The group stage of the World Cup is over with a blizzard of yellow cards in the final two matches and some great drama, as always. Christian Pulisic gave the U.S. men’s team an iconic moment by scoring a game-winning goal and apparently will still be able to have children in the future if he so desires. I saw two Iranian films and started reading a beautifully illustrated copy of the Shahnameh to prepare for the Iran match. (I also saw an Argentinian film on the day Argentina played and a movie about a Senegalese woman on the day Senegal qualified, which I think is just a function of this World Cup happening at the same time as awards season for film critics.) The knockout stages are set for tomorrow morning, so let’s get in some questions before that.
Will Pulisic be able to play tomorrow?
As I write this, the Chelsea man was medically cleared to play against Netherlands despite a “pelvic contusion,” which OW OW OW OW OW!!! He said he wasn’t kneed in the testicles, though it sure did look like it at the time. (There was no malicious intent on the part of Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, who was trying to reach Pulisic’s shot and couldn’t stop his momentum from carrying him into the player.) It remains to be seen if he starts or comes off the bench, since Brenden Aaronson can easily deputize for him in that position if need be. If you’re his teammate, how can you not be inspired by Pulisic’s willingness to lay himself out for his team’s survival?
How fine were the margins of USA’s qualification?
Finer than the guy that The Chiffons sang about. (Sheesh, that cultural reference is a decade older than I am.) If Walker Zimmerman doesn’t have his brain fart at the end of the Wales game, or if the VAR officials look at Tim Weah’s disallowed goal in the Iran match, then our fans aren’t sweating out the last minutes of the group stage. By the same token, if Harry Kane buries his stoppage-time free header in the England match, or if Morteza Pouraliganji does the same for Iran, then we’re all commiserating right now over a different blog post. Plenty of other teams survived by the skin of their teeth as well, and nerve-frying experiences are nothing new for USA fans.
What has been the fallout from Iran’s elimination?
It made some Iranians happy, ironically enough. Citizens of that country who don’t care for their theocratic government had reason to celebrate USA’s win, and Amnesty International reports of at least one man (a friend of Iran player Saeid Ezatolahi) who was killed by the police for doing just that. It’s a perverse sort of comfort to see another country that’s even closer to tearing itself apart than ours is.
What can we expect from the Dutch?
The best central defensive pairing in the whole tournament. Matthijs de Ligt is excellent, and Virgil van Dijk is a blend of size, power, skill, and reading of the game that can stabilize an entire backline, as he did when he joined Liverpool. Should something happen to one of them, Nathan Aké is an awfully good backup. At fullback, Daley Blind remains steady and reliable on the left while Denzel Dumfries marauds down the right. Frenkie de Jong can pick up the ball in midfield and drive the ball down a defense’s gut, and Memphis Depay is a winger who can open up a backline.
Do we have a chance?
Yes! I mentioned earlier that the Dutch don’t have a dominant goal-scorer. Tall winger Cody Gakpo has been putting the goals in for De Oranje, but the youngster has never been in form like this before, and there’s a decent chance that he’s just riding a hot streak that’s destined to cool off. The Dutch are so bad at striker that they’re giving meaningful minutes to Vincent Janssen. Not good! Andries Noppert is 21 and starting in the Dutch goal, and there’s no telling how World Cup pressure will affect such a young player. The midfield duo of Steven Berghuis and Davy Klaasen isn’t the most imaginative or willing to run, and only de Jong’s presence prevents this from being a total mismatch against USA’s all-action midfield. And recent news reports say that the flu is spreading through the Dutch camp, too. Of the established superpower nations in this sport, you’d rather face the Dutch right now.
Will we see Gio Reyna and Jesús Ferreira?
Only Coach Gregg Berhalter knows for sure. Reyna has only seen spot duty in the Wales and England matches and Ferreira has remained planted on the bench. The FC Dallas striker may be unproven at this level, but he can’t possibly offer less than Haji Wright has done. As for Reyna, it sure would be a shame if Team USA were to go out with such an offensive talent still in their pocket. The qualification from the group stage has blunted Berhalter’s critics, but he’s relying on Shaq Moore to close out games for reasons that pass my understanding. Let’s hope to see DeAndre Yedlin at right back at the end of the Netherlands game, no matter how it’s going for USA.
Who are the losers of the group stage?
