Smells Like Team Spirit

It’s quarter final time and there are a number of un-familiar faces up for a semi-final spot. Is it a fluke that’s brought these teams this far or is there something else at play?

The World Cup in Russia this summer has definitely not disappointed. VAR has rained down penalties on us like we could’ve never have imagined. There have been upsets that we’ve all relished and revelled in, with the Germans crashing out in the group stages for the first time in over half a century. The Spanish failed to meet the grade against hosts Russia in the last 16, and Argentina were downright woeful. All of these teams have individuality quality but none have performed as a team.

The stand out feature is togetherness, comradeship and team spirit

The stand out feature of this year’s World Cup isn’t the frivolity you seen on fans’ faces in the stadiums and streets of Russia, or the plethora of penalties, or even of England winning a penalty shoot out for the first time in their history. The stand out feature is the success, and indeed, the importance of togetherness, comradeship and team spirit that is seeing teams we would’ve never given the slightest chance of success actually succeeding. This comes in contrast to ‘bigger’, more established teams having fallen by the wayside, either crashing out of the competition earlier than expected or looking distinctly lacklustre.

A different competition

It’s true the way the World Cup draw has played out has left the knockout stages a little bit topsy turvy, but that’s also been aided by the likes of Germany surrendering their top group spot to the likes of Sweden. What we’re faced with now is a different kind of World Cup than we expected.

Normally the opportunity to see heavyweights knocking the stuffing out of each other, the desire to see world class talent, or of relishing a team’s potential national embarrassment on the world’s stage is what gets us going. Instead we have a set of teams that are an unexpected success, and yet we’re still brimming with anticipation. That’s what the World Cup is about.

Solid Swedes

Let’s start with Sweden, they’ve been one of the real success stories up to now. They managed to top their group with stellar performances against all three of their opponents in Mexico, South Korea and Germany. But they haven’t done it with a world class team of big name players. Far from it actually, even with Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic missing for the first time in over a decade.

Cowering behind Ibrahimovic two years ago they failed to score a goal from open play

Though therein lies the key. With Ibrahimovic stepping to the side, it has seen the emergence of a team of fairly average players who admittedly have a wealth of experience in their ranks. They no longer lump the ball up to their main man and expect magic to happen. Instead they have to take more ownership for their actions, and ultimately the outcomes.

Under the guidance of Swedish championship winning Janne Andersson and rock-hard captain Andreas Granqvist they’ve managed to turn it around only in the space of two years. Cowering behind Ibrahimovic two years ago they failed to score a goal from open play. Dismally, their only goal in a draw against Ireland was an own goal. Admittedly they’re not playing the best football, but they’ve ushered a collective rallying cry. They play a compact and solid game, and you’ll be lucky to nick a goal against them.

Many will talk about the importance of having a core of players to be a bond and direction in a national side, such as Spain’s team have with a number of players from Real or Barça. Look how much good that’s done them. In contrast, Sweden’s players play as far afield as Seattle, Krasnodar, Toulouse and the UAE, but they’ve come together as a unit in Russia and they definitely don’t want to go back home any time soon.

It's coming home

Another team that’s turned it round in the last two years are England. After a disappointing exit four years ago in the group stage and going out to minnows Iceland at Euro 2016, the Three Lions looked to be heading for another national embarrassment when newly appointed manager Sam Allardyce was sacked after he was caught negotiating dodgy under the table dealings.

In his wake the English Football Association opted to appoint U21 manager Gareth Southgate who has since almost seemingly revolutionised the national feeling with his calm and measured positivity. But if Southgate is sensible then the English fans are certainly not.

Picked on the basis of form and merit during the season a team of talent and grit has emerged

The positive passing play of a more youthful and exuberant England side that has been picked on the basis of form and merit during the season has seen a team of talent and grit emerge. And it’s a team that has captured the hearts of the nation. Although with what England fans have had to put up with over recent years, you can hardly forgive them for getting carried away.

Admittedly, England have a lot more to do to really impress during the competition. Their ability to grind out results in the face of difficult opposition and play good football will serve them well going forward in the tournament, but also in years to come if success is going to be the name of the game from now on.

Iron Curtain raisers

The likes of Russia and Croatia have also successfully negotiated their passage to the quarter finals through a mixture of teamwork and with a positive attacking mentality. Admittedly though Croatia have a little more in the way of talent with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic among their ranks.

They’re a real danger to any one who comes up against them

Even so both teams go up against each other in a quarter final match up that has seen them navigate tricky teams along the way. Croatia have swept aside Nigeria, Argentina, Iceland and Denmark to get where they are. This is no mean feat considering each opponent demands a significant switch in tactical setup. The one enduring quality they’ve taken into each game is teamwork. Coupled with the quality they have, they’re a real danger to any one who comes up against them.

This is no more apparent than for next opponents Russia. They’ve exceeded expectations for sure, but it’s not likely that their fans will see a quarter final exit the same way. To make it past the Croats they’ll have summon everything they’ve got and work together to get it.

This year’s World Cup could still be won by one of the heavyweights in Brazil or France, or even by Belgium who all have a wealth of talent at their disposal. Yet they’ve all failed to gel, to impress, and to ultimately set the tournament alight. Regardless of who lifts the trophy in Russia, the emergence of teams built on a common bond, rather than sheer individually supremacy has made this year’s World Cup refreshingly positive.

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