And then, there were four. Qatar 2022 is slowly heading to the big final, which is scheduled on 18 December, at the Lusail Iconic Stadium, a perfect setting to end such an outstanding tournament on a high. Four teams are heading home after the quarter-finals, with high-profile victims such as England, Brazil, the Netherlands or Portugal, after four entertaining matches, worthy of such a big setting.
But what are the main talking points after the quarter-finals of the 2022 FIFA World Cup delivered some exciting football, with underdogs offering some huge surprises in the world football flagship competition?
There is no ”I” in team
Historically, major tournaments have not been won through individual contributions, rather than teams gearing up their play and delivering vintage performances to lift the trophy. This was also the case in these quarter-finals, as one-sided teams, who boasted individual stars, but lacked the chemistry bowed up in disappointing fashion.
Brazil was touted to be the big favourites of the competition, but crashed out against Croatia, despite having a 11-1 advantage in shots on target during their game. Portugal, who usually relied on Cristiano Ronaldo in the past, had little answer, even when the star was ushered on the pitch, to a sturdy Morocco side.
For his part, Kylian Mbappe was reduced to silence against England, but France still secured a win against the ”Three Lions”, 2-1, with the attention given to Mbappe enabling the reigning champions to open new avenues in their attack, as Olivier Giroud finally became crucial and broke his curse from the 2018 FIFA World Cup, when he failed to score a goal, morphing into an instrumental player in France’s attack.
All in all, it proved once again that individual performances can get you so far at the FIFA World Cup, as even Argentina understood that they do not need to overwhelm Messi, rather than rely on him exactly where he thrives, finding pockets of space against the Netherlands and becoming one of the best assists providers in the history of the competition.
New records coming in for Messi
But let’s talk about Messi a bit. At 35 years old, he made it clear that Qatar 2022 was going to be his last edition of the FIFA World Cup. Since then, he has been playing at the highest level he has ever been in the last years, underlining the dimension of the quest he has been undertaking.
With a goal, an assist and a penalty converted in the shootout against the Netherlands, Messi has now two goals scored in the knockout phases of the FIFA World Cup, after scoring none in the previous four editions of the competition combined.
He tied Argentina striker Gabriel Batistuta as the best-ever scorer for the South American side in the competition, with 10 goals, and has now become the best assist provider in the knockout phases of the FIFA World Cup, with five, one more than the previous record, set by Pele. A game against Croatia awaits for Argentina, who will now need Messi more than ever to make the final for the first time since 2014.
Can France write history after 60 years?
Only four sides in the last 64 years have made it to the semi-finals as the reigning champions of the FIFA World Cup. First, it was Germany in 1958, then Brazil four years later, Argentina in 1990, and once again Brazil, when they went to the final and lost against hosts France in 1998.
Securing back-to-back trophies at the FIFA World Cup is a difficult challenge and only two sides managed it. First, Italy, in 1934 and 1938, followed by Brazil in 1958 and 1962. 60 years later, France is on track to become the third team in history, trying to capitalise on their success from Russia 2018.
While they were deemed inexperienced and without many chances at the start of the tournament, as key players from the winning team four years ago were out, well, they are here, between the top four sides in the world, as well as the runners-up from four years ago, Croatia.
It is a testament on what an amazing team Didier Deschamps has built over the years he has been France’s coach, with excellent management skills both on and off the pitch, as well as improving the side whenever it felt like it needed more. France are primed to get once again in the final, as they face Morocco, which would be a huge performance even for a star-studded team.
Four months are enough for Regragui to rewrite the history of African football
In August 2022, Morocco had no coach, after Valid Halilhodzic was dismissed from his position due to a tenuous relationship with his former players. In stepped Walid Regragui, who had only recently won the CAF African Champions League with Moroccan side Wydad Casablanca, without any pressure and little chances to progress from a group that had Belgium, Croatia and Canada facing the African side.
Fast forward to December and in only four months, Regragui built a side that eliminated Belgium, Spain and Portugal, becoming the first-ever African and Arab side to qualify for the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup, in an astonishing feature, against all odds.
Regragui nurtured the relationships in the team, brought back captain Hakim Ziyech, who fell out with Halilhodzic and was going to miss the FIFA World Cup, and created a unity that reverberated throughout the whole country. Now, Morocco face a date with destiny, a match against France. If they do make it alive out of it, this will surely be the biggest surprise in the history of the FIFA World Cup.
England set unwanted record at Qatar 2022
England has missed another chance to secure the trophy that eluded them since 1966, after a heart-breaking loss against France in the quarter-finals, 1-2, with their captain and talisman, Harry Kane, missing a penalty which would have sent the game to extra-time and made him the all-time top scorer for England, breaking Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 goals in the “Three Lions” shirt.
Subsequently, England were eliminated for the seventh time in history in the quarter-finals of the competition, with no team seeing themselves out in this stage of the competition more times, in another difficult moment for English football, especially after losing against a big rival.
Kane will definitely rise to the occasion once again, but the England captain was inconsolable and his miss raises a fresh round of questions regarding the future of the team. Will Gareth Southgate continue on the bench, or another manager will come in to lead the side?