The main event
For a country perceived by many as having something of a tenuous relationship with the sport of soccer, the United States of America has made quite a contribution to the culture at the very top of the game. They’ve reached the semi-final of one World Cup (1930), hosted another (1994) and registered one of the all-time great shocks (1950) in which their supposed elders and betters, the self-styled fathers of the game, were handed their asses in a high hat. Throw in the garish but fondly remembered NASL, an all-senses assault which attracted nearly as many superstars as Studio 54, and that’s a sizeable legacy. And this is all before we get to the USWNT, four-time winners of the Women’s World Cup and reigning champions. They’ve more than done their bit on that side of the briny.
So you can bet your bottom dollar that the Netherlands won’t be daft enough to underestimate the USMNT as the knockout stage of the 2022 World Cup kicks off on Saturday afternoon. The Dutch sailed through their group without drama, albeit without making too much of a case that they can go deep. Louis van Gaal however had no truck with reporters berating his side for lacking the wow factor and can legitimately point to the humiliations of neighbours Germany and Belgium, both significantly hyped going into this tournament, as a useful metric to measure his own team’s under-the-radar fuss-free competence. The Netherlands also possess one of this World Cup’s breakout hits in Cody Gakpo, with his variety pack of three goals in three games. Few gave the Dutch too much of a chance in 2010 or 2014 either, and look what so nearly happened then.
Historical precedent and optimistic spin only get you so far, though. The Dutch are good but not out of the top drawer, certainly not by their own lofty standards, and the USA will fancy their chances of springing a surprise. Despite only scoring two goals in the group, Gregg Berhalter’s team have received good notices for their attacking intentions. Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson maraud along the flanks in the modern style. Tyler Adams, Yusuf Musah and Weston McKennie are urgent presences in midfield. Meanwhile centre-back Tim Ream is enjoying an Indian summer at 35, the US posting back-to-back clean sheets at a finals for the first time since that aforementioned romp to the semis in 1930.
In fact, they’ve yet to concede a goal from open play in Qatar, and have only shipped nine in the 15 matches they’ve played this calendar year. The containment of the seemingly irrepressible Gakpo would be another feather in their cap. The question would then be: can Virgil van Dijk et al do a similar number on the up-and-coming Timothy Weah? If the US start clicking in attack, Van Gaal could be off to manage Belgium sooner than expected. SM
Ghana miss another fateful penalty
If Uruguay intended to get inside their opponents’ heads by putting Luis Suárez – that is, “the devil himself” – up for media duties before their game against Ghana, they will feel it worked as intended. Whether or not mind games had anything to do with the way this match played out, André Ayew’s saved penalty – swiftly followed by two goals from Giorgian de Arrascaeta – inevitably drew parallels to the way Asamoah Gyan squandered the spot kick which resulted from Suárez’s infamous handball in Johannesburg. “This penalty miss put Ghana back in 2010,” said Didier Drogba at half-time. “It’s difficult to come back after missing a penalty like this.” So it proved, though Uruguay still failing to progress thanks to events elsewhere at least provided a hint of cosmic justice. WM
South Korea dispel group-stage curse
Having extended their 100% winning record against Portugal, South Korea have avoided another early exit from the World Cup. Having gone out at the group stage in 2018, 2014 and 2006, they were in danger of falling at the first hurdle for a fourth time in five attempts before Hwang Hee-chan’s late, late winner. The last time they reached the last 16, in 2010, they were dumped out by Uruguay, with Suárez scoring twice. Again, there is a satisfying circularity to South Korea being the side to deny the Uruguayans a place in the knockout rounds. WM
A video shared on social media appears to show presenters on a Qatari television programme enjoying Germany’s exit while mocking the team’s stance on human rights. In the clip, presenters wave goodbye to Germany while clamping hands over their mouths – a send-up of a gesture that the German team had made before their opening defeat by Japan on 23 November in protest against Fifa’s decision to stop them wearing One Love armbands. “Human rights are non-negotiable. That should be taken for granted,” the German Football Association said in words that those Qatari TV presenters could do with reading again and trying to understand.
