ANALYSIS: World Cup of the underdogs

Published December 4, 2022
Argentina supporters celebrate their team's win in the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Argentina and Australia at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 3. — AFP
Argentina supporters celebrate their team's win in the Qatar 2022 World Cup round of 16 football match between Argentina and Australia at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on December 3. — AFP

VINCENT Aboub­akar didn’t even break stride. The timing of his run perfect, a little hop saw him get the connection with his head that sent Cameroon dancing with joy under the stars in Lusail, the futuristic city made by Qatar for the World Cup as an extension of its capital Doha.

The last goal of perhaps the greatest ever group stage in the history of the tournament delivered a World Cup first: Brazil had never lost to an African side before. It was a second-string side, but Cameroon didn’t care. Their coach Rigobert Song, who stands out with his long dreadlocks, termed it “historic”, even if the Indomitable Lions were going home.

At the very start of the World Cup, there was a similarly historic result when Saudi Arabia stunned Lionel Messi’s Argentina, marking the first time the illustrious South Americans had lost to an Asian side at football’s grandest stage. Results like those — Japan’s wins over Spain and Germany, South Korea scraping past Portugal, Morocco’s upset of Belgium and Tunisia’s triumph over holders France — made it the first group stage since 1994 where none of the teams advancing to the last 16 had a perfect record.

The first World Cup in the Arab world also saw three teams from Asia — Japan, South Korea and Australia, who are affiliated with the Asian Football Confederation — reach the knockouts for the first time in history and this is also the first time that teams from six continents have made it through.

But the Asian record wouldn’t have been made had South Korea not found their counterattacking brilliance in the final minutes of the game against Portugal. Son Heung Min, Asia’s biggest superstar, carried the ball from just outside his own box and waltzed through before finding his team-mate Hwang Hee Chan to score a goal that saw them edge Uruguay on goal difference.

Japan had shown similar counterpunching abilities earlier on. In their 2-1 win over Spain, a result that took them through ahead of the Spaniards and eliminated the Germans, they had 17.7 per cent ball possession.

The Asian game has prevailed over the modern day high-press. They have also shown character and the power of will to obtain the results. “Everyone was saying we can’t go home yet,” Japan’s captain Maya Yoshida said after the win against Spain. After South Korea’s last-gasp win, Son said the team “never lost faith in ourselves”.

Belief is the keyword here.

Japan and South Korea will need every bit of it going ahead. Reaching the quarter-finals is promised land for the Japanese and a win against Croatia will take them there.

A tantalising last-eight clash against South Korea remains a possibility although Son and his men have a more difficult task, at least on paper, against Brazil.

Even the Brazilians are wary. “It will be a difficult game against the Koreans and we will have to work hard to win it,” said winger Richarlison.

But for all the thrills and spills and the nerve-shredding drama delivered by the group stage, which in many ways restored the balance of power in global football — four European sides crashing out, there will never be one like this.

Although the expansion of the World Cup from its next edition in 2026 will see more Asian and African teams participating, the proposed format for the 48-team tournament sees 16 groups of three instead of the traditional four-team ones.

That, in effect, will pretty much bring an end to the compelling drama that is seen in the final round of group games; one that has set the tournament alight in Qatar.

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2022

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