A World Cup’s group stage is a beast on its own. The storylines and drama that develop from that much football in a short period of time make the group stage feel like its own entity. A chaotic mini-season of world-class international football before the tournament really gets serious in the knockout round.
This 2022 iteration of the group stage was the most exciting in recent memory and probably of all time. The nearly two-week adventure concluded with a bang on Friday as Group G finished things off.
Here are some of the winners and losers from those games:
Winners: Asian Nations
There were five teams from the Asian federation represented at this year's World Cup, and three of them moved on to the knockout stage. Australia, South Korea, and Japan all advanced out of their groups in equally impressive fashion. Australia took down Denmark and Tunisia; South Korea beat Ghana and Portugal; and Japan freaking beat Spain and Germany.
The cherry on top is that Iran and Saudia Arabia, who didn’t make it out of the group, both had very impressive results as well. Iran beat Wales to give themselves a chance against the USMNT and Saudia Arabia took down Argentina in one of the biggest World Cup upsets of all time. It’s been an incredibly impressive tournament thus far for AFC nations, the road ahead is tough, but these teams are prepared to surprise.
Losers: Tata Martino and Roberto Martinez
It’s tough to not include the two blokes who literally lost their jobs immediately after the whistles sounded in their respective final matches. In Tata’s case, he probably needed to make a run to the quarterfinals in order to save his job. Mexico historically doesn’t advance past the round of 16, and this time around, it was just made all that much easier for Tata to head out.
In the case of Roberto Martinez, he was headed for the exit almost no matter what. The Belgian setup from the start of this tournament was a strange one from Martinez. Relying so heavily on a washed-up Eden Hazard and reported bickering amidst the team was all it took to push it over the edge. A poor performance at the Euros last year and a group stage exit was more than Martinez’s tenure could handle. A golden era of Belgium football is coming to its conclusion and a third place at the 2018 World Cup is the best they have to show for it.
Winner: The Scheduling Czar
One might argue that a computer somewhere generated the optimal times and matchups for this World Cup, and that would probably be correct. However, I’m going to imagine it’s a very considerate person who wanted people to see as much brilliant football as possible.
Now, I know that the schedule wasn’t great for everyone. If you don’t have a job where a second screen experience is feasible or live on the opposite side of the world, then the matches likely weren’t all that convenient. But for the work-from-home warriors out there, this was perfect.
Speaking from my experience, waking up at the crack of dawn, 5 AM Eastern time, for a week, wasn’t the easiest. But would I rather sip some coffee and watch Saudia Arabia take down Argentina than get an extra hour or two of sleep? You bet I would. Who needs a lunch break when you can watch Japan beat Germany? Each day was packed with football from coffee time till bourbon time.
Losers: UEFA and Concacaf
Belgium, Mexico, Germany, and Denmark are a few of the more traditional footballing powers in the 21st century. At the very least they were all teams that were betting favorites to get out of their groups this year. None of them advanced despite having rosters that, at least on paper, seemed good enough to easily advance. However, whether it was the short time the squads had together before the World Cup began, or footballing parity, what was expected didn’t happen.
In the case of Concacaf, things were much worse. Of the four teams from the federation preparing to host the World Cup in four years, only the USMNT advanced. The three teams combined for only seven points this go around, leading to questions and sackings after quick exits.
The final matchday for about half the groups at this year’s World Cup ended in complete chaos. In particular, Groups H, E, C, and A all had their situations changing by the minute as the matches were winding down. In Group C, Mexico needed to score more goals in the second half than their bodies were willing to give. They gave the performance they hadn’t all tournament long mustering 26 shots to try and give themselves a shot at advancing over Poland on goal differential. In the end, they were just the second team in World Cup history to be eliminated on fair-play points due to having more yellow cards than Poland.
In Group E, there were moments where Spain and Germany were both advancing out of the group, and moments where they were both going to be headed home. A brilliant Japanese performance beating Spain on only 17% of the possession made sure that Germany and Costa Rica were both sent home. In Group H, Uruguay saw themselves got sent packing on a 91st-minute South Korea goal to beat Portugal.
I’m not sure if we’ll ever see that thrilling of a group stage again, But if the knockout stage is half as good as the group stage was, we’re in for an incredible rest of the World Cup.
Winner: Old Men Aiming for Glory
Despite each having an unexpected loss in the group stage, both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are set for decent brackets in their journey to win their first World Cup.
In Argentina’s case, they began their World Cup with a devastating loss to Saudia Arabia. For whatever reason, they needed that kick in the butt because it brought forth two impressive performances against Mexico and Poland as a result. For Portugal and Ronaldo, they’ve looked great in matches they needed to win. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt against Cameroon.
Both Argentina and Portugal’s brackets aren’t filled with typical footballing powerhouses as expected. That’s good news if you think the World Cup will return to a sense of normalcy after a wild group stage. But so far, anything goes, including two legends perhaps falling out much sooner than expected.