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The Curious Case of the World Cup Catfish

At every World Cup there is a team that arrives at the tournament with a promising or even elite squad and a coach of rare guile, only to depart earlier than expected

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Many of us have had that experience where we have been anticipating a film for many months, one whose cast and director are so good that it simply cannot fail, only to realize that, within the movie’s first few scenes, we are in for an epic disappointment. By the time we shuffle away from the cinema or forlornly fold our laptops closed, we are overwhelmed by that unique feeling: the ache of unsatisfying art. In extreme cases, our ache also carries a sense of betrayal: You promised us a rousing, soaring spectacle, and yet you presented us with something so different from and so far beneath our expectations. How could you? You catfished us.

At every World Cup there is a team who will be a catfish: a nation that arrives at the tournament with a promising or even elite squad and a coach of rare guile, only to depart in the contest’s early stages. Perhaps the most startling example in recent years was Argentina in 2002. They were under the guidance of Marcelo Bielsa, widely regarded as one of the sport’s greatest minds, and boasted an attack that featured Claudio López, Hernán Crespo, Ariel Ortega, Pablo Aimar, and Gabriel Batistuta, and yet they left Japan having scored only two goals in three matches, eliminated after they could manage only a win and a draw. This catfish was so spectacular that it came as an immense shock to Argentina themselves, with Bielsa inconsolable in the dressing room after the final group game against Sweden.

What went wrong? Well, there’s a tactical answer, and there’s a spiritual one. The tactical answer is that Bielsa’s ideas are brilliant, but they take time to work. In that 1-1 draw against Sweden, you could see that the team had sufficient style and urgency, but their finishing eluded them: it almost felt as if they had had one more game, then everything would have clicked. But the World Cup isn’t a forgiving forum. The spiritual answer is that there was something a little doomed about Argentina from the outset. They relied on Gabriel Batistuta as their central striker, who had expended the very last of his explosive best in leading Roma to only their second Serie A title in the previous season. Going into the World Cup, Batistuta had managed just six goals in 23 league appearances, a rapid drop-off from 20 in 28 during that championship-winning campaign. In retrospect, it might have been better to give Crespo—who came off the bench in all three games—the keys to the attack. What’s more, they were captained by Juan Sebastián Verón, who was just coming off the toughest season of his career: He had just moved to Manchester United, where by his own exceptional standards he had had a disastrous 12 months. To quote Big Pussy, a key character in legendary TV series The Sopranos, this Argentina squad had “negative energies.”

If you are trying to predict whether your country will be the catfish at the World Cup, you therefore have these useful indicators: whether they are over-reliant on aging players in key positions, such as Brazil in 2006, whether they are simply stale, such as Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018, or whether their camp has a significant element of chaos, such as France in 2002 and 2010. Broadly speaking, then, the countries which disappoint at the World Cup are those for whom the stage is either too big or not big enough—in other words, those who are wholly unaccustomed to the sudden surge in pressure, or no longer motivated by the challenge.

Beyond this, though, the catfish of this World Cup—for there will surely be one, there always is—should not feel too bad, in the end. Somewhere among these groups of supreme athletes, there is always one that is fated to fail. Perhaps, as with Nigeria in 1998, it is simply just not your time. In France, Nigeria were attending the final World Cup before the turn of the century, making it the last chance to prove Pele’s prediction of an African nation winning a trophy by that time correct. Nigeria were then the reigning Olympic champions, having defeated excellent Brazil and Argentina sides on the way to victory, and at their previous World Cup had given their supporters much reason to dream, being defeated only in extra time by eventual finalists Italy and the genius of Roberto Baggio. The table was perfectly laid for their downfall, and so it proved.

Having defeated a strong Spain side 3-2 in a rousing but strikingly chaotic display, they met Denmark in the next round, their perfect assassins: a team led by the brilliant Laudrup brothers, Michael and Brian, and who were experts in the art of counterattack. As Nigeria surged forward, perhaps already excited at the thought of beating Brazil in the next round, Denmark joyfully saw them leaving their defense unprotected, and they raided it time and again. They beat Nigeria 4-1 in one of the most chastening results for an elite side, one that featured such luminaries as Finidi George, Jay-Jay Okocha, the late Rashidi Yekini, and Nwankwo Kanu. At the time of writing, Nigeria have not yet assembled a team of similar magnificence; but then again, few have.

Yet the suffering of the catfish is never in vain—it is maybe even necessary. Their falls from grace are always cautionary tales, ones from which future generations of World Cup teams can usefully learn. Indeed, it is notable how teams who have suffered dramatic disappointments in one tournament have flourished in the subsequent one—for example, France, who advanced to the 2006 final after going out in the first round in 2002, or Italy, who stumbled out in the round of 16 in 2002 and beat France in the final four years later. So if your much-fancied country ends up making an unexpectedly humiliating exit at this tournament, and faces sustained mockery as a result, fret not. Redemption, maybe even revenge, is only ever four years away.