World Cup’s second tier can dream big for knockout stages

Soccer Football - World Cup - Group C - Denmark vs France - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - June 26, 2018 Denmark fan inside the stadium before the match REUTERS/Carl Recine

VATUTINKI (Reuters) – A World Cup final between Denmark and Mexico? Belgium versus Croatia?

A few months ago such scenarios would have been considered surreal but two weeks into this tournament of surprises, the prospect of lower-ranked nations competing in the sport’s showcase match in Moscow on July 15 has gained more credence.

Following Wednesday’s shock exit of four-times champions Germany, the knockout draw could now harbor more surprises than ever before.

Add to that the absence of Italy, who have also won four trophies and three-time finalists Netherlands, who both failed to qualify, the round of 16 has an unfamiliar feel to it.

The absence of Italy, Germany and Netherlands, who have played in a total of 17 World Cup finals between them, has left a rare void.

Yet in the bottom half of the last 16 draw, nations with not a single World Cup triumph to their names like Switzerland, Russia, Sweden, Croatia, Denmark and Colombia have every right to remain hopeful.

One of them is likely to make it all the way to the last four or further with Spain, winners in 2010, and England, winners in 1966, as the only established forces in that half of the draw.

The Spaniards take on hosts Russia in their round of 16 game.

The Swiss, who in 1954 made it to the last eight for their best performance, face Sweden, whose own best showing — a final — dates back to their home World Cup 60 years ago.

Croatia, semi-finalists in 1998 and outstanding so far in Russia, face Denmark while Colombia, who topped their own Group H, play England.

The top half of the draw is crowded with almost all the remaining traditional football powers, as twice-world champions Argentina, finalists in 2014, face 1998 champions France.

Brazil, five-time winners, take on Mexico, and two-time champions Uruguay battle it out with Cristiano Ronaldo’s European champions Portugal.

What is certain for that half is that some former champions will miss out on the last four.

With football fans complaining for years about the sport being dominated at both club and international level by only a handful of teams, this World Cup in Russia has certainly enjoyed a gust of fresh air being breathed into its knockout stages.

With the World Cup’s second-rank now showing far greater consistency and the quality gap with the title favorites having narrowed, there is a chance for the tournament to shift the global axis of world football like never before.