The 2022 Qatar World Cup is headed for a weekend of quarter-final action following a knockout phase that produced one huge upset, the biggest of the tournament thus far: Morocco beat 2010 World Cup champions Spain on Tuesday 3-0 on penalties after a 0-0 draw following regulation and extra time.
Morocco thus became the first Arab country to reach a World Cup quarter-final and only the fourth African team to reach that stage after Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.
Besides the Moroccan shocker the other lesser surprise was Japan taking Croatia to penalties before the 2018 finalists won the day.
Either Portugal or Switzerland will meet Morocco in the last eight but that game was yet to be played at the time of writing. The teams reaching the quarter-finals are more or less the best in the tournament and by extension the world, the biggest reason why the quarter-finals are being eagerly awaited.
While dark houses are always welcome in any tournament for their ability to shock the established order, as Moroccans will attest, fans in the main also want to see how the cream of the crop fare one on one.
HOLLAND-ARGENTINA: This clash on Friday 9 December would be a repeat of the 1978 World Cup final in Argentina which the hosts won 3-1 in extra time.
All in all, Holland have gone to three World Cup finals, coming up empty-handed every time.
In Qatar, the Dutch have not been overwhelming; solid is a better word. Their vast experience, led by wily coach Louis van Gaal, helped oust the younger US side 3-1 in the knockout stage.
Van Gaal and Holland have been here before, guiding them to a World Cup semi-final in Brazil in 2014, only to lose on penalties to, who else but Argentina after a goalless draw.
This is not the classic Dutch side of yesteryear but they have quality in most areas.
Argentina have Lionel Messi who kept his country’s dreams alive after scoring in the knockout win against Australia 2-1.
On his 1,000th appearance in professional football and his 100th game as Argentina captain, Messi stepped up again.
In his fifth and probably final World Cup, Messi at 35 surprisingly scored his first ever World Cup knockout goal in the Australia match as Argentina took another step to ending their 36-year wait for World Cup glory.
While Messi’s left to right, right to left twists and turns at high speed as he leaves three or four defenders for dead have declined in number, he now plays the role of senior playmaker, attracting mass opponents, then finding unguarded teammates.
CROATIA-BRAZIL: Also on Friday, the team that made it to the final of the last World Cup will face the team that could win this year’s World Cup: Croatia vs Brazil.
Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic was the hero for Croatia in the round of 16 on Monday, saving three penalties in the shootout, as they edged past Japan to reach the World Cup quarter-finals. The game had ended 1-1 before Croatia took the spot kicks 3-1. Japan’s penalty kicks were woeful, struck too soft and without conviction. It looked like the Japanese had not practiced penalties or were too scared to take them.
But Japan had shock victories over Germany and Spain to top their group and they pushed the finalists from four years ago all the way to penalties.
Croatia always like to take the long way. In 2018, when they almost lifted the trophy, they emerged from extra time with a win in each of their knockout games before losing in the final.
Brazil, on the other hand, find the shortest route to goal and against South Korea on Monday, they did so to devastating effect. Their 4-1 demolition of the Asian country was frightening and formidable. With Neymar back from injury, Brazil ran riot, epitomized by a sensational lightning strike, a trademark of Brazilian football through the ages. Richarlison followed his spectacular volley against Serbia in the group stage by controlling the ball three times with his head and foot against South Korea before taking Thiago Silva’s pass in his stride, without going offside and while keeping the ball at his feet, despite the South Korean traffic jam. It was breathtaking skill, probably the best one-two goal in Qatar thus far.
Even Brazilian coach Tite couldn’t help dancing.
FRANCE-ENGLAND: No country has repeated as World Cup champions in six decades — since Brazil achieved the feat by claiming consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962. This is the history that defending champions France are up against when they play England on Saturday 10 December.
If Argentina have Messi and Portugal Cristiano Ronaldo, France have Kylian Mbappe who is set to take over from both aging superstars. Mbappe turned on the style against Poland in the knockouts by scoring two fabulous strikes in the second half for a comfortable 3-1 victory. There are only a handful of players in the world that can lift fans in the millions from their seats, even when they haven’t even crossed the centre of the pitch: Mbappe is one of them. Now with the lead in the Golden Boot race with five goals, Mbappe’s new partnership with Olivier Giroud, who took over for the injured Karim Benzema before the tournament began, is deadly. Giroud became France’s all-time leading goal scorer with his 52nd goal against Poland, claiming the country’s outright record, surpassing the great Thierry Henry.
The Mbappe-Giroud connection is a daunting prospect for England, the semi-finalists in Russia 2018. England boosted the hopes of their fans becoming world champions for the first time since 1966 with a 3-0 win over Senegal in the knockout stage on Sunday.
Skipper Harry Kane notched his first goal of the tournament but 19-year-old midfielder Jude Bellingham has drawn the most praise of England’s players.
This will be the first men’s knockout game between England and France in a World Cup and the biggest test for either so far in Qatar.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.