draw would almost certainly be enough for Australia.

The fourth team Tunisia’s only hope is to beat the reigning champions well and hope that Australia do not win.

The Group E surprise packages Japan negated their German exploit by losing unexpectedly to Costa Rica.

This leaves the European giants Germany and Spain looking the most likely qualifiers.

In Group A, Senegal, quarter-finalists in 2002, would need to beat what may turn out to be the best-ever Ecuador squad to qualify.

Group G is the real long-shot: Cameroon would need to beat the mighty Brazil to stand any chance - and that still might not be enough.

Another West African side, Ghana, has a real opportunity in Group H, however - if they can get something out of another showdown with twice World Cup-winners Uruguay.

It is now over 12 years since the same two teams played a quite extraordinary World Cup quarter-final in South Africa, with the South Americans winning a penalty shootout.

Arsenal star Thomas Partey and his team-mates would no doubt love to make it pay-back time and a full-blooded encounter is to be expected.