Football (or soccer as us Americans call it) is unequivocally the most beloved sport in the world. It is estimated that soccer has about 3.5 billion fans across the globe, an astonishing 45% of the world’s population. Especially in Europe, South America, Central America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, football is more than a sport. It is a way of life, it is religion, it is spiritual. Fans live and die with every second of every game. They travel as far as it takes, and spend as much money as it takes to see their favorite players in person. At these games, continual chants and songs echo around the stadium for 90 minutes. Upon the final whistle, there is either total jubilation, or total heartbreak for every fan in the stadium. We love sports in the U.S., but our fans can not even come close to football fans around the world. Countries have fought wars over lost games, and players who have missed key shots have gone missing upon return to their home country. All is fair in love and football. Here in the United States, we do have some die hard “soccer” fans, but most of us only participate once every four years. We do this so we can be a part of the greatest sporting event in the world, the World Cup.
The World Cup is beyond special. Starting in 1930 and taking place every four years (skipping two for WWII), there have been 21 previous world cups. Only 8 nations have brought the trophy back to their home country, with those being Brazil (5 wins), Germany and Italy (4 wins), Argentina, France and Uruguay (2 wins), and England and Spain (1 win). In the World Cup, one goal has the potential to make a player a national hero, or a national disgrace. Fans travel from all over the world to the host nation in order to watch their team play. This year, the Cup is taking place in Qatar. Stadiums of 80,000 plus fans cheer on the players, with millions more watching at home. Fifa has projected that this year, 5 billion people will have tuned in to watch the world cup by the final. That is well over half of Earth’s population. This tournament is a big deal, and it has not disappointed in the slightest.
The format of the World Cup starts well before the tournament begins in qualifying rounds. FIFA (The International Federation of Association Football) is the governing body for the tournament, and it has six regional confederations. Each confederation conducts qualifying, and the 31 teams that make it through combine with the host nation to make up the field of 32 teams. They are then randomly split into 8 groups of 4. In each group of four, all potential matchups are played with 3 points being awarded for a win, and 1 point for a draw. The top two teams from each group based on points advance from the group stage, with ties being broken using goal differential (goals scored – goals against). After the group stage, the 16 teams are organized into a bracket and play single elimination games until a champion is crowned.
The group stage was a whirlwind with 48 games being played over a 12 day period. Out of Group A, the Netherlands cruised through two wins and a draw to win the group. Senegal then managed a victory over Ecuador to advance over them and the host nation, Qatar. Group B was a highlight for American fans, as the United States team fought the European powerhouse, England, managing a draw. They then beat Iran 1-0 in a thrilling game allowing them to advance with England out of the group stage. In group C, after a first round loss to Saudi Arabia, Argentina and Lionel Messi (in his last world cup) battled back with two victories to win the group. Poland won a tie break over Mexico to advance with them. In Group D the defending champions from 2018, France, and Australia both had two victories on their way to advancing. Group E saw the fall of Germany, another one of the favorites to win the whole tournament, when they lost to Japan. Japan and Spain advanced. In group F, underdog Morocco went undefeated advancing alongside 2018’s runner up, Croatia. In group G Brazil and Switzerland cruised through to advance. And lastly, in group H, Uruguay was sent packing as an unknown South Korean team conquered Portugal in their final game to edge out Uruguay. Portugal and Christiano Ronaldo (in his last world cup), also advanced. Only 16 teams remained.
Starting off the round of 16 the United States faced off against the disciplined European powerhouse of the Netherlands. The Dutch took advantage of U.S. mistakes scoring 3 goals knocking the U.S. out of the tournament. The inexperience of the United States shined through as the Dutch strategy left Americans struggling to score. Later that afternoon, Argentina advanced by beating Australia, although it was a closer game than many expected with the final score of 2-1. Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players of all time, scored his first career goal in the knockout stage of a World Cup. The next day France cruised to a victory over Poland, and England trounced Senegal 3-0. Croatia then played Japan in a 1-1 thriller, with Croatia prevailing in penalty kicks. Brazil beat South Korea 4-1. On the final day of the round of 16, Morocco shocked the world by holding Spain to 0 goals and forcing penalties. The Moroccan keeper then saved 3 penalties in a row, allowing Morocco to advance to the quarter finals. That afternoon, Portugal benched their superstar in Ronaldo to start a younger Goncalo Ramos. He scored a hat trick en route to a 6-1 victory over Switzerland.
The first two rounds of the tournament were exciting, but the quarterfinals brought it to another level. Friday, December 9th was a remarkable day of games, with Croatia playing favorite Brazil, and the Netherlands facing off against Argentina. Both games ended in penalty kicks, and fans across the world were on the edge of their seats. After 90 minutes ended at 0-0 for Brazil and Croatia, two 15 minute periods of extra time followed. Brazilian superstar, Neymar, scored in the 106th minute to take the lead for Brazil. It seemed that the Brazilian players and fans in the stadium believed the game was over, and Brazil lost focus. Croatia then took them by surprise, scoring in the 117th minute to force penalties. Croatia scored the first 4, as Brazil missed 2 sending them home. The favorites and seemingly invincible team was beaten by a resilient Croatia. That game would’ve been enough, but Argentina and The Netherlands decided to play just as exciting of a game. Messi’s penalty in the 73rd minute put Argentina up 2-0 with minimal time remaining. The Dutch closed the gap to 1 in the 83rd minute before scoring on a free kick in the 11th minute of stoppage time to tie the game. The stadium was left stunned as the Dutch fans and players celebrated. After 30 minutes of scoreless extra time, penalties ensued. The Argentinian keeper saved the first two penalties, and Argentina scored 4 out of their 5, sending the Dutch home. Even if you weren’t a fan of either team, it was impossible not to be invested. The next day the final two quarterfinal games were played with Morocco continuing their Cinderella run, toppling Portugal 1-0. The World Cup career of Christiano Ronaldo, one of the greatest players in history, was ended by the Moroccan underdogs. Although he only played the last 40 minutes of the game, he had a chance late to score an equalizing goal and further etch himself into the history books. This breakaway chance was stopped by the Moroccan keeper, as the curtain fell over the nation of Portugal. The stage was then set for the final game of the quarterfinals, two European giants, England and France. France scored an early goal before England fought back with many chances before star, Harry Kane, scored an equalizing penalty. England was dominating the game, but France scored a go ahead goal in the 78th minute. Only 3 minutes later, France gave up a penalty and Harry Kane found himself at the spot yet again, with the weight of England on his shoulders. The world held its breath as the reliable forward approached the ball. His attempt missed the goal high as the ball sailed into the stands. England lost the game 2-1, and their hopes of a World Cup were yet again dashed. The semi finals were official: Croatia vs. Argentina, and France vs. Morocco.
Leo is in 12th grade at San Marcos High School…