In defence of smaller countries at the World Cup – each has earned their spot.

After waiting for one thousand, four hundred and thirty-two days, the 2018 World Cup officially kicked off last night as the hosts, Russia, humiliated Saudi Arabia in a thrilling opener that concluded 5-0. Fans in attendance and all over the world were able to witness a fantastic performance from Russia’s 22-year-old midfielder Aleksandr Golovin alongside two outstanding goals from Denis Cheryshev. Despite the exciting match on display, many fans were quick to criticise Saudi Arabia’s performance throughout the game as well as their position in the tournament over stronger teams like Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States.

While I agree that it’s weird not having such strong teams like those formerly mentioned at the World Cup, the individuals that have chosen to criticise the countries that actually earned their place is absolutely pathetic. If you’re reading this and are so desperate to watch “the best of the best” then I’m sorry to say it but the World Cup just isn’t for you. The biggest sporting event in the world is a fantastic way of showcasing a variety of styles of football from the biggest and smallest countries across the globe whilst uniting entire nations in the process. The World Cup isn’t designed to appease to the countries that failed to qualify for the tournament, even when some had more than one chance to do so.

Looking at the current FIFA World Rankings, if the only countries that played in the tournament were the ones with a rank ranging from one to thirty-two then it would mean other countries like Egypt and Nigeria (who some argue are “dark-horses”) would miss out on the tournament completely. Regarding the former, the Pharaohs qualified for this year’s tournament for the first time in twenty-eight years thanks to two goals from Mohamed Salah.

The 26-year-old enjoyed a significant rise to fame during the 2017-18 league season where he set a new record for goals scored in a single Premier League season while capturing the hearts of millions due to his appreciative and humble personality. At a time where the religion of Islam is often ridiculed and disrespected by so many people, having a role model like Salah to look up to is perfect for so many Muslims not only in Egypt, but also around the entire world.

It’s no wonder why so many people were quick to dub him as the “Egyptian King” as millions of Egyptians look at him as both a local hero and also an inspiration to all. Take today’s fixture against Uruguay, for example. Thousands of fans in attendance brought images and banners of the Egyptian and chanted his name numerous times throughout the match hoping he would make his first appearance since suffering an injury in last month’s Champions Legaue final. Regardless of class or background, the entire nation of Egypt is united as one not only due to the efforts of their football team, but also as a result of Salah’s work to get them to the tournament – contributing to 71% of the Pharaohs goals during the qualifying stages.

Both Salah and Egypt’s story is absolutely perfect for an occassion like the World Cup, taking away their spot like some have hinted at because they’re not a top team would be absolutely ridiculous. This applies to other countries too, like South Korea and Iceland, as every country enters the tournament with a story to tell and helps unite their respective fans in their nation and across the world in the process.

Away from this, if the World Cup was strictly designed to showcase these apparent best teams and not lower ranked sides, you could argue that even more continents like Oceania would miss out on the tournament altogether. What makes the competition so special is that it allows the best countries from the each continent to compete for the World Cup trophy. If you were to remove qualifying places from Africa or North America and just give them to Europe for absolutely no reason, it would take away from the structure and purpose of the tournament.

Also, looking back at previous tournaments, some fantastic underdog stories like Costa Rica in 2014 and Ghana in 2010 would never have happened if the only teams that played in the tournament were the best ones.

It’s some of these countries that help make the World Cup feel as special as it is today. No one could have predicted that Costa Rica would escape their “group of death” featuring Italy, Uruguay, and England back in 2014, but they did and their story was remarkable to watch on the pitch.

Football is a fantastic way of uniting an entire country regardless of their background, class, or even political opinion. Even if some teams are not the greatest performers, it’d be stupid to take away their positon because they are supposedly not good enough – despite actually being good enough to qualify for the tournament. If anything, these lower-rated teams deserve praise rather than criticism considering how much more difficult it is for them to qualify for the tournament, especially in some cases with the conditions they play in.

Without including the hosts, Russia, thirteen out of the fifty-four European countries earned a spot at this year’s tournament through the qualification process, making up approximately 40% of the entire tournament. African countries were in a similar predicament to those in Europe during the qualifying fixtures only they were allowed a maximum of five countries out of fifty-four to represent them at the tournament.

You could argue that Europe’s qualifying process is easier in comparison to others due to the fact that they have the most amount of spaces available as well as two backup matches for the runners-up of each group. With all due respect, it’s not like every group from the European side of qualification featured a handful of top teams. There are quite a few groups were you could have easily predicted at the time which country would eventually qualify for the World Cup (take Germany, England, Serbia, and Belgium as examples).

Regarding the groups that had more than one top team within them, the second-round play-offs is the perfect way to offer these teams another chance at earning their spot in Russia. Italy, one of the key absentees from this year’s tournament, drew against Sweden in their play-off which many predicted would be an easy encounter for the former. However, they instead struggled in both matches and lost the play-off, forcing them to skip this year’s competition.

This theme of losing to a lower team carried over through other qualifying tournaments. Other countries that people are annoyed at not being in this year’s World Cup like Chile and the United States were also somewhat underwhelming during their two years of matches. The former lost crucial matches against countries like Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador while the latter failed to beat Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago.

At the end of the day, if you fail to make the most of your qualifying matches, you do not deserve to go to the World Cup. Just because the likes of Italy and the United States are bigger countries and also have a lot more history behind them than others does not mean they should be guaranteed a spot. Regardless of quality or size, every country has a chance of playing in the World Cup and the current qualifying process should stay the same.

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