Giant-killing, a Cinderella story, battle of two Ms — the defining themes of World Cup in Qatar

Published December 18, 2022
A combination photo of France’s Kylian Mbappe, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi and Brazil’s Neymar. — Reuters/FIFA Twitter
A combination photo of France’s Kylian Mbappe, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi and Brazil’s Neymar. — Reuters/FIFA Twitter

Jury remains out on how entertaining it was, but the FIFA World Cup 2022 fell right in line with the post-pandemic unpredictable zeitgeist.

In what was a rare Autumn tournament, it was extremely difficult to tell what was going to happen next but it still gave us plenty of drama, a dream run, and a Lionel Messi final.

The usual suspects, soccer giants, the favorites — mostly failed to make their mark, much to the dismay of fans as well as the betting world.

Betting long shot Saudi Arabia produced the biggest upset of the tournament by beating Argentina in a match that set the tone for the world cup.

That was just the start as more upsets followed.

LUSAIL: Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria look dejected after their Group ‘C’ match against Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday.—Reuters
LUSAIL: Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria look dejected after their Group ‘C’ match against Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday.—Reuters

Despite a 4-2 win against Costa Rica in their final game, Germany was the first of the powerhouses to crash out following the group stage. Japan’s win against Spain left the four-time champions in third place and out of the tournament.

“We did not have any efficiency at this tournament and that is why we were eliminated,” lamented Germany coach Hansi Flick.

Germany’s early exit was followed by Spain, who started the tournament with an emphatic 7-goal rout of Costa Rica but couldn’t make it past the round of 16.

La Roja’s penchant for possession football was the first to come under fire following their elimination. There were, however, other factors at play; from the inexperience of the young squad to the lack of a clinical forward as well as a clear leader.

Speaking about his one regret from the World Cup, the now-former coach of Spain, Luis Enrique said: “If I could change one thing about the World Cup, it would be to give Pablo Sarabia more minutes.”

Tournament favourites Brazil met a similar fate in the quarterfinal against Croatia. Neymar produced a moment of magic, playing one-twos with Rodrygo and then Lucas Paqueta before rounding the keeper and taking Brazil 1-0 up in extra time.

But a game against the Croats is not over until it’s over. The 117th minute saw a goal scored by Croatia, leading to a penalty shootout — which the Croats seem fated to win — and they did.

Tite, who has now stepped down, took the blame for the outcome after his tactics against an extremely talented Croatian midfield proved to be ineffective.

“We are all responsible to some degree, but I understand I am the most responsible,” Tite said after the match. “But there are no such things as heroes and villains in sport. You share the joy and you share sadness.”

A dream run

Perhaps everyone’s favourite story of the world cup is about the team with the biggest dream that won fans from all over the map.

Drawn in a group that comprised the 2018 finalists Croatia, Belgium and Canada, not many expected them to proceed.

The last time Morocco went past the group stage in a World Cup was in 1986. Not only did Morocco made it past the group stage after a shock win over Belgium, but the Atlas Lions became the first Afro-Arab team to reach a semifinal in the history of the tournament.

Spurred on by unshakeable belief, this Moroccan team went on to beat Spain on penalties in the round of 16 and knocked out Ronaldo’s Portugal in the quarterfinals.

Morocco’s fairy-tale World Cup run ended in the semi-final against France where they were defeated 2-0.

AL KHOR (Qatar): Randal Kolo Muani shoots for France’s second goal as Moroccan keeper Yassine Bounou makes a desperate lunge to stop the ball.—Reuters
AL KHOR (Qatar): Randal Kolo Muani shoots for France’s second goal as Moroccan keeper Yassine Bounou makes a desperate lunge to stop the ball.—Reuters

From the doting moms in the stands to fans cheering from different continents, Morocco’s story is a win for Africa and one we will be told again and again.

Messi-Mbappe final

And finally, a final we can’t wait to watch. There are narratives aplenty in this clash of giants, which could double as a farewell final for football’s most treasured number 10.

Guided by the Deschampian winning formula, France will be hard to beat. Not only do they boast a greater squad depth, but they also have the Kylian trump card.

While France may not have their star midfielders from the 2018 World Cup, Antoine Griezmann and Aurélien Tchuameni have successfully filled the gaps.

Not only that, Griezmann is the frontrunner for chances created (21), assists (3), and expected assists (3.54) at the World Cup.

However, the Argentinian team in the final to be played on Sunday is also not the same team. Apart from the magic-maker himself, Julien Alvarez has been an excellent addition to the Argentina squad and is the second-highest goalscorer of the tournament alongside Olivier Giroud.

This Argentina team, however, plays in perfect harmony with Messi and that will be their biggest advantage.

A third world cup will be won by either Argentina or France on Sunday.

The world will see Messi lift a trophy that has so far eluded him or a successive World Cup win for Les Bleus.

Either way, history is waiting to be made.

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