Fourteen days, 48 matches, 120 goals and a what feels like a million minutes of added time later, we have our top 16 at the 2022 men’s Fifa World Cup in Qatar.
In possibly one of the most-politically charged tournament in recent memory, events outside the pitch made as many headlines as those on the pitch. Qatar’s claims of the 2022 World Cup being an inclusive one kept getting discredited by actions of…Qatar. And let’s not even forget Fifa honcho Gianni Infantino’s bizarre tirade on the eve of the tournament.
Seven European nations announced their own way of protesting against Qatar’s treatment of the LGBTQI+ community only to surrender after Fifa threatened sporting sanctions. On the other hand, Iran’s players, torn between playing for their country and supporting protests back home, chose not to sing the national anthem in solidarity before their opening match.
Despite all else that has happened off field, the World Cup has managed to deliver on the drama across the venues. There have been upsets, phantom goals and tearful farewells. Before we head into the knockout stages where we are likely to see fatigued teams mostly pass the ball around for 90 minutes – maybe 30 more, followed by penalty shootouts – let’s take a look back at the group stage that delivered in style.
Asian and African teams sparkle
When Hwang Hee-chan scored a dramatic late winner against Portugal to take South Korea into the last-16, it was the first time in the history of the men’s World Cup that three teams from the Asian Football Confederation made it to the knockout stage.
The biggest story early on came from not one of those those as Saudi Arabia got the party started with an almighty upset over Lionel Messi and Argentina in a stunning backs-to-the wall performance. Though they would lose to Poland and Mexico and fail to progress, the Saudis produced what is now seen as the greatest upset of all time, by a data model.
If Croatia want to beat Japan in the Round of 16, they would do well not to dominate the match as well as not score in the first half. Hajime Moriyasu must be giving the most inspiring halftime team talks when his team is trailing. Against Germany, Japan fell behind in the first half only to come out all guns blazing in the second to snatch an improbable win.
Then in their loss to Costa Rica, the Blue Samurai were the dominant team only to concede in the final 10 minutes of play. And then Japan would do to Spain what they did to Germany and pull off yet another second-half comeback.
Life was perfect for a brief six minutes when both Japan and Costa Rica were on course to moving into the knockout stages at Spain and Germany’s expense. But the 2010 winners managed to squeezed through.
The last match-day of the group stage was dominated by the grudge match between Ghana and Uruguay 12 years since Luis Suarez’s controversial handball. As it was in South Africa, penalties decided the fate: one which was missed by Ghana and another which was not given to Uruguay by the referee.
Suarez sparkled for the final time at the World Cup, helping Uruguay win but it wasn’t meant to be as South Korea came from behind to beat Portugal in their match to finish ahead of the South Americans on goals scored. At Education City, Korean talisman Son Heung-min shed tears of joy. At Al Janoub, Suarez shed tears of anguish.
In between Japan and South Korea’s heroics, Australia quietly made it to the round of 16 for only the second time in their history after beating Tunisia and a sluggish Denmark in Group D. As part of AFC, Australia’s run to the knockouts made it three representatives from the host confederation.
Despite seeing star player Sadio Mane pull out on the eve of the World Cup with an injury, Senegal made it to the knockout stages after a gap of 20 years. They frustrated the Netherlands for most of the match only to lose in the final 10. After beating hosts Qatar, Senegal took on Ecuador in a winner-takes-all clash. Then captain Kalidou Koulibaly struck the winner to take the Lions of Teranga into the last-16 after scoring for the first time in 66 matches for his country.
In a group featuring 2018 runners-up Croatia and 2018 third-place winners Belgium, it was Morocco who played eye-catching football. After a 0-0 draw against the Croats, Morocco turned on the style against a sluggish Belgium to secure a 2-0 win - “Drink it in, Casablanca”. Even as Croatia and Belgium played out a painful 0-0 draw, the Atlas Lions secured a 2-1 win over Canada to progress to the knockout stage as group winners.
With turmoil back home and their every action (or non-action) under scrutiny, Iran never stopped fighting on the pitch. They had a disastrous start to the tournament when goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand suffered a horrific clash and was taken off against England. He could only watch from the sidelines as the Three Lions pumped six goals past his replacement Hossein Hosseini.
Team Melli bounced back from the mauling to record a superb 2-0 win over Gareth Bale’s Wales to set up a do-or-die clash against the USA. Despite the added pressure of taking on a team which is called ‘The Great Satan’ by the ruling establishment in Tehran, Iran fought tirelessly only to be undone by a Christian Pulisic goal.
Despite the animosity off the pitch, the sight of the USA’s Antonee Robinson going around consoling the devastated Iranian players was heartening. Football brings people together means this and not what Infantino would have us believe.
Thanks for the memories
A decade after he burst onto the scene, Luis Suarez bid a tearful farewell to the World Cup. Despite the racism controversy around him, the hand-balling and the biting, there is no doubt that the Uruguayan is one of modern football’s greatest forwards. Like the journalist Grace Robertson would note, Qatar 2022 was likely to be the last time many of us outside Uruguay would see Suarez play.
And despite what Alexi Lalas would say, Cameroon veteran Vincent Aboubakar, in likely his final World Cup appearance, being booked and sent off for taking off his shirt in delight after scoring the winner against Brazil was totally worth it.
Led by Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, Belgium’s golden generation was nearly everyone’s second team at the World Cups and Euros over the past decade. With many of them likely over their peak by the time the World Cup rolls in North America in 2026, their tame exit is saddening.
And finally we come to Germany.
Actually, let’s just let Ahmer Naqvi sum that up.
(Quick paraphrasing of Naqvi’s hilarious monologue: Germany over the history of the tournament spelt doom for the Mighty Magyars, Johann Cryuff’s Total Voetbal, France’s Le Carre Magique, Diego Maradona’s Italian revenge tour and possibly Lionel Messi’s only chance of winning the World Cup... so no tears will be shed as they face back-to-back exits from the tournament by non-Germany fans.)
And so a dramatic group phase has come to pass. From the opening day that called into question the quality of Asian football based on Qatar’s meek display, it turned out to be a group stage that saw Asian and African teams turn up impressively. As former England star and popular broadcaster Gary Lineker tweeted, “The greatest group stage in World Cup history comes to an end.” And we might not see the likes of it with 48 teams next time around.