By Coen Lammers* in Doha
Analysis – As the FIFA World Cup reaches the quarterfinals stage, eight nations across three continents are left dreaming of a fairy tale run to the final, writes Coen Lammers.
“The World Cup has now just begun,” grinned a Mexican journalist moments after Richarlison launched Brazil into the quarterfinal with a magnificent third goal against South Korea at the 974 Stadium.
The reporter did not seem too concerned that her own Mexicans, along with 23 other teams, have already departed the cauldron of Qatar but reflected the excitement that is building. Only seven matches are left to decide who will win FIFA World Cup and the games are getting more significant and thrilling each day.
It will be hard to beat Wednesday’s drama when Qatar’s adopted home team of Morocco stunned the 2010 champions from Spain.
Many experts had pencilled the young Spanish in for a spot in the semi-finals, but the Atlas Lions kept their cool in the penalty shoot-out, while the stars from across the Strait of Gibraltar missed all three spot-kicks.
The winning penalty by Achraf Hakimi sparked wild celebrations in downtown Doha as every migrant worker in Qatar from the African continent and Arab nation has jumped on the Moroccan bandwagon.
Just like four years ago, when the Spanish were eliminated on penalties by the host nation Russia at the same stage of the competition, their downfall has ignited the host country and its residents from throughout Arabia and Africa.
Unlike the Russian win four years ago though, the Moroccan win was no fluke as the teams has several top-class players in their line-up and dominated large parts of the match.
After that performance, and with fiercely passionate supporter base behind them, who would bet against them when they play Portugal?
The Portuguese put the competition on notice with a commanding 6-1 victory over Switzerland, even without, or possibly inspired by coach Fernando Santos benching problem child Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo’s young replacement Goncalo Ramos marked his first ever start with a hattrick of goals and the team oozes talent that will worry any opponent in this World Cup, so the quarterfinal against Morocco looms as one of four mouth-watering contests.
Despite the early successes by teams from Asia, Africa and North America, only Morocco are left standing, along with the old guard from Europe and South America, now the dust has settled from the round of 16.
Anyone who had the pleasure to witness the delicious, and for opponents petrifying version of the Joga Bonito (Beautiful Game) by Brazil’s band of superhuman brothers, will be wondering who can to stop the Selecao winning their sixth title.
The Croatians will be the first to have a crack on Saturday morning, and Croatian players, fans and media here in Doha are putting up some decent fighting talk.
Similar to their fairy tale run to the final in 2018, Croatia again demonstrates fantastic resilience, team-spirit and plenty of individual class, but deep down, every man, women and child along the Dalmatian coast will have sleepless nights until Saturday.
Football journalists, and especially those who have been around the block a few times, tend to be a cynical bunch, but somewhere deep down in all those football-weary and sleep-deprived grumpy scribes, there are still little boys and little girls who just love watching football.
It was a magical moment to watch this crowd of professional cynics, who are trained not to get excited about anything, almost rise in unison to applaud Richarlison finishing off a breath-taking team movement in the 29th minute for Brazil. Even the Korean journalists could not stop themselves but applaud a moment of pure football beauty.
The Brazilian squad of 2022 does not seem to have any weaknesses, or the defensive frailties of previous Dream Teams, with a world-class goalkeeper and backline providing the foundation for Neymar Jr and his sidekicks to express themselves.
Unless the Croatians can invoke the spirit of 2018, Brazil awaits the winner of the quarterfinal between the Netherlands and Argentina, which is a match that carries huge historical weight, aside from the current importance.
The Argentinians beat the Dutch at their home ground in a controversial 1978 World Cup final and won a penalty shoot-out in the 2014 semi-finals, while Dennis Bergkamp beat Argentina in an ill-tempered quarterfinal in 1998 with one of the best goals in World Cup history. If you have not seen it, watch it below and enjoy the Dutch commentator lose his marbles.
Many football romantics around the world hope that Lionel Messi can crown his glittering career with the biggest prize of them of all, but his team has failed to impress this tournament.
The Argentinians are trying to temper the expectations and are wary of a well-coached Dutch team with some of the best defenders on the planet and a lightning-fast frontline that is waiting to pounce on any Argentinian errors.
In another quarterfinal, worthy of a final tag, defending champions France take on free-scoring England.
France’s wunderkind Kylian Mbappe has been wooing fans around the world with his speed and ruthless finishing, and some defenders he left in his wake will have nightmares for some time to come.
The French have been struggling for consistency in the past few years, but have rediscovered the spark that brought them glory in 2018, despite losing several key players, including World Footballer of the Year, Karim Benzema.
The English and their supporters, however, are quietly confident their current crop can get past France, and watching their goalscoring exploits so far, who can blame them?
Young midfielder Jude Bellingham has been impressive for Borussia Dortmund, but the 19-year old is now making a statement on the biggest stage. His dominant performance against Senegal was world class, supported by fellow youngsters Buyako Saka and Phil Foden, which bodes well for the years ahead.
Too often England has relied on their talismanic leader Harry Kane to come up with the goals, but in Qatar eight different England players have now scored. This will be a particular a concern for the French, who have given away goals in every game so far.
On Sunday morning, however, all eyes will not be on the attack but on the English defence tasked with stopping Mbappe. If Kyle Walker has the speed to keep up and neutralise that danger, England will have a fighting chance to progress to the semi-final for the second tournament in a row.
All four quarter-finals are perfectly loaded for drama and brilliance, so make sure you don’t miss a minute of it. We can catch up on sleep when the tournament takes two rest days before the semis.
* Coen Lammers is attending the Fifa World Cup in Qatar for Radio New Zealand. Qatar will be the sixth Fifa World Cup he has covered.
Story Credit: rnz.co.nz