Commentary

World Cup 2022 Round of 16: Great goals, poor penalties, and FIFA's loneliest man


After all the tightness of the final group games, the round of 16 felt liberated from dependence on the outcome of matches being played elsewhere. And yet, they offered nothing like the excitement. The knockout games were divided into two camps quasi-exhibition games where one side ended up romping away with the ticket to the next round, and hard-fought slogs that were long on tension but very low on decent soccer. What the games lacked overall in sporting entertainment, though, they made up for in terms of several goals of extraordinary quality.

England, France, Brazil and Portugal re-established the old European/South American order with dominant performances featuring some magnificent team play. Kylian Mbappé (photo) suggested that if you're going to stop France, you'll have to stop him first. England suggested that they they are now regular contenders for major titles, and not a team that serially fails to live up to its fans' expectations. Brazil doesn't exactly look invincible, but they have the swagger of a country that knows how to go all the way. And Portugal confirmed what many of their fans have always suspected — that they are a far more potent force when their egotistical distraction is relegated to the bench.

Argentina made hard work of beating a dogged Australian team on one of the few games that set up an exciting finish (or, at least, one that wasn't a penalty shootout). Their players confessed that they all work for Lionel, who put in another fine 90 minutes. What happens to this team, though, when Messi's neutralized? We know the answer to that — see the 2014 World Cup final. The U.S. allowed the efficient Dutch the kind of space in front of goal that I regularly chew my U-14 team out for. For God's sake, don't let them shoot from there!

And finally, the penalty kicks. Spain and Japan, what on earth were you thinking? What on earth did you practice? Look, I've only got the German federation coaching C-License, but for the next tournament here are a couple of tips. Take a proper run-up, not a totter or a stroll. Hit the ball hard and high and into the top corners. Either top corner will do. It's actually simple, if that's your profession. You're welcome.

In the meantime, congratulations to Morocco for being only the fourth African (and the first Arab) team to make it into the quarterfinal, and to Croatia for an incredible and highly admirable streak in being a small (population less than 4 million) and modest (ranked 35th in terms of wealth) nation that punches way above its weight to make deep progress in World Cups. Scotland, take notes.

It's OK to smile

There was a nice moment during the Spain-Morocco game when Spanish coach Luis Enrique and Moroccan right back Achraf Hakimi smiled and embraced on the touchline. The German TV announcer made a big thing out of it, and it was certainly nice to see a moment of humanity amongst all the rugged play and dead-eyed intensity. To see participants smile when it wasn't either a goal or an ironic facial expression directed at an opponent or the referee. It would be lovely to see that more than once or twice a tournament.

Meanwhile, debate has raged (mainly in the head of former Ireland captain and latter-day UK television pundit Roy Keane) about the Brazilians disrespecting their opponents by dancing after every goal. There are two schools of thought about goal celebrations. One dates from before the Second World War, and believes that players should at most offer each other a firm handshake while jogging back to the halfway line for the re-start. The other believes that setting aside two minutes for an elaborate and well-choreographed dance routine is all part of soccer's wondrous fabric. Let Brazil bring a little joy into the sad and color-free world of the chip-scoffing consumer lollygagging at home on the couch. Choose a camp, NOW, because this is a serious issue.

One aspect of ill-sporting conduct that's genuinely irked me over the past two and a half weeks is the pandemic of finger-wagging. Player A fouls Player B, the referee correctly blows for the foul, then Player A wags his finger at the referee to indicate that their decision was 100 percent wrong. Then we see a slow-motion replay usually proving that the referee was 100 percent correct. I'd like to see a statutory yellow-card for every righteous digit-wagging hatchet man trying to convince the world that he's the cleanest guy on the field. It's like they hadn't noticed that nowadays every game is covered by 40 different camera angles.

The loneliest man in soccer

Inexplicably, we are being treated to a TV shot of the same spectator before every game. There he sits, alone in a padded chair with a small screen denoting that this man is the FIFA President, Gianni Infantino. This shot is reportedly not shown on the stadium jumbotrons for fear that it will provoke a round of cacophonous jeers (as if!). His predecessor, Sepp Blatter, could also be relied upon to get the crowd going, and not in a good way. But he always managed to make it look like he was having a good time, blithely shaking hands and joking away with whatever state official had drawn the short straw of a seat next to the intellectually dim, unpopular but somehow powerful functionary.

