By Jamie Gardner, PA Chief Sports Reporter
The group stage at the World Cup in Qatar has been hailed as the “best ever” by FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
The opening phase of the tournament featured some incredible shocks, with Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina the first major upset.
Japan also beat Germany and Spain to finish top of their group, while Morocco saw off Belgium and drew with Croatia to finish top of their pool.
There was also drama in the final round of matches as qualification for the last 16 went right to the wire in some of the groups, and Infantino says there has never been a tournament to match it.
“I have seen all the matches, indeed, and put very simply and very clearly, this has been the best group stage of a FIFA World Cup ever. So, it’s very promising for the remainder of the FIFA World Cup,” Infantino said.
“The matches have been of great, great quality in beautiful stadiums – we knew that already. However, as well, the public who was there was incredible. Over 51,000 on average.”
Infantino caused controversy and offence in some quarters with his bizarre “Today I feel gay” speech the day before the tournament began.
There have been continued reports during the competition of rainbow-coloured items being confiscated by stadium security staff, despite FIFA’s claims it had received assurances from the Qatari government that would not happen.
FIFA has continued to face questions over the decision to stage a finals in a country where same-sex relationships are criminalised, and drew criticism for threatening sporting sanctions to countries who sought to wear the rainbow-coloured OneLove armbands.
Infantino has been keen to accentuate the positives, and hailed the results achieved by some of the supposedly lesser nations as evidence of football beginning to level up, and the fact every continent was represented in the last 16 in Qatar for the first time.
“There are no more small teams and no more big teams,” Infantino added.
“The level is very, very equal. For the first time as well, national teams from all continents going to the knock-out phase, for the first time in history. This shows that football is really becoming truly global.”
FIFA said the cumulative attendance for the 48 group matches was 2.45million, though there have been concerns at some games about the number of empty seats clearly visible.
Infantino added: “When it comes to stadium attendances, the stadiums are sold-out, full practically at every match. The fan festivals, the different fan zones, are also very crowded with people celebrating and enjoying (themselves).”