Any tournament where Germany doesn’t survive the initial rounds is a bad one for them, and their elimination feels like a “back to the drawing board” moment for them. Romelu Lukaku will take the blame for Belgium going out after he missed a bunch of chances that my dead grandpa could have converted against Croatia. Really, though, the Red Devils seem past done with each other and with Coach Roberto Martínez, who resigned immediately after they went out. Mexico was within one goal of qualification against the Saudis, but they couldn’t manage the three-goal win that they needed to survive despite creating numerous chances at 2-0 up. They’re co-hosting the next World Cup, and there’ll be questions hanging over them until 2026. The same goes for Canada, which melted on the world stage as all their strengths in North American qualifying (airtight defense, judicious scoring, and wise coaching decisions) fell apart in the spotlight. Cyle Larin trash-talked Team USA this past spring and then failed to score at this tournament, so let’s all laugh at him, as well as at the series of errors that gifted Morocco their first goal. The Canucks hadn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1986, but Wales hadn’t been there since 1958, and their draw against USA was the highlight of their campaign. Their fans waited 64 years for this?
Who are the winners of the group stage?
Asia and Africa. African teams had never won more than four matches in any previous World Cup, and this year their five representatives won seven. Cameroon has been eliminated, but Vincent Aboubakar’s stoppage-time winner over Brazil is something their fans will be talking about for the next 20 years. (It doesn’t matter that Brazil were playing their second-stringers. Beating Brazil at the World Cup is always a big deal.) Tunisia also beat France in similar circumstances, which will delight fans in the former French colony. Senegal made the round of 16 after a win over a weirdly passive Ecuador, and Morocco emerged as winners of a tough group. Few fans outside Japan expected them to finish ahead of Spain and Germany while beating both teams, but the Blue Samurai managed it. Hwang Hee-chan’s last-gasp winner against Portugal ensured South Korea’s survival, and Australia’s win over an insipid Denmark books the Socceroos’ place in the next round.
Aside from our game with the Netherlands, what should we expect from the round of 16?
Along with USA, the underdog you don’t want to face in this round is Morocco, and Spain draws that bad card by virtue of their second-place finish in Group E. I mentioned the Atlas Lions’ fullbacks and forward line earlier, but goalkeeper Yassine “Bono” Bounou starts for Sevilla in the Spanish league. He knows the opposing players well and is good enough to hold out La Roja in a single-elimination game. The soccer nerd in me is interested by the tactical matchup of France vs. Poland, although the Poles can’t afford to play scared like they did against Argentina. South Korea has enough talent to make things interesting against Brazil, with one of the world’s best goal-scorers in Son Heung-min (he’s the guy in the mask, courtesy of a broken orbital bone that he suffered last month) and central defender Kim Min-jae, who has become indispensable to Napoli.
What about that blizzard of cards that you mentioned earlier?
The Cameroon-Brazil match saw nine yellow cards and one red, as the Indomitable Lions successfully slowed down Brazil by fouling them repeatedly. That was high tea at Buckingham Palace compared to the end-to-end Serbia-Switzerland game, which featured 11 yellow cards, players taunting fans, and the threat of a bench-clearing brawl due to ethnic hatred between the Serbs and Switzerland’s Albanian players. This ugly rivalry has a long history, so click here for the gory details. Also, some cards were handed out at the end of Uruguay’s win over Ghana. The winner, no stranger to bad behavior at the World Cup, angrily confronted German referee Daniel Siebert on the pitch and again in the tunnel leading to the dressing rooms after their elimination. Some of the players grabbed the officials, too, and Coach Diego Alonso publicly blamed the refs for his team’s exit. Here’s hoping that FIFA docks the Uruguayans some points in their next qualifying campaign.
What was special about the Germany-Costa Rica match?
Aside from the few minutes when Costa Rica was leading and it looked like both Spain and Germany would crash out, it was the first-ever World Cup match to be refereed by a woman. French ref Stéphanie Frappart made history earlier as the first woman to officiate a men’s Champions League match (because the male ref scheduled to work the game came down with Covid), but she and her all-female officiating crew were slated to take charge of the World Cup match from Day 1 and didn’t make any major mistakes, which is the benchmark of good officiating. On a semi-related note, the U.S. men’s team’s success means that the women’s team gets a substantial financial bonus, thanks to the equal-pay agreement struck by U.S. Soccer. I could stand more news like this.