World Cup 2022: Infantino hails ‘best ever’ group stage after rise of Africa and Asia – live

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Northern Ireland will fancy their chances of making the 2026 edition; given the size of that competition, my Old Boys team probably will too. Anyhow, they’ve reappointed Michael O’Neill as manager, and he got them to Euro 2016, so there’s pedigree there.

I’m not sure Infantino is right about these being the best group stages ever. The last round of matches was dramatic, but quality was pretty low.

Tell you what, though, we’ve got some serious football awaiting us. Gareth Southgate and Fernando Santos both seems to have discovered their best formations and XIs in the nick of time so, all things being well, we should get an epic or two in the 10 days or so. We need them, because when it comes down to it, that last 16 was a little disappointing.

Thanks Martin and hi everyone. How we all coping with this football-free day? Disgrace, if you ask me?

I need to take the dog for a walk – not a euphemism – so I will be passing you over to the safe hands of Daniel Harris.

Willow, the official dog of the Guardian’s Thursday quiz, needs her daily exercise. Photograph: Martin Belam/The Guardian

Do you remember club football? Erik ten Hag does, and he has insisted today that Manchester United have moved on from Cristiano Ronaldo’s messy departure.

PA Media reports that Ten Hag was not willing to discuss the saga in depth when asked by the club’s in-house TV channel, MUTV, in an interview that was aired on Wednesday. Rather, the Dutchman insisted his focus was on the future.

United terminated Ronaldo’s contract after being rocked by an extraordinary series of complaints by him in a TV interview. Ten Hag came in for particular criticism from the 37-year-old forward, who accused the Dutchman of not respecting him. Asked how he had managed the situation, Ten Hag told MUTV: “He’s gone and it’s the past. We are now looking forward and we’re looking to the future.”

Ten Hag is confident his players that are in Qatar will hit the ground running when they get back to domestic duty. He said: “We had a plan, we have prepared the players with what the plan is, so there can’t be any confusion about what the programme is.

“We make the players aware of the fact that, after you are out of the World Cup, you have to return to the club and the league immediately goes on. You have to be ready for that, but I think our players are used to it.”

United face Burnley in a Carabao Cup tie on 21 December – three days after the World Cup final – before hosting Nottingham Forest in the Premier League six days later.

Declan Rice and Callum Wilson miss England training ahead of France clash

A quick snap from PA here that Declan Rice missed training today through illness as England prepare for Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against France.

The 23-year-old has started all four games for Gareth Southgate’s side in Qatar but was absent from the session at Al Wakrah Sports Complex. Callum Wilson also sat out as he recovers from a minor muscle strain.

Harry Kane and Kyle Walker during England training in Al Wakrah today.
Harry Kane and Kyle Walker during England training in Al Wakrah today. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

How do we feel about extra time at the World Cup? I’ve seen more than a few people moot that with the truncated tournament length, and it being mid-season, maybe Fifa should have opted to have drawn knockout round matches go straight to penalties after 90 minutes.

Then, there’s the question of whether extra time delivers any value in football anyway. So often it feels like thirty minutes of tired players having an aimless kickabout while they wait for penalties.

Because I am a complete spod I’ve done some number crunching, and I make it that over the last five World Cups since the ‘golden goal’ rule was abolished, 25 matches in total have gone to extra time. In 15 of those, there was no score during the extra period. That includes the 2006 match between Switzerland and Ukraine which felt not so much like extra time as a collective punishment.

So only ten matches that have gone to extra time have seen goals during the additional minutes in 16 years, which doesn’t seem like great entertainment value.

Having said that, three of the finals during that time have gone to extra time, and we would have been deprived of Mario Götze and Andrés Iniesta’s dramatic late winners, and that Zinedine Zidane moment of madness. So maybe we should stick with it after all?

Do drop me a line with your thoughts on that or anything else – [email protected]

Spain feel like the only team more cursed than England at penalty shootouts. They’ve only won one of the five they’ve faced in World Cups – at Ireland’s expense in 2002. Indeed, Spain has now won only three of its last 11 World Cup games since 2010.

