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If football, and especially international football, is a religion, then the World Cup has to be considered the good land, the land of milk and honey, that which was promised, whether it was by God, Gods or the fates. Every team of the 32 that made it as far as Qatar would have had a feel of destiny about them in different ways, whether they were the sides expected to go all the way, or the ones for whom an appearance here was a surprise but which promised still greater achviements to come. Over two scintillating weeks of football, weeks marred by the moral inadequacies of the hosts and the governing body it has to be said, we got to find out which teams would get the chance to continue on the trek towards paradise, and which ones were being cast back into the desert.
Part Fifteen: The Promised Land
123. Headlights: Matchday One
124. Let’s Try This Again: Matchday Two
125. Rise Of The Underdog: Matchday Three
126. A Soul Destroying Joy To Watch: Matchday Four
127. The Superstar Show: Matchday Five
128. Going For It: Matchday Six
129. Give Everything: Matchday Seven
130. Eff Em: Matchday Eight
131. Prayer: Matchday Nine
132. Pressure Cooker: Matchday Ten
133. The Great Escape: Matchday Eleven
134. What Is Happening: Matchday Twelve
135. At Least We Were Here: Matchday Thirteen
123. Headlights: Matchday One
Qatar – Ecuador
It’s very hard to escape from the World Cup Finals, the most watched sporting event in human history. And it’s nigh on impossible to escape from this particular World Cup Finals, that ever since it was awarded to Qatar over ten years ago has easily become the most controversial iteration of the tournament ever. Qatar is not a free society, for women, for immigrant workers, for LGBTQ+ people, for anyone who has criticisms of its ruling regime, but it is now the home of the world’s greatest sporting showcase. Players, pundits and pubs back home have all been forced to reckon with the question as to whether this tournament should be taking place in Qatar, and what is the best way to respond to the various allegations of human rights failures that have been levelled at the place. Some are boycotting. Some are planning to make a big critical splash at the tournament itself. Some are doing their utmost to just get on with it. News outlets around the world are awash with analysis of daily life in Qatar for the haves and have-nots, op-eds on the ethics of the tournament and even wild stories of Qatar’s World Cup opposition being offered millions in bribes to throw matches (the latter having very little basis in anything resembling credibility).
All of this added up to a very interesting backdrop to the opening game of the tournament, as the host nation began their campaign to do what they can to justify the awarding of the hosting rights. Most have been very dismissive of Qatar on a footballing level, with repeated predictions that they will be the first host to exit a tournament with no points to their name. This too easy foreshadowing of failure perhaps does not do justice to Qatar’s status as the reigning Asian Champions, and maybe also ignores the many advantages, in preparation time and talent pool, that the state’s largesse has afforded them. Plenty overlook such things perhaps, if we are being honest, because it suits a narrative if Qatar do fail: the bigger the humiliation, the greater the joy will be from those for whom this World Cup is a humanitarian tragedy before a ball was even kicked. How was this team going to handle it all? Ecuador, taking up the other half of the field, must feel curiously understudied, but of course for them this was just as big a moment.
The outcome can be summed up little better than to say that this Qatar team, 12 years in the making, were caught in the headlights, and ruthlessly mown down. From the moment that their first pass went astray within seconds of the kick-off, Felix Sanchez’ side looked out of their depth and like they wanted to be anywhere else but on that pitch. Ecuador, despite a lot of very young players who have never graced this level of international football, were presented with red meat. And they enjoyed a hell of a meal.
What unfolded reached truly sad levels. Qatar were saved the ignominy of what would have surely been the fastest goal conceded by a World Cup host when Enner Valencia’s opening header was chalked off by VAR within a few minutes. It was a technically correct offside call created by the incompetence of Qatari goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb, who raced out of his goal to flap at a high ball he had no chance of getting very much like a man experiencing a poisonous mix of panic and stage fright. But he was far from alone. When the Qatari defence was sliced open only a short time later so the same goalkeeper had to bring down Valencia, it all seemed very inevitable, as inevitable as Valencia correcting the record with his smoothly converted penalty.
Qatar couldn’t get more than a few touches of the ball, couldn’t even trap the ball. This was the team that beat South Korea and Japan to win the Asian Cup only three years ago, but here they looked like the side that so many had mocked for their lack of footballing ability 12 years ago, so spooked by what was happening that it was almost surreal. The body language was off almost from the start, and only got worse: when Ecuador scored their second, replays of Qatari captain Hassan Al-Haydos walking away from the goal seemed to portray a man who has had nightmares about this moment for years, and suddenly they are all becoming very real in front of him.
That second goal deserves some attention all of its own. It’s the kind of strike that will probably be forgotten when more spectacular goals get scored later on, but it was a beauty all the same. The perfect cross from Angelo Preciado, high enough that the Qatari defence didn’t really know who it was going to, low enough that it was always going to connect. Michael Estrada’s work in getting Bassam Al-Rawi to abandon Valencia, by jumping too early as a feint. And Valencia, then in space, having the ability to time his jump and head movement to absolute perfection, so that his header delivered that desired mix of power and precision, too fast and too accurate for Al Sheeb to do anything about it. Ecuador looked damn good out there, but then again who wouldn’t?
The game was over then: I think we all knew it. It was hard not to feel some sympathy for Qatar, but it wasn’t as if they really tried all that hard, even in the second half. The hosts ran around like headless chickens, impotent in midfield, trying to pass the ball to strikers in the opposing area and getting nowhere: Almoez Ali’s header wide late in the first half might have turned the narrative of the game, but I suspect he was offside anyway. And once the half-time whistle came, there was a succession of surrenders: from the players who came back out for the second half looking very resigned to their fate; from the Ecuadorians who magnanimously seemed to forgo the chance to run up a large score in favour of cruising to something more respectable, their lock-solid defence not missing Byron Castillo at all; from the thousands of fans in attendance who walked away at the break and never came back; and from Sanchez on the sideline, whose body language mirrored that of his players, impotent, starstruck, hopeless. One moment early in the second half summed up much of the game for me, when Preciado sled and stretched to intercept a Qatari pass through midfield that was pretty much going nowhere, and had to get medical treatment afterwards. It was a demonstration of Ecuadorian commitment and professionalism that Qatar, tonight, could not hope to match. Ecuadorian minds were already on the Netherlands by that stage, this exercise in second gear football already receding into the “job done” category of their World Cup.
The enduring image of this contest, probably the worst World Cup opener in decades, might well be that of Sanchez on the sideline with 15 minutes to play, head in hands, probably already contemplating his post-World Cup career. One suspects the Qatari footballing authorities will not tolerate this kind of failure. And that is what it is: after 12 years of preparation, billions spent on the footballing side of things, a record number of games together, an Asian Cup, appearances in other continental competitions where respectable showings were produced, a two month training camp beforehand and a suspension of the Qatari league, Qatar have ended up with a debate as to whether their footballing side will reside in the annals of World Cup history as one of the worst Finalists ever. Amid the disgusting largesse of the Qatari government, the bussed in fans (most of the Qatari cheering section were from Lebanon according to reports), the chaos at fan zones, the backtracking on alcohol sales, Gianni Infantino’s embarrassing tirade the day before and this stadium, built in a desert, and never likely to be full again once the World Cup has concluded, one has to wonder at what kind of World Cup legacy Qatar will actually be able to fashion. They have four days to remind themselves of the kind of football they played in 2019. Then they will try and get past the shame and embarrassment they have added from the football side of things to the larger mountain of criticism and disgust Qatar in general has brought upon itself.
124. Let’s Try This Again: Matchday Two
Senegal – Netherlands
England – Iran
USA – Wales
Those hoping that the second day of the tournament would alleviate the sense of doom and gloom generated by the hosting situation and Qatar’s miserable performance on the field did not have a good morning. The news that FIFA would book players who dared to wear the “One Love” armband – a rainbow coloured affair meant to show support for the LGTBQ+ community, a community that FIFA ostensibly is right onboard with – was just the latest example of broken faith to add to the pile, amid reports of fake fans being bussed in from across the Arabian landmass, and then finding themselves absent pay. The organisation of the tournament, from fan villages of unkempt tents to the traffic situation in Doha through to widespread claims of ticketing problems at the gates of stadiums, seemed a mess. Was it possible for football, the nominal main purpose of all of this, to actually steal the spotlight back?
It was England and Iran that started the day’s action off, and the predictions of a dour game where Iranian defensive consistency would meet English attacking impotence were proven almost hilariously incorrect. A huge delay of game, after Iranian keeper Alireza Beiranvand had a major collision with one of his own defenders, may have upset the Iranian gameplan, or maybe it was the mixed emotions that any player in a red jersey might have been feeling with everything happening at home: more than one has made critical remarks about the Iranian government as of late, events that have been largely lost in the mire of Qatar. It appeared as if the Iranian players refused to sing their anthem ahead of kick-off, the song roundly booed by their own fans.
Whatever it was the English, who have been putting up with a myriad of criticism and whataboutery when it comes to their squad selection, were not of a mind to show any mercy in the face of Iranian hesitancy and inability to hold onto the ball. Indeed, the jubilation of the celebrations may be directly proportional to the amount of questions Gareth Southgate has been forced to answer about the likes of Harry Maguire, James Maddison and Jude Bellingham, about who he was bringing to Qatar and what formation he would deign to employ. It was Bellingham who started it all off with his very first goal in an English shirt off a fine header, Saka added a great looping volley a short time later then Sterling toe-poked home. That third came on 46 minutes, but just as 14 minutes of injury time has been awarded, which was not exactly what the Iranians would have wanted to see. In the end, not unlike Ecuador yesterday, England seemed content enough with their first 60 minutes work: they were sensational throughout the first half, and quicker than you can say “It’s coming home” you could sense the expectations begin to soar again for the self-proclaimed origin point of football.
The highs of football can often be met by lows in a short space of time: the second half brought some of that for England, who on either side of Saka’s almost farcically easy second dealt with several injury worries with Harry Kane, Kieran Trippier and Maguire all going down for a time. If the increase in hope was palpable in the first, the nerves over what it might mean if players as important as Kane were ruled out with injury was there too. Dodgy defending will also remain a worry, with Maguire badly at fault for Mehdi Taremi’s first consolation and John Stones guilty of clumsy shirt-pulling for the late penalty award: I suppose only with England can we find plenty of reasons for criticism in what was otherwise a blow-out result. Marcus Rashford made it 5-1 with his first touches only a few minutes after that first Iranian goal, then Grealish had his tap-in, so it’s not like England should actually be too worried about where goals are coming from. For Iran, this result is a disaster perhaps not so surprising with a more patient analysis. After all, this is new manager who has not had enough time with the team, a reputation for defensive solidity based on games with lesser opposition and a squad who simply cannot escape the enormity of what has been happening in their nation. But still, for any team with pretensions of getting out of their group, it was an unacceptable surrender.
Just a half hour or so later it was time for what many hoped would be the first truly competitive game of the tournament, but all the talk beforehand was more on who wasn’t playing than who was. For Senegal it was the absence of Sadio Mane, a player whose elevation to a God-tier status at home has come on the back of that breakthrough AFCON triumph and successful qualification for Qatar. For the Netherlands it was Memphis Depay, the Barca man still dealing with a lingering hamstring problem, that has some wondering if he would actually get any game time in this tournament. The question was who would deal best with the absence of such important goal-scoring players, and who would grab Group A by the scruff of the neck. In the end, it would be two opposing players in a very different position who would decide things.
The match itself was, to use the old cliché, a real game of two halves. The first saw an open contest marked by counter-attacks at speed and more than a few Dutch chances and half-chances, with both sides seemingly willing to engage fully and go for the win. The Netherlands erred in overworking everything in the final third, whether it was Frenkie de Jong trying to finesse his way into the net when put clean through on goal, or the minutes spent standing over free kicks that ended up not beating the first man. At the other end Senegal were able to work the ball smartly but without end product, Mane’s absence as bad as feared. The game devolved rapidly in the second though, with an unmistakable feeling of excessive caution from both teams: lots of passing it around, very little forward movement, a lot of errors. It’s an unfortunate reality that in a tournament format where you get just three games to get out of your group, the fear of making a critical mistake can too often outweigh the desire to go for it, and that was obvious enough out there. A late TV shot while it was still 0-0 of an underwhelming Virgil van Djik looking crestfallen, having just hoofed the ball out of play inside his own half, seemed to sum everything up.
But then, enter the goalkeepers. Louis van Gaal’s latest example of inscrutable choices in netminders was Heerenveen’s Andries Noppert, who has barely played a season’s worth of games over the last five years for various Dutch and Italian clubs. He allegedly faced calls from his family to quit the game in favour of a more stable career very recently, with the man himself considering joining the Dutch police. But then along came van Gaal, who has experimented with three other keepers already this year, and suddenly Noppert found himself making his international debut in a World Cup Finals. Perhaps van Gaal was impressed by Noppert’s enormous frame, he standing 6’8, the tallest player at the tournament.
At the other end was Édouard Mendy. In some ways he has had a similar story as Noppert, unemployed for a year around 2014 and seriously considering retirement before accepting a reserve role at Marseille. Impressive performances, a few transfers and a stellar period at Chelsea later, Mendy is able to boast medals from Ligue 2, the World Club Cup, the UEFA Champions League and the AFCON. He can be considered as one of the best African goalkeepers of his generation. In a comparison between himself and Noppert, it would be very easy to state that only one man between the sticks could be relied upon.
But football has a way of turning things upside down, as does van Gaal when it comes to unusual goalkeeping selections. Noppert performed well, with three crucial saves in the second half, demonstrating an ability to get down low at speed or dart an arm out that belied his enormous size. He looked assured, radiating the kind of confidence that the outfield needs to feel from their goalkeeper. Mendy, well, he didn’t really have all that much to do in point of fact, until the dying minutes. When de Jong whipped in a high ball for Cody Gakpo, Mendy could have left it for his defence, could have stayed where he was, but instead decided to race out of his goal and attempt to punch the ball clear. You would expect him to be able to do so: after all, it is one of the most tired clichés in football that a goalkeeper must only leave their goal when absolutely sure they can get to the ball. But Qatar’s Saad Al Sheeb has shown already in this tournament that this does not always work out at this elite level, and when Mendy uncharacteristically failed to make contact with the ball, it was Gakpo left celebrating a late go-ahead strike for the Netherlands. Deep in injury time, after another impressive save from Noppert to keep his side in front, Mendy was arguably again at fault, parrying Depay’s late shot straight into the path of the oncoming Davy Klaassen to kill the tie dead.
In the aftermath Noppert was overjoyed clearly, praising van Gaal as the only man who would have even thought of selecting him. Van Gaal himself was more pragmatic, saying that Noppert was selected because he could stop such shots and for no other mystical reason. One can imagine at least the beginnings of a hidden grin from the coach though. For Senegal, it’s a bad return for a game that looked like it was winding down to shared spoils, and their tie with Ecuador on the 25th November now looks likely to be one of the most fraught of the group stage.
Our last match of the day was an emotional one, evident from the powerful rendition of “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” as soon as the Welsh players, their country at a World Cup for the first time in 64 years, screamed it out along with their thousands of travelling supporters. The USA, in contrast, looked a little nervous pre-game, but then football, as it does, turned it all on its head. In the first 45 Wales looked almost as overawed as Qatar had looked, chasing the shadows of a youthful American side driving at them, retaining the ball and generally taking on the form of an annoying swarm of wasps, zipping around the Welsh penalty area at their ease and shrugging off the flailing efforts to swat them away. The goal, when it deservedly came, was a fine one, where American skill at bursting forward from midfield through Christian Pulisic was rewarded with a smart finish from Timothy Weah.
Wales genuinely looked dead and buried at half time, with Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, the key men, appearing like unfit passengers. But then things changed. There were practical alterations, with Kieffer Moore’s introduction at the break key in getting Wales more involved at a midfield level. There was a mental shift as well: American stamina came up against Welsh experience, with Cymru seemingly having it drilled into their heads that they would not be capable of outrunning the opposition, so they would just have to be smarter, with their passes, their tackles, their utilisation of space. Most importantly, there was belief. That’s a very intangible thing, one created as much by the cheering of the crowd as it is on the pitch, but Wales had it. The thousands singing behind Matt Turner’s goal in the second half were urging their players on, keeping the faith that this long-awaited moment would not be a busted flush, and that psychic energy seemed to seep down onto the pitch and into the bodies of those wearing red.
Ben Davies went close from a corner, drawing a fine save from Turner. Moore headed just over a short while later. Wales survived the American counter-attacks, and kept faith in keeping a tiring Bale on the field past 60 minutes, 70, 75. And, in a moment of beautiful footballing justice, they were rewarded. In truth Bale had a poor game by the standards expected of him, but he showcased what he can do in nipping in front of Walker Zimmerman just as the American centre-back was clearing a loose ball: Bale was smart enough to know that he wouldn’t be able to get to the ball, but in trying to Zimmerman was going to clatter into him. It’s a dark art, but not an illegitimate one, and Bale played his role to perfection. A few deep breaths later, he had Wales level.
The rest of the game was a fun affair with both sides going for it, throwing in the tackles, getting hurt and frantically scrambling around in the search for a winner. But this was one game where the lack of a winner seemed OK to me. It was a proper World Cup tie, short on goals but not on bravery and daring. No one deserved to lose it. It took four games, but Qatar 2022 finally had a contest worthy of this level of international competition. Day Two of the tournament was an exercise in “Let’s Try This Again” after the lows of Day One, and for this 90 minutes and change at least, we were reminded of why we are all here.
125. Rise Of The Underdog: Matchday Three
Argentina – Saudi Arabia
Mexico – Poland
Denmark – Tunisia
France – Australia
Day Three came as a reminder that Qatar have more investment in this tournament than purely as a shiny bauble of international prestige (how is that working out?) or with their team. The Qatari Investment Authority owns Paris Saint-Germain, and two of PSG’s great players – one on the way out of this level more than likely, another still in the early stages of what is already a glittering international career – got their start today. The theme of the day was Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, with both expected to be shining lights of this Finals in pursuit of crowning glories. But of course there were others to consider too, not least the highly fancied Danes. On the first day with four games, with all five of the confederations with teams at the tournament represented, it seemed that the festival of football might finally be in full swing. And it would be a day when the underdogs and the lower seeds rose to the fore, upending superstar focused headlines and favourite tags to show what they can do.
The first tie of the day seemed to be going to the script at first. Question marks over the fitness of Messi appeared to have been more a combination of clickbait seeking and Argentinian nerves than anything else, as he coolly converted an early penalty against Saudi Arabia. A potential rout seemed to be on, with thoughts of Saudi Arabia’s 2018 opener, a 5-0 demolition at the hands of Russia, obviously coming to mind. But then, as Argentina thrice failed to time their runs right and had goals chalked off for offsides (VAR right in all instances, but taking far too long in the case of the second), it became clear that the Saudis were here to give Argentina a game.
Make no mistake about it, they came to play, helped by the large numbers of travelling Saudi fans who made the short trip. They pressed, they buzzed around the Argentinian area, they made a few half chances, and anytime they got on the ball the wall of noise behind them was plainly obvious for anyone watching on at home. It was no great surprise when the half-time break came with things still “only” at 1-0: neither side looked too displeased, but that was about to change,
In the first 15 minutes of the second half, Saudi Arabia roared back. This is a team that has far too often been the butt of jokes, who after this game would claim the lack of reporters at a pre-game press conference drove them on. It’s important to recognise that admiration for this group of players does not extend to the nation that they represent, whose human rights record is probably worse than Qatar’s, all things considered (and indeed, many high up in the Saudi world will enjoy this result more for getting one up on their Qatari rivals than anything else). But that said, it was hard not to be swept up in what the 11 players on the pitch were capable of doing. Not just equalising with a fine individual goal from Salah Alshehri, not just going ahead with a delicious curler from Salem Aldawsari (whose celebration is an easy pick for future World Cup highlight reels; the striker himself is a curiously under-studied individual, who has been banging in goals in Asia for years now) but then holding onto that lead for the better part of 45 following minutes against one of the best teams in the world.
That time was a treat to watch for fans of the underdog. Argentina, to their credit, didn’t exactly panic and kept working the angles and the passes, but Saudi Arabia were equal to them. There were truly heroic moments: Hassan Altambakti’s last ditch tackle to deny Messi a likely equaliser only a few minutes after they had gone ahead; goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais denying Lautaro Martinez from almost point blank range and saving again from the same man later; and the never-ending wall of noise from the Saudi fans. If there is any magic left at this stage of elite competition, then it was on that pitch in spades, as the epic rear-guard action kept Argentina out again and again, through the end of normal time, and through a mountain of injury time. Argentina’s composure dropped bit-by-bit – Lionel Scaloni’s decision to make the dreaded triple substitution probably didn’t help, giving the side an unbalanced feel in terms of the number of attackers – and in the end they didn’t have it in them. The Saudi celebrations at the end were everything you signed up to watching a World Cup for, their names etched into the history books alongside other major World Cup shocks. And it was an absolute joy to watch. It’s a national holiday in Saudi Arabia today, one well deserved, with head coach Herve Renard having one more feat to add to his eclectic international resume.
