Friday December 2nd, 2022
Final acts of a wonderful World Cup Group StageToday was just a magnificent day of football. This World Cup has been marvellous on the field. Late drama, just the right number of surprises and a real international flavour of successful teams coming from different regions. Once again, it has delivered what so many people want from this sport but no longer get from the club game: Competitive balance and drama. This has been football in its purest form. Most of the top leagues around the globe now may feature some of the best coaches, best players and best football we have ever seen. In the end, though, most of the same teams win at the end of the season. Even in knock-out competitions in a sport often based on variance and good fortune, it remains far too predictable and most of the teams you expect to advance from the UEFA Champions League do. At the World Cup, less than two weeks after it kicked off, we have already said goodbye to some contenders in Germany, Belgium and Denmark. Morocco became the first African team to top a World Cup group since Nigeria in 1998 and we now have three teams in the last 16 from the Asian Confederation for the first time. Japan beat both Germany and Spain, Australia beat Denmark and today South Korea beat Uruguay without playing them. It was 7:48 p.m. when Paulo Bento’s squad broke away from a corner and scored the best transitional goal at this World Cup. As the entire South Korea bench ran on the pitch and behind the goal to celebrate with their fans, 25 km south inside Al Janoub Stadiim in Al Wakrah, Luis Suarez pulled his shirt over his head. This was no celebration, however. Learning of the goal at Education City, Suarez started crying. Uruguay needed one more goal. The final whistle blew to secure another Asian win over a European side as they beat a much-changed Portugal but elsewhere there were still eight more minutes of additional time to play. As South Korea gathered on the field to watch the rest of the match it was hard not to wonder if this was the last time this wonderful competition would ever deliver such a lasting image. In deciding to inflate the World Cup to 48 teams, FIFA in their wisdom have seemingly settled on three team groups, ensuring the final game of the group would feature two teams knowing what the other one had already done. It’s barely believable to write it let alone believe we can see it. Uruguay would lose by winning 2-0, Suarez walked down another tunnel against Ghana and this time the scoundrel, cheeky face from South Africa was gone and replaced by a look of devastation. His World Cup dream was over. An hour after leaving one game, I arrived at the unique Stadium 974 to watch Serbia take on Switzerland. This was a good game in 2018 but four years later this turns out to be even better. Serbia is a fun side, technically very good, with two strikers who both score good goals, but they are not mobile and lack quality in possession at the back. Switzerland always look a threat and show why they are a really good team. Full of players who know how to advance through group stages at tournaments they take the lead, they go behind and take the lead again to go on to win 3-2 and once again make it to a last 16. This is an organized team full of experience who know their identity. They will cause Portugal problems. They have only ever won one knock-out round game in the history of the World Cup and that was a round one encounter back in 1938 when teams only played one game to get to the next round.
2026 – FIFA, this should be your World Cup formatOne knock-out game to advance? Interesting. It is important to note that no matter what solution is proposed to come up with a fair, interesting format for 48 teams nothing will be perfect. Perfection in a format is now in the rear-view mirror with the 32-team format scrapped. FIFA have decided upon 80 matches for the 2026 World Cup and therefore must find a suitable way to place 48 teams in a competition that leads to knock-out rounds. The thought of 16 three-team groups, with a proposed penalty shootout to break ties and get a team one more point, is asinine. What I would propose is the following.
- 16 teams that are seeded are automatically advanced to the 32-team group stage format (as it is now)
- The other 32 teams must play off in a ‘Round One knock-out’ where 16 teams will move into the 32-team World Cup group format and 16 will go home. These games can be done via a draw, via world rankings (highest plays lowest and so on) or by region. I don’t think that is a concern. The key is to remove 16 teams and get the World Cup back to how it is now for the remainder of the tournament.
- The winners of these games will already have slots into World Cup groups. Some will say it is a long way to go for one World Cup game. The argument against that is 16 were only going to get two anyway. The level of importance of that one knock-out game could far outweigh two disappointing group games that do not galvanize a country the way FIFA intends by offering more spots to this World Cup.
Group Stage Best XI and squad of 26Over the last 13 days I have had the pleasure of watching 23 World Cup matches live featuring 28 different teams in all eight stadiums that are hosting here in Qatar. It has been great to break it all down daily on OneSoccer and much of the emphasis has been on teams. Here I turn the attention to players who I have been impressed with. Here is my team of the group stages based on games I have seen. I have not seen France, Germany, Spain and Tunisia. These picks are based on the games I attended.
GoalkeeperWojciech Szczesny (Poland) – Watched him save two penalty kicks in two different matches, including one against Lionel Messi, but the one he made on the rebound from the penalty miss against Mohammed Al Burayk of Saudi Arabia was his best yet. Backups: Yann Sommer (Switzerland), Mohammed Al Owais (Saudi Arabia)
DefendersRight-back Achraf Hakimi (Morocco) – Might be the most consistent player I have watched here in Qatar. Fullbacks in the modern game, placed in the right system, can be some of the most influential players on the pitch. The kind of player who could play any position on the field. Backup: Jurrien Timber (Netherlands) Centre-backs Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal) – Dominant for Aliou Cisse’s men throughout but was brilliant in their crucial match against Ecuador - in both penalty boxes - to ensure his team made the last 16. Josko Gvardiol (Croatia) – By all accounts he was fantastic against Belgium, but I watched him live in his other two games and was outstanding. Elegant player of the ball with his left foot but really shows a different side to him when defending, reads the game superbly and was tremendous against Morocco up against the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Hakimi. Backups: Manuel Akanji (Switzerland), Romain Saiss (Morocco), Harry Souttar (Australia) Left-back Alex Sandro (Brazil) - Morocco may have a formidable right side but the best team on the flanks has been Brazil, particularly down the left. The Juventus man brings power to Brazil and has been brilliant so far here in Qatar. Backup: Antonee Robinson (USA)
MidfieldersWeston McKennie (USA) – Has been excellent in all three games and has been missed when he has been removed as he continues to find his full fitness. Enzo Fernandez (Argentina) – Has absolutely transformed Argentina by bringing a physical presence to midfield with an ability to always look to go forward at key times. Casemiro (Brazil) – Probably the most valuable player here. Brazil’s World Cup will be defined by the knock-out stages. A gifted, young, flashy team need a leader who knows how to get his team over the mountain they could not climb in each of the last four World Cups. Backups: Jude Bellingham (England), Moises Caicedo (Ecuador), Mateo Kovacic (Croatia), Mohammed Kudus (Ghana),
AttackersBruno Fernandes (Portugal) – One of the best individual showings of the group stage came against Uruguay, a key match that Portugal were not always in control of. They will control games better in the knock-out stages and on a team of difference-makers have one in Fernandes who is in brilliant form. Lionel Messi (Argentina) – This was a sensational group showing from Messi. Fortunate to watch him in all three games, you can see how he has modified his game to maximize the best of his opportunities. His goal against Mexico turned them into believers again. Vinicius Jr (Brazil) – No player has been more dangerous from wide positions. In possession, when dribbling at defenders, Vinicius Jr has so much power in his run that you’d almost expect the ground to give way as he moves beyond it. He can be Brazil’s very own superhero to guide them to World Cup glory. Backups: Tajon Buchanan (Canada), Breel Embolo (Switzerland), Richarlison (Brazil), Enner Valencia (Colombia)