There’s no immediate word on the future of coach Luis Enrique, who blamed himself for Spain’s exit yesterday.

“It’s my responsibility,” AP reports Enrique said, adding “I picked the first three penalty-takers”. He had previously said that he had asked each of his squad to practise 1,000 penalties with their club sides before the tournament.

The coach also said one of his regrets in Qatar was not to have used 30-year-old Pablo Sarabia more often during the tournament. Sarabia came on as a substitute just before the end of extra time “and he created two scoring occasions right away,” Enrique said. “It was my mistake not to have used him more. It wasn’t fair.”

Enrique did not say whether he would continue as Spain coach, saying he would “take some time to rest” before start making a decision about his future.

That may also have been the last time we see Sergio Busquets in a Span shirt. “Now the important thing is the team and not me,” said the 34-year-old Barcelona midfielder, who made his 17th World Cup appearance yesterday.

“We’ll pick ourselves up and use it as a learning experience,” Busquets said. “We’re in a good dynamic, with young people. This is going to make them stronger.”

Spain’s qualifying group for Euro 2024 features Norway, Scotland, Georgia and Cyprus, and the team will also be competing in the UEFA Nations League finals in the summer of 2023, where they will face one of Italy, Croatia or the Netherlands in the semi-finals.

Fifa’s Infantino declares Qatar group stages to be ‘best ever’ at a World Cup

In a not entirely unpredictable move, Fifa head honcho Gianni Infantino has been waxing lyrical about events in Qatar so far and has described the group stage of the tournament as the “best ever” at a World Cup. PA is carrying the following quotes from the man who declared himself to feel Qatari, Arabic, African, gay, disabled and like a migrant worker on the eve of the tournament.

I have seen all the matches, indeed, and put very simply and very clearly, this has been the best group stage of a Fifa World Cup ever. So, it’s very promising for the remainder of the Fifa World Cup.

The matches have been of great, great quality in beautiful stadiums – we knew that already. However, as well, the public who was there was incredible. Over 51,000 on average.

When it comes to stadium attendances, the stadiums are sold-out, full practically at every match. The fan festivals, the different fan zones, are also very crowded with people celebrating.

There are no more small teams and no more big teams. The level is very, very equal. For the first time as well, national teams from all continents going to the knockout phase, for the first time in history. This shows that football is really becoming truly global.

Not to be a complete pedant about it, but that last claim doesn’t particularly ring true, as in 2010 teams from UEFA, Conmebol, Concacaf, Caf and the AFC all made it to the round of 16, exactly the same set of confederations as this time.

Presumably Infantino meant the appearance of Australia made a difference in 2022, but they are members of the AFC. New Zealand lost their intercontinental playoff so there was no representation from the OFC at all in Qatar.

We don’t have any World Cup match action today, but we are expecting media appearances from England and France later on. Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire are expected to be the England players up talking to reporters.

Japan have arrived home to a hero’s welcome at the Narita International Airport east of Tokyo.

Supporters use smartphones to record the Japanese national soccer team returning home.
Supporters use smartphones to record the Japanese national soccer team returning home. Photograph: Shuji Kajiyama/AP
Japan's head coach Hajime Moriyasu, centre and captain Maya Yoshida, centre right, receive flowers as supporters welcome home the Japanese national soccer team.
Japan’s head coach Hajime Moriyasu, centre and captain Maya Yoshida, centre right, receive flowers as supporters welcome home the Japanese national soccer team. Photograph: Shuji Kajiyama/AP

Belgium’s Eden Hazard announces international retirement

Belgium captain Eden Hazard announced his retirement from international soccer aged 31 on Wednesday after his team’s group-stage exit at the World Cup.

The forward played in all three Group F games but did not score as Belgium beat Canada, lost to Morocco and played out a goalless draw with Croatia to finish third.

Hazard made his international debut in 2008 and scored 33 times in 126 appearances. He helped Belgium reach the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, where they lost to eventual champions France, and beat England in the third-placed playoff.

“I have decided to put an end to my international career. The succession is ready,” Hazard wrote on Instagram, Reuters reports.