It’s important not to dismiss Argentina of course. One fraction of a timed run and they would have killed the game in the first half, and of course they lost the opener of Italia 90 and then made it all the way to the Final. They played quite well in large stretches, and I was very impressed with the likes of the forward Martinez, whose first disallowed goal probably deserved to have stood just for his bravery in advancing almost to the feet of Al-Owais before he coolly lifted it over him. They are still a very good team. But they got ambushed big time here, by a Saudi side that has had a long-standing fallow spell in the World Cup, but who converted their fine qualifying form into a performance for the ages. And now, time is very much running out for Messi and his side, with the talisman subdued on the pitch and subdued when facing the press inquest afterwards.
I think we were all ready to see another unfancied side bring it more fancied opposition, and we got that in the first half of Denmark and Tunisia. The parallels in terms of support were striking, with 30’000 Tunisians there in force to cheer every minor success for their side and jeer the Danes into nervousness. Denmark remained the better side on a technical level, that was clear: they passed the ball around better, retained possession better, darted into the box better. But Tunisia were not mere spectators, and seemed intent on winning the psychological battle in every big tackle, every error enforced on Denmark and in those rare moments when they burst forward. Aissa Laidouni’s reaction to an early clear-out, beating his chest and screaming, was indicative of the mood. Kasper Schmeichel pulled off what might be the save of the tournament thus far when he tipped Issam Jebali’s chipped effort away, even if it would probably have been called offside if it had gone in. It was not Tunisia’s only chance of that half, and they were unfortunate not to give their travelling hordes something more to cheer about before half-time.
By the time that the Tunisian fans started cheering every successful pass made by their side, it was clear that they had taken root inside the Danish players heads. True, Denmark had the ball in the net from Skov Olsen before it was disallowed, correctly, for offside, and true they made Aymen Dahmen make more than one save. But despite their technical dominance and panache, a lot of the time it seemed like Tunisia were the more potent team going forward, an impression perhaps helped by the roars that accompanied every moment they made when on the ball. In the aftermath of games where the number of empty seats was a talking point in and of itself, it was a welcome change.
It’s important not to insult Tunisia by claiming this result was down entirely to Denmark getting psyched out. There were practical things that Tunisia did, like changing their usual three in midfield to four which seriously disrupted Denmark’s ability to create from that part of the field. Their willingness to attack the game was no emotion-fuelled rush of madness, it was a calculated thing meant to give them a chance to score as well as un-nerving the Danes. Denmark were guilty of some bad misses, and the next few days require a serious introspection in that camp: can it be said that they are letting the hype get to them?
The first 0-0 scoreline of the tournament is nothing to mourn, since the game that accompanied it was no borefest. Both sides had reason to come out of the contest happy – Denmark since the environment was so hostile, Tunisia for beating the odds and not getting rolled over by European opposition – but also had reasons to be quite unhappy. For Denmark the question coming into this game was whether they can actually be considered one of the favourites for the World Cup, or “just” a dark horse: the lack of penetration here and the exhibition of nerves at various points seems more an indication that they belong to a level beneath both of those categories. For Tunisia a repeated inability to score goals, something that has haunted their recent campaigns, once again became evident, with the Eagles of Carthage wasting several good passages of play through bad throughballs, poor shooting or an inability to remain in line with the last man.
Onto the battle of the two sides who the narrative insisted would be battling for second in Group C, but who suddenly found themselves knowing a win would put the victor in pole position to top the group. Mexico came into the tournament amid accusations that coach Gerardo Martino doesn’t know what he is doing, with the Mexican media prepared to fillet the man if the side, once again, are not able to get beyond the Second Round (though getting out of the First Round might be challenge enough). Poland came into the tournament as everyone’s designated one-man-team, with Robert Lewandowski carrying his nations hopes along with everyone else’s criticisms.
If the Saudis and Tunisians had given fine voice to the first two games, then the Mexicans in Stadium 974 were happy to try and do even better. Flat-out roars greeted Mexican possession, and astoundingly loud boos anytime a Pole was on the ball. And, not unlike the fan movement named after Mexico, it was telling that such cheering was the highlight of a fairly dour first half, where neither side covered itself in glory. Mexico weren’t as bad as previously advertised, keeping the majority of possession, with players like Alexis Vega down the right proving themselves useful. But they didn’t test Wojciech Szczęsny in the Polish goal really, the majority of his half spent catching high balls or watching speculative efforts go well wide.
The rest of his job involved booting the ball downfield in the general direction of Lewandowski. If Argentina have been criticised for a “Pass it to Messi and see what happens” attitude, then Poland are far more guilty of similar. The only problem is that Lewandowski was hopelessly isolated, covered well by at least two defenders at all times and with no support from the midfield. Poland seemed incapable of building play up from the back when their counter-attacks broke down: on numerous occasions their in-possession set-up betrayed a serious lack of width, before, you guessed it, a pass forward seeking Lewandowski that went nowhere. By the last ten minutes of the half things had gotten really bad: when Sebastian Szymański received the ball near the halfway line over on the left wing, and promptly booted it all the way back to his goalkeeper, you would be forgiven for groaning audibly. Things were seriously aimless.
Owing to the heat, fatigue and the natural human desire to just go for it, things became more stretched in the second half. I don’t know if I would fully call it entertaining exactly, but the franticness at least added a bit of spice to proceedings. The key moment was, of course, Lewandowski’s penalty, that he both won and then failed to convert. His wait for a World Cup goal goes on, and it might actually be unfair for much of the attention to be on the Polish striker, when Guillermo Ochoa pulled off such a perfect goal-line dummy before reaching out and parrying away the kick. It’s an important moment for Ochoa, who has often been the subject of criticism from the fanbase who feel the elder statesman of El Tri should no longer be in the team. He certainly will have changed a few minds after that save.
The rest of the game passed in the established pattern: the odd breakaway whose excitement was magnified by the noise from the crowd, before things broke down in the face of a determined defence. At points Poland had six at the back, and long before the final whistle there was a sense that a lot of people on the pitch were happy to share the spoils. One might argue that the happiest team coming out of the second 0-0 draw for the day was Argentina, who still have a path to top the group if they win their remaining two games. They wouldn’t have been the only ones thinking more about other things: I went into this game wondering who would be the presumptive number two in the group, and ended it marvelling at the sight of Saudi Arabia topping the pool.
It was already a day for underdogs before one of the biggest disparities in rankings met with France taking on Australia. The curse of the defending champions loomed large over the contest, and France of all teams did not need reminding of how bad things can go after the opening of 2002. A defending champion hasn’t made it out of the group stage in 12 years, but surely a France team this good, despite the injury absences, weren’t going to fall prey to the same set of eerie coincidences?
Then, barely eight minutes in, Craig Goodwin smashed home at the end of a well-worked Australian move, and the alarm bells started ringing. The Socceroos come into the tournament with a reputation for uninspired football, but that opener was anything but, a sweeping movement that started deep in the Australian half, saw Mathew Leckie leave Lucas Hernandez (immediately off, yet another injury for Les Bleus) for dead down the right, before Goodwin, drifting in from the left like he was invisible, made himself available to hit a shot no goalkeeper could have stopped. The Australians have always believed that they truly belong at this level, despite a succession of poor Finals appearances since 2006: they came this year ready to fight it seemed, to be every bit the “boxing kangaroos” that coach Graham Arnold amazingly insisted they would be beforehand.
But were they playing the France of 2002, or the France of 2018? There were signs of the former in the aftermath of Goodwin’s goal, with careless passes and a lack of ideas going forward. These things can build and build as time passes, until the trailing side is tumbling into a mental abyss of failure and recriminations. Maybe that’s why Didier Deschamps celebrated as he did when Adrien Rabiot’s header levelled things up, not so much because his side had scored against Australia, but because his side had avoided the same abyss Argentina, and to a point Denmark, tumbled into earlier. The pressure lifted, France were more at ease and when Australia made their first big error of the game, Nathanial Atkinson caught in possession by Rabiot, it took only a few seconds for Oliver Giroud to stroke the ball into an empty net. Normal service was resumed. France dominated the rest of the half, even if their offence had a predictable “Down the right, cutback” feel to it. Jackson Irvine’s header that bounced off the outside of the post let us know that Australia were not out of it just yet.
The second half unfolded with surprisingly little urgency however, like it was still 1-1 and both sides were happy with that. Australia held the line deep, surrendering the midfield, and the initiative. France kept probing, mostly down the flanks still, mostly with cutbacks. Australia tired, and the killer goal had a sense of destiny about it. Mbappé showed why this is his World Cup to claim, with his pace going down the right hugely impressive, his range of passing sublime and his sense of confidence infectious. Even when he missed a glorious opportunity early in the second, the manner in which he hopped up, smiled and got on with things was like a signal to his entire nation to relax and enjoy the show. He demonstrated why he might be considered the best player playing today, and it was not terribly surprising when his header killed the game dead just past the hour mark. This was a France team that seemed confident, waving away the injury enforced absences as immaterial, shrugging off the early setback and laughing at the idea that they were not the presumptive group toppers. Pogba, Kante, Benzema? Who? Nothing perhaps best sums up the feeling than the fact that Giroud had to be cajoled into celebrating his second goal, a straightforward header that drew him level with Thierry Henry on the table of France’s all-time leading goalscorers. It was like he was saying “So what? It’s only Australia”.
It was very much the rise of the underdogs on Matchday Three. The Saudis pulled what we have to consider the biggest shock in World Cup history, Tunisia badgered Denmark to a well-deserved draw, Mexico gave the figurative middle finger to critics who think they are on course for their worst World Cup since the early 90s and even Australia, despite the final score, did enough to demonstrate their ability to fight the giants of football to the point of making them believe a result was possible. After opening days of the tournament that have been underwhelming in different ways, this 24 hours was a balm to the soul. But was it the start of something wonderful, or an aberration soon to be consigned to the history books?
126. A Soul Destroying Joy To Watch: Matchday Four
Morocco – Croatia
Belgium – Canada
Germany – Japan
Spain – Costa Rica
Four would-be World Cup challengers – every one of them a European side, as it happens – went into action on Day Four. All four faced lower seeds they would normally be expected to beat comfortably, but the events of the previous day focused some minds on the possibility of further upsets and frustration for the would-be giants of the sport. Croatia, Belgium, Germany and Spain on the one hand, Morocco, Canada, Japan and Costa Rica on the other: was Qatar 2022 capable of keeping things remarkably competitive between the different seedings, or were we due another few routine wins for the favoured party? And can we go even one day without FIFA and Qatar humiliating themselves, this time by insisting sides can’t even put the word “Love” on their jerseys?
No one could be really sure what kind of Moroccan side would show up, given Walid Regragui was only appointed to the top job so soon ahead of the tournament. That situation was probably reflected in the sight of Regragui out on the side-line very early, looking very stressed. He would stay there for most of the game. Just like the Saudis and Tunisians yesterday, it was Morocco fans making all of the noise in the Al Bayt, from first minute to last, and it can’t be denied that the presence of so many countries from the Middle-East and North Africa has given a very valuable sense of atmosphere to these ties, even with thousands of empty seats still in evidence.
Yet the resulting game was a disappointment, a 0-0 more on the level of Mexico/Poland than Denmark/Tunisia. Morocco pressed up high, attempting to disrupt Croatia’s aims of playing out from the back and getting their dynamic midfield into the fight, and for most of the game they were successful in doing so (and they were undoubtedly also helped by Fernando Andres Rapallini, whose leniency as referee played more into Moroccan efforts to break up play than Croatia’s efforts to create some). There were few chances in the first half, and even less in the second.
All eyes were on Luka Modric of course. It might seem strange for so much to be placed on the shoulders of a 37-year-old, but commentators, players and fans alike were alive for his involvement whenever it came up. I would say that Modric had a quiet enough game by his standards, with some aimless crosses and throughballs countered by some critical defensive interceptions whenever he was helping out at the back. A fizzing shot from the Croatian captain near the end of the first half might be as close as they really came. He can do better, and will probably have to before this World Cup is over.
It’s too easy to dismiss scoreless draws as boring contests: for those of a mind to examine the shape and formation of teams in such things, there is much to find. There was something admirable in the way that Croatia set-up in the second half, flooding the midfield with Modric moving out towards the right more and more, passing the ball patiently in midfield and back to the defence if needed, always looking to stretch the opposition and find holes. But equally impressive then was Moroccan steadfastness in the face of such pressure and time without the ball, as they worked hard to keep their shape, stop gaps from appearing and then bursting forward fast whenever they won the ball. Concerns that Regragui would not have adequate time to get them set-up would appear to have been groundless. Of course there was nothing really happening when Morocco burst forward, and in many ways it was a curiously impotent contest: aside from a flurry of Croatian strikes at goal late in the first half and Azzedine Ounahi’s chance for Morocco early in the second, there was precious little goalmouth action to report. Morocco are certainly happier with the point than Croatia, but I feel like it is the neutral that should be happiest really: this result at least means both of these sides will have plenty of motivation to go for it in their remaining group games.
Still, you don’t sign-up for watching a World Cup Finals to see teams struggle to score, and so to more hope with a still evolving Germany side and a pacy Japanese opposition. The latter had the first ball in the net of the day early on off a blistering counter-attack, winning the ball in midfield for Daizen Maeda to smash home less than ten seconds later, but he was only able to do so because he was offside. The signs were there, that Japan were not going to let Germany’s reputation affect them.
Germany did slowly come into the game. There’s a question as to what kind of team Hansi Flick has brought to Qatar, whether they will carry the qualifying form with them, or instead the run of results in the Nations League. For the most part they played well in terms of holding the ball and running at the opposition, and I was impressed with how they seemed willing to take shots on outside the box, a “pull the trigger” attitude that has been rather lacking from the tournament thus far. Japan faded away from the game in the first half, only ever sending swift runs down the right flank to no effect, and Germany’s were deservedly in front through Gundogan’s penalty.
It’s perhaps here that it is appropriate to talk a bit more about the triumphs and failures of VAR. Greater accuracy for offside calls has long been something that proponents of the system have advertised as a benefit, but there are times when the minutes it takes to get a decision make all the promises ring hollow. Case in point: poor Kai Havertz, sticking the ball in the Japanese net from a clearly offside position and knowing it, yet going through a ritual of hugging with his teammates because the linesman didn’t have the courage to put the flag up. VAR took far too long to come to the conclusion that everyone else, including the nominal goalscorer, had come to. This needs to be fixed.
The second half was fun though. Japan did just enough to stay in it but never looked like threatening Manuel Neuer’s goal, all huff-and-puff but no end product. At the other end Germany’s dominance without scoring strayed close to comical levels: first there was Jamal Musiala’s wonderful individual run, leaving four Japanese defenders looking witless around him, before he blasted wide, then Serge Gnabry’s three efforts denied by Japanese goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda. The first, a clever passback from Musiala after he had goaded Gonda out of the goal, before the keeper recovered to get down and block Gnabry’s low effort. The second, seconds later, a full-stretch tip away off a close range header. The third, just after, Gonda making himself low and big to deny Gnabry’s rebound. Japan were getting thrashed, but it was still just 1-0.
From such things wonderful moments are made: just ask Saudi Arabia. It’s somewhat of a shame that Neuer’s save from Junya Ito, a wonderful palm away from a close-range half-volley, is destined to be forgotten amid the manic scenes of the last 15 minutes, followed as it was so shortly afterwards with another excellent stop from Neuer. The problem with the second stop was that Germanys back four didn’t do their job with the rebound, and Ritsu Doan, only on for seconds, was there to tuck it away. It all came from the kind of fast-paced flowing move we have come to associate with Japan, with Germany’s back line lacking the stability we have come to associate with them. The goal came from three substitutes all connecting, and acclaim for Hajime Moriyasu bravery was already showering down before full-time.
The most common criticism of Japan in 2018 was that in the disastrous final few minutes against Belgium they kept attacking, and I did wonder if the lesson had been learned. Seemingly not, but with a more positive outcome this time: when Takuma Asano took the ball down from a floating pass, then skinned Nico Schlotterbeck, then planted a rocket past Neuer at the near post, it felt like the Blue Samurai were sending a message. They didn’t come here to scrap for draws against the higher seeds, or to defend the possibility of a single point. They came to here to win and that is, after a few scares from a desperate German pile-on, exactly what they did.
It’s not quite as big a surprise as yesterday morning – as many commentators were almost gleefully quick to point out, Germany’s last World Cup Finals game before this one was a loss to AFC competition – but it’s more than enough to extend the feeling that Qatar 2022 might be turning into the tournament of shocks. Flick now has a job to do to prevent another 2018-esque collapse from his side who will be left wondering what has happened to them since Mario Gotze won the lot in 2014. The point might be that not enough has happened, with Flick’s Germany against Japan bearing all the hallmarks of Joachim Löw’s Germany against Mexico and South Korea. Japan, their blue-clad team streaming onto the pitch in raptures at full time, can once again dream of knock-out football.
For our third game of the day, hopes that another giant killing might take place seemed a bit more forlorn. After all, even with Costa Rica’s familiarity with Qatar – they won their place in the tournament by beating New Zealand here last June – it seemed a lot to put one of the final 32’s stingiest teams in terms of scoring goals up against Luis Enrique’s side, who some believe embody a resurrection of the 2010 “death by football” squad that dominated things for four years. This time there was to be no romantic triumph against adversity, no second half comeback to send commentators scrambling for comparisons in the footballing annals, and no national holiday declared in San Jose. Instead we got the blanket, better known as Spain.
And “blanket” is apropos, because Spain covered the pitch from end-to-end, displaying such dominance in terms of possession kept, passes made and time spent in the opposing half that it seemed very much like a “forwards vs backs” training session that just so happened to take place inside a World Cup stadium. Spain would end up with one player finding a teammate a jaw-dropping 994 times, with Costa Rica managing this basic footballing feat just 166 times in response. And this was not a case of holding onto the ball impotently, as Spain did in 2018 against Russia where they passed the ball on over 1’100 occasions and lost on penalties. No, this was a much more productive domination.
The quick passing, just one or two touches before the ball was moved on, had Costa Rica beat inside a half hour. Pedri, astonishingly still a teenager, ran the show from midfield, always there to be found, always able to find his man, and showing absolutely no fear of the occasion ahead of him (admittedly, it helped that there was almost no pressure on him). Gavi, also just a teenager, was unplayable at times. The veteran heart, in players like Sergio Busquets, was solid as a rock. The first goal was a perfect example of what Spain can do, zipping the ball around, finding the way through and having Dani Olmo with the confidence to dink it into the waiting net. Spain were rampant from then on in, brushing off any Costa Rican attempts at a high press and finding the channels through the middle, down the flanks, back to the middle and in behind the defence. Ferran Torres’ penalty, stroked gracefully and without any shred of nerves past a despairing Keylor Navas, was every bit the example of cocky confidence that Kylian Mbappé’s display was for France yesterday.
The second half was merely more of the same, and all the more remarkable given that Spain were easing off ahead of a now monumental clash with Germany on Sunday. Irish commentary dubbed their ability to move the ball around at will “soul destroying movement” but only seconds later, in the aftermath of Torres’ well-worked second strike, could only admit that such things were “a joy to watch”. That’s the inherent contradiction of tiki-taka of course: there are those who deem it a frustrating exercise in watching just one side getting to play, and scoring more by a strange form of attrition, but when it gets pulled off to the utmost, when the tactics turns a team of 11 players into one combined entity, it really is a thing of beauty. It got the Spanish three more goals before the end, Gavi’s almost toe-poked volley the pick of the bunch.
Costa Rica become the first World Cup side since 1990 to not register a shot on goal in 90 minutes (depressingly for Los Ticos that 1990 side was them, in a game against Brazil). It’s a dire statistic to put against the scoreline, and makes a mockery of coach Luis Fernando Suarez getting a new contract as lately as August. It’s never nice to see teams getting flattened at this level and their World Cup, and the chances of recreating the magic of 2014, already seems a lost cause. Spain will face far more difficult challenges in days to come, against sides who will not be so easily kept off the ball, but for now they can glory in a definitive statement match. Luis Enrique and his team are not here to blood youngsters and build for the future. For them, the future is now.
I was very much looking forward to the last game of the day, the beginning of a golden generation’s swansong in Belgium going up against a young exciting Canadian team out to make a serious impact in their first World Cup in 36 years. Not that we should say that Belgium had the monopoly on veterans, with Josh Hutchinson in the Canadian defence winning the record for oldest starter in a World Cup at 39 (Roger Milla maintains the overall record at 42, while it’s worth noting that Hutchinson is the only player in the Canadian squad to be alive the last time the country was in a World Cup). Youth and drive vs experience and established ability: this had the makings of a World Cup classic.
The first half did not disappoint. Canada, a team whose bond and refusal to be cowed by any opposition on their run to this tournament, came out of the gates flying, and rarely let up for the following 45 minutes. Their press had Belgium rattled very quickly, with the left side of their defence looking particularly vulnerable to Canadian throughballs and dribbling. Within a few minutes the Belgian goal was already being peppered, and from such a deflected effort did Canada win an early penalty. They had cause here to be a little frustrated with referee Janny Sikazwe – he of “Blew up early twice in an AFCON match” infamy – who took an age to blow his whistle for Alfonso Davies to take the kick. He was already bossing the game but the natural nerves of a World Cup debutante may have been allowed to build too much. Davies hit a poor effort, and Belgium were relieved not to be down early.
