Fearless, fearsome!

The quadrennial football spectacle, over the years, has had the knack of throwing up an intriguing minnow or two. But very rarely have these derelict teams of little-known stars dared to completely overshadow the achievements of established players, and hog the big-font headlines.

Brazil 2014 has brought with it lotto-winning luck for these so-called smaller teams and the knockout phase of the tournament might see a whole lot of them getting a chance to further their ambitions. Latin America’s Chile and Colombia are already assured a berth there and Central America’s “Utopian” republic Costa Rica has also joined them after two giant-killing acts over former champions Uruguay and Italy.

Chile, coached by Argentina’s Jorge Sampaoli, bruised defending champion Spain with its swift attacking style of play, running away with a convincing 2-0 win, despite only enjoying 37 percent of possession. While the Spanish ball-wizards weaved their intricate horizontal passing game, the Chileans — working up pace through the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas, Arturo Vidal and their two advanced wingbacks Mauricio Isla and Eugenio Mena — hit them on the counter with their direct running and neatly-hit vertical through balls. Spain, used to playing with a high backline and with teams sitting deep against it, looked ill-equipped to handle this constant battering at pace.

Africa’s Ghana and CONCACAF’s Mexico too did well to share points with World Cup heavyweights Germany and Brazil, while Asian underdog Iran was unlucky to be at the receiving end of injury-time Messi magic after keeping him and his highly-paid team-mates at bay for the entire 90 minutes of play.

Europe — the continental teams have been the worst hit by this emergence — might well have served as the breeding ground for this success. Clubs from the region, forever in the hunt to unearth the “next big talent”, account for 562 of the 736 players (76 percent) in this World Cup. Footballers from across the globe, not intimidated by big names like their amateur predecessors, have benefitted from the better-structured and more professional Leagues of Europe and hence have found it easier to hold their ground against fancied adversaries. In previous World Cups, African and American teams (except Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil), staffed with raw talent, have often looked overawed and were hurt by the lack of positional discipline.

Chile (five out of 23), Costa Rica (nine), Colombia (three) and Ghana (one) have very few players from the lower-rung home Leagues and their largely Europe-based players have found little difficulty in playing as cohesive units. The relative freshness of the squads, compared to the top tier teams (most of the 23 players of the big teams were regular starters for their club sides), has also been an advantage in the testing conditions of Brazil.

It has been a fairytale ride so far and no cynic should bet against a happy ending.

Ayon Sengupta