World Cup Quarter-Finals Preview

The FIFA World Cup quarterfinals start Friday. For many of the nations and players, it means more than a chance at individual glory.

Of the 32 who dreamt of World Cup glory, only 8 remain. Argentina, Netherlands, Brazil, Croatia, France, England, Portugal and Morocco. This Friday and Saturday mark the Quarter-finals of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Football purists have been anticipating the next stages of the tournament, where usually all that matters is the quality of the game.

But in the undercurrent throughout this World Cup is another match pitting the traditional powerhouses of the soccer world against the growing wave of underdogs knocking on the door wanting in. Many toss the phrase “upset” around to describe them but the reality is that the World Cup sandbox is overflowing. Since 2002, consistently 200+ teams across the world have entered World Cup qualification rounds. But the World Cup permits so few into its exclusive club – 6 of 46 from the Asian Football Confederation, 5 of 54 from the Confederation of African Football, 0 in the Oceania Football Confederation, 4 of 10 in Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol, 4 of 34 in Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, 13 of 55 in Union of European Football Associations – and even the expansion from 32 to 48 teams competing in 2026 will likely add more fuel to the fire between hard-core fans who have become accustomed to a certain level and style of play, and the majority of the world who are looking for a reason to watch, to play, to support it. Meanwhile, FIFA and its prize tournament are struggling to remain relevant.  

Brazil-Croatia (Friday, December 9 at 7 a.m. PT at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan)

The quarterfinals start with Brazil, the top team in FIFA’s rankings, facing Croatia, the 2014 World Cup runner-up. No other team currently in the group of 8 play with as much flourish, passion, and joy as Brazil. Criticized by ITV commentator Roy Keane for joining in his players’ celebratory dancing, Brazil’s head coach Tite made it a point to defend himself in a pre-match press conference, “If I have to dance to be connected with them, I will continue to dance.” Croatia, the clear underdogs of this match, are a new team, with 18 players not at the previous World Cup, despite having veterans Ivan Perisic, Dejan Lovren and Luka Modrić, all who are well into their 30s. Like Messi has done for Argentina, Modrić in many ways, is the definition of his nation’s soccer and this could be his final World Cup appearance. Modrić, with 159 caps, made his start for Croatia in a friendly against Argentina in March 2006. He’s already led his nation to the World Cup final in 2018 and now, at the age of 37, he is the inspiration and mentor to his teammates. Croatia escaped Group F with a 4-1 win over Canada and two scoreless draws. They nearly faced elimination by Japan but won on penalty kicks. Brazil, while not being impenetrable, have only once shown signs of weakness when they lost their group match against Cameroon. Brazil’s roster is stacked with familiar faces and scoring stars. Even without their superstar Neymar, Richarlison is tied for second place in the World Cup Golden Boot race after netting a deuce in their opening game against Serbia and another goal in their route against South Korea in the Round of 16. Casemiro, Vinícius Júnior and Lucas Paquetá, all scorers through the first four games, add more firepower to the surging Seleção Canarinho.

Argentina-Netherlands (Friday, December 9 at 11 a.m. PT at the Lusail Stadium)

This must-see rematch could be Lionel Messi’s final bow with Argentina, and is one in which the youngest and oldest World Cup coaches fight it out to see whose defense holds strongest. The battle between the seasoned Louis van Daal who has been at the helm of the Oranje twice before, and novice, Lionel Scaloni who started in his current role in 2018, pits old school Dutch discipline and tactics against a team building a new identity for defending deep in matches after attaining an early lead. Under Scaloni, Argentina’s defensive discipline has grown so much they’ve even earned the nickname, ‘La Scaloneta.’ The name combines camioneta (‘bus’) with his surname. Argentina conceded just three goals across their first eight games in 2022 and had a run of 36 matches prior to their 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia. He previously led his team to a third-place finish at Copa America in 2019 after a dramatic 2-1 win over Chile, then to the Copa America title as they defeated Brazil 1-0 in the 2021 final, granting them their first senior title since 1993. Argentina’s last World Cup match against Holland was a 0-0 snooze fest which was won by them in penalties, again in quarter-finals action. Standing in their way this time are van Daal, seeking revenge for the 2014 defeat, and his structured team led by Liverpool center back with the poise and speed of a cheetah, Virgil van Dijk, and Cody Gapko, who already scored in each of their three group stage matches. Still van Dijk maintains that, while they’ll be looking to shut Messi down, there are plenty other threats from La Albicelestes to watch for. Speaking with reporters he insisted, “They are a fantastic team with fantastic players, and we are going to have to do well in all departments of the match.”

