Author: Anar AZIZOV
Qatar and the world saw perhaps the most amazing FIFA World Cup in history. Traditionally, world cups are held in summer season. However, since it is very hot in Qatar in summer, the decision was to hold the tournament in November and December, with the main matches played in winter. It is unlikely that we see a similar situation in the future.
Initially, many players and experts had a negative view on the timing of the World Cup. But some of them believe that the athletes could show themselves in all their glory. In fact, in the summer many top players take part in the World Cup after a toilsome football season, hence unable to show all their talent and skills properly. This time however the World Cup was held at a time when they were in top form, unscathed by a long season.
Qatar also went down in history as the smallest country to host the World Cup. It was very convenient for fans and national teams as everything was very compact, with a minimum of travel time required. For fans, it was also an opportunity to accommodate in one city, meaning a minimum of logistics costs.
The Qatar World Cup proved to be the most expensive in history. According to some reports, it cost the organisers a whopping amount of over $200 billion. Other reports claim the sum to be nearly $300 billion. It is clear that the organisers would never have been able to recover the investment. But that seems not to have been their objective anyway. It is unlikely that any other country will be ready to invest even 5% of this amount in the next few years.
As far the football is concerned, there were both spectacular and boring matches, fiascoes of some favourites, surprise teams, a crazy final, a huge number of records... As always, the tournament was accompanied by tears, some being out of mad joy and some out of disappointment.
Now, let's take it one step at a time.
The list of favourites at such tournaments does not usually change much between the events. It includes the giants of European and Latin American football: Brazil, Argentina, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium and England.
Usually, unpleasant surprises for some favourites start as early as in the group stage. Most surprisingly, the French team was in the risk group for this World Cup. Remarkably, in the 21st century, none of the winners of the World Cup from European countries has managed to progress past the group stage at the following World Cup. This happened to France in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018. For this World Cup, the French national team was very strong and, most importantly, balanced. In Qatar, they became the first team to guarantee a play-off spot after two rounds. So the French broke this unpleasant tradition.
Germans and Belgians were the group stage underdogs. For the Germans, it was the second time in a row they failed to qualify for the next stage of the tournament. In Qatar, the Germans excelled their performance from game to game—defeat from Japan, draw with Spain and win over Costa Rica. But it was obviously not enough to overcome the group stage. Of course, one can blame no one but the Germans in this situation, but their rivals, like Spain, contributed to this failure too. During the Spain-Japan match, the Spaniards would be better off losing the game. In this case they would have played against Morocco and not Croatia (the 2018 FIFA World Cup finalist) in the 1/8 finals and would have avoided Brazil, the main favourite of the World Cup, in the quarter-finals. In the end, whether intentionally or not, the Spanish team lost to the Japanese, hence opting for a relatively easier, as they thought, play-off system and pushing one of their rivals—the Germans—off the quarter-finals. After the Qatar tournament, they believe now in Germany that it is necessary to make changes in domestic football. Germany is not new to such reforms in the 21st century, which once led the country win the World Cup in 2014.
As for the Belgians, they viewed the Qatari tournament as farewell for the golden generation. For nearly ten years, the kingdom had been considered a favourite team of every major football tournament, but the maximum they achieved was the third place at the 2018 World Cup.
Belgians would easily leave the group consisting of Croatia, Morocco and Canada. They should have had no problem reaching the 1/8 stage. Especially after the first game with Canadians, which they won, albeit with difficulty. However, the defeat by Morocco in the last match put the team in a situation where they had to beat the Croatians. The Belgium-Croatia match will go down in the World Cup history as one of the most surprising: in the second half, Lukaku had four great chances to score (a striker like him would have scored at least one goal in such a situation). But in Qatar, Lukaku botched all his chances. As a result, the game ended with 0-0, with the Belgian national team leaving the tournament and the era of the golden generation, who never won anything, coming to an end.
The Qatar play-offs were a peculiar experience. There was only one sensation in the 1/8 final as Morocco beat Spain on penalties. So, for the second tournament in a row, the Spaniards were eliminated in the last eight after losing on penalties. Hopefully, they will not develop a penalty shoot-out complex that has plagued England, another football powerhouse, for years.
