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By Jonathan Lewis | 2nd Mar 2023
The FIFA World Cup is the biggest stage for the world of football, attracting the best teams from around the globe. However, it’s also been the platform for some of the greatest underdog stories in football history.
These underdogs have defied expectations and football odds while capturing the hearts of fans worldwide with their performances. Let’s take a look at two of the greatest underdogs to compete in the last World Cup, highlighting their achievements and what made their performances so special. From shocking upsets to heroic performances, these teams proved that anything could happen in the world of football.
The Moroccan national team, also known as the Atlas Lions, is currently ranked 11th in the FIFA world rankings. Before the 2022 World Cup, they weren’t even in the top 20, demonstrating how well the team performed in the competition.
It’s safe to say that the Atlas Lions made history at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The team was the only Arab country in the competition and the first team from an African country to qualify for the FIFA World Cup semi-finals.
On December 14th, following one stellar performance after another (including an astonishing win against Portugal), Morocco reached the penultimate stage of the tournament. They faced the reigning World Cup champions, France, and despite their loss in a 2-0 game, they proved to be one of the more consistent teams from Africa.
Beyond being consistent, they gave one of the most impressive performances of any team. They topped the table in the group stages, beating the best European teams to reach the semis. Morocco has qualified for the final stages of the FIFA World Cup on six occasions, namely 1970, 1986, 1994, 1998, 2018, and 2022. They are widely considered a team on the rise and clearly have the potential to make a major impact in future tournaments.
Morocco is no stranger to record-breaking achievements. In 1970, the team was also the first African side to draw in a game in the World Cup in a 1-1 stalemate against Bulgaria. In 1986, they became the first African team to reach the knock-out round in Mexico, having topped their group after beating Portugal and drawing with England and Poland.
Many of Morocco’s impressive achievements can be attributed to its unique combination of local talent and skilled players from immigrant backgrounds. The team’s current roster boasts 14 non-native players, giving Morocco the distinction of having the highest number of players in the World Cup not born in their country of origin.
These players form the bulk of the team, including team captain French-born Romain Saiss, Dutch-born vice captain Hakim Ziyech, and his counterpart Sofyan Amrabat, also born in the Netherlands. Other players were born in countries such as Italy, Belgium, and Canada, reflecting the diverse mix of players in the North African country.
Some of the star players for the team include Achraf Hakimi, a right-back who plays for Paris Saint-Germain; Youssef En-Nesyri, a striker who plays for Sevilla in La Liga; and Hakim Ziyech, an attacking midfielder who plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League.
Despite its small size and population, Croatia has cemented its place as a strong footballing nation on the world stage. The national team, also known as the Vatreni, has qualified for six FIFA World Cups, including their historic run to the final in 2018, where they ultimately fell to France.
Led by star players such as Luka Modrić, Ivan Perišić, and Marcelo Brozović, Croatia has proven to be a dangerous opponent for any team. The team is currently ranked seventh in the FIFA world rankings and has also reached the quarterfinals of the UEFA European Championship a total of three times.
In the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Croatia faced none other than Morocco in the third-place playoff, a rematch of their group-stage match, which ended in a goalless draw. In a thrilling match that saw both teams score early goals, Croatia ultimately emerged victorious with a 2-1 win.
Joško Gvardiol became Croatia’s youngest-ever goal scorer in the national shirt with a sublime header in the seventh minute of the match, while Mislav Orsic secured the win with a curling shot that hit the post before finding the back of the net. Despite Morocco’s late push for an equalizer, Croatia overcame their tough opponents with a 2-1 victory to claim third place in the final standings of the 2022 World Cup.
For the third time in its history, Croatia finished on the podium of a World Cup. The team’s previous third-place finish was in 1998 when they beat the Netherlands 2-1. This time around, they were able to overcome some of the best teams in the world to secure their spot among the tournament’s top performers. And while they fell short of winning the trophy, their performance and resilience have cemented their status as one of the world’s best underdogs.