The rest of the half had serious shades of the USA/Wales game earlier in the tournament, with Canadian stamina and speed leaving the older Belgian side in the ha’penny place. Just about the only thing stopping Canada from running as rampant as Spain had earlier was Sikazwe, who from about the 15th minute on suddenly started blowing for every contact on a Belgian player, whether it was foul worthy or not. The frustration of the Canadian players, spectators and the neutral grew, but the ref seemed intent on preventing Canada from using their strength to muscle Belgium’s stars off the ball. When a clumsy Axel Witsel tackle on Richie Laryea later in the half resulted in no penalty, first from Sikazwe and then VAR, the officiating began to take on a shambolic appearance.
The Great White North came on and on regardless, and for periods it seemed like they were doing everything right, except score. Thibaut Courtois had more than one effort to parry away, the Canadians blasted shots wide that were easier to put on target and on more than one occasion players like Jonathan David took on shots when a short pass to an open man would have resulted in a better opportunity. By the end of the first half the shot count was 12-2 in Canada’s favour, a reflection of how stogid Belgium had looked. Kevin de Bruyne, by his own enormous standards, was having a very poor game, not asserting himself in midfield and putting a number of attempted throughballs straight into the feet of a Canadian defender.
Football is a cruel game sometimes, where you do not always get what you deserve. Canada deserved to score on the basis of their domination, their drive and their fearlessness, but then again it was on them to convert one of the chances. They didn’t, and the first goal of the game was one of those two Belgian shots. It was bizarrely simple when it came: a long ball from Toby Alderweireld deep in his own half, Michy Batshuuayi sneaking in with the Canadian defence caught unprepared and a first-time sidefoot past Milan Borjan, who arguably could have done more. It was a sucker punch shortly before the half, though Canada were back up at the other end and making chances before the whistle for the break. The largely cowed, frantic side were one up on the better team. Could Canada keep up the effort, and score the needed, and deserved, goal?
No. No they couldn’t. It’s important not to romanticise this all too much I suppose. We have a very human tendency to glorify defeat, especially when it comes in these circumstances, fighting hard against an aging giant who looks so poor in comparison. We don’t cheer Goliath when he gets a cheap shot in on David to just about win their fight. But Canada’s conversion rate – 21 shots on goal, two on target, no goals – is about as dire as you can get at this level. Compare that to Spain earlier, who hit 16 shots on goal, seven of them on target and seven of those in the net. All it needed was for one of those 21 shots to get past a determined Courtois and Canada would have had reason to explode. But none of them did. Belgium could have killed the game on several occasions, coming into it bit-by-bit, breaking forward as Canada pressed on, but fluffed their lines each time in a manner that Roberto Martinez is surely losing sleep over even as I type these words. De Bruyne had the goal at his mercy at one point, the ball teed up for him on the edge of the box, a position from which he has scored many goals for Belgium down the years, but it was all too slow to prevent Richie Laryea, racing back, from sliding in and getting a truly heroic block. It summed up Belgium’s night: slow superstars getting shown up by players most of us have never heard of.
For the neutral, the second half was one of frustration. Despite Canada’s bravery, with players like Tajon Buchanan performing out of their skins, with Davies putting the penalty miss behind him to frequently dance around his opposite numbers, with the fans never stopping their belief, it wasn’t enough. The question for Canada, whose players looked so deflated by their failure at full-time, is whether they now have the capacity to reset within the next few days. They played well, and if they do that again there are points to be had in this group. But they need to be ready mentally for those challenges, and put this behind them.
For Belgium though, consider the alarms blaring. That they played worse than Argentina and Germany and won, while those two teams lost, is only scant consolation. Morocco will be looking at this iteration of the Red Devils and thinking they can frustrate and break them, while Luka Modric will more than likely be licking his lips at the chance of facing this slow midfield. The greatest challenge of Martinez’ tenure awaits in the coming days, with Belgium not that far off from being a full-on busted flush. Group F is set-up in tantalising fashion for the next two matchdays, with any of the two teams still capable of making it, and any two teams still capable of crashing out.
127. The Superstar Show: Matchday Five
Switzerland – Cameroon
Brazil – Serbia
Portugal – Ghana
Uruguay – Korea (Republic)
Five days in, and we finally had all 32 teams involved. Not just that, but we had the last of the superstars temporarily resident in Qatar to ply their trade and reach for glory. Amidst everything else, it was hard to really discuss Matchday Five without zeroing in on those small number of players, heroes of yesteryear having maybe their last chance at glory, or those who still have time available to them. All of that attention belied two fascinating groups, as complicated and as potentially tight as they get, with no easy points on offer for anyone.
The opening contest of the day is one of those ties that World Cups are made for as Switzerland met Cameroon, a disparate pairing of styles and abilities where the Swiss, with Xherdan Shaqiri, were certainly favoured for victory, but against a side who, despite being rather fortunate to be here, were not going to be any kind of pushover. In the end, the game would be decided by a very singular individual, a Swiss forward who, in the moment of his scoring a World Cup winner, elected to simply turn, give a brief gesture of thanks to the Almighty, and get on with things. If you had the sound off you might have thought he was offside.
But that’s not the reason that Monaco’s Breel Embolo choose not to celebrate his success. The Switzerland national team has often been a lighting rod for debate and discourse about immigration in the country, with significant numbers of players in squads down the years either not native-born Swiss or the children of those who were not native-born. For detractors of harsher immigration controls, a perennial topic in the Alps, it’s a sign of everything that immigration can bring to a country: the joys of diversity, the introduction of skilled people you wouldn’t have access to otherwise, the feelgood factor of people of different backgrounds, cultures and races coming together in a common cause. For the other side of the coin, the Swiss team has often been a target, evidence of how authentic Swiss nationhood has been undermined by incoming numbers from around the world, until this representation of the nation is full of people for whom Switzerland was not their first home. It won’t take a genius to figure out where I stand on that divide, and I doubt Embolo is too conflicted either.
But just conflicted enough all the same. Born in Yaounde, Cameroon, in 1997, Embolo moved first to France at age five, then to Switzerland a few years after that when his mother, who left Cameroon to get an education, married a Swiss national. Since then he has been Swiss, honing his not inconsiderable talents at a number of Swiss youth teams before breaking into the senior side at Basel. Three Swiss championships later he was now too good for that league, and time in Germany has led to his current posting with Monaco and, of course, the Swiss national team.
But always there is that Cameroonian connection, a place that Embolo has spent plenty of time in as an adult and whom he refers to still as his “home country”. He’s friends with several members of the Cameroonian team and Rigobert Song was among the first to congratulate him after the game. Long before a ball was kicked in Qatar, he had already stated that he had enough respect for where he originated from that celebrating a goal against them would be a non-starter. For some people refusing to celebrate a goal is a mark of ego, of making an already unique moment more of a talking point. You could sense this was not the case for Embolo, whose shy look at the ground after he had fired home early in the second half indicated a man who, just a little bit, wanted the ground to swallow him up. “Cameroon is a part of me” he said after the game, and that genuine sentiment made for a powerful backdrop.
The game itself was a routine enough affair, one marked by patient technically minded build-up from the Swiss, and long-ball stuff from Cameroon. At times the Cameroonian defence seemed a bit leggy, with Embolo’s goal coming after Nicolas Nkoulou in the back-line essentially stopped moving. It would almost be replicated, with Ruben Vargas putting the ball back to Shaqiri, a few minutes later, the Cameroon defence again seeming frozen. There were far too many last ditch tackles to deny the Swiss more goals – Jean-Charles Castelletto’s in injury time was one of those awkward affairs, heroic without context but in not aiding a positive result it left the man himself looking awkward and defeated – with Cameroon finding themselves unable to maintain decent pressure from the first half into the second 45. The superstar of the day was Shaqiri who had a somewhat understated game, but still played confidently and with purpose, pulling strings, making the space and creating opportunities for others. On another day the Swiss would have hammered Cameroon in the second half, on yet another Cameroon might have been good enough to snatch a draw. But the win was deserved for Switzerland who can look forward confidently enough. For Cameroon, with the attack-centric squads of Brazil and Serbia to come, it might well be a case of game over already, but they did enough today to show they belonged among the 32 at the very least.
Onto Group H then, with the eyes of the world largely on two men: Luis Suarez and Son Heung-min. Nobody was quite sure which Uruguay was showing up to Qatar, with La Celeste trying to find the balance between new talent and ageing veterans, while South Korea have been having conniptions over their star striker, wearing a facemask to protect himself after an eye socket injury a few weeks ago. But if people were expecting a titanic clash of opposing icons they were to be disappointed, as World Cup 2022 played out yet another scoreless draw.
There are a few different theories floating around as to why this is happening, after 48 group games in Russia gave us just one 0-0 result. The general competitiveness of lower seeds has been cited, with panicked favourites resorting to being satisfied with a draw rather than risk a humiliating defeat. The passionate crowds on hand for somewhat local sides like Morocco and Tunisia have been helping their teams along more than they have been able to in the past as well, and for them the 0-0’s are successes. The timing of this World Cup, with more players in a state of supreme readiness on account of club form, or maybe certain players not having enough lead-in time, is there too, as is the new five substitution rule, which lessens the possibility of tired legs giving up cheap goals on account of an error late-on. Whatever it is, it’s important to note that 0-0 draws can still have entertainment value, if you’re willing to look for it.
Uruguay and South Korea was one of those, kind of. It actually helped that neither Suarez nor Son had much of an effect on the game, relatively speaking. Son threw himself around and had a few half chances, but never threatened to reach the heights that we are aware he is capable of. Suarez was worse as it happened, almost anonymous in leading the line for Uruguay, registering just 14 touches before being subbed off. The perception that Uruguay remain too reliant on those men who were not teenagers 12 years ago remains in this limp performance, and in the fact that Suarez was substituted for Edinson Cavani, no spring chicken himself. Chances were few and far between which might explain why Korean defender Kim Moon-hwan was on his knees after his side put a shot over. Someone should have explained to him that there was still a good hour of the game left when that happened, but maybe he just knew there were not going to be many more opportunities.
The key moments of the game were undoubtedly when Uruguay rattled the woodwork, once in either half. Diego Godin, another veteran who perhaps has outstayed his welcome, hit the base of the post late in the first-half, before Federico Valverde, one of the younger squad members poised to be the next major star for Uruguay in the next few cycles, smashed the ball past Kim Seung-gyu in the 89th minute. Sports writers all over the world would have had their headlines about changings of the guard ready the moment the ball left his boot, but it was not to be, it smacking off the outside of the post and out.
Paulo Bento, the South Korean coach, closed things off in a remarkably neutral fashion, saying at full time that it had been “a very competitive game with a very high level of play between two teams that respected each other”. It was like he was running for office. His team had the experience of so many World Cups behind them that this result was just a routine thing it seemed. Yet another 0-0 draw then, but this one at least came with plenty of tension, and plenty of signs that both sides needed to make improvements if they were to advance into the Second Round.
Onto what was for many the main event of the day, where one man faced Ghana all on his own, or so it seemed. Portugal really are the Cristiano Ronaldo show: he’s the one that all the fans have come to see, the one that writers dedicate the most column inches to, the one that every other player in the Portuguese squad have to spend their time talking about. He brings it all on himself of course, and one suspects he does so gladly. After all, this game came just hours after he was essentially sacked as a Manchester United player, a situation Ronaldo himself orchestrated to the full. The World Cup is his stage, the Portugal team around him – even if, as widely acknowledged, they might actually be worse with him in the side (Manchester United certainly were by the end) – are the props and the rest of us are just his adoring audience, or so he probably thinks.
So, of course, it just had to be him who opened the scoring. Of course it did. The headlines about becoming the first man to score in five World Cups were just too undeniable for the event to be thwarted, and as soon as Ronaldo himself won the penalty you knew it was going in. But I wasn’t complaining: a resolute Ghanaian defence and an unusually toothless Portuguese attack seemed to be heading for yet another 0-0 draw when that happened (and this was on the bad side of a what 0-0 draws can be) and suddenly the game sparked resolutely to life.
Ronaldo himself had botched his part a few times in the first half, failing to get to a well-placed throughball ahead of Lawrence Ati-Zigi, and heading wide when it was far easier to put the ball on target. As ever, everything seems to have to go through him when he is on the field, with the man himself undroppable, a co-head coach in all but name. Aficionados of this seasons Europa League would not have been so surprised at his lack of end product, but the adoring legions of Ronaldo fans inside Stadium 974 were, pulling their hair out in a first half where Ghanaian solidity was really the most impressive thing to note. The lowest ranked side in the competition at #61, Ghana remain one of those teams that most of the world are seemingly aware of only for their heroics in 2010, but Otto Addo’s side showed that they are more than their ranking and more than what happened 12 years ago in that first half. Frustrating Portugal was the aim, and they succeeded: the average highlights video seemed to dedicate about 5% of its time to the first half.
But Ronaldo would not be denied. It was a soft shout for the penalty, but just about a correct one (another player might not have got the benefit of the doubt) and even the manner in which he smashed the ball into the corner seemed tailor-made to look as thrilling as possible. He wasn’t even done then, with his scowl at being substituted liable to generate headlines all of its own. Still, very few would have thought anything but that it was job done for Portugal and Ronaldo after that penalty went in. Very few would have thought that we were about to see out first goal-filled thriller of this World Cup.
First Andre Ayew snuck in an equaliser, Portugal falling asleep in the aftermath of going ahead. Then, even as Ayew had his back to the pitch arguing with his manager after being substituted, Bruno Fernandes played in a sweet throughball so Joao Felix could hit home. In ten minutes the game had exploded to life, and the two teams weren’t done. Two minutes later Fernandes was again provider, this time for Rafael Leao, and the game seemed finished. Fernandes himself was making a serious claim for being Portugal’s real lynchpin, driving forward with purpose when he get the ball, and with a keen eye for the right pass in the right moment. Erik Ten Hag would have been happy anyway, as Portugal looked to have settled it. But Ghana fought back with a resoluteness that some of the favourites for this competition have been unable to show, and when Osman Bukari’s nailed that header off a turnover in play in the 89th minute, neutrals everywhere had cause to temporarily forgot about Ronaldo (at least until Bukari aped Ronaldo’s celebration of course, to predictable scorn from the man then on the bench).
Things did seem to be winding down in injury time all the same, until that extraordinary moment when only seconds were left. Ghana have had to suffer a major goalkeeping crisis ahead of the tournament: their three netminders have four caps between them, with the first two choices out injured. But in the end it was Portugal’s goalkeeper who the spotlight fell on. Inaki Williams should have scored off the blindness of Diogo Costa, who had the ball on the ground without realising Williams was behind him. But for a badly timed slip, it would have been 3-3 with Williams as the headline-stealer, and plenty of people were disappointed not to have that outcome. It’s a measure maybe of Ronaldo’s relief that he was among the first to console Costa when the whistle went a few moments later, the keeper looking distraught at his foolishness, enough that some might be given pause regards his mental fortitude ahead of tougher tests to come. Ronaldo 1-0 Ghana then, or rather Portugal Without Ronaldo 2-2 Ghana. The combination got the three points for Portugal, but it remains an increasingly recognised thing that Ronaldo seems a limiter, and not a benefit, to this side. They had control of the group though, and that was enough.
The main event was our chance to see whether Brazil were the real deal this time around, with eyes on any number of great players. But, in a very Ronaldo-esque manner, it was of course Neymar who had the most attention. This is a Brazilian side at the eye of a storm, given the responsibility of uniting a nation torn almost down the middle by political strife, where their very jerseys have become part of a toxic political discourse. Neymar, whose support for Jair Bolsonaro had led to him being booed by parts of the Brazilian fanbase, was still expected to lead the effort to redeem 2014 and end the twenty year wait. In the way was a Serbian side who seemed to exult in getting over being under-rated, and were waiting in the long grass for their opponents, just another scalp to add to the Portuguese one at home.
It was an interesting game. Not for the first time, in this tournament or on this matchday, the man all the cameras were on didn’t really catch fire, Neymar not putting in a bad shift but overshadowed by others, not least Casemiro. Head coach Tite had gone with the attacking choice of partnering Casemiro with Lucas Paquetá instead of his Manchester United teammate Fred, and the end result was Casemiro being free to put on a true conductors performance. He dictated the pace of the game, found passes you couldn’t see as on before he made them and so easily assumed the mantle of most pivotal player on the pitch you would be forgiven for wandering why Neymar was getting so much attention. When Neymar went off injured – seemingly a minor ankle problem, but we’ll see – the result, not unlike Ronaldo, was improvement for his side.
The first half was quiet enough. Serbian keeper Vanja Milinković-Savić grabbed most of the opening 45’s plaudits in throwing himself at the feet of Thiago Silva to prevent a breakaway from becoming a goal, and denied Raphina at point blank range early in the second. Serbia were not doing much going forward, but seemed resolute at the back. The truth was that with Casemiro in the form that he was, sheltering his own defence, breaking up Serbian midfield probes and setting his own attackers off, Serbia were better off defending. But it did mean that their normally potent attack was taken out of the game and, after Neymar went off, Brazil almost seemed to want to make a point of things.
There is a Brazilian side that we think we know. The team of jogo bonito, of 1970, 1982, of that airport, is what we keep on our heads. We think of flair, of attacking purpose, of a well-oiled machine that is more Harlem Globetrotters than football team (ironically, western commentators tend to criticise such things when they actually happen in front of them, ala Antony). This is all very much existent in a nostalgia fuelled haze: the reality down the years has often been the total opposite, with Brazil the forefront of a brutalist style of football where hard tackling and the dark arts are the order of the day. In that regard, it’s no surprise that the most obvious position to become associated with Brazil in recent times has been the defensive midfielder. But recently Tite has managed to capture just a bit of that jogo bonito passion, helped by a range of attacking options that have the world salivating, and in the last phase of last nights game, they decided to make it a show.
It was wonderful to watch at times. It’s the sense of the 11 players being a connected entity, where everyone knows their parts, knows where the next man is and has the confidence to work the ball around and make the opportunities. From a position of being very much in the game Serbia were suddenly pegged back hard, and were being practically overrun by the end. Richarlison’s opener was just a tap-in, but came from fantastic build-up play and a confidence from Vinicius Junior to take the shot that rebounded to Richarlison, and was no more than Brazil deserved. The vaunted Serbian trident at the other end wasn’t able to get the room needed to reply.
But then. Oh, but then. We’ll be watching footage of it for years, decades, maybe even centuries to come. So many players were involved in the moments before, including Casemiro of course, that you could even call it a team goal. Vinicius Junior’s toe-poked cross came in from the right, and Richarlison was there. He actually miscontrolled the high ball with the side of his boot, letting the energy of the movement ricochet the sphere up into the air, Other players would have tried to chest it down, maybe head it back to Casemiro to set something else up. But not Richarlison, not in his moment. Instead he pivoted, executed an acrobatic movement that other athletes could spend lifetimes trying and failing to pull off, and nailed a volley that hit the sweet spot of power and precision. Milinković-Savić had no right even trying to stop it from flying into the bottom left corner. It was team, technique and screamer, all rolled into one glorious package, and Brazil deserved the three points from those scant few seconds alone. This, this was the Brazil we like to imagine we remember. Casemiro deserved to make it three from another well-worked move in injury time, and only the woodwork spared Serbia a final blow.
Neymar? The man seems more and more a fading light, not even the second most crucial player at his club anymore, whose presence in this side adds far less than it used to. He’s out for the rest of the group stage at least, and one suspects the general Brazilian reaction was a nonchalant shrug. Look what they have in their starting 11. Look what they have in reserve. I haven’t even talked too much about the goalie and the back line, who kept a clean sheet while the players ahead of them did their jobs. On a day when superstars were expected to shine, it was less noticeable players who came to the forefront, but the final takeaway was both a magnificent and imposing sight: who, among the other 31 teams, is going to be able to stop Brazil once they get going?
128. Going For It: Matchday Six
Qatar – Senegal
Netherlands – Ecuador
Wales – Iran
England – USA
The first round of games was done, and amid all the draws and upsets, patterns had begun to emerge. England, France, Spain and Brazil were the sides to watch, many others were underperforming, still more, expected or not, were on the brink of an exit. Matchday Six would bring one of those exits among a whole host of other drama, as we entered the phase of the competition when 0-0 draws are less desirable for everyone and teams are expected to really go for it.
There are a range of scenarios facing teams as the second round of matches begins, and there’s nothing quite as desperate seeming as when two teams who have dropped points in their opener come together at this moment. That was Wales and Iran, the Welsh with a point but needing a lot more ahead of a game with England, and the Iranians needing to salvage something from the wreckage of that 6-2 pasting. It’s not wrong to say that it seemed like a whole lot more has been on the shoulders of Iran, and for reasons far behind the kicking of a ball. They’ve spent three days being castigated for shipping six goals to England, and three days being screamed at by conservative media outlets at home for refusing to sing the national anthem, amid debate over whether it is the team or the anthem being jeered in stadiums. Iran came out into the Ahmad bin Ali looking like men about to face a firing squad, and their choice to sing – or, rather, mumble along with – the anthem only brought a new level of scrutiny and criticism. Sights of Iranian fans in the stadium weeping at this really underlined the level of emotion at play. Against that, Wales had 64 years of waiting on their backs, and fears the long, long journey was in danger of having a bleak conclusion.
