Battle Of The Underdogs: Lessons From The World Cup’s Unexpected

Everyone loves an underdog, there’s no denying it. And whilst a lot of people are still backing the big names, the underdogs have proven themselves.

Kelleigh Korevaar |

Everyone loves an underdog, there’s no denying it. And while a lot of people are still backing the big names, the underdogs like Iran and Morocco have proven themselves to be a force to be reckoned with.

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The reason you love an underdog? It’s science. A 2007 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people preferred to see lower-ranked teams prevail over high ranked-ones. They looked further and saw that even if the higher-ranked team had previously been an underdog, the participants still wanted to see the lower-ranked team win.

In one of the toughest groups of the World Cup, Group B, Iran and Morocco were up against Spain and Portugal. Skilled teams in their own right, they were quickly branded the underdogs of their group. And although they’ve now bowed out of the tournament, they put up one hell of a dog fight. Here’s what you can learn from it.


Iran was up against Portugal on Monday, and what a match it was. Naturally, Portugal controlled most of the game, completing 508 passes compared to Iran’s 131. But it’s Iran who won over the crowd.

After a goalless 44 minutes, Ricardo Quaresma broke the ice, the 34-year-old became the oldest person to score on his first ever World Cup start. The Iranians looked doomed after Cristiano Ronaldo was awarded a penalty, but keeper Alireza Beiranvand, saved the day, keeping the team’s flame alight.

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When the 90 minutes were up, the score remained 1 – 0 to Portugal. Three minutes into overtime, the Iranian’s were awarded a penalty shot. Karim Ansarifar put the ball straight into the top of the net, to tie at 1 – 1. They were able to leave the tournament playing one hell of a game and are sure to come back even stronger in 2022.

Lesson #1: Go With Your Gut.

What’s most remarkable is that this underdog team has an underdog amongst them; the keeper himself. Beiranvand, who blocked Ronaldo’s shot, ended up being homeless because of his passion for football. “My father didn’t like football at all and he asked me to work,” Beiranvand said. “He even tore my clothes and gloves and I played with bare hands several times.” But he worked in a car wash, dressmaking factory, pizza shop and as a street cleaner to support himself. And now he’s playing on the world’s biggest stage.

Your Move?

A study from University College London found that children were unhappier as adults if they had controlling parents. Everyone can recall times when their parents told them they couldn’t do something. Most underdogs succeed not because they don’t have people telling them they can’t do things, it’s because they don’t listen. But be willing to make sacrifices. And if you are a parent, make sure you’re letting your child make decisions that will make them (not you) happy.

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Lesson #2: Wait For The Final Whistle.

Going into the match, Iran knew their chances of success were slim. They were up against one of the highest ranked teams by FIFA, fourth in the world to be exact. But they played the entire game like they had a fair shot and in the end they did. The goalkeeper blocked a goal from arguably the world’s best player, Ronaldo, and they scored in overtime. Even when it was over, they played like it wasn’t and that’s what led a team ranked 37th in the world to draw with one ranked fourth.

Your Move?

A recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that participants worked harder when they were losing, but not when they were winning. So there’s a science to being the underdog. When you feel like you’re up against something or someone you can’t win against, remember that they probably know they should win. Use that to your advantage and work harder because they will be slacking off.


Going into their final game against Spain, Morocco, ranked 41st in the world and already knew they wouldn’t progress to the next round. But the team almost snuck in a win against Spain, ranked 10th by FIFA.

14 minutes in, there was a legendary goal by, no, not Spain, but Morocco. A pass between Spanish players Sergio Ramos, and Andres Iniesta left the ball drifting to the midfield, where Khalid Boutaib  carried the ball right in-between the feet of world-class keeper David De Gea.  Five minutes later, Real Madrid playmaker, Isco, equalised.

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With less than 10 minutes left on the clock, Morocco fired once again. Youssef El-Nesyri sent a header flying past De Gea to send Morocco into the lead once again.

Morocco looked like they had some sort of miracle redemption, but at 90 minutes, they were tested once again. Goal? Not so much. The referee said it was offside. Hope for Morroco? Not so much. After another look it was ruled as fine and the goal was awarded. Five minutes of extra time resulted in two arguments and no more goals. Iago Aspas carried La Furia Roja to the round of 16 as Group B table toppers.

Lesson #3: Don’t Dry Your Eyes

Morocco  came into their final match knowing they were already out. But they also walked onto the field with their match against Iran etched into their memory. Don’t remember? At 90 minutes neither Iran nor Morocco had scored, but five minutes into extra time that changed. Not in the way you would think, though.

Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz headed in a goal. Only problem was it was in the wrong goal post. Yes, Morocco scored an own goal resulting in Iran stealing the win. This left the Moroccan team devastated but when they came back to play Spain, they were stronger.

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Your Move?

Get Emotional. No seriously, if you’re an underdog it could help you. A study in the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making found that getting emotional after a failure helps you come back stronger and improved the next time. And this couldn’t be truer for underdogs, Morocco. “A natural tendency after failure is sometimes to suppress emotions and cognitively rationalise the failure, but if people know the possible negative effects of that behaviour, they can override that natural tendency and focus on the negative feelings. That should lead to learning and future decision-making that is more positive,” said Noelle Nelson, the assistant professor of marketing and consumer in the KU School of Business.

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