We knew already that the 2022 FIFA World Cup was going to be a historic one even before the kickoff, but the first-ever tournament ever held in the Middle East threw plenty of surprises on the table, after the completion of the group phase, with 48 of the 64 scheduled games having already been played.
Qatar 2022 became a true football party, as it grasped the attention of billions of people, with the 32 teams properly cheered for both in Qatar and on their soil, with plenty of them delivering huge surprises.
However, Qatar 2022 has already written history as far as the competition goes, with every inhabited continent sending a team to the knockout phase of the competition for the first time in history. Therefore, all the six Confederations that are part of FIFA – UEFA, AFC, CAF, OFC, CONCACAF, and CONMEBOL have at least one team present, with a number of other records already set at Qatar 2022.
In the luxurious setting of Qatar 2022, the most compact edition of the FIFA World Cup ever played, with all the eight venues in a radius of 50 kilometres of the capital Doha, every team had its chance, with a diversified range of sides from all over the world putting football first and their ambitions second.
After the group phase threw plenty of surprises in the spanner, with favourites like Belgium and Germany dropping out, the 16 teams that are still alive had plenty to celebrate. But more so Morocco, for example, who progressed from the group phase for the first time since 1986. Or Senegal, who qualified for the knockout round for the first time since 2002.
In total, eight teams from Europe, two from Africa, South America, and Asia, and one from North America and Oceania each progressed to the Round of 16, making it the first time that so many continents are represented in the knockout phases of the world football flagship tournament.
Not only Africa matched their best performance in history at the FIFA World Cup, sending two teams between the top 16 in the world, but they did it with several stars like Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez or Victor Osimhen missing the tournament by not qualifying or, in Mane’s case, through injury.
It is truly an exciting performance for the African continent, which four years ago, in Russia in 2018, failed to send any of the teams to the next round of the competition, with all five sides bowing out in the group phase.
Another excellent performance was set by the Asian Football Confederation, which has two teams between the best 16 in the world at Qatar 2022. Surely, Japan’s antics are well documented, with the “Samurai Blue” coming from behind twice against powerhouses like Germany and Spain to progress to the next phase of the competition, winning both times 2-1.
The other Asian team that qualified for the Round of 16 is the Republic of Korea, the third time they secure a place in the knockout phase in 11 tournaments, after finishing fourth in 2002 and 15th in 2006.
However, the team from Asia also delivered one of the biggest surprises in the competition, as Saudi Arabia clinched a 2-1 win over Argentina, proving that football is progressing all over the globe.
A mouth-watering comeback against Portugal was exactly what they needed, as their 2-1 win eliminated Uruguay and had the Korea fans in tears of jubilation during the last match of the group phase.
Both CONCACAF – the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football – and the Oceania Football Confederation delivered two teams in the Round of 16, with USA and Australia progressing from tough groups and eliminating European sides, Wales and Denmark, respectively.
For the USA in particular, the qualification meant volumes, as they will co-host the next edition of the FIFA World Cup with Mexico and Canada – both eliminated in the group phase – as their young core will definitely come of age in four years’ time.
Once again, Europe is the cream of the crop, with eight teams, but powerhouses like Germany and Belgium were eliminated, as five European teams – the two aforementioned, plus Wales, Denmark, and Serbia – were eliminated. Still, 50% of the 16 teams starting the Round of 16 are from Europe, which means that the strength is still there.