Even if reports indicating that Rodrigo De Paul and Angel Di Maria are not currently match-fit prove true, there’s plenty of firepower from Julian Álvarez who scored twice in his two starts and can be equally effective as winger or striker. If he starts and scores again, he will be the youngest player to score in his first three World Cup starts since 1970. Argentina have had more possession and more shots at goal with him on the pitch. Messi’s at his best when surrounded by athletic support, and even he benefits from having his teammate with him, allowing him ample space to play through the middle while Álvarez runs wide. Since losing their opening match to Saudi Arabia, Argentina have been pushing through with a level of humble seriousness and wounded pride that will be difficult to penetrate. Sometimes a loss translates to a focused winning spirit.

Portugal-Morocco (Saturday, December 10 at 7 a.m. PT Al Thumama Stadium)

This is bound to be an epic match for Morocco. Rather than being about winning against Portugal who are the favorites, it’s about national and continental pride, and a second chance at their epic loss 16 years ago in the 1986 World Cup.

Up to 15% of Moroccans, with approximately 5 million Moroccans and their immediate descendants live abroad, but this has given them common ground. “As a person of Moroccan descent who did not grow up in Morocco, living here and sharing this experience with my fellow Moroccans is incredibly meaningful. It allows me to connect with my roots and heritage,” Jeremy Melul. “We have waited a long time for this moment, since 1986, and the pain of that loss was only intensified by the fact that Germany’s winning goal came from a misaligned wall on the last free kick of the game. I was just 6 years old at the time, and it was before my first World Cup in 1990.”  Melul echoes a sentiment felt by a growing percentage of World cup supporters. The World Cup isn’t merely a showcase for great soccer. There are plenty of regional tournaments and opportunities to find that outside of the World Cup. “I think it’s beautiful to see a team hold on and fight. It’s a different kind of theater. One of my secondary teams is Japan… You know, everything doesn’t have to be like the Champions League.” The World Cup also a way to connect for nations who are otherwise cut off from the world, fighting daily for equity and to be taken seriously. It is a platform for expression.

Since the 1990s, Africa almost always has one nation to rally under during the Knockout Rounds. But the usual candidates are Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. This is just Morocco’s second time in the knockout stages but the Atlas Lions were the first African team to reach the round of 16 of the World Cup back in 1986. And while their run in 1986 ended with a defeat against West Germany in the final 16, despite that loss, the nation had a parade celebrating the team’s accomplishments. In 2018, Morocco dropped their matches to Portugal and Iran in the Group stage. Perhaps this time, the stars are aligning in favor of the Green Star of Morocco.

France-England (Saturday, December 10 at 11 a.m. PT at Al Bayt Stadium)

All soccer purists and pundits agree that this is the match to watch. It doesn’t happen often – this Saturday will be only the third time in the annals of this competition.

Historically England’s record against the reigning champions is in their favor – 17 wins, nine losses and five draws. France have never beaten their neighbors at a World Cup. In fact the last time the played each other there was in 1982, when the Three Lions won 3-1 in the group stage.

But French President Emmanuel Macron disagrees with history. “I don’t really doubt the fact that we’re going to win,” speaking ahead of the match. So far, France have risen above the losses of Paul Pogba and Karim Benzema, to rely heavily on their World Cup Golden Boot leader, Kylian Mbappé, who has already tallied five goals and been instrumental in ensuring that Didier Deschamps’ team outscore their opponents 10 to 3.

His teammate Olivier Giroud has scored three goals breaking Thierry Henry’s record as France’s highest scorer. England, basically an English Premier League side, are trying to purge the ghosts of recent World Cup pasts to reach their first World Cup final since 1966. After making it to the final 8 in 2006, they bowed out at the round of 16 stage in 2010 and then faced a humiliating group stage exit in 2014, then a semi-final loss to Croatia in 2018. Now, undefeated in their four 2022 World Cup matches, outscoring their opponents 12 to 2, they are coming at Les Blues with one very important advantage, a depth in their bench that few teams (barring Brazil) can boast. Two rosters full of prior top-level World Cup experience and a heavy reliance on attacking prowess. This match is a gift from the soccer gods.

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