The Japan-Croatia match could also have been a sensation. The Japanese outplayed the Croatians during the entire match, who nevertheless reached the penalty shootout, which is a weak point of the Asian teams. Therefore, the Croats qualified to the quarterfinals.
Mini-sensation came in the Switzerland-Portugal match. It was the only match in which the odds were initially thought to be 50/50. But the Portuguese crushed the Swiss 6-1, making the game without their biggest star of the last ten years, Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Qatar World Cup was the first time, when representatives from all the continents entered in the last eight, with North America represented by the US, Africa by Morocco and Senegal, South America by Brazil and Argentina, Asia by Australia, South Korea and Japan and Europe by the Netherlands, Croatia, France, Poland, England, Spain, Switzerland and Portugal.
For the first time, three Asian teams made it to the play-offs. However, all three had already been eliminated in the 1/8 finals.
The quarter-finals in Qatar were very interesting, with all pairs having kept the fans in suspense until the last minute. Netherlands vs. Argentina was a full-court thriller: the Netherlands could finally recover from 0-2 by the end of the match, Argentina hit the post at the end of overtime and the match almost ended in a brawl between the teams. But Argentine went ahead on penalties.
Their opponent in the semi-finals was also identified after a penalty shoot-out. The Brazilians had a hard time with the Croatian defence during the entire match, scored in overtime (in the 105th minute) after a magnificent combination, and then tried to hold on to the score. Yet they missed the Croatian counterattack—the only shot on goal was productive, making the Brazilians accept their defeat in the penalty shoot-out. That’s how the main favourite of the championship left the tournament.
There was also plenty of drama in the other quarter-final pairings. France beat England 2-1. Once again, a penalty shoot-out proved fatal for England. However, this time it was not in the post-match series, but during the game. Harry Kane scored a penalty when the score was 0:1, but missed the spot-kick with the score 1-2 and sent England home early.
On the other hand, Morocco became a sensation of the tournament when they beat Portugal in the quarter-finals. Morocco became the first African team to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup. The teams of the Black Continent came close to reaching the semi-finals three times: Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2006. But each time, they failed to take the final step on their way to the semi-finals. Yet the Moroccan team succeeded. At the same time, the team set a World Cup record. In five games (before the semi-finals), they conceded just one goal, and even that one was scored by themselves (in the game with Canada in the group stage). But they played along with the European giants—Croatia, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
The match against Morocco will probably be the last match for Cristiano Ronaldo, the European record holder for the most games played for his country (196) and the world record holder for the most goals scored (118). Although it is possible that CriRo (Ronaldo is also known under this name) will play one more match for Portugal and thus become the world record holder for the number of games played for the national team - he currently shares that record with Bader Al-Mutawa of Kuwait.
Nothing exciting happened in the semi-finals. Argentina confidently beat Croatia 3-0, thus paying back a 0-3 defeat at the group stage of the World Cup in 2018. The reigning world champion France, despite the struggle, could finally beat the surprise team of Morocco 2-0.
In the third-place match, the Croats defeated Morocco (2-1) and were again on the podium. Leaving the tournament without medals, the Moroccans yet earned a standing ovation for their play and struggle. It’s remarkable that the players shared the joy with their mothers after each win.
Argentina vs. France was a final game of the championship that should have answered a number of questions. The main one was whether Lionel Messi would take the trophy. He came close to it in 2014, but was thwarted by the Germans. The second question was if France would become the first team in 60 years to win two consecutive World Cups (the last time Brazil did so with the legendary Pele in 1958 and 1962). And the third question was: will Europe conquer Asia? In 2002, for the first time the World Cup was held in Asia, with Brazil winning the main trophy of the tournament.
Anyway, Argentina vs. France turned out to be the best final in the World Cup history, although until the 70th minute it was very difficult to assume that. Argentina controlled the game, winning 2-0, and everything should have ended in a convincing victory. However, the unthinkable happened. The French created two chances out of nothing and scored two goals (one on penalties). After the initial shock the French had a psychological advantage. This immediately brought back the memories about the 1986 final between Argentina with the legendary Maradona and Germany. Then the Argentines also controlled the game and led 2-0. But the Germans had made the score equal and Argentina could score the winning goal only at the end of the game.
