After group stages, a change of guard in football
Football is not described as ‘the Beautiful game’ for nothing. In Qatar, it has thrown up everything that is beautiful about the game – drama, shocks, suspense, surprises, tears (of joy and of defeat) and football of every hue, from the good to the ugly. The only thing missing from Qatar 2022 is a dull moment!
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I am thoroughly enjoying the championship even though it is the downloaded version on the big screens of the Sports Lounge, in Panseke, Abeokuta, shown every day since the championship began. The African teams, mostly, are on my mind.
Tunisia have left for home already at the end of their group matches, but not without the scalp of the defending World Champions, France, whom they defeated 1-0 in a massive upset in their very last match.
Senegal are the first African country to qualify for the knockout stage playing some free-flowing, undiluted, fast-and-furious attacking football typical of West African countries. They are continuing with a great legacy – getting to the quarter-finals in 2002, and being eliminated at the Group Stage in 2018 only by default, with a newly introduced ‘fair-play’ rule. They were tied with Japan on points, goals aggregate, head-to-head and the eventual qualifier was the team that committed the lesser number of fouls during the first round.
Senegal now seem to know how to play better at this level. With a little bit of luck, and with the depth of talent in the squad, they may go deep into the final stages of Qatar 2022.
Morocco are the second African country, after Senegal, to qualify for the group of 16. They led their group with well-deserved victories over Belgium, the second-highest-ranked team in the Championship, and Canada. They are the one African country to have invested the most in infrastructural development and domestic technical programmes. The Atlas Lions are playing with passion, grit and a level of tactical discipline that is not very common in African football. They will be a hard nut to crack for every team that plays them.
Ghana are probably the ‘weakest’ African team at Qatar 2022, yet they have played well and beyond pre-championship expectations. The sad part is that every time they play serves as a reminder to Nigerians how much ‘the Giant of Africa’ laments their failure to qualify for Qatar 2022 when they had the golden opportunity to do so against a ‘weak’ Ghana at the final hurdle. The Black Stars’ performance has grown in Qatar and has become the barometer to measure how the Super Eagles might have fared had they qualified.
This ‘weak’ Ghana beat South Korea, narrowly lost to Portugal in two thrilling matches decorated with plenty of goals, and, now have only to defeat a Uruguayan side without ‘bite’ upfront to become the third African team into the knock-stages. By the time you are reading this, that match would have been played and the Black Stars may have brought some additional fresh West African football air to the World Cup.
Cameroon epitomise the uniqueness of true-African football – supreme-athletes playing football, running endlessly to cover every inch of grass, chasing after every ball, dribbling with the ball and, at the end of every match, leaving the last drop of their sweat on the lush green turf of a football ground. All opposing teams would feel the brunt of the hard tackles and physicality of the Indomitable Lions.
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The Lions have done well in Qatar, particularly coming from the ‘dead’ at 3-1 against Serbia to equalise and create the opportunity to face Brazil in another promising thriller. They have to win this match to get to the next stage. With the Cameroons, ‘impossible’ does not exist. So, Brazil should beware.
So far, the African teams have been great ambassadors for African players and for ‘the beautiful game in Africa.
By the time I am writing this, Ghana and Cameroon have not played their matches against Uruguay and Brazil, respectively. By the time, you are reading this, both matches would have been played and both African countries would have played against massive odds, and lost or won.
If I was a pundit, this is the perfect time to put my money on one of the two teams achieving the seemingly impossible by defeating either Brazil or Uruguay and adding to the incredible drama of Qatar 2022. Like the Africans, some Asian countries have also performed wonders in Qatar. Saudi Arabia started the avalanche by defeating Argentina with the world’s greatest player, Lionel Messi, in an over-loaded-with-talent Argentine squad. Argentina did not know what hit them. The Saudis celebrated that first victory so much that they temporarily ‘forgot’ there were other matches to be played. In subsequent matches, they could not replicate their extraordinary display against one of the favourites of Qatar 2022.
Japan are different. They have done the unthinkable by defeating both Germany and Spain, topping their group. It is this Asian team that looks the most improved in the entire championship. They are playing a very highly technical and mobile game, and are now a dark horse to win the championship. Such a victory will mark the entry of Asia into the exclusive club of World Cup winners in an anticipated new world order after Qatar 2022.
Renowned international sports consultant and business expert, Idy Uyoe, captures it nicely when he says that the FIFA World Cup of 2022 is a microcosm of the state of the world. He points out current dynamics in world affairs where Africans and Asians are leading contributors to scholarship, academics and research in various fields – engineering, medicine, science and technology, and so on. Qatar 2022 is a microcosm, he says, of those new vistas in an anticipated new world order in football arising from the debris of Qatar 2022.
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When the next FIFA World Cup, to be hosted jointly by the USA, Canada and Mexico in 2026, comes around, Africa will be ready. They will surely have a place on the table as a potential winner and not as mere cannon fodder. As one continues to look closer at the ongoing drama in Qatar, one can see the floundering, faltering, vulnerable and beatable giants, Argentina, Germany, Spain, Belgium, France. Some have been sent packing. Even England and France have not looked comfortable enough. Not look like the giants they are on paper. Of the South American countries, only Brazil have maintained their place as the team to beat in the entire championship.
Argentina, with Messi, have surely improved in their performances after their shaky start against Saudi Arabia, but they can only get to the finish line, it seems, if Messi finds his best form and the team manages their very suspect defence a little better. From 1930 to date, only two continents have monopolised and dominated winning the World Cup. They have also shared the spoils of their success amongst only 8 countries between them, leaving the other continents to wonder where, when and how they would ever get to be counted as a winner.
From Qatar 2022, the old order of things may already be changing. Even Costa Rica gave all-mighty Germany a genuine scare in their last match. The utterly unthinkable was going to happen until the Germans woke up from their nap. The gap between the continents, in playing styles and standards, is decreasing fast, with Asia and Africa taking different routes to catch up. Asia is heavily investing in infrastructure and technical programmes in some of the various countries, whilst Africa has opened up its floodgates even wider for an endless stream of migrating players to Europe. Both routes appear to be yielding some dividends.
Finally, it seems that the bridge between football in the continents is narrowing faster than is previously assumed. The second stanza of Qatar 2022 will confirm that or not.