Qatar World Cup: Home truth for old order
The underdogs have spoken. Welcome to the World Cup.
When the draw was made for the Qatar World Cup earlier this year, Group E, branded as the group of death drew Spain, Germany Japan and Costa Rica, while in Group F it was Belgium, Croatia, Morocco and Canada. The debate was about who will play whom in the Round-of-16.
“If Germany finish second behind Spain then they may have to play Belgium (third-placed in the 2018 Russia World Cup), if Croatia, runners-up four years ago, finish second then Spain will have a difficult task ahead,” was the common refrain. The others were not even part of the discourse.
Teams like Japan, Morocco or Costa Rica were written off with the focus on the traditional superpowers of world football. But football has changed and there are no pushovers these days.
So here we are at the end of Group E and F which shows Japan on top of Group E with six points, Spain second with four. Germany, also on four points, have missed a knockout stage berth for the second successive World Cup by virtue of an inferior goal difference.
Group F has more surprises in store. Morocco are in the last-16 for the first time since 1986, topping with seven points. Luka Modric’s Croatia are second with five points. Belgium and their so-called golden generation failed to clear the group stage.
The world order seems to be changing with the smaller nations in the football hierarchy no longer in awe of the teams who dictate terms. This had been seen in 2014 also when Costa Rica finished first in their group which had historically successful teams like Uruguay, Italy and England.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said as much: “I could feel that the times have changed.”
“We’re not going to stop here, we are a very difficult team to beat, so why not dream of lifting the trophy?” a bullish Morocco coach Walid Regragui roared after the 2-1 win over Canada. Just 47, he has done wonders with this team from North Africa since taking over the reins this August. They play Spain in the last-16 on Tuesday and it will not be easy for the 2010 World Cup champions.
In Group B, Denmark, billed as one of the teams other than the Netherlands to advance to the next round, came last. Australia turned the tables on the Danes on Wednesday to make the grade. They logged six points for the first time in their World Cup history and social media was flooded with fans back home celebrating their heroics at 3.30am Australian time.
“We were probably the last team everyone in Asia (Australia are part of the Asian Football Confederation) thought would qualify. It’s great for Asia. I do believe Asia is getting stronger and stronger, particularly in the Middle East but also in South Korea and Japan. The travelling can make it difficult but I do think Asia is catching up quickly,” manager Graham Arnold said.
It’s not just about the teams who have qualified. For example, Ecuador, one of the most exciting teams in the group stage, were brilliant in their first two matches. Yes, Qatar were there for the taking but against the Dutch with a little bit of luck, where they had a goal disallowed by VAR, Ecuador could have logged full points and sealed a last-16 berth.
“The world order has crumbled. It’s not a cakewalk anymore for any team. Smaller teams are no longer ready to yield an inch without a fight,” Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro had said after the Netherlands match. “Defensively as well in the attacking third of the pitch we are there to hassle you.”
Even when Germany were all over Costa Rica on Thursday, Keylor Navas and his teammates did not give up and at one point in time, they were leading 2-1.
If things had remained like that it would have been all the more shocking as Japan and Costa Rica would have been through. When the score was 2-2, Navas made a miraculous save to deny Niclas Fullkrug a goal from handshaking distance.
Japan’s dogged defending against Spain earned them full points. Sample this. A loose ball in the 90th minute bounced in the goalmouth, in front of an empty net.
Marco Asensio was almost there for a simple tap-in and Maya Yoshida twisted his body the clear the ball.
Seconds later Dani Olmo was all set to make it 2-2 when Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda blocked his shot with a dive as if it was a matter of life and death.
“They dismantled us,” Spain coach Luis Enrique was candid after the defeat. Well, the order is truly changing. Asia and Africans are having big guns for dessert in the Arab desert.
Hopefully, the ascent will continue four years later too when the Cup goes to North America.