Now To The Knockouts


So the first round, always the best round of any World Cup, is now over.

And it was quite good, wasn't it?

Now To The Knockouts.
The ball was in, whatever the naked eye thought

For all the negativity surrounding this venue, on field the football has kept us all entertained.

The opener - Qatar v Ecuador, was a bit of a downer as it became evident the hosts were not up to scratch and many spectators left the stadium before the final whistle (a crime against football I have never committed).

But that has not lasted long in the memory as there has been plenty of top-drawer action since - Japan's double over Germany & Spain, Saudia Arabia's extraordinary win over Argentina, Indian summers from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, roars from Brazil, England, France and Spain, a heroic failure from Canada, a last-gasp qualification from South Korea and near miss by Mexico, a group win by Morocco and unexpected advances by Australia and the USA.

Iran missed the cut but revelled in their 2-0 win over Wales. Their game against the USA in Al Thumama brought back fond memories for me of being there when the pair met in Lyon in 1998 - all the fans made friends, the players posed together pre-match and Iran won an exciting clash 2-1 with breakaway goals, to the noise of anti-government protests throughout the match from impassioned expats - a match about more than football.

This time the USA won 1-0 courtesy of Christian Pulisic, a skilful player at a top club the like of which the US did not have in 1998. The American fan base has changed too thanks to MLS' growth. In '98 they sang nothing more bellicose than the hymn-like 'God Bless America'.

Since then I have kept an eye on Iran and wanted them to do well. I thought they were really unlucky in 2018 but they seemed to have regressed since then. 

The World Cup does need an underdog story every four years, even if the minnows do not get further than the last four - think Costa Rica in 2014, Poland in 1982, Sweden in 1994 or Turkey and South Korea in 2002.

Ghana donned that cape in 2010 before being beaten by the hand of Suarez. Uruguay beat them again yesterday but judging by Edinson Cavani's right-hook of the VAR monitor yesterday and Suarez's tears, there was some divine justice in the stadium.

Senegal march on for Africa having outgunned Ecuador in their final group game. England appear too strong for them but an upset is not out of the question. The Three Lions and the Lions of Teranga will roar on Sunday.

If not Senegal as the people's champion, then perhaps Morocco? It would be great for world football if they could go on a run.

The last 16 roll of honour is more proof of the global spread of soccer. When I interviewed Simon Kuper a few years ago my eyebrows raised when he identified Japan as a future World Cup winner. Now he looks to have been most prescient.

Thursday the 1st of December was a night of high drama where Japan beat Spain, and thereby eliminated Germany. For a quarter of an hour, Spain were on their way out too. 

Looking at the final 16, half are European teams, two are African, two South American, two Asian, one North American and one from Oceania. It is truly the world's game, albeit still with a strong European flavour.

Japan's goal-line curvature debate was a ripe talking point, while the first female referees acquitted themselves swimmingly, exploding any prejudices in the process. VAR was a little inconsistent, as always, but did not ruin any match.

The standard of play in general was high in the first round, with half a dozen sides impressing, although Belgium, Denmark, Qatar and Wales equally disappointed. 

Germany's first-round exit was not a huge story as they did the same in 2018, but for Europe's most successful national team to fall twice at the first hurdle really is a big one. When they won the World Cup in 1990 and 2014 they looked pretty invincible. Now they are getting beat by Asian nations.

The German press predictably blamed the curvature of the ball in the Japan match and Spain's failure to beat Samurai Blue, as well as Hansi Flick, the DFB and the players.

The 'round of 32' is now over and sudden death ensues. Next World Cup it will be 48 groups of fans and even more games to experience together. That is what the tournament should do, bring us all together in friendship.

I'm checking flights to Canada, Mexico and the US already.

Qatar 2022

Al Rihla Official Ball

Cristiano Ronaldo Dropped

Qatar 50/50

Qatar v Ecuador - Opening Match

Qatar is the World's Cup

Quarter Finals

Hotels in Doha

Images of Qatar

Offside Technology

Opening Ceremony

Semi Finals

The Calling

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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