The World Cup in Qatar is now at the semifinal stage: Either Argentina, France, Croatia or Morocco will win football’s biggest prize at Lusail Stadium next Sunday.
But already, the 2022 World Cup has offered up plenty of big moments that are unlikely to be forgotten.
Iran players not singing the anthem
In their first game of the tournament against England, Iran’s players took the bold step of not singing their national anthem before kickoff. It was a gesture to show their support for the nationwide protests taking place in their country in the wake of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini’s death in the custody of the morality police.
Their silence spoke volumes and added pressure on the Iranian government, which suspended the morality police last week.
Saudi Arabia beating Argentina
Argentina’s World Cup campaign has been so fraught with drama that it’s easy to forget that it began with them losing to Saudi Arabia 2-1 in their opening game.
The second-lowest-ranked team in the tournament mounted an incredible comeback after going a goal down to score twice in the space of five minutes in the second half. The result sent tremors across the footballing world. The fact that Saudi Arabia lost their following two group games didn’t matter. It wasn’t just a win for the national team. It was a win for the nation.
German players covering their mouths
In their opening group games, the captains of England, Wales, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark had decided to wear OneLove armbands, a symbolic gesture for anti-discrimination. But FIFA banned the armband and threatened sanctions for any team whose captain wore it on the pitch.
In protest of having their freedom of expression curtailed, the entire German national team posed for their pre-match photo with their hands covering their mouths.
Messi’s goal against Mexico
Emiliano Martinez’s heroics in the penalty shootout against the Netherlands have taken Argentina within a victory of the final. Following their defeat to Saudi Arabia in the opening game, Martinez had said every game from then is akin to a final. The first of those came against Mexico, where a defeat would have sent Argentina back home.
This pressure cooker of a game had its lid blown off in the second half by Lionel Messi’s left boot. It was an astonishing finish from outside the box into the bottom corner. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s where their World Cup truly began.
THIS ANGLE OF MESSI’S GOAL 🤯🤯🤯
— Ziad is NOT in pain 🇦🇷 (@Ziad_EJ) November 27, 2022
Brazil put on a show against South Korea
Sure, this wasn’t a moment – it was 45 minutes. But it was a flash of brilliance that would eventually pass too soon. Brazil were 4-0 up at halftime in their round of 16 game. It wasn’t just the South Korean backline, but the wider footballing world they had dancing to their samba beat. It was a performance that Brazil have been historically renowned for: quick attacking play, sharp movement and dollops of flair.
Their campaign may have ultimately ended in tears but for those minutes, Brazil Braziled and it was beautiful to watch.
Weghorst’s moment of genius
Wout Weghorst’s goal in the 11th minute of injury time to bring the Netherlands back from the brink of defeat against Argentina in the quarterfinal will go down as one of the great World Cup moments of all time. The craft and awareness of the quickly taken free kick took the Argentine defence and millions across the world by surprise. The timing and weight of the goal aside, the fact that Weghorst was a Burnley forward whose style of play had made him a figure of scorn in the footballing public only heightened the incredulity of the moment.
Weghorst had scored earlier too, and the goal off a free kick was his second of the game. That he still couldn’t save the Netherlands — who lost in a penalty shootout — makes Weghorst’s genius even more of an underdog tale for the ages.
Croatia’s ageless soldiers
They ground out a penalty shootout win over Japan in the round of 16 and then held their nerve against the much-fancied Brazil to book a spot in the final four on Friday, building on a stunning legacy.
Consider this statistic: In the six World Cups in which Croatia have competed, they’ve reached the semifinals three times. Reaching the final in 2018 was considered the pinnacle for this team. Their dull, lumbering performances in the first few games this time around didn’t alleviate concerns around their age and speed. But what they lack in agility, they make up for in ability and experience.
Interestingly, they have yet to win a knockout game in 90 minutes since 2018. Croatia have mastered the art of the smash and grab. Messi and the Argentina team, who face them next, will not make the mistake of underestimating them.
Morocco’s magical run
When they lifted coach Walid Regragui up high to celebrate their quarterfinal win over Portugal, it epitomised Morocco’s unprecedented accomplishments.
At every World Cup there’s one team that punches above its weight, defeating odds and opposition alike. It was Ghana in 2010, Costa Rica in 2014 and Croatia in 2018. This time, the mantle has been taken up by Morocco, who have created history by becoming the first African nation to reach the semifinals.
The destination is as incredible as their journey to get there. They topped a group that featured Croatia and Belgium, knocked out Spain on penalties in the round of 16 and then Portugal in the quarterfinals. Despite the strength of the opposition they’ve come up against, the Atlas Lions have conceded just once in the tournament.
🧱 Total goals conceded by #Qatar2022 semi finalists
🇲🇦 𝟏 𝐠𝐨𝐚𝐥 𝐜𝐨𝐧𝐜𝐞𝐝𝐞𝐝 (Four clean sheets)
🇭🇷 3 goals conceded
🇫🇷 5 goals conceded
🇦🇷 5 goals conceded
💪 Morocco have conceded the least goals by a semi finalist in the last 4 World Cups
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) December 11, 2022
In the process, the Moroccan side have inspired not just their nation, but the Arab world, Africa and the larger Global South, emerging as the neutral’s favourite. Their fans have been the most colourful and prominent throughout the World Cup. But their secret sauce? Families of players, and especially their mothers, who have accompanied the team, kissed them and wished them luck and even danced with them on the pitch.
You had to read the team sheet a couple of times over to be sure that you hadn’t skipped over his name. Cristiano Ronaldo being dropped for Portugal’s round of 16 game against Switzerland felt seismic. Coach Fernando Santos had spoken about his displeasure with Ronaldo’s reaction to being subbed off against South Korea in his press conference the previous day and had refused to confirm if he’d be given the armband.
While Ronaldo not being captain felt unlikely, him being dropped altogether wasn’t even considered a possibility. Portugal looked young, wild and free in his absence and won 6-1. The fact that his replacement, Gonçalo Ramos, scored a hat trick only furthered the narrative.
There was a staggering 563 minutes of injury time played in the group stages of this World Cup. In the England-Iran group game, 27 minutes were added on to the regular 90. All of that is the outcome of a deliberate decision by FIFA to add on time for all stoppages more strictly than ever before.