No World Cup is complete without the dark horse—the team that arrives at the tournament with little or no expectation around its performance, and that goes on to proceed through round after round. Quite often that team is the host nation itself, which rides a tide of sentiment (and, every now and then, a very favorable refereeing decision) very deep into the competition: see, for example, South Korea in 2002, or Russia in 2018. It might be argued that, in an age when football is watched and analyzed more closely than ever before, there should be no major surprises at a World Cup, but the fact that the dark horse is still going strong is a witness to the beautiful chaos of elite sports.
One defining characteristic of the dark horse is that it must begin the World Cup at full gallop. While the eventual winners may start slowly, the dark horse explodes into view, knowing that its best chance of success lies in startling its victims with its intensity. South Korea’s first game in 2002 saw them bewilder Poland with the sheer speed of their counterattacks, while Senegal did the same to France in the same tournament, defeating them 1-0. In fact, the holders of the trophy should be particularly careful: Just look at Argentina, who suffered a 1-0 loss to Cameroon in 1990 as they began their title defense.
At this point, it must be said that there has been some measure of debate as to what a dark horse actually is. Belgium, for example, were wrongly considered by many to be a dark horse in 2014, even as almost everyone was aware of their attacking threat: They had a squad boasting Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, and Dries Mertens. You cannot be a dark horse if the whole world sees you coming. For the same reason, any attempt to classify Senegal as a dark horse must be rejected. They are the champions of Africa and their forward line is led by Sadio Mané, a man who has just finished second in the voting for the Ballon d’Or. (Though Mané might not be fit for the group stages.) If there is truly a dark horse at this World Cup, then it will be someone like Tunisia: a team with good finishers and a fairly mean defense, who have recently recorded very impressive results against decent opposition, beating Chile 2-0 and Japan 3-0 earlier this year. Crucially, most of their players are at clubs that are just below the radar of the casual observer—in that respect, they are similar to Costa Rica in 2014.
2014 was a vintage World Cup when it came to dark horses, which at first sight suggests that this one might not be. The 2014 World Cup, after all, was a contest in which a striking number of the traditional major teams were a little past their peak—for example, England, Spain, and Uruguay—and vulnerable to being picked off by younger, more aggressive rivals. This time, though, those powers are all replenished.
If there truly is a dark-horse element at this tournament then, it will be the schedule of the World Cup itself. Two years ago, my Stadio cohost Ryan Hunn wrote of “the volatility of this unprecedented season,” and his words feel even more applicable as Qatar approaches. We have simply never seen a World Cup like this—one arriving at the end of a grueling autumn, when several teams have seemed visibly overwhelmed by the exertions of the past few weeks, and when some players have openly expressed their relief that they have managed to avoid injury. Many elite footballers, too, have just come straight from the intensity of an accelerated Champions League group stage. There has been almost no time to rekindle squad chemistry between players who have not seen each other in some time, and about half of the teams will not have the chance to play a pre–World Cup friendly. This means that some nations will have to begin to figure out their best teams while the contest is underway, which could easily lead to a bizarre result or two.
What’s more, there are key absentees who have weakened the biggest teams. France, for example, have been forced to renew their lineup, having lost to injury the first-choice midfield of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté that won them the World Cup in 2018. They are fortunate in that they have ready replacements in the Real Madrid duo of Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga, but it is asking a great deal of players who are barely out of their 20s to control the tempo of a team that is mounting a title defense. Meanwhile, Giovani Lo Celso has been ruled out for Argentina, a particular blow for them, since he is a playmaker who enjoyed a rare on-field bond with Leo Messi. These uncertainties can pave the way for a less-heralded opponent—say, Denmark in France’s group—to take advantage.
Yet ultimately, Qatar is the true dark horse. No one knows what to expect of this World Cup, either on or off the field. It is not the crowning glory of the calendar but something that has been stuffed into its margins, a thing to be addressed desperately and out of necessity, like an overdue tax return. Instead of allowing us a leisurely buildup, it has gate-crashed the status quo, clattering across our lawns at full gallop. It is hard to think of a major event that has come into view in the midst of so much confusion. After it departs, we will move promptly onward to resume the juggernaut of domestic football; but while it is here, it is guaranteed to leave its mark.