The resulting game was understandably tense and scrappy, with both sides terrified of a tournament ending mistake and nervous going forward. In such cauldrons do teams really learn who they are and what they are capable of, and on this day it was Iran who pushed on. Maybe it was the fear of losing, the fear of other things as well, or the desire to show that they are one of the best teams in Asia and not just a punching bag for the English attack. Whatever it was it drove Iran on, and if there was a pattern to the game it was categorised by Iranian dominance in midfield. It was Iran who had the ball in the net in the first half, only for Wales to be saved by an offside call, with the Welsh defiance in pieces in that moment.
In response, the Welsh offered surprisingly little. Much of that was down to the axis of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, the two key players for their side, who looked like total passengers on the field. They aren’t the only members of the squad who have struggled for fitness and form this season, and where they got by against the United States it seemed much more obvious here. Bale and Ramsey were present, but they were not really helping: Bale’s laboured efforts meant that Wales had little to no penetration upfront, while Ramsey’s lack of impact contributed hugely to Iran’s bossing of midfield. They didn’t seem to have anything left in the tank, and the other nine players of Wales seemed to have their own energy sapped by that reality.
It took a very long time for Iran to take advantage of the situation all the same. That very rare occurrence, a team hitting both posts within seconds, occurred in the second half when Sardar Azmoun and Ali Gholizadah combined to leave the Iranian fans in the stadium tearing their hair out. There were half-chances for both sides, but it was clear to all and sundry that Wales were tiring faster, with substitutions like Joe Allen not inspiring enormous amounts of confidence in their inability to take a hold of the game.
The crucial moment saw Wayne Hennessy race out of his goal to miss an oncoming ball, instead connecting with Mehdi Taremi. It’s debatable whether Hennessy even needed to leave his goal, he another player in the Welsh team struggling for game time with their clubs and making questionable decisions: this one meant he became only the third goalkeeper in World Cup history to get a red card, in an incident that had people comparing the Nottingham Forest man to Toni Schumacher. After that, Wales were in flat-out panic mode, doing just about enough to keep Iran out but in a flailing, almost bizarre, manner.
Step forward Rouzbeh Cheshmi to give us our first big outside-the-box scorcher then, doing so in the pressure cooker of the 98th minute. It came from a Joe Allen error, but of course, with the rest of the Wales defence labouring to even get in Cheshmi’s way. His powerful shot straight into the bottom right corner left Iranians everywhere in raptures, and it’s notable perhaps that his first port of call for celebrations was not the mass of supporters behind the Welsh goal but his own team’s bench. Ramin Rezaeian’s coolly taken second a few minutes later was just icing on the cake really, Wales already beaten, their fans left to hold their heads and wonder where it had all gone wrong.
The triumph and despair at full time were among the most palpable yet seen in this tournament. The Welsh players were slumped to the floor, physically, mentally and emotionally spent at the horror show playing out in front of them. Iran, freed from the pressure of needing a result and everything at home, even if just for a few moments, celebrated like they did beating the USA 24 years ago, with Carlos Queiroz having to fend off efforts from Iranian players to use him for a piggyback. Three days ago this side were dead and buried, now they are heroes again. Such is the World Cup. And who is up next, with a shot at the last 16 on the line? It’s only the United States. I can’t wait.
After 50 minutes to breath, it was time for a somewhat less palatable occasion. For Qatar it was pretty much win or bust, with a serious humiliation looming if they couldn’t better the abject performance they had put on in the opener against Ecuador. And they weren’t going to get anything easy off of Senegal, badly in need of three points themselves. It was a meeting of continental champions, but few thought that it was going go anywhere but one way.
And, while it was more difficult for Senegal than they would have liked, that was how it transpired. Qatar had enough pride in themselves to step things up, but then again maybe we should be honest and admit that this is not exactly saying much. They kept the ball a bit better, but most moves ended with a misplaced pass rather than genuine possibility inside the final third. The attack provided a bit of menace for Edouard Mendy, getting three shots on target, but most of those came too late to really affect what was happening elsewhere on the pitch (Mendy’s saves were very impressive all the same, a potent source of regrets for Qatar’s attack). They kept themselves in the game and with Mohammed Muntari’s header made the possibility of a snatched point more likely than it had ever seemed at any point over the last four days, but then surrendered another goal fast enough to kill it all off.
The Senegal goals were routine affairs. Aliou Cisse had his side set-up in a 4-4-2 so straightforward it seemed positively ancient, but it worked: when Boulaye Dia took advantage of Boualem Kjoukhi falling on his behind to power home a first, when Famara Diedhiou glanced a header in off a corner and when Bamba Dieng sank a cutback for three. Things again resembled a training ground affair. That sensation was aided by the utterly dead atmosphere, the “home” fans abandoning the ground en masse at half time just as they did against Ecuador, and most of the consistent noise coming from Senegal drumbeats. Qatar’s goal had some noise being made, but then a foolish unsighted header gifted Senegal a corner within seconds, and any momentum the hosts had proved to be as intangible as steam. Mathematically they had to wait for the next result, but everyone knew Qatar were out of the World Cup running when this game ended.
I don’t know if Qatar are the worst hosts in World Cup history. They have one more chance to avoid such a tag. They certainly aren’t the worst team to ever compete in a World Cup, I can think of half-a-dozen others off the top of my head better suited to that title. But their lack of ability at this level is so frighteningly obvious it reflects badly on Qatari football, the AFC and even FIFA itself. These are the Asian champions for goodness sake, yet head coach Felix Sanchez’ post-match comments were about how they are on a “journey of development”. Are Japan or South Korea or Saudi Arabia on a journey of development? Certainly not.
Just who Senegal would be hoping to outdo in search of progression was one of the main focuses of the next game, with the Dutch and Ecuadorians coming together. The possibility of a draw was always high for two teams who won their opening game, and in a tournament where scoreless stalemates are cheap as chips. But that was all undone by Cody Gakpo’s powerful opener just five minutes in, and suddenly we had a game on our hands.
But it did not go as you might have thought that it would. Ecuador put on a display of strong tackling and swift attacking, as they first held off the Dutch offence, and then asserted themselves to the point of dominance. Virgil van Dijk had an iffy game against Senegal, often frustrated by his lack of sharpness as much as by misfiring teammates, but here he was closer to his best and had to be. His efforts stopped several vicious looking shots from threatening Andries Noppert – only on his second cap – and the keeper had to be equal to a pacey Enner Valencia effort that left his right-hand stinging. Ecuador had the ball in the net before half-time, but offside spared Louis van Gaal’s blushes on that occasion.
It was not going to last. Valencia got goal number three of the tournament with a rebound tap-in after the Dutch defence was cut up down the left, and his efforts really were key for the Ecuadorians. They are a very young side, which only makes the veteran presence of Valencia all the more important. His departure owing to injury, with uncertain noises coming out of the camp about how bad it is, could have been a killer. But Ecuador, to their immense credit, compartmentalised that absence and pressed on. They should have won the game really, with Gonzalo Plata’s shot crashing off the crossbar as close as they got. More than anything I was really struck by how relaxed Ecuador were, how much these players seemed to be enjoying themselves, especially after the equalizer. They pinged the ball around wonderfully throughout and looked far more likely to score a second. They are a side to watch, now and over the next four years. They want it, and will surely be favoured over Senegal on Tuesday afternoon.
The Netherlands will be deeply concerned. Van Gaal pushes his teams to operate zonally and with rigid discipline but this was plainly lacking out on the field, the Dutch pulled apart and looking rather haggard in the dying stages. The lack of impact from the likes of Frenkie de Jong was painfully apparent. There are too many good players in this team to dismiss them after one sub-par result, and with Qatar to come it would be a brave man who wouldn’t admit the Dutch are favourites to top the group. But there is a lot of work to be done, and even with the position they are in it seems unlikely at this point that van Gaal will be achieving the ambition of a World Cup victory.
That left only the main event, the tasty coming together of England and the United States, their competitive history with each other promising something special was likely to happen. But what unfolded on the pitch was special only insofar as the US maintained their unbeaten record when facing England in World Cup matches, in another scoreless draw to add to the pile that has accumulated in Qatar.
Even after opening with a 6-2 slaughter of Iran, the English seemed at times over the last three days to be at pains not to play up their World Cup chances, and such conservatism was rewarded by this performance. England were not exactly dreadful, their defence was solid for most of the evening and when they cared to wake up late on they carried a certain threat going forward. But this was not a showing from a World Cup contender. England seemed content to keep the game at arm’s length, with a languor in their play that will have the “It’s coming home” brigade wondering if 2024 is a better bet. If you were looking for a side to go for it, England were more content to go for a half-time rest and a full-time shower.
That’s not to bad mouth the American effort. They showed no fear of, or respect for, their opponents, and drove at them throughout the 90. Their physical stamina was obvious, as was their desire to get the three points more. Less apparent was their ability to actually score goals, and the combination of John Stones and Harry Maguire did enough to head away the crosses and get in front of the shots, for the most part. Maguire was actually extremely impressive in his role, probably the best English player on the pitch, showcasing a form and confidence that has been sadly lacking from his club game. The Americans were by far the better side, exerting a control that is all the more impressive given the average age of the team. They were not ferociously laying into England like an XI made up of young bucks though, this was a measured and controlled performance, where Weston McKennie’s blazing shot wide or Christian Pulisic’ shot off the bar in the first half were far less than the US deserved in terms of how close they came.
It was not until the second-half introduction of Jack Grealish and, to a lesser extent, Jordan Henderson, that England were able to exhibit any kind of get-up and go, and Grealish at least has made a serious audition for a starting spot against Wales. England badly needed Henderson’s stability, and Grealish’s ability to get the ball and dribble forward, but with Harry Kane in subdued mood the deliveries just weren’t finding anything productive. It’s actually enough to say that the key US success of the game was the way that they effectively negated the English attack, with none of Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling or later Marcus Rashford doing much alongside Kane. Passes backwards or to the side were the order of the day, and plenty of English fans gave their final judgement at full-time by booing. That will make for uncomfortable comparison to the 2010 0-0 with Algeria where the side were also booed at full-time (in a group that also contained America, as it happens), ahead of a Second Round exit.
The players, and Gareth Southgate, were at pains to play down any negatives, with England all but assured of progression to the next round, but it was undoubtedly Gregg Berhalter who was the happier coach. Iran/USA is now one of the unmissable matches of the last round of games. They went for it out there, far more than England did, and that will drive them on all the way to Tuesday evening.
129. Give Everything: Matchday Seven
Poland – Saudi Arabia
Argentina – Mexico
Tunisia – Australia
France – Denmark
Irish television played a video ahead of last nights games that has certainly caught the imagination. It’s footage of the Saudi Arabian dressing room at half-time of their game against Argentina, 1-0 to the bad and players with heads down. Head coach Herve Renard rails at them in English, accompanied by a translator trying to match his intensity, begging his team to close down tighter and show what they can do. He concludes: “This is the World Cup! Give everything!” They went out and did it. It’s a message that a lot of teams needed to hear as the second round of matches continued. Now is not the time to shirk, to shrink back. Now is the time to grab a hold of destiny with both hands and use whatever strength you have left to stake a place in the last 16.
It was Tunisia and Australia out first, the North Africans looking to improve on their very creditable draw with Croatia, the AFC team to recover from their French mauling. In a group that contains two heavyweights, this tie was always the target for a win from both teams. The game began much as the Croatia/Tunisia tie had ended, with Tunisia’s opposition dominating possession but struggling to actually do anything with it. But this was a state of affairs that actually seemed to suit Graham Arnold’s Australia down to the ground, reflecting their experience of AFC qualification in large part. The noise from the Tunisian contingent in the Al Janoub was as loud as it was on Tuesday, but the first half of the first half belonged to the opposition.
They only needed one moment to make good of that time, and it was a sweet header from Mitchell Duke when it came. I’m not even sure how much he really knew about it, it’s so hard to direct the kind of swinging cross he received with his back to goal, but the end result couldn’t really have been much better. Arnold’s dancing on the touchline was evidence of how much it meant to the Socceroos, again in front relatively early, but now much more confident of holding onto that lead. The paradigm of the contest was upended big time, as Tunisia were now obligated to come out and play, in a way they never had to against Croatia. It was their turn to give everything.
That they did. You could fault Tunisia’s finishing, their composure, their not especially brilliant game management. But you couldn’t fault their effort. For the rest of the 90 Tunisia simply ran themselves ragged and bossed the game, seemingly always on the attack and always just one connection on a cross away from breaking Australian hearts. It was a microcosm of Canada against Belgium in way, but without the insane peppering of the opposition goal: Tunisia managed just 10, with four on target, and none of those were hugely troubling. The whistles of the crowd whenever Australia had the ball, and the roars that accompanied Tunisia turnovers and runs at goal, made the atmosphere a special thing, but just as with Canada the crowd’s genuine belief couldn’t manifest the needed score. Youssef Msakni’s late shot wide in the first-half was actually as close as Tunisia came, and it was a sitter.
The game devolved into a true helter-skelter contest, as Tunisian desperation to keep on the pressure came up against their own increasing fatigue. Mat Leckie should have killed it on a 70th minute breakaway, his stretched lunge just missing a squared ball with the Tunisian defence all but absent. They really wanted it so badly, it’s the only way to describe the manner in which they kept driving on, floating balls into the box and trying to find the opening, long past the point when other teams might have given up a second goal. They wanted it more almost, but their goal-scoring ability was so lacking, just as it has been for some time. Harry Soutter in the heart of the Aussie defence was a rock, finding the answer to every Tunisian question asked. Australia hung on for their first World Cup win since 2010, and it was a joyous Graham Arnold who was making big noises about what his team will be able to do against Denmark. Their reaction to the France thrashing got the needed win. Tunisia slumped to the ground, their fans ferocious noise silenced at last, contemplating a final game against the World Cup Champions where they need to win. I am not the only commentator to think they may have already given everything they have to give.
It was Herve Renard and his charges next, seeking the result that would give Saudi Arabia one of the most unlikely progressions to the Second Round. In their way was a Polish team facing the accusation that is as tired as it is increasingly factual: that theirs is the Lewandowski show, and when he isn’t scoring it’s not much of a show. Poland were always going to be targeting a win in this fixture, but no one expected that it would be in the circumstances of the Saudis being two points ahead of them. The build-up to this game has been marked by almost farcical clamour, with Renard forced to deny that every member of his squad has been gifted a Rolls Royce from the Saudi government (just one example) and it suffices to say that a lot of people were interested in how the Saudis would play.
The Saudi Arabian fans took things up just as they left them against Argentina: by being loud in every way possible to benefit their team. Saudi Arabia got on the ball, they roared, Poland got on the ball and they jeered. Saudi Arabia drove forward and they screamed encouragement, Poland gave away a free and they whistled. Saudi Arabia did anything right and it was a cause for celebration, Poland did something wrong and it was a cause for a loud schadenfreude designed to unnerve and discombobulate. And for a while it worked: in the opening half an hour Poland looked distinctly rattled, prone to late challenges and misplaced passes, and playing second fiddle to Saudi Arabian dictation of the pace. Evidence of that was the succession of yellow cards they picked up for shirt pulling and clumsy attempts to win the ball, referee Wilton Sampaio no doubt influenced just a bit by the Saudi fans baying for blood in every instance. Further example could be seen in the sight of Lewandowski briefly playing at right-back in a spell of unrelenting Saudi pressure.
Thus when Poland took the lead it was like it was against the run of play a little, though in reality the Poles had made a few chances. It just felt like it had been all one-way traffic. And when it came it was largely Lewandowski who made it. He had been quiet for that first 38 or so minutes, but then he got a toe to Matty Cash’s square ball and had the calm to retrieve it before it went out, and then the selflessness to play it back for Piotr Zielinski instead of trying to take it on for that first World Cup goal. Zielinski duly smashed it into the roof of the net, and for the first time in the World Cup the Saudi fans were temporarily silenced.
That could have been the start of a slaughter, just like Argentina’s opener should have been the start of the same. But the gameplan hadn’t changed for the Saudis, and they kept up their high-tempo disruptive strategy, turning over the ball in midfield, trying to go quickly down the flanks and then hoping to find a man in space inside the box. For a time Poland held, but before the end of the first half what was, for me, the biggest talking point in the context of the larger game of football occurred. Saleh Al-Shehri went down in the area under pressure from Polish defender Krystian Bielik, and a moment later the ref was going to VAR.
For me, VAR was not brought in to turn such things into penalties. Sampaio went to the screen to be sure, and had every angle and every bit of time that he needed to make the right decision. There was contact, of course, Bielik had an arm on Al-Shehri’s shoulder and there was a hint of boot touching calf. But it was in no way enough pressure to cause an impediment, and certainly not enough to cause Al-Shehri to flop to the ground as it did. In a fully just world, it’s a yellow for simulation and a free out to Poland. Instead, Sampaio bizarrely awarded the penalty. In so doing, in penalising such contact, he seemed to be declaring that the game he was refereeing was now non-contact, but such contact and pressure occurred a hundred times in different parts of the field throughout the game without anything being awarded. Thankfully Wojciech Szczesny was on hand to pull off a magnificent double save to deny Salem Al-Dawsari, one of the great goalkeeping moments of the World Cup for sure, and the old cliché of “Justice done” never seemed as apropos. VAR is not a detriment to the game, that I firmly believe. But it should not be used for an application of the rules of football so literal as to be bordering on stupidity.
The main narrative of the second half for me was a growing realisation that maybe we shouldn’t consider Saudi Arabia as much a minnow as we thought they were. Their performance wasn’t just the reckless abandon of an uncaring underdog, it was a smart and measured thing, where the goal seemed to be to maintain a close press in midfield, go forward with speed and try and skip past Polish defenders and get the space for a shot inside the area. Such space was created, but Szczesny proved equal to those that hit the target. For long periods Saudi Arabia were completely dominant, just lacking cutting edge. After the Argentina result, and after this battling display, it might be time for us to consider that Saudi Arabia’s status as one of the best teams in Asia (if not the best) makes them a good team in general.
Perhaps not quite as good as Lewandowski though. He had already hit the post, one of two such instances for his side, and he was up for it in the second half, helped by a bit of additional space provided by that attack-focused Saudi outlook. That selflessness was still there, in his preference for laying things off instead of trying speculative efforts, in drawing defenders off others and in just generally being part of what seemed like a team of attackers, and not the more frantic individuals operating at the other end. He’s still the focal point really, involved in everything. It took a while for the reward to come and when it did, ironically, it was an individual effort, Lewandowski pouncing on some slack defending to slot home that long anticipated first World Cup goal. That mean-spirited stat has rapidly become something of an albatross around the neck of Lewandowski and Poland, hence his reaction, with full-on tears being brushed away after he slid to the ground in celebration. That was game over of course, with the Poles already looking forward to a fascinating clash with Messi and Argentina, though the Saudis plugged away, perhaps with Herve Renard’s words still ringing in their ears. The man himself cut a frustrated figure throughout the game, looking perpetually unhappy. His side still have progression in their own hands, and might just fancy it against a Mexico team that have their own struggles in front of goal.
Next up, the real heavyweight clash of the day, or so it seemed to many. The Danish had beaten the French twice within the last 12 months, but France were one of those teams already looking like a scary proposition for anyone this winter. The added spice was Denmark’s inability to get three points off Tunisia in their first game: that didn’t make this tie a must-win for them exactly, but it meant that it was less likely than many had expected that the two top seeds would play out a dull draw. So it proved.
Both sides went for it early, setting out their stalls to attack. Obviously the French were a little better at that than the Danes, calling attention to how strange those last two results were: lacking an obviously strong forward goalscoring option, the Danes were too often dependent on their dynamic midfield, led by Christian Eriksen, while the French had strength in midfield and attack (and defence, and in goals). The chances didn’t exactly flow, but there was an obvious desire from both teams to get the three points that was reflected in French speed to get forward when they had the ball matched with Danish desire to work the ball smartly through the channels in turn.
All eyes were still very much on Kylian Mbappé, but he was strangely ineffective in the first half, limiting himself to a few wayward crosses and midfield work. His biggest contribution was getting Andreas Christensen booked off a breakaway, when his truly scary ability to go from 0 to 60 in seconds was again on display. More than one commentator wondered if his Australian exertions had left him fatigued, but then the man just exploded into life in the second half. Not to harp on the point, but Mbappé’s speed is simply incredible: when he gets the ball on a turnover and has space in front of him, his ability to race ahead tears defences apart all on its own. His reward for these efforts was two goals, albeit none of them instant classics.
What did Denmark have in response? A fair bit as it happened. Christensen’s header was a just reward for a mature response to Mbappé’s opener, and the Danes then piled on the pressure in a period of dominance that probably had French fans covering their eyes. Didier Deschamps was certainly stressed, even by his standards, the French head coach a bundle of nervous energy on the sideline throughout the game, celebrating goals like they had won him another World Cup and screaming at everything otherwise. But his fears were unfounded: as good as the Denmark midfield was, with no target man and with the French defence marshalling itself better after some wobbles, they couldn’t get a second, before or after Mbappé gave his side the lead again.
