And then there were eight.
After nearly three weeks of football, the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is thundering its way to the final in Moscow on July 15. Eight teams remain, there are a maximum of eight games left to play and the tournament has thrown up more excitement than we could have possibly hoped for.
The drama has been unrelenting. With very few exceptions, the games have been edge-of-the-seat thrillers that leave both the fans and the neutral supporters needing a long, cold shower at the final whistle. For those of us that have watched in bars or the lucky ones at the games themselves and fan-zones in respective competing countries, that shower is also a standard requirement when beer drops from the sky like a hop-filled downpour.
Favorites have been eliminated, global superstars have gone home and the (almost) daily feast of football has provided both talking points and an emotional rollercoaster that is sometimes hard to quantify. All I can say with certainty is that fellow Turf writer Kevin Morin’s assessment that Russia 2018 is the “bizarro” World Cup is not too wide of the mark.
The time for reflection will come when the winners are crowned on July 15. Until then, the beautiful game remains at the center of sporting attention, albeit that the number of fans that still have a team to support is diminishing quickly. By the end of next weekend, we will be down to four teams … and, thanks to Kevin’s bizarro theory, they could be literally anyone.
With that in mind, let’s take a few minutes to recap the Round of 16 and take a quick look at the quarter-finalists.
Separating The Wheat From The Chaff
The big news as the competition entered the knockout phase was less about who had survived the group stage but who was on the way home earlier than expected. Seven out of the top ten FIFA-ranked teams—Brazil, Belgium, Portugal, Argentina, Switzerland, France and Spain—had all made it through, with Uruguay, Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Mexico, Japan, Sweden, Colombia and England making up the rest.
For the first time since 1982, there was not a single team from Africa in the last 16. All five of the continent’s representatives—Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia—went out after three games, with Senegal becoming the first team to get knocked out because of their disciplinary record in the group games.
FIFA’s new rule that teams that finished level on points, goal difference and goals scored would be separated by the number of yellow cards they had received worked against the West Africans who got more cards than Japan in their respective three matches. Somewhat disgracefully, the Japanese worked out that if they literally did nothing in the last 15 minutes of their final game against Poland then they would be through, which meant that Senegal needed to score against eventual group winners Columbia. Which they didn’t, obviously.
Nigeria also failed to capitalize on the dumpster fire that epitomized the Argentina team, losing 2-1 in a match that was decided by an 86th-minute winner by Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo. On the plus side, Nigeria had the youngest squad at the World Cup and the Super Eagles will be ones to watch in four year’s time.
And then there was Germany.
Having managed to score in injury time against Sweden, the World Cup holders needed to beat South Korea. The fact that they conceded two injury-time goals to a team that was already eliminated prompted an outburst of laughter from every other European country, with the second goal having a farcical element that just increased the feeling of schadenfreude. The team’s elimination also meant that there was no chance that England would lose (once again) to Germany on penalties in the knockout phase.
The Daily Fix Of Drama
Going into the Round of 16, there were some mouthwatering games in prospect.
France (who had been uninspiring in the group stages) got to take on Argentina, with the latter still looking like a group of mates that had fallen out after a bad stag night. Uruguay and Portugal pitted a man with a taste for human flesh (Luis Suarez) against a man fond of revealing his own body at every opportunity, while Brazil and Mexico would be a battle of South versus Central American supremacy.
The tournament’s biggest surprise—hosts Russia—were up against Spain, with pre-tournament favorites Belgium taking on the rather dishonorable Japan. England’s match with Colombia was a game that could go either way, with Croatia taking on Denmark and Sweden facing Switzerland completing the first knockout round.
Time restricts me from reviewing every kick of the ball, suffice it to say that the World Cup continued, in the words of FIFA president Gianni Infantino, to be “crazy, crazy, crazy.”
