MOSCOW, Russia – One would struggle to find anyone who believed the World Cup in Russia was predictable. Big names tumbling early, unlikely runs to the latter stages and a few major upsets made sure of that. But, in many ways, it exactly was that: predictable. There are a few surprising World Cup trends that just insist on sticking and which played out during 31 days of excitement. However, some well-worn patterns finally came to an end, much to the relief of two teams.
Repeated history, early departures for European holders
It almost seems unbelievable, but Germany's 'premature' exit in Russia – if recent history is to be believed – wasn't so extraordinary after all. Ever since the turn of the millennium, no returning champion from Europe has made it past the group stages. Once is a surprise, twice is a shock, but four times? Twenty years ago it would have been impossible to fathom. France (winners in 1998), Italy (2006), Spain (2010) and Germany (2014) have seen their title defence come crashing down around them at the first test.
Argentina haunt Nigeria again
Seeing La Albiceleste and the Super Eagles drawn in the same group back in December will no doubt have had some happy memories come rolling back in Buenos Aires. As of late, this has become quite the tradition. Ever since the West Africans made their first visit to the World Cup at USA 1994, only one of their six tournaments hasn't featured an encounter with the men in blue and white - each time ending in defeat. What's more, every meeting has been decided by just a solitary goal. With Nigeria not having been ahead since their very first meeting in 1994, this year's 2-1 defeat added an extra layer of repetitive pain, as Marcos Rojo scored the winner for the second successive World Cup.
Mexico's fourth-hurdle falter
Looking at El Tri's recent record at the World Cup presents a mix of the enviable and the maddening. Since qualifying for USA 1994, only six other nations have a longer streak of tournament appearances in history, with Russia 2018 taking it to seven in a row. On top of that, only Brazil are currently on a better run of escaping the group stages, with Mexico making it out every time. However, that is always where their journey ends. The frustration continued at the hands of Brazil this year in Samara, as a 2-0 defeat meant the fifth game will remain beyond them for at least four more years.
South Americans suffer in Europe
The elimination of Brazil and Uruguay in the quarterfinals confirmed it would be another fruitless trip to Europe for South American sides. It's now 60 years since their last World Cup triumph on the old continent.
Brazil were eliminated by Belgium in the last 16. Photo: REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Curse ended: Croatia catch a knockout break
The pressure to live up to the heroic team of 1998 has sometimes hung heavy on the shoulders of the Croatian national team. While World Cups have offered slim pickings since, having failed to escape the group stages, twice at the European Championships they slipped at the chance to win a knockout match. With their struggles threatening to become a full-blown complex, particularly for their midfield talismen Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who both missed penalties in a 2008 shoot-out defeat against Turkey, beating Denmark by the same means was a cathartic release. Even more so following Modric's penalty miss seconds from the end of extra-time.
Curse ended: England finally pass spot-check
Speaking of catharsis, coach Gareth Southgate's emotional demons looked to depart in a triumphant roar after England won their own shoot-out against Colombia in the last 16. Having lost all three of their previous 12-yard duels at World Cups, and won just one of six at major championships, it was a widely-held belief: England don't do penalties. Southgate famously missed a crucial one himself in the Uefa Euro 1996 semifinal, so there were few happier than him when Eric Dier struck the winner to buck that persistent trend.