The main event
After all that noise – the joy, the triumphalism, the entitlement, the schadenfreude, the self-loathing – England had the best record of any team in the group stage at Qatar 2022. It shows how far they have come under Gareth Southgate that seven points and nine goals, the latter a record for England at a major tournament, was not enough to please Twitter’s finest.
Even in the hysterical world of the England national team, it’s hard to remember the last time that the balance between on-field achievement and off-field angst was so far out of whack, and that is unlikely to change unless England win handsomely against Senegal tonight. After a semi-final in 2018 and a final last year, the louder elements of the media, traditional and social, have come to a near unanimous conclusion: Southgate is holding England back.
The received wisdom is that England have an embarrassment of riches in attacking areas. Fine players though they are, we might be confusing the excellence of the Premier League with that of the national team. Since England became good again in 2018, a total of 10,158 voting points have been available at the Ballon d’Or. (Bear with us, this isn’t as boring as it sounds.) Premier League players picked up 3,431 of them, or 33.78%. But English players received only 86, or 0.85%. That’s less than Eden Hazard, and he has barely played in the last three years. For all his imperfections, most obviously his indecisive in-game management, Southgate has significantly overachieved with a squad that is not as talented as the “golden generation” of the mid-2000s.
Senegal, who they face tonight, have been filed under “awkward opponent but one England should beat”. England have never lost to an African team, a statistic that has been cited frequently in the buildup. Despite 30 years of watching players as stylistically diverse as Nwankwo Kanu, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Jay-Jay Okocha and Yaya Touré in the Premier League, there is a perceived homogeneity to African football that doesn’t reflect well on English football’s subconscious.
France are also in action today, taking on a Poland side who qualified for the last 16 with their tail between their legs. It should be a joyous occasion, Poland’s first knockout game at the World Cup since a closer-than-it-sounds 4-0 defeat by Brazil in 1986, but their pitiful performance against Argentina – no shots on target, no ambition, but only one yellow card – has changed the mood. It depends on what happens against France, but when the story of Poland’s 2022 campaign is written, historians may conclude that it would have been better to go out with a bang than through with a whimper.
England have no such choice. Unless they go through with a bang against Senegal, the knives – and the hashtags – will probably be out. RS
Netherlands ease into last eight
Since Louis van Gaal took charge the Netherlands are unbeaten in 19 matches. In yesterday’s ruthless 3-1 dismissal of the USA they appeared to be a team playing within themselves, still with plenty of room for improvement in their quarter-final against Argentina – and perhaps beyond. There was a smidgen of defensive vulnerability to be seen when the USA fought back to 2-1 in the second half, but that recovery was swiftly squashed by a third Dutch goal, scored by the exceptional Denzel Dumfries. If nothing else, neutrals should hope the Netherlands stay in the tournament for the mental stimulation being offered by Van Gaal. Every time he speaks it seems to be something amusing, insightful or both. “Yesterday I gave him a big, fat kiss,” Van Gaal said of Dumfries, who was sitting beside him in the press conference. “And I’m going to give him another big, fat kiss.” As always, he meant what he said. LMc
A moment to forget for Australia’s Ryan
The manner of Australia’s exit was particularly painful for the goalkeeper Mathew Ryan after his blunder handed Argentina their second goal, slotted in by Julián Álvarez. Kye Rowles’ back pass wasn’t ideal, and hindsight is always a wonderful thing, but the effectiveness and urgency of Argentina’s pressing at that moment meant the Socceroos goalkeeper would have been wise to put his foot through the ball and aim for Row Z. Instead Ryan lost the ball and Álvarez did the rest. The margins would have been tight regardless but when they were chasing the game, Australia showed the vulnerability that clearly exists at the heart of Argentina’s defence. They will wonder what might have been but Ryan, and the Socceroos collectively, can be proud of how they performed in Qatar. LMc
Beyond the football
With drama aplenty in the group stage, stories in the global media have largely focused on the thrilling football – exactly as Qatar’s Supreme Committee and Fifa want it. Sean Ingle reports that the country is so happy with how the tournament has gone that it can be a springboard to hosting the biggest sporting event of all, the Olympic Games. The Guardian understands the country is ready to flex its muscles again and bid to stage the Games in the autumn of 2036, despite having failed with bids three times in the past. Ingle reports there is “growing optimism in Doha” that this World Cup will prove they can host the Olympics. But there will be obstacles, from LGBTQ+ rights to commercial concerns from the IOC after Qatar’s 11th-hour alcohol ban at stadiums. GB
There was disappointment in the US after the national team were brushed aside by the Netherlands. “The subpar play from practically the entire team counts as a major disappointment,” wrote Jeff Carlisle for ESPN. In the Washington Post, Steven Goff wrote: “The US men’s team had reached the knockout stage with a blend of defensive excellence, precocious poise and unflinching confidence – but these things were missing [on] Saturday.”