“A page turns today … Thank you for your love. Thank you for your unparalleled support. Thank you for all this happiness shared since 2008 … I will miss you.”

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez stepped down from his role on Thursday after a disappointing tournament in Qatar.

Eden Hazard of Belgium in action against Croatia.
Eden Hazard of Belgium in action against Croatia. Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

If you were at all concerned about the lack of David Squires yesterday, fear not. He simply held it back a day to make sure he could get the whole round of 16 covered, and the delightful last couple of panels here will show that it was all worth it.

Switzerland’s capitulation to Portugal last night marked their third consecutive round of 16 exit at a World Cup, after a tight 1-0 defeat to Argentina after extra time in 2014, and a 1-0 defeat to Sweden in 2018. The last time Switzerland reached the quarter-finals was as hosts in 1954, when they took part in the highest scoring World Cup match of all-time, an astonishing sounding 7-5 defeat to neighbours Austria in Lausanne.

Graham Dunbar at AP has been looking at what lies ahead for the Swiss now, and suggests that none of this squad need head for international retirement. The core trio of goalkeeper Yann Sommer, midfielder and captain Granit Xhaka and playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri are in their early 30s and have much to offer as team leaders.

There may be questions over the future of coach Murat Yakin though, whose tactical switch from a defensive line of four to three at the back did them no favours against a rampant Portuguese attack. A somewhat less-than-enthused Shaqiri said after the game “These were his choices, we have to accept them”

Yakin has a contract through to the end of Euro 2024, and the Swiss will be fairly confident of qualifying from a group that has placed them with Israel, Romania, Kosovo, Belarus and Andorra, with two teams set to progress to the finals in Germany.

Portugal have been out doing a bit of recovery training in Doha this morning, and we have the pictures to prove it.

Portugal's defender Joao Cancelo heads the ball during a training session on Wednesday.
Portugal’s defender Joao Cancelo heads the ball during a training session on Wednesday. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images
Portugal's forward Rafael Leao at the Al Shahaniya SC training site in Doha today.
Portugal’s forward Rafael Leao at the Al Shahaniya SC training site in Doha today. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images
Portugal's coach Fernando Santos looking rather pensive about it all.
Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos looking rather pensive about it all. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

Even the official World Cup social media channels are a bit at a loss for what to do today, but I can guarantee I won’t be filming any keepie uppies for the live blog.

Mark Gleeson at Reuters has written that Lionel Messi’s hopes of winning an elusive World Cup will come up against the tactical scheming of veteran coach Louis van Gaal as Argentina face the Netherlands in Friday’s quarter-final at Lusail. That one kicks off at 7pm GMT, and will evoke memories of some classic previous clashes.

71-year-old Van Gaal is determined to give the Dutch their first World Cup title after runners-up finishes in 1974, 1978 and 2010.

Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 at the Netherlands’ expense in the final.
Argentina won the World Cup in 1978 at the Netherlands’ expense in the final. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

The coach’s planning will largely focus on containing Messi and catching Argentina on the break. The tactical plan is key to his side’s hopes of winning on Friday as the Dutch look to take revenge for their semi-final defeat in 2014 when Argentina beat them in a shootout.

“We can surprise teams with our plan. We were also the better team then and Messi didn’t see much of the ball,” the coach told reporters this week. The Netherlands have lost only one of the previous nine games against Argentina – the 1978 World Cup final in Buenos Aires – though they have been beaten in a shootout on two occasions.

Van Gaal can also point to a run of form that has seen the Dutch go 19 games without defeat since he returned to the hot seat for a third spell 15 months ago. That includes a run to the finals tournament of the UEFA Nations League, which the Dutch are expected to host next summer.

Here’s one for the “pick that out” files from France’s Axel Disasi.

Is it too early to start building up to Brazil v Croatia on Friday? Probably, but who is going to stop me? Certainly not Reuters, which has just published a little fact box about the clash, including these highlights:

  • Brazil have reached at least the quarter-finals in their last eight World Cups. They were champions in 1994 and 2002 and runners-up in 1998, but have only reached the semi-finals once since then – as hosts in 2014 when they were humiliated 7-1 by Germany.

