Gone are the days of established nations mercilessly crushing the minnows at World Cups, the gap between the established elite and smaller nations is shrinking every tournament as the globalisation of football, shared knowledge and greater resources are helping the minnows catch up.
Results like Hungary 10-1 El Salvador, seen at Spain in 1982, or Russia 6-1 Cameroon, at USA 1994, are things of the past. However, it’s unlikely 2018 will bear witness to Pele’s great proclamation of an African team lifting the trophy â€“ which was supposed to happen before 2000.
But that’s not to say some of the less-recognisable teams can’t leave an imprint on Russia. Our friends at Football Whispers have identified five underdogs capable of pulling off a shock at the World Cup.
Under normal circumstances the Atlas Lions would be entering this World Cup with no aspirations beyond beating Iran in their Group B opener on Friday and targeting third place. But these are far from normal circumstances, following the utterly bizarre events around Spain’s preparation.
What was a simple scenario of Spain and Portugal battling it out for first and second has become significantly more complicated after the sacking of Real Madrid-bound Julen Lopetegui and hurried appointment of Fernando Hierro as replacement.
Spain could rally and still emerge as group winners. They do, after all, have a monstrously good side but what has happened will surely have some affect and has given the other two teams in the group more than a glimmer of hope.
Iran are a solid and competitive side who are blessed with a few bright attacking players but Morocco could set the tournament alight and dazzle, not only in their performances but by reaching the last 16.
In Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda they have two prestigiously gifted playmakers capable of creating magic from mud, with the former destined for a move to one of Europe’s major leagues after this tournament following an outstanding season with Ajax.
But to progress they’ll also need to maintain their defensive structure, especially against Spain and the Portuguese. In qualifying Morocco recorded six clean sheets in the final group stage and only five teams in the world allowed the opposition fewer scoring attempts per match (6.37).
And Football Whispers’ exclusive Team Persona radar (above), which uses data from qualifying to show teams’ characteristics, depicts a side who tend to play long balls while dominating with shots.
Calling such a collection of talented players ‘underdogs’ may be a little unfair but, in truth, Serbia have never made any real impact at an international tournament since declaring independence from Montenegro as a team in 2006.
They’ve failed to qualify for any of the three European Championships they were eligible for since and at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa recorded a solitary win over Germany. A memorable triumph, of course, but it meant little as Serbia finished bottom of the group.
That could all change in Russia as, despite being hugely inexperienced in a tournament of this magnitude, Mladen Krstajic has a squad with a perfect balance of veterans and emerging young talent.
In Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Branislav Ivanovic he has three very experienced individuals who can each be a captain on the field, while around them are proven Premier League performers like Crystal Palace skipper Luka Milivojevic and Southampton playmaker Dusan Tadic.
Defenders Uros Spajic and Nikola Milenkovic could see their profiles rapidly boosted in Russia but it’s Manchester United transfer target Sergej Milinkovic-Savic who could prove the superstar with Krstajic increasingly building his tactical gameplan around the in-demand midfielder.
Group rivals Argentina â€“ even with Lionel Messi â€“ are a mess, Iceland are functional but lack flamboyance while Nigeria have talent but are going through generational change and maybe lack the leadership of Serbia.
If they can maintain the defensive solidity that characterised their qualification campaign, with plenty of inspiration further up the field, they can firmly make a mark.
England beware. The Three Lions’ World Cup opener on Monday will not be the pre-Belgium cakewalk many are anticipating. Tunisia may be loaded with largely unknown players but they should provide a considerable test for both England and the Belgians in Group G.
Their performances in the warm-up games is reason enough to feel confident they can stun the two big guns, drawing 2-2 with Portugal and Turkey and narrowly losing 1-0 to Spain in a game which Nabil Maaloul’s side completely neutered La Roja’s possession game.
The Eagles of Carthage can be wildly inconsistent and, with just three games, that isn’t a habit that should generate too much confidence. But if Maaloul can stitch everything together they have genuine upset potential.
In qualifying, they were ranked 12th in the world for scoring attempts per 90 with 16 and were also the second-best placed side for tackles (25), 19th for interceptions (16.87) and ninth for scoring attempts conceded (7.37). They are neither an attacking or defensive side, they can do a bit of both.
Wahbi Khazri may be the most recognisable name in the squad and their go-to man for creativity purposes but Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, Ferjani Sassi and Ellyes Skhiri, in particular, are all clever and committed ball-playing midfielders who can wear a team down.
Group H is wide open and if this World Cup was played four times, it would probably deliver four different winners. Indeed, a model ran 100,000 simulations of the tournament with just a 1.8998 point differential between likely first-placed Colombia and Japan in fourth; no other group came close.
Opportunity knocks, therefore, the Lions of Teranga, who are in their first World Cup since the glory days of 2002. While history will have no bearing on their performance â€“ although the presence of one of heroes of that squad in coach Aliou Cisse makes for a nice transition â€“ Senegal will want to make a similar impact.
It could all come crashing down after one game but there is so much individual talent in the final third, if Cisse can get the balance right and confidence grows at an exponential rate, Sadio Mane, Keita Balde, Mame Diouf, Moussa Sow and Ismaila Sarr could blow teams away.
If anything, Cisse has too many options in that area of the pitch but hopefully the wealth and breadth of attacking talent â€“ eight forwards listed in the squad â€“ hopefully steers him away from conservatism and onto adventure.
Senegal were only tenth in Africa for total scoring attempts per match in qualifying with 11.16 and although have the presence of Chelsea transfer target Khalidou Koulibaly and Salif Sane at the back, shouldn’t be relying on just defence to drag them into the knockouts.
Another World Cup may not be for another 12 years and, as Cisse knows himself, you have to make the most of it.
Saudi football is forever shrouded in mystery. Due to high wages and fervent crowds, rarely do their players ply their trade outside the Gulf state while the Saudi Professional League has almost no global appeal.
In the digital age of social media, with YouTube and blogs covering every corner of football across the planet, Saudi Arabia remains largely untouched by western hands â€“ bar the few often-ageing international players who accept lucrative contracts to play there.
Naturally, very little is expected of Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side, given so few faces are recognisable and Saudi’s preparation for the tournament has been less than ideal having gone through three coaches post-qualification and some less-than-encouraging results in the warm-up games.
In any other group, they would be likely whipping boys but Group A is so weak in quality, especially with Egypt relying on a potentially half-fit Mohamed Salah, assuming Uruguay will finish top, second place is there for the taking.
What the Saudis are unlikely to do, as minnows, is sit back and defend. Their qualification campaign was largely built on attack with Mohammed Al-Sahlawi finishing top scorer across Asia with 16 goals. They also twice put two goals past Australia.
A lack of defensive concentration â€“ a tenant of Middle Eastern football â€“ could be their undoing but then again, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani aside, and with Salah’s fitness unclear, where is the attacking threat?
By James Piercy â€“ follow James and the rest of the team at Football Whispers on Twitter @FB_Whisper