RIYADH: As the World Cup enters its final stages, the world’s biggest sporting event has lived up to the motto, “in football, anything can happen.” The Qatar tournament’s underdogs have challenged the status quo by recording wins against some of the highest-ranked teams in the competition.
The predictions of fans and pundits have been thrown out of the window according to former England and Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand.
He told Arab News that it had been the best World Cup he could remember due to the number of shock results.
“It’s because of the games, the different types of outcomes, the underdogs are winning. For instance, you think about Saudi Arabia beating Argentina, Tunisia beating France, you look at these games, Japan beating Germany.
“And Morocco, beating Spain, Morocco beating Portugal — these results are crazy, and these are teams that no one expected to be able to do this,” Ferdinand said.
With 28 teams out and four remaining, all eyes are on Morocco after their win against Portugal in the quarterfinals. The Atlas Lions have been the surprise package of the tournament, advancing from the group stages and beating Spain to go further than any African nation in World Cup history and set up a semi-final showdown against reigning champions France on Dec. 14.
With underdogs beating the likes of Argentina, Brazil, and Portugal, Ferdinand said he felt the gap was closing between national teams.
“I think you’ve seen that, and I think it’s great for football that it gives underdogs an opportunity and belief outside of football.
“Even young children that play the game believe that actually we can win if you work hard, if you’re together as a team and you have all the good values and it’s proven it’s the case on the world stage,” he added.
In the run-up to the tournament, Western media has been dominated by controversies surrounding the event and questions about Qatar’s ability to organize such a major sporting occasion.
But Ferdinand noted that this year’s World Cup had been impressive in terms of match attendances and organization.
He said: “I think you’ve just got to come here and be on the ground and see it and witness it before you talk. I think that’s a key learning for me, coming to this World Cup.
“I have seen and heard a lot of stories and a lot of press and media talking about what it’s going to be like, what it’s not. And then you ask the question, ‘have you been? Are you there?’ No.
“I think if you come, you experience it. I think my experience, I can only talk about my experience and the people that have been around me, and we’ve had a really good time here,” Ferdinand added.
The BBC pundit pointed out that football was always evolving, and that it was teams such as Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Morocco, that had shown significant improvement, that “makes you sit up and go, oh, they must be doing something over there, they must be improving and must be trying to improve facilities. And one thing it will do is spike more engagement and more interest.”
Ferdinand said that if the rumors of ex-Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo joining Saudi Pro League club Al-Nassr come true, his move would greatly benefit Saudi football.
“The Cristiano Ronaldo situation, who knows, the papers and the media are talking and there’s been several clubs mentioned. There’s been several regions, several countries. So, I don’t think anybody knows quite where that’s going to end yet.
“But I think that it can only be positive for Saudi. See the result they got against Argentina, and they’ve done their country proud.”
In the English Premier League, the biggest surprise of the 2022/2023 season has so far been Newcastle United, who sit third in the table and could end up in the UEFA Champions League qualification places this season.
The team, owned by a consortium of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, PCP Capital Partners, and the Reuben Brothers, has surprised fans and pundits, as few predicted their rise in English football would happen so quickly.
Ferdinand said: “Wow, I don’t think they (Newcastle United) even imagined it to go as well as it’s gone at the moment. I know 100 percent that nobody who is part of Newcastle United expected it to go as well and smooth as it has. I think that is testament to the ownership, in the way that they’ve come in.
“They’ve been very measured, they’ve been very balanced, very strategic in their approach, and I think everybody’s surprised by that because we’ve seen it before, the guys that took over Manchester City went and bought Robinho went and bought big, massive players and spent a load of money at the beginning and brought the spotlight to the club that way.
“Newcastle was doing it a very different way and I’m liking what I see,” he added.