  • In four games in Qatar so far, Croatia have won only once in 90 minutes – the 4-1 group stage win over Canada either side of goalless draws with Morocco and Belgium, before overcoming Japan on penalties with the score deadlocked at 1-1 after extra time.

  • Brazil striker Neymar, who marked his return from injury by scoring in Monday’s 4-1 win over South Korea, netted twice when they beat Croatia 3-1 in the group stage in 2014.

  • Croatia have won all three of their World Cup penalty shootouts. They beat Denmark in the last 16 and hosts Russia in the quarter-finals 2018, and Japan on Monday.

  • Brazil are unbeaten in their four meetings with Croatia (won 3 drew 1). The teams have met twice in the World Cup, with Brazil winning 1-0 in 2006 and 3-1 as hosts in 2014.

Away from the men’s World Cup in Qatar for a moment, Juliet Bawuah writes for the Guardian today that women’s football in Africa is in danger of being left on the touchline:

I have been following women’s football in Africa for almost 15 years. And I’m sad to say that there has been little progress in supporting or promoting it in that time. The complaints are familiar now: lack of representation, lack of infrastructure, poor wages and underfunding are among the myriad failings that have held back the women’s game.

This sorry state of affairs is continent-wide. Yet talent abounds: four-time African Women’s Footballer of the Year and Barcelona player Asisat Oshoala from Nigeria and Ghana striker Evelyn Badu, who plays for Norwegian club Avaldsnes IL and was named 2022 Young Player of the Year and Interclub player of the year by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), are among the best. But these stars succeeded against the odds. Where is the grassroots investment to ensure the girls of today have open opportunities instead of having to sneak out of their homes to play the game they love? It shouldn’t all be left to the players themselves to nurture future stars, as Oshoala is doing through her Lagos-based academy, or former Super Falcons player Ayisat Yusuf-Aromire with her SheFootball Initiative.

Read more here: Juliet Bawuah – Women’s football in Africa is in danger of being left on the touchline

Japan’s defeat on penalties to Croatia on Monday was hard for the players to take at the time, but today the Samurai Blue have put out a message thanking fans for their support. They have said to their fans:

The connection and unity of all the people who love Japanese football has reached each and every member of the team playing in Qatar and has become a great strength.

The team went on to thank everyone involved in grassroots football in Japan, and said that “The Samurai Blue was able to compete against the world’s top powerhouses on the big stage of the Fifa World Cup because of the players, coaches, and staff who have dedicated their lives to football.”

The message concludes:

Although we were not able to achieve our goal of making it to the quarter-finals this time, we will definitely use this tournament as a source of strength for our dream of winning the Fifa World Cup. We will walk together with all those who love soccer.

Japan’s anguish during the penalty shootout defeat to Croatia.
Japan’s anguish during the penalty shootout defeat to Croatia. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

AP had reporters out on the streets in Rabat speaking to Morocco fans yesterday as they celebrated their win.

“We are so proud of our Lions, who fought hard to get us into the quarter-finals,” said Niama Meddoun, a Rabat resident. “We are delighted to be Moroccans today, since we are the first Arab country that has reached the quarter-finals.”

The King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, praised the national team and sent his “heartfelt congratulations” to the players, the technical team and administrative personnel, “who gave their all and blazed a trail throughout this great sporting event,” according to a statement from the royal palace.

The king said the players represented “hopes and dreams of Moroccans in Morocco, Qatar, and all over the world.”

There were also celebrations in Barcelona. Youssef Lotfi, a 39-year-old construction worker who was born in Casablanca but moved to Spain as a child and said he feels love for both countries, was brimming with pride.

“Today is a day of joy for Moroccans and all the Arab world,” Lotfi said. “It was a heart-attack finish that could have gone either way.”

He called the victory “once in a lifetime” experience. “Morocco is representing all the Arab world, all the African continent, that is beyond description, it is the most glorious part,” he said.