France finally showed why they are a potential winner, beating Messi’s Argentina 4-3. The game was an absolute classic and 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe proved that he is a worthy successor to Messi and Ronaldo. The latter player also exited the tournament at the first knockout stage, with the European champions bowing out to an Uruguay team that should no longer be considered as dark horses for the tournament.
Mexico failed for the seventh successive World Cup to get past the round of 16, and El Tri’s misery was compounded by Neymar’s desire to add an Academy Award for acting to his personal trophy cabinet. The BBC’s description of the striker’s reaction to his ankle being lightly stepped on as being similar to the presence of “invisible crocodiles surrounding the edge of the pitch” was about right, and it is fair to say that his antics left a sour taste in the mouth for anyone that is not Brazilian.
Belgium proved that their golden generation is worth watching, coming back from two down against Japan to win 3-2 thanks to a stoppage-time goal from man-bun enthusiast (and former Spurs player) Nacer Chadli. Sweden beat Switzerland by a goal to nil, with three matches going to the dreaded penalty shootout.
And when I say dreaded, I really mean excruciating. Since its introduction at the World Cup in 1978, matches that are tied at the end of extra time have become a lottery. Drama and excitement for the neutrals, 10 minutes of sheer terror for fans.
Russia 2018 was no exception. Croatia beat Denmark, Spain lost to Russia and England won their first World Cup shootout ever by dispatching a spirited/cheating/petulant (delete as necessary) Colombia.
The England result was significant in so many ways.
First, it broke the streak of consecutive World Cup failures from the penalty spot—taken part in three before Russia, lost them all—and ensured that England fans could actually celebrate a 12-yard victory. Second, the team appears determined to make their mark on this tournament, with Tottenham’s Harry Kane on track for the Golden Boot. Third, and most important, they seem hell-bent on making me eat humble pie for my pre-tournament prediction. Which I am OK with.
Four More Games, More Drama Expected
So what can we expect from the quarter-finals? At the very least there will be more drama, more VAR, more Neymar rolling about and more beer on people’s heads.
The four matches are difficult to call, especially when you consider what has happened in the last three weeks. Uruguay against France and Brazil versus Belgium have the potential to be classics, and Russia’s unexpected march towards Moscow in just over a week might finally be stopped by Croatia. Taking that into account, I am going for Uruguay, Belgium, and the aforementioned Croatia.
England’s reward for finally learning how to take penalties in a shootout is a trip to Samara to face Sweden, a team that the Three Lions have a distinctly average record against. Sweden went undefeated from 1968 to 2011 in games versus England, with the English losing four and drawing eight. On the flip side, the last time that England and Sweden met in an international tournament ended in victory for the Three Lions, a 3-2 win at the 2012 European Championships in Poland/Ukraine.
That being said, the Swedes are a good side and will prove a tough test for Gareth Southgate’s boys.
As an England fan, I want us to win—not least of all because July 7 is my birthday as well—and I believe that the exit of so many football behemoths before the quarterfinals represents a great chance for England to progress to the final. The eternal realist in me then realizes that inflated expectations are never a good thing and we will probably huff and puff and make things difficult for ourselves. With an inevitable penalty shootout to decide who heads to the semi-finals.
Common wisdom dictates that any team that gets to the quarterfinals of a competition is only three matches from winning. The caveat is that this World Cup will be remembered for the never-ending drama and unexpected results. We are now heading into the final stages of what has been an excellent tournament to date, and there is some sadness in the fact that there are only eight matches left.
When the dust settles on July 15, Russia 2018 will have been a month-long experience that has been an advert for why the beautiful game is the most popular sport in the world. The games have been pure theater at times, and new global superstars have been born. Unlike baseball, football does not have an almost-daily schedule. We need to appreciate the feast of action for what it is … a daily fix that won’t come back until Qatar 2022.
But while we will have to wait another four years until the World Cup consumes the majority of our time, we can take solace in knowing that the league season is only weeks away. And the obsession can start afresh.
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