A word has to be given to the role of Antoine Griezmann. In some ways he’s the forgotten star of this French team, overtaken in media importance by Mbappé, Olivier Giroud and others, and hobbled by his bizarre club situation. But he was great out there, always seemingly involved in whatever France was doing going forward. And that constituted a bewildering array of styles and approaches: tiki-taka, long ball, swift runs down the wings, breakaways. France seemed able to do any of them at will even if, as stated, their actual goals were more rudimentary.
You could tell that this result meant a lot to France, whose joy at the full-time whistle was about more than being the first team into the Second Round. Beating Denmark, after those awful Nations League performances, was a very big deal. Beating the World Cup winners curse was also a very big deal, and in some ways the stain of 2002 now seems to have been fully banished. But just coming up against another top seed and playing like this, winning like this, is a big deal all of its own. Twice now in this tournament France have faced serious adversity, and come out on top. Is there a side elsewhere in this tournament who can overcome them? Of course there is, not least because France haven’t kept a clean sheet in eight games, a statistic overlooked last night because of the result but more than enough to give Deschamps pause. The Danes now face a last chance saloon but would hope they have enough to beat Australia: if they don’t, they really never deserved the pre-tournament plaudits.
Lastly on Matchday Seven was the dread. You know what I mean: you look on expecting a disaster, and part of you feels regret at the seeming inevitability. Argentina faced Mexico knowing they really had to win to have a realistic chance of getting out of the group, and it all felt eerily familiar to 2018. But of course Mexico were facing their own pressures, with a head coach despised by much of the fanbase, who themselves were heaping weight on a less-than-stellar side to go further than Mexico had in years.
The result, I suppose predictably, was a poor enough game. Lionel Scaloni had made five changes to the side that got humiliated by Saudi Arabia and while there was a measure of necessity, it meant that Argentina seemed unsettled from the off. The Mexican high press played serious havoc with Argentinian ability to get to grips with the game and get anything going and this, married with a large number of crunching tackles and referee interruptions, meant the game struggled to be a true contest of skill. Argentina looked utterly impotent in the first half, the likes of Lautaro Martinez total passengers, and there were alarming hints of “Pass it to Messi” sentiment, the same thing that killed their 2018 campaign dead, creeping in. They were lucky that Mexico weren’t up to a great deal going forward themselves perhaps, Gerardo Martino’s charges seemingly content to disrupt and unnerve, perhaps in expectation of a late charge.
They wouldn’t get the chance. Argentina started the second like they had played the first, and the world was braced for the first big name crashout of this World Cup. I’m sure headlines were already being written about Messi and sunsets. For lack of a better term, there was no swagger from the Argentinians: for a pre-tournament favourite they seemed shockingly low on confidence, in themselves and in their ability to beat even average teams. Most tellingly for me, there was no penetration through the middle of the field, Argentinian efforts through that part of the park going nowhere, Messi swarmed and no one helping him. When the captain skied a promising free kick, the look on his face spelled doom.
But Messi delivered. This isn’t a one man team anymore really, you don’t win as many games as they have over the last few years if that is the case. And Messi’s game has changed a fair bit in the last few years too, he’s now more languid and prone to conserve his energy: if it was another player you might say he was lazy. But the footballing brain is as quick as ever, and if Messi appears to be doing nothing, it’s only because he’s identifying the many different darts, passes and shots he can create or execute in that moment if he gets the chance. He helps the players around him, tries to build them up to his level but Argentina still really do depend on him so much. His 64th minute goal, that caught everyone, not least his teammates, by surprise, was the deliverance that Argentina had prayed for, and the fans in the stadium, who had created a great atmosphere it had to be said, erupted. The sheer relief was palpable in those celebrations, with the negative headlines banished and Argentina back in the World Cup. Angel di Maria, credited with the assist, would sum it up very nicely in the aftermath: “I threw him a turd, but he always finds solutions to everything. What matters is that the ball got to him.” Just what are Argentina going to do when Messi retires?
The introduction of a younger generation of players – Enzo Fernandez and Julian Alvarez upfront, one of which replaced the stuttering Martinez – was also a significant boost. Messi’s generation, like di Maria who had a poor game on the right, were giving way to a new one, and that was summed up in a peach of a second goal, Fernandez curling one past Francisco Ochoa, after a simple set-up pass from a strolling Messi. Mexico had nothing in response, ending the 90 with a single shot on target.
Both teams go on. Mexico need to beat Saudi Arabia by as many goals as possible if they are to even get to a fourth game, let alone a fifth. Given their troubles upfront, and the scorn the team and their manager are now liable to experience from home, that seems unlikely. Argentina aren’t out of trouble just yet and will be frustrated by their inability to rest players against Poland, but will hopefully have some of that needed swagger back, enough that they can approach the game with renewed confidence in their ability to play, get at teams, work goals and win. Not that Poland are likely to make things too easy for them of course. Group C is a fascinating mix of teams all in with a shot, and all still with an opportunity to give everything they have left to the cause.
130. Eff Em: Matchday Eight
Japan – Costa Rica
Spain – Germany
Belgium – Morocco
Croatia – Canada
Fatigue is a normal thing to experience when you are watching a World Cup, and I’ll admit I was starting to feel it by Matchday Eight. Four games of football a day tends to take it out of you, and let’s just not mention the significant others and their own frustrations, or the inherent mixed feelings regarding host and organiser. Things start to take on something of a surreal quality, especially when faced with a Croatian/Canadian feud based around answering the question of whose metaphorical (or not) balls are bigger after John Herdman’s instantly infamous “Go out and eff em” speech to his players after the Canada/Belgium game. That was how Day Eight opened for me anyway. I suppose it served as a suitable framing device for 24 hours where real heavyweights were facing elimination, and initially unfancied teams an unlikely progression: who had more of a certain kind of, ahem, fortitude to get the results needed?
The first matchup of the day was certainly a contrast in situations. Both Japan and Costa Rica would have come into the tournament thinking this game was their most likely chance to get three points, but now Japan already had three, and Costa Rica had a -7 goal difference to show for their comparable efforts. Expectation for Japanese fans had skyrocketed: a win here and they were in the Second Round, before even having to face Spain. For Costa Rica, this was win or bust really. Were Japan capable of keeping their heads? Could Costa Rica recover?
You didn’t get answers to those questions in the first half anyway. Hajime Moriyasu had made five changes in his line-up and, just like Argentina the day before, Japan looked disjointed and a little listless at times. That was just what Costa Rica, a side still dealing with the enormous pressure of a hiding, would have wanted. They mostly let Japan have the ball and packed out their defence, lacking the pace to really engage in any great counter-attacking sweeps. Instead they had to live on relative scraps, but they at least were able to get two wayward shots on goal in the first half, two more than they had managed in the entire 90 minutes against Spain.
Japan shuffled things around at the break and started the second half brightly, stringing things together and making more half-chances than they had in the first. The pattern appeared to be set: rigid banks of Costa Rican defenders and midfielders set-up to limit what Japan could do, and fouling tactically when they had to. Japan fluffed two close-range free kicks and midway through the half one of their midfielders, when given the chance to power forward through a gap, choose instead to turn and boot the ball back to Shūichi Gonda. Costa Rica’s forwards, especially a hapless Joel Campbell, had nothing to really do, with Campbell dribbling the ball out of play under no real pressure in one especially farcical moment. It seemed like another 0-0 was the likely outcome.
Gonda was a spectator for the vast majority of the contest, taking the odd goal kick. There was only one shot, all game, that he really had to deal with. He shouldn’t have had to, as it was his defender Hidemasa Morita that lost the ball under pressure in his own third when getting the ball forward would have been easier. Gonda really should have been able to deal with what came at him though, a slow spinning ball from Keysher Fuller, a player whose role thus far in that part of the pitch was mostly just to hold play up. Gonda got hands to it, fumbled, and could only watch as the now slightly deflected sphere spun its way into the net. It was Costa Rica’s first shot on target in the entire tournament, and their first goal.
Japan did try to get back to level terms, twice working the ball well down the left and initiating a panic-stricken goalmouth scramble in what time that remained, but in truth Keyler Navas was actually as unneeded throughout the game as Gonda had been. In the dying seconds the camera focused in an Costa Rican women in the stands, head down, eyes closed, hands clasped in prayer, unable to take in what was happening. The final whistle brought just about the last thing that anyone would have expected from the game. Costa Rica are back in the World Cup, with an additional wrinkle of having slightly reduced the pressure on Germany later. The Japanese team hit the dirt in despair, fully aware of the opportunity that they had let slip through their fingers: to guarantee progression they will now need a result against Spain. The first test of strength of the day had gone the way of Los Ticas.
Next up was Belgium and Morocco, where the Belgians, the #2 ranked team in the world, had a hell of a lot to prove. The performance against Canada got about as much criticism as a winning team has ever gotten in this competition, and a tightly packed Morocco is probably not who the Red Devils would have wanted to play next. Kevin de Bruyne’s widely reported Guardian interview the day before this game had Belgium’s star man insisting the team was “too old” and hadn’t a chance of winning the World Cup, the kind of bombshell that would be a major scar on other teams, but here seemed to be just quietly accepted. Morocco might well have been licking their lips at the prospect of Belgium right now, with roughly 95% of the partisan fans inside the Al Thumama cheering them on, or so the decibel levels made it sound like anyway.
There is something deeply frustrating about toothless domination of a football game. Spain’s Second Round loss to Russia in 2018 will probably go down as the epitome of it, but Belgium’s first half showing here wasn’t enormously far off. 80% of the ball, or more, produced very little of note as Belgium maintained the distinctly unimpressive pace they exhibited against Canada, only this time it was against a team that weren’t as liable to be caught out by a quick long ball. If the goal of the ball retention was to silence the crowd, it emphatically didn’t work. This was meant to be the tournament where Kevin de Bruyne would be called upon to step up and be the magnetic talisman of his nation, upping their quality level through his passes alone, but he was among the most ineffective: sure he made a lot of passes, but most of them tended to be sideways. Belgium were choking the life out of themselves by not engineering enough opportunities, Munir Mohamedi barely troubled in the Moroccan goal.
Morocco did mange to come into the game a bit before half-time, a period marked by an offside goal. If Morocco were showcasing a strength in defence that was a confirmation of what we saw against Croatia then upfront they were less good, their shots tending to be speculative and wayward. But, just like Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, just being in a position to boot the ball far over Thibaut Courtois’ goal was enough to get their fans screaming, and to make it seem as if Morocco were very much in the game. The second half saw Morocco lean into this and seek to flood the midfield, harassing Belgium at every opportunity: they won plenty of turnovers, but didn’t make anything of them. It didn’t matter of course, since every minute killed put Morocco closer to a famous draw.
Until Morocco hit the front of course. There was something so wonderfully admirable about the strike. I wouldn’t call it part of football’s dark arts exactly, as literally nothing about the thing was even remotely against the rules: the free kick was won fairly, Abdelhamid Sabiri’s delivery was brilliantly curled, and Romain Saiss’ nip in front of Courtois occurred from an onside position. Indeed, if one was to assign fault, it would be with Courtois, whom you might expect to be better able to deal with such things. He certainly has before. But not this time. It was a sneaky goal, the kind of thing that you might not be able to pull off 99 times out of 100, but no less impressive for that. And it really was no more than Morocco deserved.
We’ve seen teams like Argentina, Denmark and England wilt in these situations, harried by the opposition, essentially playing in an away environment with the crowd and dealing with all of the on field and off field pressures. The Red Devils were all over the place, labouring as they went forward, the formation hard to quantify, with de Bruyne running from centre to flank without any apparent idea of what to do with any position. Belgium needed a saviour, someone to come on and maybe give de Bruyne a target to aim at, or at least jolt him into some kind of life. In came Romulo Lukaku, who hasn’t played in over a month owing to injury, as Belgium now found themselves forced into a hurried and increasingly panicked effort to grab an equaliser that was barely justified.
Lukaku did next to nothing. In many ways his involvement in the last 20 minutes or so was a microcosm of Belgium in general: out of position, poor on the ball and all too easily managed by a determined opponent. It was the nadir of the golden generation becoming manifest. Roberto Martinez stood frozen on the sideline, trying his best not to let the growing grimace on his face become too obvious. One throughball, that went sailing over everyone and out over the touchline, had the Moroccan keeper looking more bemused than relieved. It got worse a few seconds later. Morocco’s second, where Axel Witsel caped an utterly dire performance by failing to pick up Zakaria Aboukhlal ahead of his goalbound strike, meant that the North Africans could enjoy the last few minutes with their rocking fanbase. It’s their first World Cup win in 24 long years and progression is in their hands. At full time the golden generation were in tatters, with de Bruyne and Lukaku among those who did their opponents the honour of not even looking that surprised. Belgium have scored in 51 of their last 52 games, but could barely threaten the opposition goal here.
The question will be asked about how teams like Morocco are doing this, making their European opponents look so ineffective, so rank. There’s never just one reason, you could note the location, the time of year, the stadium situation, Belgium’s own obvious inefficiencies. But we have to offer some respect for Morocco as well. They are well-drilled. They can force turnovers. They cause problems with set-pieces. They are stingy with their own goal, having conceded none under their current manager. And they have no respect for anyone that they are playing. They have four points from the top seeds of this group, and that does not happen via fluke. As for Belgium, there truly are not enough words to fully get across how awful their showing here was. They deserved nothing from Canada, and got nothing here, and just don’t appear to have it anymore. 2018 seems a very long way away. De Bruyne was right.
Onto the titanic meeting of John Herdman vs Croatia, or so the pre-match build-up for this so-called “Group of Eff” clash made it seem anyway. His ill-chosen comments in the aftermath of the Belgian loss have become a defining aspect of this Canadian side at this tournament, for better or worse, and it seemed much of the narrative for this tie was based around whether he was able to walk the walk or just be another talker. Hopes that Canada would make good on what they showcased against Belgium were high, but this is Croatia: they’ve been doing this for too long to allow such things to easily rattle them. So it proved.
This was an excellent way to look at the debate of passion vs calm in football. Canada came out swinging and when Alfonso Davies hammered that header home 73 seconds in, redeeming his penalty miss three days ago, fan zones around Canada were presumably rocking. A serious upset was suddenly on the cards, with the goal constituting the absolutely perfect start for a team that was presumably terrified of their inability to score becoming a hoodoo. But then the dream rapidly became a nightmare.
This Croatian team has retained the bulk of the squad that made it to the Final four years ago, and routinely impresses elsewhere. They have some of the best players in the world over the last ten years playing for them, and one of their best aspects is that they don’t do panic. Setbacks are greeted with something akin to a weary shrug of the shoulders before they try and assert or re-assert control of the game, and more often than not they are back up on the other end threatening the opposition goal quickly enough. The failure to score against Morocco was one such setback, now to be rectified. They were the polar opposite of Belgium against the same team, in no way cowed by the Canadian running or press. They were just another obstacle to be managed and disposed of, and boy did Croatia go about ruthlessly doing just that. In an open game – too open, something Canada have cause to regret facilitating – they were able to pass the ball at will, work the angles as they pleased and dump long balls when the mood took them. They were ahead before half-time, and never looked in any serious danger after that.
Canada wilted here. Their game is based around a zero fear approach of pressing, hard tackling and fast counter-attacks, with the point as much to unnerve and frighten their opponents as to get the ball into workable areas. Well, Croatia weren’t unnerved, or frightened. At times they seemed amused. The third goal, where Canadian keeper Milan Borjan barely tried to keep it out, killed the game, and Lovro Majer’s breakaway fourth put the deserved gloss on the scoreline. Canada collapsed all over the pitch, Jonathan David boxed off upfront, Liam Miller disastrously letting the ball past him for the fourth and ageing Josh Hutchinson left on for far too long at the back. They came up against a composed professional Croatian outfit, and were ruthlessly exposed for their lack of experience at this level.
And of course we can’t really not comment on Herdman. In truth I feel his speech at the end of the Belgium game, maybe a bit better suited to the dressing room, wasn’t all that bad (if nothing else it deflected attention away from his misfiring team), but it’s telling the way Croatian players like Andrej Kramaric referenced it in interviews after full-time, gleefully telling Herdman who really got “effed” and thanking him for the motivation (this related through a very uncomfortable looking translator). His apparent failure to shake Zlatco Dalic’s hand at the end of the game is a troubling indication of a small-time mentality and this whole tie took on the image of a mature, experienced Croatian team teaching the upstart Canadians, who can’t even observe the basic niceties, a well-deserved lesson in who’s boss, and in who really has the metaphorical testes. Canada will be despairing about this result and performance for a while, but I suspect the Croatian mentality means the Great White North were no longer even in Luka Modric’s head half-an-hour after full-time. They have a Belgian team to deal with in a few days time.
The Japan/Costa Rica result meant that the day’s main event of Spain vs Germany no longer had quite the same level of tension, with a draw now a much more palatable result for Hansi Flick and Luis Enrique. You might not have been able to tell that from their respective behaviours on the sideline though, with Flick looking focused and set, and Enrique a bundle of energy, jumping up and down, screaming and, at full-time, pulling Flick into an extended hug and handshake that looked positively uncomfortable. This was not a reflection of their respective teams either, with Spain the calmer and Germany the jumpier, in another heavyweight clash with a lot on the line.
Germany were better than they were against Japan and Spain were worse than they were against Costa Rica: neither reality was much of a surprise considering. The pressure to get the result meant Germany had to be better with the ball and had to be more daring upfront, while the likes of Pedri and Gavi were never going to get the same ability to move and operate as they had in the last game. The result was stalemate, a situation not helped by neither team operating with a stand-out goalscorer upfront in the first half. Manuel Neuer’s tip onto the bar from Marco Asensio’s shot or Antonio Rudiger’s needlessly ill-timed run for an offside strike were the best that the first 45 offered, the half taking on the appearance of an extended feeling out process.
It was not until Enrique and Flick got proper strikers onto the pitch that things changed. Alvaro Morata made an almost instant impact for Spain with his beautifully simplistic close-range finish on 62 minutes, darting ahead of Niklas Süle so effortlessly that the German defender was left with only the split-second choice of drawing a penalty or hoping Morata hadn’t brought his shooting boots. He had. Spain’s greater possession finally had some end product, and the incident again sparked the debate about midfield-centric tiki-taka style football struggling to get goals against higher quality teams. Should Enrique be more flexible and have the likes of Morata on the pitch from the start?
Germany had to come out and attack more in the aftermath, and Flick demonstrated his managerial prowess in making substitutions that radically altered the game, with Leroy Sane and Lukas Klosterman making significant contributions. But it was the choice of sending centre forward Niclas Füllkrug on that was the key. His goal to equalise things late, a properly smashed strike that Unai Simón couldn’t even dream of getting a finger too lest it get torn off, had journalists everywhere scrambling to find something to say about the guy, making only his third appearance for Germany last night. Perhaps it’s no surprise they hadn’t really heard of him, playing as he is for one of the lesser teams in a German Bundesliga so dominated by Bayern Munich it’s almost comical at this point. But he’s actually the standing top-scorer in that league with Werder Bremen this season, having somehow managed to salvage his career after the necessity of repeated knee surgeries down the years. He was an anonymous substitute against Japan but an instant hero in the same role here, and a possible answer to the long-standing quandary of who is going to sore Germany’s goals in this tournament.
Germany had the chances to take all three points, which would have left all four teams in Group E separated only by goal difference, but one sensed they were happy enough with the draw, having lost 6-0 to this same opposition not too long ago. Beat Costa Rica, and have Spain avoid defeat to Japan, and that’ll do it, a reprieve for Flick from the firing squad being prepared at home. Spain also have reason to be satisfied: it was a good test for Luis Enrique’s men against a much higher calibre of opponent than their first facile win, and one senses that they are happy to grow into the tournament. But then again this is World Cup 2022, and Japan and Costa Rica have separately demonstrated they are not here to play second fiddle to anyone. No one got effed here, and both teams demonstrated their masculine power (and boy am I running out of alternative terms for the same thing) but perhaps there is still some room for a surprise next Thursday.
131. Prayer: Matchday Nine
Cameroon – Serbia
Brazil – Switzerland
Korea (Republic) – Ghana
Portugal – Uruguay
The end of the second round of matches brought an eclectic mix of ties. There were games where both sides were already on their last chance, games where a hard-fought draw might be the natural prediction, games where top seeds might be expected to undertake a mere performative effort ahead of a more critical contests. It was the final opportunity for those who won last week to avoid a third group game where they would be unable to rest players, the final opportunity for those who lost last week to make that third game meaningful. After the sometimes silly season stuff of yesterday, Day Nine brought a much greater increase in the tension. No wonder then that TV cameras had a tendency to zoom in on a succession of fans praying in the stands, many of them unable to even look at what was happening on the field.
150 seconds is not a great deal of time. It’s shorter than most songs. You might spend more time everyday fixing your hair or brushing your teeth. You can probably run at a fair pace for that long. But if it seems like a very short number of seconds on paper, then yesterday’s first game proved that it is an eternity, where the fulcrum of exultation and agony tips back and forth.
