The pre-quarter finals of the FIFA World Cup 2022 throws only one surprise, Morocco (22) beating Spain (7) 3-0 through penalties. For the others, the result was on expected lines- Netherland (8) beating USA (16) 3-1; Argentina (3) beating Australia (38) 2-1; Croatia (12) beating Japan (24) 3-1 through penalties after tying 1-1 after extra time; Brazil (1) beating South Korea (28) 4-1; England (5) beating Senegal (18) 3-0; France (4) beating Poland (26) 3-1; and Portugal (9) beating Switzerland (15) 6-1.
The performance of Japan was noteworthy as they came back strongly to level during regular and extra time and forced spot kicks. Brazil while celebrating their victory over Korea was seen as disrespectful of their opponents and arrogant and their coach Tite rubbed further salt by saying that they will celebrate similarly after their match against Croatia.
In the quarter-finals, there were teams from only three Confederations: 5 from UEFA; 2 from CONMEBOL and 1 from CAF. The Netherlands versus Argentina match was an exciting one with the play going to extra time and spot kicks with Argentina coming through by winning the penalty kicks 4-3 after the regular time ended in a 2-2 draw. Both teams played possessive football and attacked when chance arises.
The match between Croatia and Brazil was also similar, possessing the ball and attacking when opportunity arises. Brazil with their young forwards counter attacked swiftly and during regular time and extra time the match ended 1-1 and in the spot kicks Brazil lost 2-4.
England and France played similar style and the match could have reached the penalty kicks but England’s captain Kane failed to score from a spot kick and England lost 2-1. The match between Portugal and Morocco led to an upset with Morocco scoring a goal early and despite all attacks from Portugal, they just couldn't equalise.
The over reliance of the Manager da Costa on Bruno Fernandes for free kicks failed to deliver and even when Ronaldo came into the field he was not given the opportunity.
The defence of Morocco was resilient especially the goalkeeper and they managed to win the match 1-0 creating history by becoming the first CAF team to enter the semi-final. The setbacks led to the Managers of Spain, Portugal and Brazil resigning.
Unlike the 2018 edition which was an all UEFA affair, in the semi-final there are two teams from UEFA, one each from CONMEBOL and CAF. In the first semi-final Croatia changed their play style, attacking early with an attempt to intimidate with their physical strength. But luck was not on their side and in a counter-attack they conceded a penalty early which was easily converted.
With no option they attacked for an equaliser but through counter attacks they conceded two more goals ultimately losing 0-3 to Argentina. Modric (37) the captain of Croatia despite his age covered the entire length and breadth of the field supporting both the defence and the attack. In the second semi-final, despite protest by Morocco after the match, the outcome was never in doubt.
Morocco’s hero in the match against Portugal Youssef En-Nesyri scoring the only goal could manage to touch the ball only thrice during his 66 minutes of play against France, creating a dubious record in World Cup with the least amount of touch by any player who had played for 45 minutes or more.
It is not that he stands quiet as he was always on the move. This indicates the tragedy of Morocco. They had an opportunity to equalise when France was leading 1-0 but delaying the shots by Hamallah with his weak left foot undid them and when he finally kicked it was blocked by Griezmann.
The back scissor kick by Jawad El Yamiq was saved by Lloris in full stretch. Similarly Giroud’s kick was blocked by the woodwork. Morocco has the tendency to attack mostly from the right and it is only in the closing quarter that the attack also came from the left.
After one goal down in the 5th minute Morocco tried to hold onto the ball and attack but Lloris was outstanding under the bar and the crowding in front of the goal by almost all the players of France resulted in no clear shots.
The unassuming Griezmann is the man of the match as he was everywhere and his accurate passes spelt danger to their opponent, while his clearings in defence ensured a clean slate. The searing run of Mbappe is not easy to stop and it needs more than a player to smother him.
Many bet on Croatia for the third place as they have star players who can make a difference. Morocco is desperate for a win to create history to be the first nation outside of Europe and Latin America to carry back home a silver-ware. Croatia was the runners up in the 2018 edition and the third in the 1998 WC.
As expected Croatia played the same game as in the semi-final attacking the opponent from the start and were rewarded with a free kick in the early part of the game, which resulted in a goal. Morocco hit back with an equaliser almost immediately also from a dead ball situation. Both teams tried to score but in the end it was Croatia which got a goal.
The two teams played their hearts out, but the difference was Modric who was everywhere in the field and his penetrative passes created huge problems for the defenders of Morocco while he made critical interceptions in their defence line.
The final saw two players from Paris St. Germain on opposite sides vying for the Golden Boot; Mbappe and Messi. France is vying to equal Uruguay (1934/1938) and Brazil’s (1958/1962) record of back to back WC champion while for their Manager, Deschamps he is trying to win the Cup twice as a Manager, a record of sorts with him winning as a player in 1998. Argentina wants to win to ensure that one of the greatest players of all time Messi has a World Cup under his belt and bring back the WC to Latin America after 16 years. One concern before the match was the reported illness of a number of French players due to a viral bug as all want fully fit teams in the final.
In the first half of the final match, it was all the way to Argentina. The tight zonal marking of Mbappe and the playmaker Griezmann resulted in the bottling of the French team. The latter was off colour and was ultimately substituted. The penalty scored by Messi early undid the French side and Argentina led 2-0 by half time. Varane failed to control Di Maria who played his best match in the tournament. Even at the start of the second half Argentina dominated but later on the French came back strongly and equalised through two quick goals forcing extra time.
Argentina scored first in extra time which was levelled near the end of the extra time by France leading to kicks from the penalty spot. France failed miserably converting only 2 with one miss and one blocked while Argentina did not miss any resulting in the final score of 3(4)-3(2).
Mbappe became the second player to score a hat-trick in the final match after Geoff Hurst of England (1966) but he landed on the losing side! With the penalty he scored 4 goals in this match. This is football where nothing is predictable. Argentina is the second highest ranking team in this tournament after Brazil and their win is a win for CONMEBOL after surrendering the WC to UEFA since 2006. UEFA teams have won the WC 12 times and CONMEBOL 10 times. Till now USA (1930) is the only team from other Confederations to manage 3rd place.
Morocco became the third non UEFA/CONMEBOL team to reach the last four after USA (1930) and South Korea (2002). Messi won the Golden Ball for the second time (2014/2022); a record. Martinez won the Golden Glove, a first by a non UEFA team goalkeeper after the institution of this award in 1994 as Lev Yashin Award renamed as Golden Glove award in 2010. Enzo Fernandes (21) of Argentina won the Young Player Award, which was won by Mbappe in 2018.
Deschamps’s (1998/2018) effort to be one above Zagallo (1958/1962) and Backenbauer (1974/1990) who had won the WC as player and Manager, by winning as Manager twice failed. He could not join Vittorio Pozzo (1934/1938) of Italy who won the Cup twice as Manager. He (2018/2022) now joins the other four Managers who have won the WC and also finished runners up; that is Helmut Schon (1974/1966), Backenbauer (1990/1986) both of Germany, Carlos Bilardo of Argentina (1986/1990) and Mario Zagallo of Brazil (1970/1998).
The greatest sporting extravaganza ended after providing the thrills and twists befitting such a tournament. A team which lost its first match is the champion and a team which never lost till the final bit of dust. Vive la Football!
(The views expressed are personal)