Saturday, December 03, 2022

The World's 16 best footballing nations

The Qatar World Cup continues to be an ugly political event that has come to symbolize ugly nationalism, disrespect, inequality, abuse and greed.

But I think this is just a symptom of our world.

In footballing terms the group stages have been interesting. After Brazil sensationally lost to Cameroun (and frankly this is as surprising as Argentina losing to Saudi Arabia or France losing to Tunisia) it is the first tournament since 1994 during which no team has gone through with maximum points (the same happened in 1958 and 1962, so it is not a common occurrence). But more interesting is that this is the first World Cup where all continental federations (except Oceania) are represented with at least one team (CONCACAF 1, CONMEBOL 2, CAF 2, UEFA, 8, AFC 3). 

The eight matches are as follows:

  • Netherlands-USA: The Dutch got through with two victories and one difficult tie to Ecuador, and are surely not as strong as they should be. USA is the only representative from CONCACAF and looked well-organised to defeat Iran and tie England. It will surely be difficult for the Dutch, but I hope they prevail
  • Argentina-Australia: Despite their opening loss to Saudia Arabia Argentina won the group and remain favourites. They are surely huge favourites against Australia. The Asian representatives went through on hard work but winning against two poor sides, Denmark and Tunisia. They were overrun by France and should be on their best to defeat Argentina (but certainly not impossible). I support Argentina wholeheartedly.
  • France-Poland: The defending champions are looking strong, but lost to Tunisia in a match with many substitutes. They are surely favourites against the Poles, who look delighted just to have gone through. That said, no expectations could be Poland's strength as they still have quality players who could hurt France. But I expect France to prevail.
  • England-Senegal: England will underestimate Senegal, that is a given, and I will surely support Senegal, where other players have stepped up in the absence of Sadio Mané. Koulibaly was spectacular against Ecuador and will face English players he knows well. It will be a close match I think, with England as weak favourites.
  • Japan-Croatia: Japan winning the Group of Death is one of the surprises, and Croatia have surely seen that Japan defeated both Germany and Spain, although also that the Japanese do have weaknesses. If Croatia can take advantage of their quick passing then they could hope for a repeat of 2018. Japan I think are slight favourites though.
  • Brazil-South Corea: The Corean victory against Portugal means that they prevented us from a repeat of the "Maracanazo" classic between Brazil and Uruguay. Don't mind that though. Corea and in particular their fans are the best side through. Brazil are enormous favourites, but the Coreans do and should not fear anybody, and could cause a sensation!
  • Morocco-Spain: This is probably the clash I look most forward to. Neighbouring countries; the African upstart with a great team and confidence, against the European giants with some truly fantastic players. It has all the ingredients to be a fantastic match!
  • Portugal-Switzerland: The Portuguese went through on first place with two wins and one loss, but appear not to have been tested yet. Switzerland will surely be a test. They showed their quality already in last year's Euro when eliminating France in an extraordinary match, and in this tournament have shown themselves solid in the back, but also strong in attack when it counted against Serbia. This match could go to either side!

Uruguay will not be missed (sad but true)

Let me start by making one thing clear: I have been to Uruguay a few times, and love the country and the people. That I am happy they were eliminated in a tournament where men kick a ball around, has nothing to do with that.

I was looking forward to Ghana-Uruguay. I supported Ghana, surely, I have lived there, and I lived through with passion and admiration the famous 2010 quarterfinal. In the end Uruguay went through, although it was in a way that was not elegant and surely without the justice that Ghana had deserved. But the Ghanaians in 2010 went out with dignity. 

Yesterday Germany's manager was asked if he was angry that they had been eliminated by a bad VAR call (Japan's second goal), and Flick correctly said that Germany had been eliminated by their own lack of results. Germany this year also went out with dignity.

But going out with dignity is not something that the Uruguayans have shown today. Quite on the contrary, they are accusing VAR, FIFA, world conspiracies and the Universe for their elimination after their 2-0 victory over Ghana, which was simply not enough to go through as Portugal lost 1-2 to South Corea.

Get over yourself Uruguayan football: bad referee calls are a normal thing that has always existed in football, and sometimes they have gone with Uruguay, and sometimes against Uruguay. 

Just like they do for any side. There is no grand conspiracy against Uruguay. Uruguay were just not good enough: they should have attacked against South Corea and been more efficient against Portugal. And that is why Uruguay got eliminated, and fortunately so, because it is simply not nice to see such sore losers with lack of dignity in the tournament.

Thanks to Ghana for a great tournament, and congratulations to Portugal and South Corea!

Friday, December 02, 2022

German debacle and Japanese triumph

 The Group of Death ended almost as a heart attack. All teams had a chance to go through and all teams were through and out at different times during the matches Costa Rica-Germany and Japan-Spain.

