The World Cup can be exhilarating and it can be excruciating. It can put you in the best of moods, it can put you in the worst of moods. It can lead to joy, or it can lead to borderline depression.
This year’s edition of the Cup is being played in November instead of traditional summer months due to the excessive heat in the gulf nation of Qatar. Teams had only 7 days to prepare since all of the worlds’ leagues are in season. Most players are in form but many players are also injured. The list of the missing is long: Manne (Senegal), Benzema, Kante, and Pogba, Nkunku (France), Joto (Portugal), James (England), Corona (Mexico). But many of the stars are here (Messi, Ronaldo, Mbappe, Lewandoski, Courtois, etc.) and should be in in-season form.
Five days into the 2022 edition, there has already been misery and happiness. Argentina, the favorite to win it all, the team that had a 36 unbeaten match streak (1 short of Italy’s record), lost in a shocking upset in Group B’s initial game against Saudi Arabia.
The loss sent Messi’s chances of winning the World Cup plummeting (teams that lose their first game have only an 11% chance of advancing to the knockout phase). For a player as loved and admired as Messi, it’s a painful reminder of how hard it is to win this competition. Over the past 8 years, Messi has lost a championship game and then been eliminated by the eventual champion in the Round of 16.
After going ahead on a Messi PK early in the game, Argentina had two goals disallowed due to offsides. The Argentinians never were able to solve that high defensive line, never tried an alternative tactic, and never recovered. Instead of having a comfortable three goal lead, they were up by the minimum margin at half. Saudi Arabia came out in the second half in a more attacking shape and were able to score two goals in the first 15 of the second half. Argentina now face a huge uphill battle, not unlike what they faced in the 2018 World Cup, after which they had only 1 point after two games. Their second game against Mexico, an old historic rival who they’ve beaten twice in dramatic fashion in the Round of 16, now will be one of the most fascinating of the tournament.
For the other megastar of this generation, the first game was kinder. He scored on a penalty kick in the 75th minute of Portugal’s tough encounter with Ghana, becoming the first player in history to score in 5 World Cups. Ghana tied the game up 1-1 with a goal from Jonathan Awei, Ghana’s most capped player ever, but then Portugal scored two goals within 5 minutes to go up 3-1. A late Ghanain goal made it interesting, but Portugal prevailed in the end 3-2 in the most exciting game. Winning your first game is always good. For a team like Portugal, led by one of the most confident and clutch players of all time, they now look poised to make a deep run.
The first five days of the Cup also produced the usual, if not unexpected, drama for all the other teams in the tournament.
Mexico, who had been severely criticized by the Mexican media and fan base alike for their poor form, came up big in their first game by outplaying Poland. Memo Ochoa, who always plays excellently in the World Cup, made a fantastic PK save from one of the world’s best strikers, Robert Lewandoski, to preserve a nil-nil tie. The next match against Argentina should be a classic as both teams need a win, with Argentina the most desperate side and facing the most pressure to get a result. Clashes between these two countries have always been competitive and compelling; this edition, with everything that is at stake, should be no different.
The other huge upset was Japan outlasting Germany 2-1. Germany came out firing on all cylinders, took a 1-0 lead from a Gundogan PK and got a second that was disallowed. Then Japan struck back late in the game, scoring two goals in the last 15 minutes to upset the Germans.
MInutes before that offensive burst, sensational goalkeeping by the Japanese keeper Gonda kept Germany from winning the game. He made 6 saves in a one minute sequence that allowed Japan to make its comeback. In one, he denied Gnabri once from a potent header and then from a hard shot off the rebound. The winning goal was a masterpiece.
Takano Osana deftly controlled a 50 yard pass pass from a free kick with his right foot, masterfully controlling it with a sublime first touch that allowed him to dribble into the box all while shielding the ball from his defender. His second touch took him straight to Neuer, who he beat with a thunderous high and powerful shot. Neuer defended the goal with his hands below his shoulders and was beaten to the only spot he wasn’t defending, a shot that roofed the net.
Spain clobbered Costa Rica 7-0 with many of their young players in shining form. Gavi, Pedri, Rodri, Olmo, and Torres, et al all shared in the scoring in the rout of the 4th place team from CONCACAF. Two statistics summarize this game: Spain completed more than 1000 passes and Costa Rica had only 19% possession, the lowest number since possession statistics have been tracked. Spain is a footballing factory. Spain is fifth behind Brazil, Argentina, France and Colombia in the number of professionals in the top leagues worldwide. But year after year, team after team, you see quality professional players from Spain. Along with the two South American powers and the defending FIFA champions, the Spanish are ubiquitous. And their national team shows it.
England beat Iran decisively by a 6-2 scoreline. The Iranian team scored a moral and political victory when they decided to not sing the national anthem before the game. Given the historical enmity that exists between Iran and the US, not to mention the recently imposed by the latter country over the former, the US encounter with Iran will be fascinating. The US should not take Iran lightly however; they should remember Iran’s victory over the Americans in 1998 and learn that history can repeat itself. The US managed a 1-1 tie with Wales that seemed more like a defeat due to their dominance early on.
Belgium squeezed out a 1-0 victory over a Canadian team that was far superior most of the game. The Canucks haven’t been in a World Cup since the last century and are still looking for their first World Cup goal. Their best player, Alfonso Davies, had a chance to secure that but his PK was stopped by Courtois, one of the best keepers in the world.
Brazil made their debut with an impressive 2-0 victory over Serbia. Richarlison scored his first two goals for the Scratch D’Oro. On his second goal, he received a three three-toe pass from Vinicius from the left side, popped it up to himself, and then launched himself into the air and scored off a scissors kick. Jogo bonito exemplified in all phases of the game, passing, individual trickery and magical finishing. If Brazil play like this throughout the tournament, nobody will beat them.
After the first round, the favorites are the usual suspects: England, Brazil, Spain, France, Portugal. On a second tier, Holland, Belgium, and Japan. The two huge disappointments have been Germany and Argentina. The blue-chip teams have prevailed. No teams have emerged as surprises, at least not yet.