In Qatar, the Argentines also scored a third goal in overtime by Messi, and everything seemed clear. But no, there was another penalty in the end, which Mbappe converted to 3-3. But that was not the end. In the final minute, the French nearly scored a fourth goal. But the Argentine goalkeeper saved the spot-kick, and everything was left to a penalty shoot-out. As a result, Argentina clinched victory and 36 years later regained the World Cup.
And Messi... The Argentinian leader finally fulfilled the dream he had been pursuing all his long career. Leo had won everything at club level with Barcelona, but his romance with the national team was never going to work out. In 2014, he was close to winning the World Cup, but the Argentines lost to the Germans, as they did in 1990. In the Copa America (America's Cup), the finals did not work out either.
But that seems to have changed a lot in the last two years. Including winning the Copa America in 2021, when Messi won his first serious trophy with the national team (winning the 2008 Beijing Olympics does not count, as age restrictions were introduced).
There were many occasions in Qatar when it looked like the Argentines and their leader were going nowhere. It all started with the first game and a 1-2 defeat to Saudi Arabia. Then came Mexico and Poland, when a single defeat could lead the team out of the group. But they behaved confidently in both games, winning in both (2-0). Australia was the next team to play against the Argentines in the 1/8 group stage. It was 2-0 again by the middle of the second half, then a conceded goal, plenty of missed chances and a nervous ending when the Australians could have tied the score. But Argentina withstood the pressure. There was more to come. In the quarter-finals against the Netherlands, a confident lead again resulted in 2-0 until the 83rd minute, then a failure and the score was 2-2 again. In previous years, in such a situation, the Argentines would have broken down 9 times out of 10. But the team, and especially Messi were well prepared for Qatar not only physically, but also psychologically. The result was a penalty shoot-out victory. No reason to talk about the final game again, as it’s been explained in detailed so many times...
By winning the world title, Messi has joined the cohort of the greats. He now holds all the major trophies of the day.
Messi also set a bunch of records in Qatar...
Records and statistics
Here is some interesting statistics:
· 172 goals scored. One more than in 1998 and 2014, when 32 national teams participated in the tournaments;
· Messi is the world record holder by the number of games played at the World Cup (26), followed by Germany's Lothar Matthäus;
· Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi caught up with Matthäus in the number of World Cup appearances—five each. And Ronaldo became the first player to score in five World Cups;
· Messi played his 1,000th official match in Qatar;
· Messi became the first player to score in all play-offs. In Qatar, the Argentine scored 7 goals, including 4 on penalties. Most surprisingly, he had never scored in a World Cup play-off before;
· Messi repeated the record of Portuguese Eusebio (1966) and Dutch Rensenbrink (1978) of four penalties in a World Cup. In theory, the Argentinian could have had more, but in the match against Poland, he failed;
· Messi surpassed Batiste in the number of goals scored at the World Cup. He now has 13;
· Brazilian Neymar caught up with Pele in the number of goals scored for the national team (77 each);
· Morocco was the first team from Africa to reach the World Cup semi-finals;
· Mbappe matched Brazilian Ronaldo's record of eight goals in a single tournament (2002) since the 32-team World Cup;
· France repeated the path of Brazil (1994, 1998) when, after winning the World Cup in the following Mundial, the national team finished second;
· Qatar became the first host country to lose the opening match;
· 42 penalties were awarded and 25 were scored in Qatar;
· 221 yellow cards and 5 red cards were shown in the tournament;
· Stephanie Frappart became the first woman ever to work as a head referee at a World Cup match: Germany v. Costa Rica (4-2);
· Spaniard Antonio Laos, who refereed the quarter-final match Argentina vs. the Netherlands, showed a record 18 yellow cards in the game.
The Qatar World Cup was the last one in which 32 national teams took part.
The first 32-team World Cup took place in 1998 in France. The 32-team format suited France best. In 7 32-team World Cups the French national team has reached the finals 4 times, winning in 1998 and 2014 and losing in 2006 and in 2022. Brazil and Argentina have made it to the finals twice, one of which they won. Italy, Germany and Spain have also won once each.
In 2026, the World Cup will be held for the first time in three countries: the US, Mexico and Canada. It will involve 48 national teams. But that will be a different story...