In Australia, journalists digesting the Socceroos’ early-morning exit were more sanguine. “One piece of genius from the greatest player of all time, and a rare mistake from one of Australia’s most loyal servants. In a sport defined by razor-thin margins, sometimes, that’s just the way it goes,” accepted Vince Rugari in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Guardian’s own Emma Kemp wrote: “This was not a bad performance. It was a very good performance with all the makings of another upset; the moving mass of blue-and-white tension in the stands confirmed it to be so.”
Meanwhile in South Korea, the official World Cup anthem Dreamers, featuring Jungkook of BTS fame, is getting plenty of airtime as they savour a place in the Round of 16 following the dramatic late win against Portugal. Not a patch on Shakira’s 2010 World Cup banger, Waka Waka (This Time for Africa), but admittedly that’s a high bar. LMc/NMc
The internet reacts
No social media post was more gratefully received by the world of football than the one posted by Pelé on Instagram. After a day of reports that the Brazil legend was receiving end-of-life care, Pelé shared a positive update from his hospital, adding that he felt “strong” and “with a lot of hope”. The 82-year-old, still the only player to win three World Cups in his career, will continue treatment, and we wish him well. NMc
Elsewhere, plenty of people enjoyed Luis Suárez bawling his eyes out after Uruguay were dumped out of the World Cup. The former Liverpool forward sat on the bench for the final 24 minutes (plus an age of injury time) after being replaced by Edinson Cavani. He went through most of the emotions available to humanity; happiness, fear and eventually just tears, partially hidden behind his light blue shirt. Patrice Evra later liked an Instagram post of Suárez looking like his mother had just thrown a beloved teddy bear into a skip. It is not the first time Suárez has cut onions after a football match, allowing for a clever ranking system. WU
France v Poland (Round of 16, 3pm GMT, BBC1)
“They [Poland] have a hardcore of players with good experience,” Didier Deschamps said in his pre-match press conference. “There is [Wojciech] Szczesny, [Kamil] Glik, [Robert] Lewandowski and you have to respect what this team does, they deserve to be there. Szczesny was decisive.” The France head coach knows their last-16 opponents have enough quality to cause an upset – and some “hardcore” individuals with enough experience to rile France. Szczesny has been in fine form in Qatar, while Lewandowski has broken his World Cup duck and will be confident of causing problems for the French centre-backs. France’s second string were appalling against Tunisia, a sign they Deschamps does not have much in reserve. If Poland can keep it tight until deep into the game, they will hope to crank up the pressure on the reigning champions. WU
England v Senegal (Round of 16, 7pm GMT, ITV1)
Senegal are missing a number of key players – and potentially their head coach Aliou Cissé due to illness – for this most vital of games. Sadio Mané, Cheikhou Kouyaté and Idrissa Gueye are all missing through a mixture of injury and suspension. Not only are they quality players but possess incredible experience, which will be sorely missed. Their replacements face a tough job to defeat an England team in good form. Sheffield United’s Iliman Ndiaye has already been given a chance in Mané’s absence and impressed in the victory over Ecuador. Nampalys Mendy of Leicester City is another who has knowledge of the opponents thanks to his Premier League employers. Although not a regular for club or country, he has the skills to irritate England’s midfielders, while Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly will be solid behind him. It might not be the optimum Senegal team but there is enough to cause problems to England, who need to avoid complacency. WU
Player to watch
Iliman Ndiaye When England take on Senegal, they ought to watch out for the lad from Bramall Lane. A non-league youth player with Boreham Wood three years ago, Ndiaye has come a long way since signing for Sheffield United in 2019. An unused substitute against the Netherlands, he made a second-half cameo against Qatar and, 10 minutes after coming on, danced through three attempted tackles before laying on an assist for Bamba Dieng. Having started the win against Ecuador and produced a lively performance, the 22-year-old has grown in stature as the tournament has gone on. Even if Aliou Cissé decides to use him from the bench, he could be a threat. WU
Japan’s success in topping Group E ahead of Spain and Germany has surprised their next opponents as much as anyone. “We did not expect this,” said the Croatia midfielder Lovro Majer before the last-16 meeting on Monday evening. “I think hardly anyone expected that, but hats off to Japan. They showed that it is not names that are playing, but what is more important is heart and courage.” Japan defeated Germany despite having 29% possession, while they overcame Spain with just 22%. “Possession means nothing in football today,” said Josip Juranovic, the Croatia right-back, when those stats were put to him. “They play very well as a team and they are fast. But we showed against Canada we can deal with quick teams.” WM