Infantino, by contrast, looks like he came to the party to discover that he no longer has any mates. So he sits down defiantly and adopts an expression of sour and haughty arrogance, with the air of the untouchable mobster boss. Go on, boo me all you like, but I'm the head of FIFA. I could make sure we hold a World Cup in Qatar every winter, if I talk to the right people. Oh, so the Swiss authorities are still involved in a criminal investigation with my name at the top of the page? Well, I live in Qatar-by-the-Sea now  so they can't get me anyway. Plus, remember what I said in my brilliant pre-tournament speech,  I am a migrant worker too. I'm the victim here. Little Gianni, who showed those kids who called me names for having freckles and red hair just how far you can come if you've got the dirt on Michel Platini.

Everything's brilliant!

Plus, Infantino's doing a brilliant job. I know this because the FIFA press office sends me emails to keep me up to speed on what a fantastic tournament this is. Here we go:
"In a tournament of firsts, the first FIFA World Cup in the Middle East and Arab world sees International Volunteer Day fall for the first time ever on a match day this December 5th. The rare occasion provides fans and Qatar 2022 organizers the opportunity to pause and recognize the immeasurable contribution of the 20,000 volunteers who support in delivering the greatest show on earth." (Volunteers are great. Some of those ungrateful migrant workers demanding their unpaid back wages should think about putting something back into the game and the greatest show on earth by becoming volunteers instead.)

"The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 will be backed by a full quota of FIFA Partners, FIFA World Cup Sponsors and Regional Supporters after FIFA sold out all sponsorship tiers and inventory for the football extravaganza. The collaborations span multiple sectors and cover rights packages that range from extensive brand and digital exposure and association through to bespoke offerings designed for specific fan and customer engagement initiatives." (This is amazing news. As a soccer fan — or engaged customer — I've been waiting for over 50 years now for bespoke offerings. They are exactly what the game needs. I can't wait for the next time I make it to a Lincoln City game in England's third tier to see what bespoke offerings are available. Note: if you're having to ask what bespoke offerings actually are, then modern soccer's not for you, I'm afraid.)   

"Dreamers, an inspirational song by Jung Kook of 21st century pop icons BTS, today becomes the latest FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Official Soundtrack release, stoking excitement for the big kick-off. The new single heralds the arrival in Qatar of football’s greatest global festival, fulfilling the dreams of fans across a region that is hosting the FIFA World Cup for the very first time. With Qatar delivering on its long-held promise to be ready to welcome the world, the song celebrates those who boldly follow their goals and dare to dream." (Ready to welcome the world! As long as you're not a homosexual who's "damaged in the mind." As long as you don't believe in women, life and freedom. So don't follow your goals and dare to dream too much. Ask us first, and we'll let you know all about FIFA-approved dreams. To save you time, though, it's mainly making cash by any means, legal or illegal. Unless you're a migrant worker who dreams of joining a union and getting paid for a 12-hour shift in the sun. Then you can just dream on.)
 
Quarterfinal forecasts
Croatia 0 Brazil 1
Netherlands 0 Argentina 0 (Argentina win on PKs)
Morocco 0 Portugal 3
England 2 France 3 (OT)


All proceeds from this column will be donated to Human Rights Watch (HRW). You can read the latest HRW reports on Qatar HERE.
2 comments about "World Cup 2022 Round of 16: Great goals, poor penalties, and FIFA's loneliest man".
  1. R2 Dad, December 9, 2022 at 4:38 a.m.

    An entire column could be written about how terrible a PK taker Messi has become. If ARG does go to penalties the Messi screenplay writes itself. Nice observations so far, Ian!

  2. R2 Dad, December 10, 2022 at 2:42 p.m.

    Watching ENG-FRA, and the center is not giving cards for professional fouls (fouls to stop the counterattack from developing, usually right after the attakers have lost the ball). This will lead to loss of match control and the perception of equal implementation of the LOTG. Coming on the heels of the ARG-NDL officiating disaster (14 yellow cards), this does not bode well going forward. 

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