World Cup: This year's champions could defy the trend

Croatian national soccer team fans celebrate winning the Fifa World Cup 2018 group D preliminary round soccer match between Croatia and Nigeria in downtown Zagreb, Croatia, on June 16, 2018.
Croatian national soccer team fans celebrate winning the Fifa World Cup 2018 group D preliminary round soccer match between Croatia and Nigeria in downtown Zagreb, Croatia, on June 16, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Small is beautiful. So the theory goes, and Lionel Messi's fans are unlikely to disagree. When it comes to World Cup finals, however, small may not be beautiful or ultimately successful.

Since Uruguay, then with a population of 2.2 million, won the 1950 tournament, football's most coveted prize has been the private domain of the South American superpowers, Brazil and Argentina, and western Europe's five most populous nations.

Until now? Perhaps. The last 16 features seven countries with populations under 12 million. Between them, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and Uruguay have about 53 million inhabitants - fewer than Italy, who did not qualify; and far fewer than Germany, who have been knocked out.

With two of the usual suspects gone, and either France or Argentina to follow today, it creates an opportunity for an unusual suspect. History could be made.

It would be genuinely remarkable. There may not be a direct link between population and sporting success, but it plays a part where collective endeavours are measured. None of the world's four most populous nations are at the World Cup, but the Summer Olympics medal table has been topped by the United States, the Soviet Union and China in every Games since 1948.

The global game has mirrored those trends. The biggest prizes have gone to the biggest countries from its heartlands.

History suggests smaller nations can conquer a continent, as the Netherlands, Denmark, Greece and Portugal have done in Europe since 1988 and Chile and Uruguay have done in South America this decade, but not the footballing world. There are just too many favourites to overcome.

 
 

The unfavoured have come close. The Netherlands have reached three of the last 11 World Cup finals but the reality that they lost two to hosts shows the problem of taking on a country that have the home advantage. Perhaps some of those who have beaten the odds to reach the latter stages may lack the mentality the eventual champions display.

Now the smaller countries can be split into two categories: Those who would be huge overachievers simply to reach the quarter-finals, in Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, and those with the ability to aspire to more; the potential winners.

Croatia were arguably the outstanding side of the group stage. Uruguay have their best defensive record and, arguably, their best defence. Portugal possess one of the greatest ever players in Cristiano Ronaldo. Belgium's starting XI may be as gifted as any in the tournament.

Yet one reason the larger countries invariably win the World Cup is that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A team is only as good as its worst player and those with a far deeper talent pool will always benefit.

Arguably the weakest player in the starting XIs of the last two World Cup winners was the left-back. Spain's Joan Capdevila and Germany's Benedikt Howedes were not outstanding players, but they were highly competent professionals who complemented world-class colleagues.

Now, while Belgium and Croatia have golden generations who could be the envy of Italy and a better distribution of talent than Argentina, Roberto Martinez is using winger Yannick Carrasco at left wing-back. His lack of defensive nous could be Belgium's undoing. Uruguay's midfield is not the most creative. Portugal's centre-backs are ageing and slowing. In a bigger country, alternatives are likelier to emerge. In a smaller one, more responsibility rests on the flawed.

It was how Portugal won Euro 2016. The usually impotent striker Eder, who would not have got near the France team, turned a weakness into a strength with the final's sole goal.

Perhaps similar expectation-confounding heroics will be required if a smaller country is to reverse the tide of history.