Here are your remaining World Cup fixtures by the way …

Friday 9 December
QF1: Croatia v Brazil (3pm GMT, Education City Stadium)
QF2: Netherlands v Argentina (7pm GMT, Lusail Iconic Stadium)

Saturday 10 December
QF3: Morocco v Portugal (3pm GMT, Al Thumama Stadium)
QF4: England v France (7pm GMT, Al Bayt Stadium)

Tuesday 13 December
SF1: Netherlands or Argentina v Croatia or Brazil (7pm GMT, Lusail Iconic Stadium)

Wednesday 14 December
SF2: England or France v Morocco or Portugal (7pm GMT, Al Bayt Stadium)

Saturday 17 December
Third place play-off: Losing semi-finalist second XIs (3pm GMT, Khalifa International Stadium)

Sunday 18 December
Final: Winning semi-finalists (3pm GMT, Lusail Iconic Stadium)

There were some quite punchy quotes from Portugal coach Fernando Santos about CR7 after the game last night. PA carry them, with Santos saying that the role of Cristiano Ronaldo for the remainder of the World Cup is something that has yet to be “defined”. He said:

I have a very close relationship with him – I always have, I have known him since he was 19 years old. This relationship only develops, Ronaldo and I never interpret the human aspect of that of manager and player (in relation to) what we have to do during the match. I will always consider in my role that he is an important player to have in the team.

Asked directly if Ronaldo would play against Morocco on Saturday, Santos said: “Ronaldo will definitely (be involved), all the players on the bench can be used, if they are not in the starting lineup they can play later.

“It is important to look at the example of this player’s history, he is one of the best players in the world at playing professionally, being captain – all we have to do is think about this team collectively.”

There are some wonderful pictures this morning on the news wires of the contrasting scenes between Spain and Morocco supporters around the world, which I feel I must start the day by sharing.

Moroccans celebrate their team's victory in Rabat.
Moroccans celebrate their team’s victory in Rabat. Photograph: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images
A Morocco supporter waves a national flag to celebrate the win on the Champs Elysees in Paris.
A Morocco supporter waves a national flag to celebrate the win on the Champs Elysees in Paris. Photograph: Julien de Rosa/AFP/Getty Images
Spanish supporters react as they watch the live broadcast of the defeat to Morocco in a bar in Madrid.
Spanish supporters react as they watch the live broadcast of the defeat to Morocco in a bar in Madrid. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Max Rushden, Barry Glendenning, Jonathan Fadugba, and John Brewin were up working late last night in the pod to discuss the concluding games of the World Cup round of 16 after Portugal thrashed Switzerland and Morocco shocked Spain. You can get that directly into your ears here …


First the bad news. It is the first day where there is no actual football at the World Cup since 20 November, and like me, I am sure you are going to miss settling down for the action come 3pm GMT.

But the good news? Wow, what a day we had yesterday, and what a lot we still have to look forward to.

You can’t tell me that even in his wildest dreams, Portugal coach Fernando Santos woke up on Tuesday morning thinking that the consequences of dropping Cristiano Ronaldo as captain and out of the first XI would be that he could casually bring him on as a substitute in the 73rd minute as a gesture of “no hard feelings” when his side were already 5-1 up against Switzerland.

Portugal coach Fernando Santos watches on as Cristiano Ronaldo waits on the substitutes bench.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos watches on as Cristiano Ronaldo waits on the substitutes bench. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Then there was Morocco reaching the quarter-finals for the first time in their World Cup history. You can argue whether penalties are a lottery or the execution of a precision skill under pressure – don’t worry, it is definitely the latter – but the Atlas Lions have now kept clean sheets against Croatia, Belgium and Spain, and go into the quarter-finals unbeaten. That is something that can’t be said of Brazil, Argentina, France or Portugal.

Morocco's defender Achraf Hakimi (C) celebrates with his teammates after converting the last penalty during the penalty shootout win against Spain.
Morocco’s defender Achraf Hakimi (C) celebrates with his teammates after converting the last penalty during the penalty shootout win against Spain. Photograph: Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images

I will be bringing you all the fallout from that, the rest of the World Cup news as it happen, and looking forward to the quarter-finals getting under way on Friday. Do drop me a line at [email protected]

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