Serbia and Cameroon both came into yesterday’s game with serious off-field problems casting a shadow. The Serbs have gone silent on a flag displayed in their dressing room that indicated their country has more territory than it really has, with some slogans of unpleasant historical reputation thrown in. Cameroon have suffered a full blown World Cup bust-up with #1 goalkeeper Andre Onana sent home after refusing to adhere to Rigobert Song’s kick-out instructions, despite the intervention of Cameroonian FA head Samuel Eto’o (it’s a sadly familiar situation for Cameroon, with off-field goalkeeper conflicts marring their 1990 and 1994 campaigns). Both sides could have done with a win here, but both seemed to be thinking a lot about what was happening off the field at different times.
That might explain the scrappiness of what unfolded. The old stereotype of Eastern European and African teams being too prone to crunching tackles and staying down too long upon contact is just that, a stereotype, but neither Serbia nor Cameroon did much to foster a more positive perception of their respective regions. The nerves were plainly obvious, as Serbia’s much vaunted forward line struggled to click, and Cameroon were able to match their bursts forward with a complete nothingness once they got into the final third. It was a game that seemed destined to be consigned to the bottom of the World Cup historical locker. And then suddenly it became a classic.
It started with what every bore fest really needs: a goal against the run of play. Serbia had been better in the first half hour and made a few chances, before Jean-Charles Castelletto snuck in at the end of a set-piece and upset everything. Everything sprang to life then, the Cameroonians buoyed, the Serbians at sixes and sevens trying to stop their onrush and momentum. In moments the Serbian backline seemed close to being overrun, but they survived thanks to some wayward Cameroonian decision-making and shooting. Things had settled again heading into injury time, and then we got the first notable 150 second spell.
Serbian class really did shine through in that two-and-a-half minutes. Strahinja Pavlović’s equaliser was a fine header but helped on its way by the inattention of Cameroonian defender André-Frank Anguissa, still clearly smarting from an earlier coming together but left on for some reason. 150 seconds later Anguissa was again not with his man when Sergej Milinkovic-Savic pulled a smart shot into the net at the near post, though one suspects that Devis Epassy in goal, Onana’s primary deputy, will end up getting most of the criticism. It’s just too good of a narrative.
Serbia really turned on the style in the second half, showcasing an intricacy in passing and movement that made them look almost more like an ice hockey team on a powerplay than a football XI. Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goal actually covered for some of their waywardness in that regard, the Serbs frequently guilty of overplaying the ball and trying to pass it into the net, rather than just pulling the trigger when they had the chance to. At 3-1 the game looked dead and buried, but then of course we got our second 150 second spell.
The second Cameroon goal was that rare enough occurrence, where the officials rule it out and then VAR says it was OK actually. Vincent Aboubakar, on only for a few minutes, didn’t even realise it, evidenced by the manner in which he ridiculously lofted the ball over Vanja Milinkovic-Savic without a care, but he had timed his run to utter perfection. He looked the most surprised when it was ruled legal, and barely even bothered to do much celebrating. Within seconds he was at it again, with a run timed even better ahead of squaring the ball for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to equalise, a goal that looked so offside that it was the crowds turn to be surprised when it was given. In two-and-a-half minutes Cameroon had gone from World Cup no-hopers whose players were arguing with each other on the field, to right back in the mix of things. In the aftermath it was the Serbs arguing with each other, their earlier effortless routes forward now consigned to memory.
The two sides were taking turns to lose their minds when it came to defending, both leaving things too open at different moments, and both looking like they might snatch a winner. Both keepers were tested, with Epassy redeeming his earlier ineffectiveness by taking a chipped effort on the face to prevent a Serbian fourth. A draw was a fair result at the end of one of those unlikely five-star affairs you sometimes get in the World Cup group stages. One suspects that, once the sting of coughing up a two goal lead leaves them, Serbia will actually be the happier: both sides are required to win their last game, which is a more manageable Switzerland for Serbia and an imposing Brazil for Cameroon, who at least proved in these 90 minutes that they have something to offer the World Cup. Neither team is likely to have another more dramatic two-and-a-half minute spell in this tournament anyway.
The day was just getting started though. Rather like the first encounter, the match-up of South Korea and Ghana didn’t immediately scream “classic”, but that’s what it became, especially in a second half that was as chock full of drama and special moments as any other game that has already come and gone in his World Cup. After so many scoreless draws, it seemed as if the teams of Groups G and H had been instructed to do whatever they had to do to get the goals per game average up. Maybe it’s just because this was another tie that both sides would have been targeting for points from the moment the draw was made, and that a win was even more desperately required given the dropped points in the first round of fixtures. Whatever it was, it was magic.
Jordan Ayew didn’t start the game against Portugal, despite the experience of 85 caps, but Otto Addo had him on from the start yesterday. That faith was rewarded with two brilliant left-wing deliveries for two brilliant headers, that had Ghana in dream land by the 34th minute. They had been second best in the contest up to that first goal, but really only in terms of who had most of the ball: Korea pestered the Ghanaian defence and put in plenty of crosses, but they were deflected away along with whatever shots they were able to make. They racked up an astonishing seven corners in the first 19 minutes, evidence of their willingness to press on early. But none of them came to anything, nearly all cleared away easily after poor deliveries from Son Heung-min, whose performance generally was subpar to the point of being little noticed. Shell shocked by the two concessions, one could imagine that the South Koreans went in at half-time to get an absolute shellacking from head coach Paulo Bento, who paced up and down the line all game like a caged animal just waiting for something to pounce on.
Ghana sat deep in the second, confident in their ability to squeeze the Korean attack out of any useful opportunities and not needing to risk too much going forward. It appeared to be working for them, South Korean experience at this level not amounting to much, until another wonderful 150 seconds (or so) of football reared its head. In that time frame Cho Gue-sung had two headers in the net for South Korea, and it was raining goals at the Qatar World Cup. It was the Ghanaians turn to be stunned into non-action for a while, and all of the momentum of the contest seemed to be with the AFC side. I’m sure sports writers were already preparing copy on an unlikely comeback win.
Then that script was turned on its head yet again by Mohammad Kudos’ second strike, and the stage was set for a hell of a finale. The Korean fans in the stands were spending the second half weeping, tears of joy and tears of despair and then tears of frustration as their side pushed relentlessly on to find another equaliser, with their Ghanaian equivalents clutching rosery beads. It became something of a battlefield, with Hwang In-beom briefly forced off to get stitches after one collision, and the South Korean wings bombing crosses into the Ghanaian penalty area every few seconds. Chances and half-chances were made, with Son’s inability to impact the game hamstringing Korean offensive efforts on more than one occasion. Too many times he and other Korean attacks seemed reluctant to take on the responsibility of having a shot at goal, always trying to find the man with more space, rather than just pulling the trigger and going for it.
Ten minutes of injury time offered yet more nail-biting tension, and it’s a shame that referee Anthony Taylor choose to end the game as he did, spoiling the conclusion of an epic contest by blowing for full time after South Korea had won a corner. There is nothing in the rule book that prohibits this of course, but I feel it is an unwritten understanding of the game that the full-time whistle doesn’t blow when one team is attacking in the final third, and certainly not when they have won a corner. Bento’s fury was just the most obvious manifestation of Korean (and I suspect neutral) disappointment with this uncreditable officiating. His red card was deserved, and if I can admire Taylor for anything it is the way he essentially stood still and took Bento’s abuse for what looked like several minutes, but I would hope that an informal decision on this bit of refereeing smallness is taken by making this Taylor’s last game at the World Cup. Korea deserved a draw and didn’t get it, that’s football sometimes, but for me this was a clear instance of a referee making himself the centre of attention absolutely needlessly.
Not that Ghana cared. Their first World Cup win in 90 minutes since their opening game in 2010 means they are right back in the hunt within Group H, and just look at who is next up: Uruguay, Suarez and Suarez’s hand. A revival of that 2010 spirit will be a potent motivator, only added to by the excitement of this game and of the result. South Korea aren’t out of it yet, but will need to reset rapidly from their anger at the conclusion and find a way to get three points from Portugal: a very tall order you would imagine. There might be so many problematic reasons to throw criticism at the organisation and hosting of this tournament, but on the field Qatar 2022 was delivering.
The two Group G winners from the first round of matches were up next, or rather one of them was. The sight of Switzerland’s Silvan Widmer pacing up the right flank early, only to immediately turn and thump the ball deep back into his own half told the story: Switzerland didn’t really come to Stadium 974 last night to play. They came to frustrate Brazil and get out with a draw that would put them on the verge of progression, and the vast majority of the actual attacking intent that they displayed only took place after they finally conceded. I don’t mean this to be taken as too much of a criticism, because defensive football is part and parcel of the game. But this is the World Cup. You shouldn’t come here with remarkably strict anti-football in mind.
So we were treated to a very lengthy exercise in a talented offence trying to break down a rigid defence, and for most of the 90 it was the defence on top. Granit Xhaka did a really creditable job in marshalling those banks of defenders and midfielders, trusting in his full-backs to stop the dribbles and in his centre-backs to boot the crosses and throughballs away. Breel Embolo upfront spent most of his game running around without the ball. Brazil were still good enough to create chances out of nowhere – like Vinicius Junior’s strike from Raphina’s in-swinging cross in the first half, which I almost missed since it seemed nothing was on – but not quite good enough to score. Fred to partner Casemiro in midfield was perhaps the wrong choice, with a more attacking option potentially the better decision to put the pressure on the deep-lying Swiss midfield (though Fred did just fine in his role it has to be said: against more attacking opposition he might be crucial).
Inevitably, the question started being asked, and will be asked again, as to whether Brazil need Neymar in the team. He’s not quite the icon he once was, but does he drag Brazil down to his level, or raise them up? His natural ability to unlock stubborn defences, to make the most of his movement, did seem to be missing out there last night, but then again it’s just as likely that he would be running into the Swiss wall as much as anyone else. Certainly it’s happened enough to Neymar before – think Costa Rica in 2018 – that it should not be taken as a given he would have been the man to make Swiss cheese out there.
After an astonishing VAR call that, for me, really justifies the use of a system that spots things linesmen will either never see or never have the courage to flag, it really did seem like 0-0 was all that could be expected. But not for Casemiro, oh no. With a “Fine, I’ll do it myself” attitude honed after spending 83 minutes dominating the centre of the field to no result from his further forward placed team mates, he suddenly worked his way into a strikers position to fire home a delicious outside-of-the-boot volley past a motionless Yann Sommer, and in the moment made a case for him being Brazil’s most critical player of the tournament. He can tackle, he can pick passes, he can score goals, he can run for days, and he was just the kind of man that Brazil needed to break the deadlock.
Much like the Serbian game, some of the Brazilian swagger returned after the breakthrough, helped by the flank movements of Bruno Guimaraes and Antony, running at tired Swiss defenders and making things happen. No one was asking whether Neymar was being missed anymore. The Brazilians praying in the crowd had been given deliverance, and now was the time to party; the poor young Swiss boy seen with every finger crossed ahead of a late Swiss set-play was to be disappointed. It was a fair result though, one that sends one of the real stand-out pretenders to France’s crown into the knock-outs with a game to spare, meaning Neymar’s absence will be even less of an issue for the tie with Cameroon. The Swiss face into a complicated match-up with Serbia where a draw might well be enough, but one would hope they will attempt to come out of their comfort zone a bit more. Failure to do so cost them here.
The battle of football’s old men was the headliner, though such headlines were disrupted when Luis Suarez was dropped to the bench for Uruguay and Portugal. That meant it was just the Cristiano Ronaldo experience again, a feeling helped along by the fans that went wild every time he touched the ball, and a Portuguese team that made sure they had the most of it. Portugal and Uruguay are similar sides in many ways, both caught in an extended transition period where the selection of aging veterans seems mandatory alongside youth who might be at a peak in 2026: but it was clear that this gradual evolution is a bit further along with Portugal, who bossed the vast majority of a game where the South Americans seemed very short of ideas.
It wasn’t like Switzerland. You don’t play a still talented forward like Edinson Cavani from the start if your plan is to never try too hard to get the ball to him. You don’t have Federico Valverde in from the start if you don’t want to create. But Uruguay were pegged back too deep all the same. They were barely able to get a few touches of the ball together whenever they got it before a resolute Portuguese defence, led by the ever remarkable Pepe, now the oldest European to ever play at a World Cup at 39, got the ball back and got it back upfield. When Rodrigo Bentancur missed a sitter that fell his way unexpectedly, he dribbling into a one-on-one with Diogo Costa, he spent 30 seconds screaming at himself for not putting it away. He knew that Uruguay were not going to get many chances, and certainly not better ones.
It took a while for Portugal to open the scoring all the same, and it’s with this that we have to turn the narrative back to Ronaldo. Are Portugal better off with him in the team? On the evidence of last night, the answer is a resounding “No”. He was slow in comparison to his other forwards, and on numerous occasions promising runs down the flanks had to be held up because the nominal centre of the final 3 in 4-3-3 was not in position to meet a cross. He would try fancy finesse moves, stepovers and feints, to absolutely no benefit other than getting the crowd to scream. He would shout at teammates for misplaced passes, invariably because they were not sent in his direction. He claimed a goal that he simply did not have a hand (or hair) in scoring, and scowled when a stadium announcement was made to that effect. And when substituted he looked petulant and surly. Ronaldo does still score goals, and does still make them, but the argument is whether someone else would score more and make more.
And it is hard not to compare Ronaldo to Bruno Fernandes, and not just because of their joint club career. Fernandes seemed to me to be the real leader out there last night. He was the one making things happen in midfield, he was the one darting into the box to make himself available for the return, he was the one talking to the ref on behalf of his teammates and he was one scoring, including the responsibility of that late penalty. After the game, while Ronaldo whined about the first goal coming off his hair, Fernandes had the good grace to insist he was aiming for Ronaldo, but it was still the Manchester United’s man goal. If Ronaldo is the icon, the face of Portuguese football, then he’s doing so on the backs of his teammates effort, and none more than Fernandes so far.
Uruguay fell back more-and-more into fouling their way through the game (their first was within 25 seconds), and were lucky that the referee was in a very lenient mood. Suarez’ introduction after the first goal heralded a change in attitude, and it was only then that Uruguay were able to get on the front foot, though when the big chance came it was another substitute in Maxi Gomes pumping the ball off the woodwork. Aside from one close range effort from a tight angle Suarez offered little, far less than even Ronaldo had in a similar timeframe. The penalty that killed the game was understandably controversial, but for me the blocking of a likely goalscoring opportunity for Fernandes with a hand justified the award. Uruguay haven’t failed to score at two consecutive World Cup games since 1990, and it’s evidence of that over-reliance on past-it frontmen. Portugal go through, their prayers answered, and I doubt we will be seeing Ronaldo until the last 16. Uruguay face a do-or-die against Ghana, with all of the history piled on top of that fixture. Keep the rosery beads handy.
132. Pressure Cooker: Matchday Ten
Ecuador – Senegal
Netherlands – Qatar
Iran – USA
Wales – England
The final round of group games then, and the veritable pressure cooker that they represent. Remarkably there were no dead rubber groups after the previous eight days, with something to play for in every one of them, and in every game. We started where we began, with two of the most highly fancied underdogs playing-off for a spot in the last 16, and then a more complicated intertwined decision to come out of Group B, marked by one of the most pressure filled – for footballing and political reasons – matches so far. Some teams take the pressure and are moulded into something great by it, others collapse. Four teams were going on, three more were going home.
Our first joint kick-off saw the hosts take on the Dutch with only the possibility of a Netherlands loss, supremely unlikely, effecting things. The real drama was in the other game, with Ecuador and Senegal playing it out for the other progression spot. It was win and in with a draw favouring the South Americans, they boosted by the apparent fitness of Enner Valencia. Senegal were arguably under more pressure, the sight of the African Champions failing to get out of their World Cup group not the kind of thing that Aliou Cisse was likely to enjoy explaining to his superiors. But on the other hand there is a certain freedom in the fact that you just have to go for it and win. It was Ecuador who had something to defend and to lose and that told early on, the jogo bonito they had exhibited at times in the first few games totally absent.
In the opening stages Senegal enjoyed what I can only call a frantic dominance. They put plenty of shots wide, the result of an urgency that had forwards snatching at balls and sending them sailing left and right of the Ecuador goal. Ecuador would have been satisfied enough, especially as they came into the game a bit more after the 20 minute mark. They had absorbed the early burst of pressure, and now they were going to take charge. At least that was how it looked to an outside observer anyway.
The penalty, when it came, was something of a bolt from the blue. In a tournament filled with debatable officiating decisions here was one that was almost bizarrely straightforward, Piero Hincapie just slamming into Ismaila Sarr after missing the ball completely. There was something exhilarating about the way in which Sarr smashed the penalty past a motionless Hernan Galindez, as if he had decided the best way to deal with the nerves was just to hit it with as much power as possible. Senegal had their lead and, in a game that was almost a knockout, one foot in the actual knockouts.
Ecuador needed to reset and assert themselves, just as they had in the second half of the Dutch game, but up until they actually scored they were barely doing so. I would go as far as to say that Ecuador looked outright tame, as if the mornings headlines were their primary concern, and not rescuing the situation. Enner Valencia was very off the pace, perhaps not fully fit after the ankle knock he suffered against the Netherlands, and with that attacking option off the table Ecuador looked far more toothless than many would have expected. Hence why Senegal would have reason to be furious about the concession, Moises Caicedo getting the opportunity to turn the ball in from point blank range because Youssouf Sabaly, on the line to defend a corner, had played him on. Edouard Mendy took the ball out of his net, looking all the more rueful because it was the first thing he’d really had to do all game.
If Ecuador thought that was the turnaround though, maybe that elaborate circular prayer Caicedo had led in celebration should have tried a bit harder. Senegal were back in front within three minutes, and it was Kalidou Koulibaly who got it, side-footing home when Ecuador failed to deal with a cross. It was hard not to think about Roy Keane against Juventus in 1999: a captain’s goal to give his side the dig-out they needed. Other sides would have faded after the equaliser, but I suspect that the various shades of adversity that Senegal have faced down the years, with the hoodoo of underperformance banished decisively with the recent AFCON victory, have made them the team they are today. What didn’t kill them made them stronger.
Their defensive effort in the last part of the game, a solid two-line block, was truly excellent. Ecuador were desperate, but also appeared to lack any real belief that they could get back into the game. Valencia couldn’t get on the ball, and the men around him couldn’t pick up the slack. Some of them were already in tears ahead of the full-time whistle. Senegal advanced to the sound of drums, their own fans having never let up for the entirety of the 90.
An emotional undercurrent to the result was the second anniversary of the untimely death of Papa Bouba Diop, the man who scored the goal that defeated France in 2002. Senegal carried messages of remembrance for Diop at the conclusion of the game, the modern heroes bridging the gap to the last great generation, and for once it seemed as if the weight of history was not so great of a burden for a football team. It will be England for them on Sunday and Senegal will be no pushovers, intent as they are on at least equalling CAF’s best record at this tournament. For Ecuador there will be a painful inquest for sure, with questions to be asked about their lack of drive, why Valencia was kept on the field as long as he was and what the plan is once he is no longer with the team. But it must be remembered that they are still, overall, a very young team, who are still far from their apogee. Future Copas and future World Cups must be the true aim for them, and Ecuador may yet use the experience of this failure as a potent training tool and motivator.
I won’t belabour the point too much with the other game of the afternoon kick-off. The Netherlands were still nominally in danger of elimination, but few thought it a likely scenario given the opposition that needed to be overcome. Still, Louis van Gaal named a surprisingly strong side all the same, with Memphis Depay, Frenkie de Jong and Cody Gakpo all starting, so he obviously was not in the mood to take any chances.
He needn’t have bothered really. Qatar showcased all of the weaknesses that have marred their tournament: inability to keep up, to retain the ball, to form a working defence for 90 minutes. The Dutch never really looked to be in much trouble, and at times it almost seemed like they were at walking pace. Gakpo’s opener essentially settled it as a contest, de Jong reacted quicker than the three Qatari defenders around him for the second and it would have been worse if a handball hadn’t ruled out a third, with substitute Steven Berghuis practically jogging the ball into the Qatar net. This wasn’t a routine win, it was somehow even more casual than that, like a weeknight kickabout that happened to have an audience of thousands. We can’t really take any lessons from it regards the Dutch. They might actually benefit from what was essentially a warm-up game ahead of the last 16, especially given their opponents had a tougher game a few hours later.
Qatar were shockingly bad, but what’s new? How this team won the Asian Cup is beyond me, given that on numerous occasion yesterday they got a man down the flanks, only for him to look up and see that not one of his teammates had bothered to actually run into the box. There is a bit of pride in this team, but it’s far from enough. Qatar have been miserably ineffective at their own World Cup, and exit the tournament likely to be ranked as its worst team, and indeed the worst host nation in history: South Africa are the only other host not to make it out of the group stage, but they got four points in the effort. An ugly tournament hosted by an awful team. What more is there to say?
Onto Group B then and to the mother of all re-matches, to paraphrase US officials. The build-up to Iran vs the United States was marked by controversies over flags, coaches bringing up school shootings and rows between players and press over how to pronounce country names, and in a way it was a relief when the teams finally did leave all of that behind and kick-off in the Al Thumama. The horns of the Iranian fans, after another bout of regime-aimed booing at the anthem, insured that the match had the feel of a Tehran tie, but it was evident from the off that it was the Americans who would be making most of the running.
