World Cup: Romantics get the final they were looking for

John Roycroft gives his reaction to an enjoyable but, as always, controversial World Cup in Qatar. 
World Cup: Romantics get the final they were looking for

Lionel Messi of Argentina and Luka Modric of Croatia shake hands after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 semi final match at Lusail Stadium  Qatar. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

THAT month passed pretty quick. And 62 matches later, we are down to the third and fourth playoff today between Croatia and Morocco, while the big final tomorrow is straight out of central casting, pitting the romantics favourite of Leo Messi’s Argentina against the bookies’ call with defending champions France.

The consensus among the football fans, that watched, is that the World Cup has been well-run and overall, an enjoyable tournament. Matches were competitive, close affairs and skill levels, on the whole, were of a pretty good standard, while many will have welcomed the value of playing the correct amount of time with the elongated added-times in each game.

Upsets

Unusual to this World Cup, was the sheer number of upset results from the group stages and group of 16. The trend was started by the totally unpredicted defeat of Argentina by Saudi Arabia. After that game, it was hard to imagine that Messi and the gang would make the final. Maybe getting their upset early on was the lesson the South American champions needed, getting their mistake out of the way before it was fatal to their chances.

Germany were quick to join in on the head-scratching results, losing to Japan 2-1. To be fair to the Asian nation, their triumph was far more comfortable and less of a backs-to-the-wall defence as the Saudis.

Belgium and Portugal barely avoided defeats to Canada and Ghana and gave an indication of later weaknesses, especially in the case of Belgium.

France's Jules Kounde blocks a shot on the line from Morocco's Abderrazak Hamdallah during the FIFA World Cup Semi-Final match at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar. Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire
France's Jules Kounde blocks a shot on the line from Morocco's Abderrazak Hamdallah during the FIFA World Cup Semi-Final match at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar. Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Morocco woke the world to their ability by putting Belgium to the sword and their epic and enjoyable journey to the last four had begun. The giants of Spain and Portugal would be humbled before them, while for large parts of the semi-final, especially early in the second-half, you would be forgiven for mistaking the North Africans as the defending world champions rather than the lads in Les Bleus.

Tunisia may have the honour of being the only side to beat France, should Kylian Mbappe and co come out on top in tomorrow’s decider.

Japan and Cameroon bruised some reputations when beating Spain and Brazil respectively, even though the later sides, like France, had already qualified for the next round when their upset defeats occurred.

Wout Weghorst of the Netherlands, center, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar. Picture: AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
Wout Weghorst of the Netherlands, center, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar. Picture: AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

History

The best match for me was the hot and tumultuous encounter between Argentina and the Netherlands. There is a history between these sides dating back to the ’78 final and the confrontational way this match was played it’s hard to imagine some of these players fathers weren’t even born in 1978.

It simmered along with Argentina looking comfortable at 2-0 up with 78 minutes gone. Then, Louis van Gaal sent on Wout Weghorst. The on-loan Barnsley player did some old-style rallying of his team-mates and pulled one back with a header on 83 minutes and then completed the set-piece of the tournament, when a clever slide-pass free-kick found him open and unmarked to bag the equaliser on 90+11 minutes.

Weghorst would step up again and score his penalty in the shoot-out but it wasn’t enough as the South Americans bagged the win much to their obvious and rather unpleasant delight in the face of their Dutch opponents.

Argentina's players provocatively taunt the despondent Dutch after dumping the Netherlands out of the World Cup on penalties. An epic, chaotic and ill-tempered quarter-final clash featured a record-breaking 18 yellow cards. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Argentina's players provocatively taunt the despondent Dutch after dumping the Netherlands out of the World Cup on penalties. An epic, chaotic and ill-tempered quarter-final clash featured a record-breaking 18 yellow cards. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

The goals

The goal of the tournament up to the knockouts was Richarlison’s wonder bicycle-kick against Serbia, with a special mention for Vincent Aboubakar scooped delight, also against the Serbs.

But it was Messi, rolling back the years and giving us a glimpse again of those glory times with Barcelona, that was the high point of the tournament for me. His jinking, twisting and turning run against Croatia to set up Julian Alvarez second goal was mesmerising. Messi may not be held with the same affection he was once had among football fans, mainly down to the bad taste from his Barcelona departure and subsequent deals with rather undesirable types. But for a few seconds of brilliance the curtains fell away and we recalled why we all once loved the little genius.

Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic (right) celebrates with team-mates after victory in the penalty shootout following extra time in the FIFA World Cup quarter-final at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic (right) celebrates with team-mates after victory in the penalty shootout following extra time in the FIFA World Cup quarter-final at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

The Saves

While most attention understandably goes towards the goal scorers, this Word Cup is notable for Croatia’s Dominik Livakovic hat-trick of penalty saves against Japan in the group of 16 becoming only the third keeper in history to claim a hat-trick of penalty saves in World Cup history. He followed that up with two more saves helping his side put favourites Brazil out of the finals.

So that’s it for another four years. The controversial World Cup of 2022 is over. It was an enjoyable and well-run event and for that we can say ‘thank you Qatar’. But for the sake of the game’s honour, avoidance of mid-season disruption, LGBTQ rights and most importantly, for the sake of the lives of thousands of migrant workers, let us never do it again.

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