Costa Rica were not given many chances after their opening match 0-7 humiliation to Spain. But after a surprising win over Japan, they had every chance of going through if they defeated Germany. Germany in the meantime only had to win, having only lost and tied to Japan and Spain respectively. Things were going according to plan when Serge Gnabry scored after 10 minutes, but despite dominating, Germany were simply unable to get another goal, and halfway into second half the Costa Ricans looked at a possible sensation when Yeltsin Tejeda equalized and then went ahead when Manuel Neuer scored one of the strangest own-goals of the tournament. Germany pressed on and in the end managed to win 4-2 with two Kai Havertz goals and one by Niclas Fullkrug.

But in the end Germany, the former footballing giants, were out in the first round nevertheless, for the second time in a row, and only the third time since 1938....

Germany only had themselves to blame, but at the same time they were not fortunate with the result of the other match where Japan defeated Spain against all odds.

It was a boring match in the first half. Spain went ahead on a goal by Alvaro Morata, and were passing the ball around comfortably against a Japanese side that appeared to have nothing to offer. Luis Enrique apparently saw not reason to change anything, but Japan certainly did and the manager put in Kaoru Mitoma to put more pressure in midfield and Ritso Doan, who had scored the equalizer against Germany when coming. And it took only three minutes before the Freiburg striker capitalized on a high pressure on the Spanish defense and equalized for Japan.

The Spaniards appeared a bit shocked about the equalizer (which shows most of all a degree of arrogant conformity) and as Japan continued pressing they got the lead through Ao Tanaka.

Now, this was a controversial goal that no VAR technology can take away: the ball appears to have crossed the touchline as Kaoru Mitoma made the pass to Tanaka. I think it crossed, but lengthy VAR check found that it had not crossed the line. Although I still think it crossed the line, I must admit that different pictures from different angles may show different things...

I don't think technology is always right, and this is certainly one of those calls which are hard to decide.

But the goal stood, and Japan was ahead. 

It was here that Luis Enrique's reply appeared weak. Japan, as was to be expected, stood back and fought hard. But Spain continued passing the ball, relatively slow and without the quick explosions that are often necessary to open a defense. This was surely disappointing because Spain have some fantastic players, but appears to lack explosion and creativity when it came to come back against a team they should defeat.

Japan will face Croatia in a match that could go to both sides, while Spain will face Morocco in a match where Spain has to be much better than they were today.

Morocco repeating history

In 1986 Morocco were the first African team that were group winners in a World Cup. They won the group ahead of three European nations (England, Poland and Portugal). Although Morocco were eliminated by a rather disgusting and foul West German side in the last-16, they were pioneers of the era when African teams were to be reckoned with (Cameroun and Algeria had already warned about this in 1982). 

That is why it is so great that Morocco has again won a World Cup group, and again ahead of two European powerhouses, Croatia and Belgium; the latter ranked number 2 in the world, and surely never expected to be out to Morocco! 

All Morocco needed in their last match was to defeat the already-eliminated Canadians to win the group, and 25 minutes into the match were already ahead 2-0 on goals by the great Hakim Ziyech and Sevilla's Youssef En-Nesyri. Although they did suffer after an own-goal by  Nayef Aguerd, the score held (with a bit of luck), and as Croatia tied the hapless Belgians (surely the end of the golden generation), Morocco were group winners and a delight for Africa and the world!

Morocco will face Spain in what will be a clash to look forward to. Not only neighboring countries with close relations, but also many Moroccan players who play in Spain and know Spain well, such as PSG's Achraf Hakimi (born in Madrid and came through Real Madrid's youth academy), Sevilla's goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, or Osasuna's Abde Ezzalzouli (who has come through Barcelona's youth). 

Spain are surely favourites, but Morocco has shown that they are a strong and competitive side that does well against European sides that underestimate them. Spain would be wrong to underestimate a team that seems to be riding on a wave!

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Argentina group winners

Most people had written off Argentina after their opening defeat to Saudi Arabia. Including myself. But Argentina rose to the occasion, first defeating Mexico 2-0 and now Poland 2-0 on two goals by Alexis MacAllister and Julian Alvarez. Poland were a big disappointment, except for the great Wojciech  Szczesny, who in the first half saved a completely inexistant penalty from Messi (amazing that you can justify a wrong call with VAR).

So Argentina win the group ahead of Poland, who just squeezed through ahead of Mexico on goal difference. It was a pity for Saudi Arabia that they did not go through after defeating Argentina, but it does seem that it was indeed a one-off. Tata Martino's Mexico were impossible to like, so in the end Poland were the best team to go through in what in the end was a relatively easy group for Argentina.

Argentina will enter the knock-out stages with two victories and a defeat. The same as France (who lost to Tunisia), and despite their opening match defeat to Saudi Arabia continue to be a candidate for the title. They have weaknesses in defense and will have to play well to defeat a well-organised and hard-fighting Australia.

But I am delighted to have been proven wrong (so far) about Argentina!