From Iceland to Senegal, underdogs look to make noise in Russia

March 2, 2018

With the inaugural match of the 2018 World Cup between host nation Russia and relative newcomers Saudi Arabia set to kick off in just a few months time, the World Cup will indeed go on without the inclusion of the United States for the first time since 1986.

The absence of the Stars and Stripes from the biggest soccer competition on the planet should not take away from the magic the tournament will deliver this coming summer. The event still has plenty of excitement to offer fans in the United States, with global giants set to battle it out with unheralded, up-and-coming squads hungry to seize the opportunity to cement their places in the history books.

Of these teams on the rise, Iceland is arguably the most intriguing. With a population of approximately 334,000 people (about 57 percent of the population of the least populous American state, Wyoming), Iceland made their presence known upon their European Championship debut two years ago, drawing 1-1 with eventual champions Portugal in their opening match. Characterized by their “compact, belligerent, and committed” style of play, the consistency and trust amongst the players in Iceland’s well-organized 4-4-2 formation were crucial to the team’s success in the tournament. Upsetting England 2-1 in the quarterfinals before falling to France at the hands of Olivier Giroud’s brace, along with goals from Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann, Iceland had proven their legitimacy on the European stage for the time being—but was Iceland’s performance at Euro 2016 a fluke? Finishing at the top of their group in European World Cup qualifying with seven wins, one draw and two losses, Iceland showed their ability to surprise once again by topping World Cup group-mates Croatia in the Group I table in UEFA qualifying. Building off the same organization and confidence they have shown in both Euro 2016 and the recent World Cup qualifying campaign, along with the world-class spark of playmaker Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iceland are primed to make some noise in Russia this summer.

Senegal is appearing in its first World Cup since 2002, when the team surprisingly topped Uruguay and defending champions France to advance to the knockout stage before crashing out of the tournament in the semi-finals against Turkey. In this year’s edition of the tournament, Senegal has the tools at their disposal to make another shock run. Advancing through the group of African qualifiers undefeated, with four wins and two draws in six games, the team is strong in midfield with a talented group of forwards. With Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line along with Monaco striker Balde Keita and 2010-11 Ligue 1 top scorer Moussa Sow, the Lions of Teranga have the ability to create and finish off chances as a result of the pace, creative ability and technique of their forwards. This fact, along with the physicality and defensive ability of defensive midfielder Alfred N’Diaye, and with Premier League regulars Idrissa Gueye (Everton) and captain Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham), puts Senegal in a good position to succeed against any other midfield combination in Group H (which also includes Poland, Colombia and Japan). Aside from Napoli center back Kalidou Koulibaly, however, Senegal’s defense and goalkeeper are seen as its weakest points. That said, as articulated bluntly by Sports Illustrated’s Avi Creditor, “you’d be unwise to sleep on Sadio Mane-led Senegal” as a result of the assets Senegal has in its midfield and attack.

With Iceland, Senegal, and other hungry, upset-seeking squads nipping at the heels of the global soccer elite, this summer’s World Cup is sure to be overflowing with emotion and excitement, culminating in a special moment for the country who will come away with the coveted FIFA World Cup trophy. Despite the long odds the aforementioned underdog nations face, only time will tell what color the confetti falling after the World Cup Final will be.

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