Data | With three “upset” wins in 2022 FIFA World Cup, Asian and African teams have turned giant slayers

South Korean players run towards supporters after winning their quarter-final match against Spain at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, 22 June 2002.

South Korean players run towards supporters after winning their quarter-final match against Spain at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, 22 June 2002.
| Photo Credit: JIMIN LAI

With two Asian teams (Saudi Arabia and Japan) taming two giants of football (Argentina and Germany, respectively), the 2022 FIFA World Cup’s group stages were off to an unexpected start. And with Iran defeating the Wales, three Asian teams have registered victories this World Cup.

The first two wins were surprising as the Elo rating difference between Saudi Arabia and Argentina was 508 points and that between Japan and Germany was 176 points. Elo ratings are used to measure a team’s relative strength. The Elo system assigns a rating to each nation using the results of previous international games. The Wales-Iran game was a close affair as the Elo rating difference between the teams was just seven points.

The number of Asian teams entering and registering victories in the group stage (round 1) of the tournament has been steadily increasing over the years. Entering the group stages is not difficult as each continent has a fixed number of qualification berths. But moving on to successive stages is a different ball game altogether. Table 1A shows the number of teams from each continent that participated in the group stage. Table 1B shows the number of victories registered by those teams in that stage. For instance, five teams from Asia are participating in 2022. Three victories have been recorded by them (till the Morocco-Belgium game on Sunday).

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In 2018, four Asian teams recorded wins in the group stage: Iran against Morocco; Japan against Colombia; Saudi Arabia against Egypt; and South Korea against Germany. Japan’s win was the third biggest upset of the edition (its Elo difference with Colombia was 244 points) and South Korea’s win was the fifth biggest upset across all editions (Elo difference of 364 points). In 2002, South Korea performed even better by managing to enter the semi-finals. That year, Turkey, another Asian nation, also reached the semi-finals as shown in Table 3A. Table 3A shows the number of semi-finalists from each continent.

African teams too have recorded consistent wins in recent years. The Sunday game in which Morocco defeated Belgium is a case in point. With an Elo difference of 241 points, this is the second biggest upset of this World Cup. Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 managed to enter the quarter-finals, though none of them won. North American nations Costa Rica and the U.S. entered the quarter-finals in 2014 and 2002, respectively. The 2002 edition was most diverse, with one country each from Africa, South America and North America, two from Asia, and three from Europe moving to knock-out rounds as shown in Table 2. Table 2 shows the number of quarter-finalists from each continent.

So, the increasingly regular ‘upset’ wins along with occasional breakthroughs to the knock-out stages by teams from Asia, Africa and North America show that the move to increase the number of participating teams from 32 to 48 in the 2026 edition is a step in the right direction.

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But the Europeans and the South Americans continue to dominate the last two stages of the tournament. Apart from the 2002 World Cup, and the inaugural edition, no other non-European and non-South American team has reached the semi-finals stage.

Moreover, as shown in Table 3B, only European and South American teams have ever won the semi-finals. Table 3B shows teams winning in the semi-final stage. Europeans have dominated the past four editions as shown in Table 4. In three of the editions, both the finalists were European. and


Also read: Data | Potential upsets and close games in 2022 FIFA World Cup’s group stage 

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