The pace of the United States, matched with their stamina, really is their killer weapon. It aids in the building of swift attacks and in harrying the opposition when the US doesn’t have the ball, and Iran were a team that really could have done without the harrying. They only needed a draw of course so were happy enough to contract, but this seemingly wasn’t Carlos Queiroz’ game plan, he being seen on the side-line within the first 20 minutes screaming for his team to deliver more width. Narrow or wide, it wasn’t working, with Iranian counter-attacks stymied by their own limited speed next to the rapidly re-shaping as required Americans.
The breakthrough was well-deserved when it came, though the USA might yet have cause for regrets in the manner in which it arrived. Christian Pulisic’ bravery cannot be doubted in the manner he leapt into Weston McKennie’s cross, but his trip to a hospital in the aftermath of crunching into Alireza Beiranvand will leave Gregg Berhalter sweating. America automatically looked a less effective side going forward without him in the team, evidenced by a botched three-on-two shortly afterwards that should have got another goal, and if his World Cup is over then it bodes very poorly for the US. But within the confines of last night that sacrifice had got them the goal they needed.
Iran had to come into the game in the second half of course, but the absence of Alireza Jahanbakhsh due to suspension and the hooking of Sardar Asmoun owing to injury damaged those efforts. It was the Americans’ turn to contract, and Iran did look dangerous whenever they got highballs into the penalty area, with more than one player guilty of the kind of miss that is liable to haunt them for the rest of their lives. Too often though Iran were trying to play the US at their own game and constructing passing moves, when keeping it simpler and more route-oneish would have sufficed. Things got a little desperate as time ticked on and into the added nine minutes, with Iran making a number of speculative penalty claims that did them no favours. Matt Turner had cause for relief when his mistaken decision to come for a ball resulted only in a stuttering effort without the needed momentum to get over the line, and the US squeaked to full-time.
It was not in any way an equal of the 1998 clash. This was arguably more tension-filled, but lacked the free-flowing attacking football (not that it was a dirty game by any means). As a neutral I will admit that my heart went out to an Iranian team that made so brave a stand ahead of their first game and then fought back to get their World Cup destiny back in their hands against Wales, but football, and especially World Cups, are a results business. Iran couldn’t get the ball in the net, and they had their chances to do so. I think they can leave with their heads held high, but the descent after the height, regards the regime and the political situation back home, is stark. For Berhalter and the US, this is a huge result: the 1998 side are a great “What if?” in the history of American soccer, and their failure has now at least been partially redeemed 24 long years later. A last 16 tie with the Netherlands is nothing that the USA will have too much fear over. They’ve come through the pressure cooker.
The other tie was a mite more predictable. The result in Iran/USA meant Wales were sunk either way of course, but even before then few would have given them much of a chance of getting a win over England. Gareth Southgate was confident enough to switch things up, and he was able to bring in Phil Foden and Marcus Rashford into the starting line-up: Wales’ big change up was the comparatively less sensational Danny Ward in goal. English domination was expected and duly delivered, but a lack of shooting prowess was carried over from the US game, enough that a much re-shared tweet at half-time declared that “England have killed goals”.
The problem was that too many of the English attacks were doing the same thing: getting down the flank, cutting inside, and crossing or shooting. The Welsh defence was alive to it, and solid enough in that first period. But this is a team that has looked like it was running on empty from the end of the first half against Iran, and as soon as Southgate made the simple change of switching the wings that Foden and Rashford were operating from, the game really was up. Rashford’s first had an air of fortune about it, with Ward taking a few steps in the wrong direction ahead of the free-kick won by Foden. Much less fortune about the second though, starting as it did with Harry Kane robbing the Welsh defence in possession, continuing as it did with Chris Mepham not even seeming to realise what was going on as the ball was crossed against him and ending as it did with a well-placed Foden on hand for a tap-in.
That was game over. The Welsh attack had tried something new by switching Gareth Bale to the wing and Aaron Ramsey upfront, but such switches meant nothing when those players were clearly unfit and getting next to no service anyway. Bale was unceremoniously hooked at half-time, a sad end to his World Cup career after such a long wait. It was only after conceding two that Wales tried to press on, but that always seemed more a case of England stepping off the accelerator themselves. Wales were done long before Rashford’s well-worked second, again with Ward at fault.
As I said before it’s customary to start an evaluation of any England game with what they did wrong, but its hard to fault this showing. Yes, they were facing poor opposition, but you can only play what is in front of you, and Southgate now has the luxury of a selection headache regards Foden and Rashford. Senegal on Sunday will be a tougher contest, especially in midfield where England had almost no challenge last night, but they will be rightfully favourites to go onto the Quarter-Finals. Perhaps no other manager in the tournament is under as much unrelenting pressure as Southgate, but he’s out of the cooker and feeing fine. Wales, well, getting to the World Cup again after so long was an achievement, but what came at the tournament was nothing short of a disaster. They are better than this, but when your star men are aging and unfit, there is little more than you can expect. The worse thing is that it might be a while yet before we see what is bound to be a team with a lot of changes very soon at this level again.
133. The Great Escape: Matchday Eleven
Poland – Argentina
Saudi Arabia – Mexico
Tunisia – France
Australia – Denmark
Both Groups C and D had different plots and schemes brewing. The first two rounds of matches in both pools had conspired to turn things on their head in many ways, with lower ranked sides over-performing, and some of the tournament favourites down in the doldrums. Every game had some element of a team trying to orchestrate either an unlikely progression, or trying to rescue what had been presumed to be an easy one. Like prisoners constructing tunnels under the eyes of the guards, seven of the eight sides involved on Day Eleven – one other being home and hosed already – were attempting to manufacture their own great escape from the ignominy of a promising position wasted or being unable to utilise their obvious talent to get the minimum expected: but who would escape, and for whom would it be a case of “Good luck”?
I feel like I have spent a lot of time with Graham Arnold in the course of this series, charting his second tenure as Australian boss, the initially easy, then not-so-easy, qualification campaign, the heroics at the end, the detractors at home, his own unique style with the press, everything. He’s certainly a character, and that character has never faced a harder test than getting Australia out of Group D. A result against the Danes, also seeking their own great escape, would do it. Arnold was his usual self with the press beforehand, feigning a relaxed nature while making an extended, and tortured, metaphor whereby Australian soccer was described as a cake with underage teams forming the icing, or something like that. That’s just who the guy is. If nothing else, it’s rarely boring.
Over in the other game, Tunisia faced a different kind of story. The thought of going up against their previous colonial occupiers was stunted somewhat by the XI Didier Deschamps named, a full nine changes from the side that outfought Denmark, so this was very much a case of Tunisia vs the French B team. But it didn’t matter. Tunisia still needed a win, and were still a facing a team of players that had to be considered, man for man, better than they were. Everything might end up being pointless depending on how things went in the other game. Is an heroic stand in a dead rubber still heroic? Can such things exist in isolation?
It was all Denmark in the first half in the Al Janoub. Now playing with Martin Braithwaite upfront, the third player chosen to try and solve the goalscoring problem, the Danes dominated possession and worked things around, but not for the first time in this tournament found themselves hitting a brick wall in the final third. There were some half-chances here and there, but too often Denmark seemed to be going for the obvious choice: the pointless long ball easily mopped up, the sideways pass, the available flank player instead of a more incisive attempt forward. Australia were not really in the game, with the likes of Aaron Mooy painfully isolated, but were doing enough to keep the Danes out. With the exception perhaps of Christian Eriksen it seemed as if Denmark were devolving into the same state that has effected the likes of Argentina, Ecuador and Germany at different points of his tournament, with no one wanting the responsibility of taking the ball forward and pulling the trigger: better to play cautiously, pass it to someone else, and let them do it. The fear was palpable.
Jalel Kadri’s big gamble in the other game was Wahbi Khazri of Montpellier, with 25 goals for his country in the starting line-up. He huffed and puffed but for the first half and much of his time in the second didn’t seem all that special, even as Tunisia took control. France were all over the place for an extended period of time, this essentially brand new side struggling to link-up, move the ball between the zones and get at Tunisia, whose supporters made the usual wall of noise we have come to expect. Too often Tunisia were just throwing the ball into the box and just hoping something would happen, with a succession of corners all going to the near post, and all cleared without any danger being created. Half-time in both games came in a state of as you were: France going through, and Australia joining them, just about.
Danish frustration grew and grew in the second half, helped along by a raucous Socceroo support who cheered every misstep and every clearance like they were goals. With Denmark’s sterile domination contained and Tunisia also pegging France back in a similarly impotent fashion, a pair of 0-0’s seemed likely. Then Khazri, in a moment of moments, delivered, receiving the ball, skipping through the initial challenges of an almost somnambulant French defence, and dispatching it coolly into the corner of Steve Mandanda’s net. The permutations swung instantly, and before you could even note that Khazri was immediately being subbed off, you were wondering about Tunisia getting to the knock-outs.
Arnold allegedly told Matthew Leckie that Tunisia had just scored, in order to get his team to go on the offensive: Leckie alleges the Australian team assumed Arnold was lying to them to keep them motivated. Maybe that’s just a good story, but something happened. Within minutes of Khazri’s strike, Australia got the rare chance to counter, and got the ball punted up to Leckie himself. Facing three Danish defenders in close proximity, he jinked, turned, perhaps waited half-a-moment to see if anyone else was coming to help him, then decided to just do it all himself. His low shot perhaps should have been gotten to by Kasper Schmeichel, but could have’s and should have’s are not enough at this level. Australia exploded.
There was nothing Tunisia could do now, dependent as they were on the Danes levelling things across the city. It was a strange situation as the North Africans went into an extreme defensive posture, sitting back as far as they could to deflect the oncoming French attacks. And they were substantial, with the big guns of Kylian Mbappé, Adrien Rabiot and Antoine Griezmann sent on to salvage something from the dead rubber. They came into the game and made chances, but that sense of unevenness in selection and formation remained. Tunisia kept holding on, praying for a release.
Denmark were dire in the remainder of their game, the closet they got to scoring a penalty award turned over for offside. Harry Soutter was again an utterly heroic presence in the heart of the Australian defence, blocking shot after shot, and leaving the Danes already falling into an abyss they could scarcely believe they had even been peering into. Two moments stand out: a counter-attack on account of a slipped Australian midfielder, where Eriksen felt compelled to slow down the play, then pass it to the side as the Socceroo defence got back in numbers; and the sight of Joachim Andersen kicking the ball out of play under absolutely no pressure in his own half. The yips were plainly obvious. Australia held out, and in truth Denmark could have had another 90 and would not have scored.
Tunisia got their victory, though the manner of it was spoiled by some bizarre VAR drama that has the French FA demanding the result be changed to a 1-1 this morning. It’s a doubtful outcome: Griezmann was offside for his strike, and a debate about where a ref’s whistle constituted the end of the game or a re-start seems especially petty in these circumstances. It’s a famous win for Tunisia, but all for naught: this heroic grab at goal and then strong rearguard action will have to exist merely in isolation. Perhaps in time it can became something for Tunisian football to be proud of, but that will take a while I suspect. They gave all that they could give in Qatar, but that lack of cut and thrust upfront in the first two games was just too costly in the end. The task of escaping Group C was beyond them.
Over in the Al Janoub, the despair of Denmark was soon eclipsed by the joy of the Australians, who mobbed Arnold so much it took a while to get him out from under a large group of players. For him this is an especially sweet moment: after the Australian FA allegedly came close to sacking him ahead of the Intercontinental play-offs, he has now became only the second man to bring Australia into the Second Round. Even his most regular critics, like Mark Bosnich, could only offer stunned congratulations on the miracle. What occurred yesterday afternoon is the kind of validation that so many in this game seek and only a few ever get. Arnold’s legacy, no matter what happens at the weekend, seems assured.
If that seemed like more than enough drama for one day, Qatar 2022 was far from finished. Everyone in Group D could still go through, and everyone could still go out, with only a few goals in the difference between all of them. In Stadium 974, it was another heavyweight clash of personalities, with Lionel Messi put square against Robert Lewandowski, as if there wasn’t another 20 men around the two of them, and in the Lusail it was Mexico’s hope of getting another shot at quinto partido put against the unlikely underdog story of Saudi Arabia. Only two could make it.
Argentina took on Denmark’s role in dominating possession, though I was actually thinking more of Brazil against the Swiss as I watched what was happening. They certainly had more cutting edge than the Danes, and they made a lot more chances, half or full, to have the Poles panicking. The Polish contraction to the point that Wojciech Szczesny was called upon more than once to save their bacon did not seem as planned as Switzerland’s had been though, hence the sense of panic whenever Argentina were pressing forward. Lewandowski, usually all on his own inside the Argentina half waiting for a pass that would never come, was not really a factor. The penalty that Szczesny saved – he making a case for the Golden Glove for sure, though he claims to have a lost a bet with Messi that it wouldn’t be awarded – was the main highlight, a bizarre VAR-facilitated call that seemed to indicate that goalkeepers are no longer allowed to try for high balls if someone else is in the vicinity. Szczesny would actually end up with more touches than any other Polish player, and a lot more than Lewandowski.
In the Lusail,it was what we have come to expect from a Saudi Arabian game: they appear to be wilting, inviting the opposition to come on and overrun them, then suddenly they are bursting down the field themselves, with a wall of sound behind them. Mexico, as they have in the two games before this and will again before too long, couldn’t score, though they were making chances. 0-0 in both games at half-time and a chance to breathe. Poland and Argentina were still on course, but one goal could, and in the end would, change everything.
Alexis Mac Allister’s strike within a few minutes of the re-start sent the dominant Argentina fans into raptures. In truth it was deserved, not least because Argentina’s dominance of possession had never seemed of the nervous, frantic kind when the team dominating needs that goal: they played like a side that knew the goal would come if they just kept at it, and so it proved. But Poland were still going through as things stood, and still going through even when Enzo Fernandez added a fine second 20 minutes later. For all the attacking skill such players were showcasing, it was still Messi drawing the eye, and how could he not? That ability to receive the ball with his back to goal, then seemingly teleport so he is suddenly racing towards the target, defenders left looking around in his wake, is unmatched in this game. He made the passes, he made things happen, and all Lewandowski could do in response was foul him towards the end.
But Mexico were making their own things happen. First Henry Martin finally got their first goal of the tournament, 227 minutes in, to set them on the way. Then Luis Chavez hit a blistering free kick into the top corner to really set things up. Mexico were not going out of this World Cup without a fight, and in the remaining time left everything that they had on the table in an attacking display that perhaps deserved more than they would get. The Saudis weren’t out of it either and mounted their own admirable rearguard action, still willing to hit the ball up high towards a lone attacker when the moment arrived, and still cheered to exhaustion by their fans.
It was a strange ending as the tiebreakers were all discarded one-by-one for Poland and Mexico. Points? Four each. Goal difference? Zero each. Goals scored? Two each. Head-to-head? A scoreless draw. All that was left, before the drawing of lots, was disciplinary record, and here there was an advantage for one team: Poland had two yellow cards less. The usual commentariat threw scorn down on what they claim an unsporting way of doing it, but to them I simply say “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”: at least disciplinary record settles things based on what happens on the field. There was only two instructions from the Polish bench, according to Piotr Zielinski speaking after the fact: “Don’t concede! Don’t get cards!”.
It does lend itself to the bizarre though. Japan’s farcical end to their group stage campaign in 2018 was in many minds, but it fairness it didn’t end that way here. Argentina, apparently urged on by commentators who wanted them to do their North American cousins a favour, pressed for a third that would eliminate Poland. The Poles, for their part, were stuck defending without being able to risk a caution, so there could be no cynical shirt pulls, no risky clashes, and no timewasting. Over in the Lusail Mexico were throwing themselves forward and twice had the ball in the net for what would have been a glorious third, only to be correctly ruled offside in each instance. The clock ticked away as we looked for goals, and for yellow cards. And there was one more goal to settle it all, and when it came it was for the Saudis, taking advantage of slack Mexican defending as they assumed an all-out attacking shape, and chasing what would have been a more than credible draw themselves.
So, Poland, despite barely playing any actual football, went through. Mexico replaced the curse of quinto partido with a curse of quatro partido, going out at this stage for the first time in seven tournaments. Coach Gerardo Martino, a widely reviled figure among the fanbase, essentially admitted his tenure was over in the aftermath amid the glare of hostile Mexican journalists, and for Mexico a major introspection is now required to fix the internal problems and get their senior men’s side back to a previous position of continental dominance. I prefer to read back Herve Renard’s comments though, as his side, that certainly captured the imagination, reckon with what they have achieved and failed to achieve: “We won’t get the violin out and start crying”. Within moments, he was on to what comes next, namely the Asian Cup and, yes, the qualifiers for the next World Cup. They couldn’t orchestrate an escape and, despite playing better than Poland, neither could Mexico. It’s Argentina and Poland who dealt with things and are on their way to freedom. But of course, that feeling will only last as far as this coming weekend.
134. What Is Happening: Matchday Twelve
Japan – Spain
Costa Rica – Germany
Croatia – Belgium
Canada – Morocco
There was a lot riding on the results of these four games, arguably more than in any other set of games in the final round of the group stage. One team had conspired to throw away a promising position, and had to pull off another miracle. One team had clawed its way back into contention, just about, but the knives were out and waiting if they failed to get any further. One team was split apart by fractious rivalries and bitter words. Another was on the verge of something special, but still could lose it all. And that’s only half of the sides involved yesterday. Floating above all of them, for some very close, for others still a distant threat, was the impending tag of underachievement, to have been capable of much more and then be deemed to have failed to deliver. Everything was razor thin. For the penultimate day of the First Round, we dove back into a world of tiebreakers, permutations and tight margins.
The first cauldron was Group F, and we start with the blockbuster meeting of Belgium and Croatia. The nadir of the golden generation was coming up swiftly, hence why Roberto Martinez decided to do what not too long ago would have been unthinkable and drop his captain, Eden Hazard, and upfront go with Leandro Trossard. There was a scent of “long past due” in the first instance, a little bit of desperate hope in the second. Croatia were getting comparatively little attention from the media, really just needing a draw, and expected to be more than enough to see Belgium out.
The game started that way, with Croatia showcasing a blistering effort to get on the scoresheet within the first 60 seconds. They repeated this high-tempo effort at the start of the second half, indicating the point was at least partly psychological, to scare an already rattled Belgium into a mental frailty. But Belgium, to their genuine credit, were not long cowed either side of the half-time break. This was to be their best performance of the tournament, one where the necessity of gaining a result and the combined pressures of the past few days created an urgency and a commitment to getting forward.
But that doesn’t mean it was actually going to work. The first half was pretty much a bore, the efforts to play the ball around not helped by an unkempt looking pitch in the Ahmed bin Ali (due to host one more game, Argentina/Australia, and you imagine the Aussies will be happier with that surface). At the break the scoreline read 0-0, which also happened to be the same amount of shots on target for both sides. But then, not for the first time in this World Cup, it was the second half where everything sprang to life.
Trossard, regrettably ineffective, was hooked, and on came Romulo Lukaku. Belgium eventually grabbed a total control of the game, especially in the last 20 minutes, as Croatia seemed to realise they would be better off defending what they had and seeking the counters when they came. It was a risky strategy, and it almost played into Belgian hands. Yes, Croatia were able to bomb forward plenty of times, and Luka Modric did not put in a bad shift in the centre of the park. But there was a depressing replication in the Croatian efforts, which in the second half alone consisted of at least five separate instances of getting the ball down the right flank, into the box, cutback and then a look of surprise when one of three Belgian defenders gained possession and broke away. Croatia looked surprisingly out of ideas in the final third and, at the risk of repeating a mistake many critics of the side made in 2018, very tired. When Ivan Perisic got a breakaway midway through the half, he had the choice of shooting or laying the ball off to another attacker, but instead made no decision, dribbling, dithering and then being tamely dispossessed when a goal had seemed likely.
The last period of the game was Belgium’s, helped along by a nerviness in the Croatian defence, Dominik Livaković making an very uncharacteristic error in a mix-up over whether to come for a throughball or not just the best exemplifier. Luckily for Croatia, they just so happened to be facing Lukaku on what will presumably go down as one of the worst days of his life. It was like we were all just figments of one of his nightmares, and the whole thing would be revealed to be nothing more than an undigested bit of beef. The goal gaped, he hit the post. The goal gaped again, he headed over. The ball was played to him inside the six yard box, he toe-poked wide. He was the target of a Kevin de Bruyne cross that had the ball getting to him in the six yard box again, with just a header or kick of even moderate power required to get the needed goal, and he chested it into Livakovic’s hands. He had one last chance, again, from close range, to pull the trigger, and Josko Gvardiol was able to get in and make a last ditch tackle. It was extraordinary. Some defended the player, a man who has struggled to get even a half’s worth of football this season, but you don’t need to be at the peak of your powers to convert one of those chances.
