As Morocco, Japan and the Republic of Korea progressed to the Round of 16 at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, they proved anything is possible. But they were not the only big surprises of the competition so far. The unexpected results at the second-ever edition of the FIFA World Cup organised by the Asian continent really prove that nothing is set in stone in the world football flagship competition.
Among the main reasons that make the FIFA World Cup a fascinating competition, surprises surely are one of them, with plenty happening throughout the 92-year history of the tournament. Everybody still remembers the USA winning against England in 1950. Or how North Korea sent Italy packing in 1966. Another one was Cameroon’s excellency in 1990, which kickstarted the progress of African football.
It could not have been different at Qatar 2022, as Saudi Arabia winning against Argentina really made everyone talk about the result. The Asian side’s win also made the top among the biggest-ever surprises of the competition, irrespective of their not progressing from the group phase. Still, that 2-1 win that baffled Argentina will surely be etched into Saudi football’s history for decades to come.
However, between the biggest surprises at Qatar 2022, one surely took the pole position. It was Morocco, who won their group without dropping a single game, with two wins and a single draw, progressing for the first time to the Round of 16 since 1986. While winning two games is not unprecedented, winning a group that also contained the runners-up from 2018, Croatia, and the third-placed side four years ago, Belgium, surely counts as a big shock.
The ”Atlas Lions” were the first African side to progress from the group phase at the FIFA World Cup, but have failed to repeat that performance for 36 years. But when they did it, they really completed it in style, against more experienced opponents. The surprise was even bigger, as in September, only two months before the start of Qatar 2022, Morocco made a coaching change, with Walid Regragui replacing the experienced Valid Halilhodzic.
Regragui, who won the CAF African Champions League with Wydad Casablanca, energised his side, as the move proved to be a winning one, as their main star, Hakim Ziyech, who vowed to never come back to the side until Halilhodzic was replaced, returned and was the best player of the team.
In the Round of 16, Morocco will face Spain, who finished second in their group, despite starting with an outstanding 7-0 win against Costa Rica. But Spain lost their last game in the group against Japan, 2-1, after securing a 1-0 lead and dominating the possession, with over 80% of the ball on their feet during the game.
Japan’s performance was truly outstanding, as they won a group which had two former FIFA World Cup winners, Germany and Spain, with Hajime Moriyasu’s side duly delivering two performances for the ages in the group. There is probably no better proof that the FIFA World Cup is a true emotional roller-coaster than this group, with Japan and Costa Rica qualifying together for the next phase for only three minutes, before Germany came back against the Central American team.
Australia cannot be overlooked from the Qatar 2022 surprise list, with the “Socceroos” leading against the reigning champions, France, before conceding a 4-1 loss. However, they bounced back in superb style, winning the games against Tunisia and Denmark, for their first Round of 16 berth since 2006. Both wins came by the same scoreline, 1-0, but while the one against Tunisia could have been predicted, the one against Denmark is truly a big surprise.
The European side, who went to the semi-finals at the UEFA EURO 2020 and had an immaculate performance until the last match of the Qualifiers for Qatar 2022, winning nine games and conceding a single goal, were big favourites, but left the final tournament with a single point and a single goal scored. An unexpected surprise, but in a bad way.
The last day of the group phase was also full of drama and completed the slew of surprises thrown by Qatar 2022, with a nail-biting finish that saw the Republic of Korea seal one of the most unexpected berths for the Round of 16, after an unexpected comeback against Portugal.
The Asian side went ahead for the first time at Qatar 2022 in the 91st minute in the game against Portugal, while their main opponents, Uruguay had a 2-0 lead against Ghana. But as Korea came back and Hwang Hee-Chan scored the decider, the Asian side qualified thanks to the superior number of goals scored than Uruguay, leaving the South American side reeling.
Well, point taken, right? Nothing was impossible at the FIFA World Cup.