By: MATTHEW JENNINGS
When hosts Russia scored five goals to overcome Saudi Arabia in the opening game of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, we knew we would be in for a treat. Suddenly, they find themselves in the quarterfinals of the tournament, while dominant nations such as Spain, Germany, Portugal and Argentina have all bowed out. This gives reason for teams unlucky in the past like England, Brazil, Belgium and Colombia to now dream and live on in hope that their tournament could bear more meaningful fruit.
The group stages were special with many spectacular goals scored, many heartbreaks, excitement and exuberance over underdogs winning games they weren’t meant to win. Germany being undone by Mexico, Egypt and worldwide sensation Mohammed Salah having their first run out in 28 years but winning nothing, Argentina surviving a scare early on, Icelandic hearts with hope and even Iranian players giving European giants Spain and Portugal a run for their money.
However, rather significantly, no African team managed to qualify for the knockouts. Although Senegal seemed set to progress to the Round of 16, a 1-0 loss to Colombia saw them slip from first to third, behind a Japanese outfit that progressed with equal goals scored and points achieved, but progressing on ‘fair play’; the Japanese having received less cards (4) than Senegal (7) up until that point.
Elsewhere amongst the African contingent, Nigeria beat Iceland 2-0 before losing out to a sensational Croatian side by the same score-line, and then falling narrowly to Argentina on the final day to bow out. Tunisia were outclassed by both the English (2-1) and Belgians (5-2), while even Salah’s Egypt didn’t do enough in Group A. Morocco lacked enthusiasm and finished the tournament with two losses and a draw.
After seeing off Denmark and Spain in respective penalty shootout victories, both Russia and Croatia will battle it out in the fourth quarterfinal. Seeing both sides progress this far at a World Cup is very rare and, considering the hosts’ home-ground advantage, they could well stun their home fans and progress even further.
Gareth Southgate’s young English squad as well as Didier Deschamps’ France have what it takes to go even further. England won their only World Cup title in 1966 while France won in Paris in 1998.
Brazil were tournament favorites, and now find themselves in yet another quarterfinal. Although disappointing at times, they’ve done what’s necessary and had what it takes. In the absence of vanquished big names such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the final eight are set to thrill us with even more emotions.