The defining image of the game for most will probably be Lukaku punching a perspex screen at full time, but for me it was the sight of Thomas Meunier, sitting on the ground next to an advertising hoarding after being subbed off in the dying minutes, looking equal parts exhausted and disgusted with what he was seeing play out in front of him. It was like it had been stage managed by a a media voraciously hungry for a narrative of Belgium being the land of tired old men, totally past it and ready for the flight home. Croatia held on. Martinez was out before he even left the stadium. The golden generation is a memory. If Lukaku had the wherewithal to put just one of those chances away, where to score seemed easier than to miss, it would all have been so different. Fine margins. Croatia go on, but the question will be asked as to whether they are capable of maintaining the needed effort.
The other game in Group F was decidedly more straightforward. John Herdman changed things up a bit, dropping Jonathan David and putting in Reading’s Junior Hoilett, but with Canada’s race run this seemed more a 90 minute exercise in Morocco practising their attacking play. The disastrous early goal, Hakim Ziyech giving two fingers to Vahid Halilhodžić by chipping in from distance after a Canadian defensive muddle, almost seemed to settle it, even before Youssef En-Nesyri added a second. There was only one way this game was ending, especially with Alphonso Davies being pulled all over the place: Herdman made the strange call to play him in his third different starting position of the tournament, this time over on the right wing.
That lack of big tournament experience with Canada was evident, and really has been since Croatia equalised against them a few days ago. Such things are important: this is not the Gold Cup or the CONCACAF Nations League, this is the very highest level, where mistakes will get ruthlessly punished and where you just do not have the time to be anything other than at your very best. Morocco were at that, even with the conceded own goal that ended an eight match run without being scored against. There was only a goal in it for the majority of the match, but you somehow felt that Canada just were not capable of getting it, not against this level of defence, and not against a Moroccan team that had the honour of topping the group within their sights.
This is a remarkable Moroccan achievement. The reward, such as it is, is yet another colonial grudge match for Qatar 2022, but Morocco will have no fear. They have the defence. They now have an attack that has shown it can score goals against top quality opposition. They certainly will have the fans behind them, the majority anyway. Walid Regragui asked after the game as to why Morocco could not “aim for the sky?” He wasn’t wrong. Canada have work to do ahead of 2026, but there is a solid foundation there, if they can approach the inquest into this tournament as a means of garnering improvement, and not recriminations.
But forget all that, because it was Group E that provided the highest of drama, on the day, of the round and of this World Cup so far, maybe even in the entire history of World Cup group stages. Anyone could go through and, in the course of 180 incredible minutes, at different stages everyone was going through. Flicking between matches has never been so required as it was last night.
And yet the respective firsts halves of Germany/Costa Rica and Spain/Japan were actually rather dull. Both of the favourites scored early, with Hansi Flick probably feeling the most validated for his decision to largely stick with the planned first XI. For a while it seemed as if Germany were after a Spain-esque glut of goals, and that the only thing of interest in the evening would be if they could possibly overtake Spain on GD. Costa Rica, despite Keysher Fuller missing that sitter late in the first half, looked dead and buried. So did Japan in the other game, incapable of holding onto the ball for more than a few touches, and looking more like a training ground opponent for the overrunning Spain. This was a Spain with a lot of changes too, but looking far more capable than France had in the same circumstances. Fans in both stadiums were doing Mexican waves in response to the tedium on display.
How things can change. This is a Japanese team that seems tailor-made to capture the imagination and support of the neutral observer. They suddenly spring into a counter-attacking mood out of nowhere, they dance around opponents, they exhibit a belief that is infectiously endearing and then they clean up the stadium and the dressing room after. Oh, and they beat giants of the game too. Supersub Ritsu Doan came up with the goods again, though assisted by Unai Simon it has to be pointed out, and while we were still processing that Japan were suddenly ahead.
The nature of that goal was remarkable, just about the tightest of decisions I might ever have seen or ever will see in a game of football. There were literal centimetres in the call, and presumably all done by eyeball. It was less a debate on whether a small fraction of the sphere had yet to be completely removed from the orbit of the endline, and more who should be favoured in such vague circumstances: the attacker or the defender? The heart says the first, the head says the second. Victor Gomes and his team decided it had to be the attacker, and I do not envy them the decision. It’s only fair to point out that if the goal had been disallowed most would have seen nothing wrong in such a call, and it’s also only fair to point out that if Spain or Germany were the beneficiary then the cries of conspiracy would have been enormous. But these are the very finest of margins that go against you or go with you: Japan didn’t care, that’s for sure.
While all that was happening, Germany’s nightmare was playing out in the Al Bayt. First Manuel Neuer uncharacteristically messed up to hand Costa Rica an equaliser they didn’t really deserve, then while they were processing both that and the Japanese resurgence, Costa Rica suddenly had the ball in the net again. They end the tournament with a total of seven shots on target, three of them goals, a conversion rate some managers would kill for. Germany looked stunned, and before you could say “second First Round exit in two tournaments” TV producers were finding distraught German fans to zoom on on. Between the goals Germany somehow conspired to hit the woodwork three times as well. “What is happening?” seemed to be the only appropriate response to the madness that was unfolding.
Of course they would save it, the combination of Kai Havertz and Niclas Füllkrug – the latter a would-be saviour who will now never get the chance to be more than what he was here you expect – getting past Keylor Navas’ resistance to eventually give Germany a fairly easy win. Those scant few minutes where both Germany and Spain were heading for the exit door dissipated like smoke, Costa Rica’s dream comeback failing, but of course Germany were still careening towards said door. They needed Spain to get something back against Japan, but Spain were no longer set-up to do that. Alvaro Morata, the scorer of their goal, had already been hooked, and now Japan had 11 men stuck resolutely inside their own final third, facing a team playing no player in a recognisable strikers role. Long before the full-time whistle many were theorising that Spain were better off as they were, heading into a tie with Morocco instead of Croatia, but that was dangerous thinking if so, with Morocco no pushovers and Spain’s own progression still on the line. They went close twice in the dying stages, but a combination of the World’s Cup’s best attacking players would have struggled to breakdown this back 11.
That game finished first, and even as the Japanese plyers mobbed the field we got reports of early morning football supporters in Tokyo gleefully embracing commuters probably wondering what was going on. Croatia are to come, and this Japanese team will go into such a contest with the same bravery they have shown throughout this competition, and may very well get something. Spain left with their heads bowed, and Enrique will have a job to get them reset and ready to try and breakdown one of the tournaments best defence in a few days.
There was still a few minutes for Germany though, a few minutes of agony as it became clear that all was lost. The “Reboot” project that won the nation a World Cup, that seemed to prophesise a period of German domination comparable to tiki-taka Spain or late 90s/early 00’s France, came to a definitive end on that field, with Germany a much reduced side in terms of quality, and no real obvious expectation that this can change in time for the EURO competition they will host in two years. Flick put on a brave face, insisting he still expected to take the side that far. The German FA does tend towards being the patient type, but questions will be asked. Keep out one of those goals against Japan, and this could all have been very different. Get the winner against Spain, and it definitely would have been. They aren’t the only ones of course, with Costa Rica now presumably seeing the last of the 2014 heroes to the end of their international careers and having to look forward with regrets at not being able to hold here. Fine margins, on a night where football, for a time anyway, outshone its geographical location as a force for surprise and excitement.
135. At Least We Were Here: Matchday Thirteen
Serbia – Switzerland
Cameroon – Brazil
Korea (Republic) – Portugal
Ghana – Uruguay
The group stage came to an end with a number of stand-out ties, with deep historical relevance turning them into would-be barnstormers before a ball was kicked, or just the possibility of unlikely progressions doing the trick. Only two more spots in the Second Round were available, with four other sides condemned to an early flight home. In truth things were no more tense or complicated than any other concluding group games, but this being the last few ties of the First Round certainly seemed to add something. Call it a hint of desperation, of would-be misery, but it was there. No one wanted to be an also-ran before the tournament got to the business end of things.
Group H’s finale was really all about the unlikely grudge match of Uruguay and Ghana, a rivalry so stoked up it feels almost a cheat to point out that the two sides have only ever played each other once. But what a game that was. If the Ghanaians seemed at pains at times to dismiss the motivation of getting revenge for what happened in 2010, then Uruguay were all in on the psy-ops, sending Luis Suarez out to give a highly quoted press conference where he refused to acknowledge he had done anything wrong that night, then put him in from the start yesterday. It was set-up for Suarez to be the centre of attention, which was pretty much what Uruguay, seeking a means to unlock the Ghanaian defence by keeping them distracted, wanted. I don’t like Suarez myself, for a whole load of reasons, but one had to admire the way in which his very presence was used as a weapon in and of itself by Uruguay.
It could all have turned out so much different if Ghana had taken the chance at banishing the ghost of Soccer City when it was presented to them by referee Daniel Siebert. It was the correct decision to award a penalty, but one sensed that the minutes it took for Andre Ayew to get to actually take it was a serious detriment to his mental state, the Ghanaian captain given all the time in the world to consider what it meant. I mean it just had to be a penalty that would be the chance that Ghana got, didn’t it? And, of course, it just had to be a miss. Ayew seemed, to use the Irish phrase, to talk himself out of it, and his poorly shot effort was easily parried. If the game wasn’t about the memories of 2010 before that moment, it damn sure was after.
From there it was Uruguay who took control. They were playing a game of dark arts throughout, milking every contact, screaming at the referee anytime they felt even slightly justified and generally doing whatever they could to keep Ghana off balance. The goals, when they came, reflected the masterful psychological game that they had been playing, with an overly-cautious approach to marking Suarez twice allowing Girogian de Arrascaeta to ghost in and score, with the second an especially disastrous bit of defending. De Arrascaeta is one of those players of very little notoriety, having spent most of his career in Brazil, but he took control of the world stage spotlight bigtime here.
Things died down in the aftermath, the tackles flying in, the playacting increasing, and instances where either side could have been given a straight red for careless play, de Arrascaeta especially. In truth, notwithstanding a few half-chances early in the second half, Ghana looked largely beaten by the interval, as if they knew in their hearts that Uruguay had pulled one over on them. It looked very likely to be Suarez’ day, and when he was substituted with just over an hour played, he went off to the adoring acclaim of La Celeste’s very loud travelling fanbase. Ghana were just being toyed with at that stage: Uruguay looking very comfortable. Too comfortable as it would turn out.
Over in Education City, fans were treated to a pre-match hype video for Cristiano Ronaldo – something that has not been aired for anyone else at this World Cup – after the somewhat surprising news that he was starting. One suspects Fernando Santos had less of a say in that than Ronaldo himself. For Portugal, like Brazil and France before them, this was a game to try out the fringe players and see it out for top spot, and things seemed to have shaped up very nicely for them when Ricardo Horta – with Ronaldo in no way involved – finished off a fine move to give his side the lead.
It has been a lacklustre South Korean World Cup up to last night, with the most notable thing about their build-up being Paulo Bento insisting he would sing both anthems beforehand (he didn’t in the end), and you could get the sense after that concession that this was not going to be acceptable. Too many Korean players, not least Son Heung-min, have underperformed in Qatar, and they weren’t going out without a fight. Ronaldo was involved in that fight back, but not in the way he would have wanted, allowing the ball to carelessly careen off of him at a set-piece so Kim Young-gwon could slot home. A few minutes later he missed on a break away that had been set up for him to reach that Eusebio record tally of nine World Cup goals. Once again, when you tuned out the screaming of the fans who only came to see him, it was painfully obvious that Ronaldo was no longer an automatic benefit for his national side.
South Korea kept at it in the second half, trying to make things happen. Things got stretched, especially once Ronaldo went off and other members of the Portuguese squad got the chances to test an increasingly fragmented Korean defence. On paper things were extremely tight, but I’ll admit there didn’t really seem to be much of a tense aura around either game: Uruguay were cruising, and South Korea just didn’t look like they had the skill to make the needed opportunity, even against an uneven looking Portugal mix of A and B team players.
I said that Son hasn’t had much of a tournament. The pressure of being the star man for his country hasn’t mixed well with his injury and necessary prosthesis, and the result has been a series of pisspoor performances when Korea really needed him to make something. Well, good things come to those who wait, and nearly 270 minutes into his World Cup he delivered. His probing counter-attack, a one-man show for almost the length of the pitch, was a masterclass in physical stamina, dribbling and exercising the patience needed to allow things to happen. And if we’re talking stamina, we also have to give similar kudos to Hwang Hee-chan, who raced in almost a straight line to be on hand when Son capped his efforts with a simple throughball. Hwang’s finish turned everything on its head, and from a situation where it seemed like Group H would be the first to end on a whimper, we were looking at a remarkable last few minutes.
As Korea held on and then huddled around a coach’s phone in the centre circle, waiting for salvation, all eyes were back on the Al Janoub. Uruguay looked shell-shocked, with cameras almost gleefully zeroing in a bench-bound Suarez, a jersey wrapped around his head as he contemplated the sudden change in fortunes. There were still ten minutes of injury time to play though, and an utterly bizarre situation out on the pitch, with Ghana essentially defending a 2-0 deficit, timewasting and booting the ball clear, accepting their own elimination and now only wanting to drag Uruguay out with them: the spite was palpable. But things had become so incoherent that both sides still had the chance of breakaways in those chaotic few seconds, with Edison Cavani twice having a guilt-edged opportunity to become the hero. Controversial VAR calls, or the lack of them rather, denied Uruguay two penalties, and that was all she wrote. The scenes after the final whistle limit what sympathy I have for Uruguay, with several players lucky to perhaps get away with only a yellow card: Federico Valverde and Diego Godin especially. They hadn’t pressed their advantage enough, and elements of their performance, in the simulation and haranguing of the ref, were disgraceful in and of themselves.
Too reliant on players who should no longer be at this level, it’s a watershed moment for Uruguay, who now will simply have to change. South Korea, their unrestrained joy at full time in the other game something to see, will get another chance, while Portugal are left to wonder if they are quite as good as they think they are. Otto Addo, having had enough of the chaos, announced his resignation in the aftermath, now going back to his job as a support role at Borussia Dortmund, and best of luck to him. Ghana have to satisfy themselves in seeing Uruguay undone, that will help to deflect from their own lack of performance and their own mental frailty. As someone once said, if you go seeking revenge, first dig two graves.
All that was left for the 2022 World Cup First Round was to finish up Group G, with the undoubted main event being the re-match of Serbia and Switzerland. The two sides produced a game with a serious political edge in 2018, propelled by the Kosovan birth of several Swiss players who had no compunctions about reminding Serbia of such things, and the recriminations were long lasting. Both camps wanted to play down the tension in the run-up to this pivotal tie, and for a long time it did seem as if quality football was going to be the main point.
To put it simply, these two sides served up a low-key classic in Stadium 974, with plenty of attacking football and plenty of goals. Yes, Xherdan Shaqiri put a finger to his lips to celebrate his opener, directed at the Serbian fans, but that seemed fairly tame relatively speaking. There was far better things to focus on, like the frantic nature of the contest, both teams going all-out at different points in the second half, Serbia desperate to make-up for their disintegration against Cameroon, and Switzerland desperate to make-up for their complete lack of attacking intent against Brazil. Two instances of slack defending gave Serbia the chances they needed to equalise and then go in front, before Breel Embolo’s close range finish off a fine right-flank move levelled it up again. Shortly after the break the Swiss were back in front off of Remo Freuler’s jink and dummied shot, and Qatar 2022 was really delivering.
But if the tie up to that point had been a great example of opposing defences barely trying, then the rest of it was less entertaining. Serbia’s much vaunted attack failed to fire after that final concession, and you could go so far as to say that their response was actually pretty insipid and lacking in potential for penetration. The game was fizzling out before the nasty turn everything took on the final 15 minutes, with old tensions coming to surface, a few fracas, fans warned to cut down on certain kinds of chanting and then some obscene gestures towards opposing benches. It was a sad conclusion to what up to then had been an epic contest, that left neither side looking especially great. The fallout from the break-up of Yugoslavia and everything that came after will remain a potent source of frustration and resentment for a very long time of course, and Serbia don’t help their cause with some of their actions in Qatar. They’ll have the flight home to think about it while the Swiss look forward, hopefully with a bit more temperament about them.
The already qualified Brazil rang the changes, with both they and Cameron snapped singing as they arrived at the stadium. But if you were expecting some jogo bonito from both sides as a result of that, you were to be left disappointed. The Brazil second team did as France and Portugal had done, which was to struggle, the back-up players unused to being alongside each other and playing a hard-to-breakdown opponent who had much more to play for. Not that Cameroon were doing their part for great football, too often resorting to fouling to break up Brazilian play, and not creating much when they had the ball.
Brazil got complacent in an unexceptional game of football only occasionally enlivened by the forward bursts of Antony or Gabriel Jesus, the latter getting a tournament-ending injury for his trouble. The favourites had the ball and they had the players to do something with it, but the disruptive nature of the Cameroonian defending was enough to keep the score at 0-0. When one of Antony’s spins ended up with him on the floor and one of the three Cameroonians around him taking away the ball only to lose it promptly, it seemed to sum up the game. Once again, the questions about whether Neymar’s playmaking and finishing was something Brazil will miss as he continues his absence were going to be asked. Not that Brazil would have been too distraught at a scoreless draw.
But this World Cup had one last surprise to serve up for its group stage, and that surprise was Vincent Aboubakar. Not for him going out like this, with a whimper. Brazilian nonchalance was undoubtedly a factor in how Ngom Mbekeli was able to get down the right like he did, and in how Aboubakar was able to find himself in acres of space to receive the cross, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the finish, a cool header past a helpless Ederson. It’s a measure of the fatalism within the Cameroon camp that Aboubakar didn’t even care about picking up a second yellow for his over-the-top celebrations, with his now reduced compatriots left to see out Brazil’s first ever loss to African opposition. The Cameroonians perhaps didn’t fully grasp that a Serbian equaliser in the other game would have sent them through but they at least had their World Cup moment, and a win to be proud of. Brazil got a kick in the teeth and, like Spain and France and Portugal, head into the knock-outs with what is either a well-timed reminder of their need to keep up the pressure, or a wound that has the potential to fester and cause problems further down the line.
The First Round was over. 211 had become 32 had become 16, and from then on in it was knock-out football. But this is not a moment to reflect on those that made it through, whether it was expected or a shock. Here is instead a moment to think on the 16 who did not make it. It’s a painful thing, to get all the way to the promised land and find that you are capable of going no further. Even the lowest ranked of sides will feel the sting of regret at exiting with three games played, the what if moments of chances missed or blocks not made likely to remain endearing memories of 2022. But they can always say that they were part of the tournament, that they had reached high enough to be counted among the finalists, that they got to go to the dance. Cameroon, Tunisia, Canada, Iran, Saudi Arabia are all sides that have cause to look back with fondness, even if the opportunity to do such mature reflection might take a while to come. They are among those that can claim to have given all that they could give, to have contributed to a mesmerising two weeks of footballing excellence and if they came up short, at least they did so, as a wise man once said, while daring greatly.
Teams Qualified For The Second Round
Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Croatia, England, France, Japan, Korea (Republic), Morocco, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Senegal, Spain, Switzerland, United States
Teams Eliminated At The First Round
Belgium, Cameroon, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, Germany, Ghana, Iran, Mexico, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Tunisia, Uruguay, Wales
Teams Eliminated In Qualification
Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Aruba, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, British Virgin Islands, Brunei Darussalem, Bulgaria, Burkino Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China (People’s Republic), Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Comoros, Congo (Democratic Republic), Congo (Republic), Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guam, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macau, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Montserrat, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Scotland, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Syria, Tahiti, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States Virgin Islands, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe
American Samoa, Cook Islands, Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic), Saint Lucia, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu
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Headlights: A moment from the opening ceremony of the 2022 World Cup. Photo by the US Department of State, in the public domain.
Let’s Try This Again: Welsh and American fans watch their teams’ Group B clash at a “Soccer in the Circle” event in Washington D.C. Photo by UKinUSA, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Rise Of The Underdog: Kylian Mbappé celebrates scoring against Australia. Photo by Hossein Dhervand, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
A Soul Destroying Joy To Watch: A shot from the stands of the Khalifa International Stadium ahead of the Germany/Japan First Round game. Photo by Adnen1985, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
The Superstar Show: A view of the stands of the Education City Stadium during the Uruguay/South Korea First Round game. Photo by the Republic of Korea, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Going For It: Wales’ Wayne Hennessey is sent off in the First Round match against Iran. Photo by Hossein Dhervand, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
Give Everything: Argentina’s Rodrigo de Paul and Mexico’s Alexis Vega compete for the ball in their nations’ First Round match. Photo by Hossein Dhervand, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
Eff Em: Canada head coach John Herdman, during the First Round game against Belgium. Photo, with cropping and enhancements, by Hossein Zohrevand reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
Prayer: A moment from the Portugal/Uruguay First Round match. Photo by Adnen1985, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
Pressure Cooker: An American fan takes in the USA/Iran game in the First Round. Photo, with cropping, by Standardwhale, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
The Great Escape: The Mexico team lineout ahead of their First Round match with Argentina. Photo, with cropping, by Hossein Zohrevand reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
What Is Happening: Hansi Flick and his assistants at the World Cup. Photo, with cropping, by Hossein Zohrev and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
At Least We Were Here: South Korean fans in Gwanghwamun Square, Seoul, during the World Cup. Photo by the Republic of Korea, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
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