And here’s the celebrated visual satirist Cold War Steve takes on protests and power struggles at the Qatar World Cup. GB
It was a “winter nightmare” (Süddeutsche Zeitung), an “enormous embarrassment” (Bild), a “new low point” that revealed the four-times world champions to have shrunken into a “football dwarf” (Spiegel). Ouch. Germany’s players and coaching staff hopefully avoided Thursday morning’s front pages after crashing out at the group stage for the second tournament in a row.
Newspapers and websites in Japan were the polar opposite. “Samurai spirit: Japan explodes with World Cup joy,” cheered Japan Today after the wild 2-1 comeback win over Spain. “Captain Yoshida rewrites history,” roared the Chunichi Shimbun. “World Cup redemption,” said The Mainichi, recalling manager Hajime Moriyasu’s experience of being beaten by Iraq in Doha in 1993, which cost the nation a place at USA 94. In the Japan Times, repetition was the only way they could get their heads around the achievement. “Japan is in the last 16 … Japan is in the last 16 … Japan is in the last 16 … The more accurate the sentence becomes, the more improbable and fantastical it feels, as though it flowed from the pen of Terry Pratchett or J.R.R. Tolkien.” GB
The internet reacts
The whistle had barely blown on Japan’s win over Spain before various homemade versions of footballs hovering over bylines were being posted on Twitter. They seem rather nerdy – and some of the footballs look suspiciously like they were shop-bought on Wednesday night – but given many seasoned observers of the game were struggling to understand the basics of physics and perspective, perhaps the home videos and DIY explainers are useful. Here are a selection of them. GB
Ok, yes, we’ve been at it too.
Friday’s final group games also provided a couple of meme-worthy moments. First, here’s Granit Xhaka with an internationally-recognised gesture towards the Serbian bench. Earlier, Edinson Cavani gave the kind of violent takedown of VAR that would have Graeme Souness chuckling malevolently.
Netherlands v USA (Round of 16, 3pm GMT, BBC1)
“If you think it’s boring why don’t you go home?” That was Louis van Gaal’s response to a journalist who suggested the Netherlands, despite easing through as Group A winners, have failed to light the tournament up. Van Gaal is predictably refusing to go quietly, if indeed this does prove to be his last World Cup, and his tactical mind is as sharp as ever. On the pitch Cody Gakpo is scoring goals, while at the other end Virgil van Dijk is marshalling a miserly defence. As England discovered in the group, though, the USA are an accomplished outfit and difficult to break down, while Christian Pulisic should feature despite being injured in the win against Iran. Van Gaal’s last stand? He would be delighted to grind into the last eight, and prolong one of Qatar’s best stories. LMc
Argentina v Australia (Round of 16, 7pm GMT, BBC1)
Lionel Messi performed with devastating intent in the concluding Group C victory against Poland. It was a vintage display of dangerous dribbling and perceptive passing; clearly he has no intention of wasting what should be his last shot at a World Cup. Are Australia intimidated? Not a bit. “He’s just a human, as we all are,” said Socceroos defender Milos Degenek. Messi aside, for all the quality in their squad, the feeling persists that Argentina are vulnerable following their early defeat by Saudi Arabia. Buoyed by progress to the last 16 for the first time since 2006, Australia will be determined and wily opponents. At a World Cup of shocks: why not? LMc
Player to watch
Memphis Depay To British fans, the forward is mostly known for his unsuccessful stay at Manchester United. Whether he failed or the club failed him is open to debate. Now at Barcelona via a spell at Lyon, the 28-year-old is at his peak. He made his first start of the tournament in the Netherlands’ 2-0 win against Qatar and performed well, involved in both goals. Louis van Gaal could be persuaded that Depay can play a major role in the Oranje’s assault on the knockout rounds. “Dream Believe Achieve” is tattooed on Depay’s chest: He has the blueprint to go with talent and experience. A dangerous opponent and a world-class foil to the headline-grabbing Gakpo. LMc
And finally …
You might think a renowned manager such as Luis Enrique – “I am the best coach on the face of the earth” – would be hyperaware when his own nation, Spain, could be in danger of getting booted out of the finals. But no, he says he didn’t have a clue that his team had slipped to third in the as-it-stands table on Thursday evening. “Were we knocked out at some point? … When? Why?” he asked bemused journalists. “You see? Well, fantastic … Of course. I didn’t know. At no point did I find out … [if I had known we were] out three minutes, I would have had a heart attack.” It’s probably for the best Germany mounted a rapid comeback against Costa Rica. GB