From Belgium’s humiliation to Argentina’s jubilation – A recap of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar

Rahul Madhavan
By Rahul Madhavan
20 Min Read

From Enner Valencia’s opening-day heroics to Gonzalo Montiel’s winning penalty, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was a wild ride. But what better way to start the post-mortem of this World Cup than the greatest grand finale of all time?

As the planet woke up on the 18th of December 2022, there was an array of emotions and a tinge of nervousness pinching us all. It honestly felt like watching a movie; a movie that kept us on the edge of our seats throughout its two-and-a-half-hour journey. The storylines were there for the taking. On one end, the world awaited Lionel Messi’s last dance for the La Albicelestes. So far, his canvas showcased seven Ballon d’Ors, a host of individual honors, multiple UEFA Champions League medals, league titles, and even a Copa America in his beloved blue and white stripes. There was only one thing left in his beautiful painting, and this was the day to complete his canvas.

Messi felt like the character you rooted for in the movie. You watched him cross a multitude of hurdles to reach the climax, and all he had was one last challenge, but the one which was the most demanding of all. There are, however, always two sides to the storyline. Coming up against Messi was Kylian Mbappe and a talented French side. For some, he was portrayed as the pantomime villain standing in the way of the lead figure. For others, he was a character with ice coursing through his veins, eager to take home another one of the treasured golden trophy. On the day of the final, it was hard to believe that the two protagonists wearing the same jersey number have danced together for over a year, but this plot had undoubtedly seen it all.

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As the two teams took the stage, there was only one taking all the plaudits from the crowd early on. Argentina’s desire and strategy bemused France as Angel di Maria, often the man for the big occasions stepped up once again. He was brought down by Ousmane Dembele in the penalty area and the resulting penalty was calmly converted by none other than Lionel Messi. Di Maria proceeded to further damage the French hopes with another goal, courtesy of neat one-touch football by Lionel Scaloni’s free-flowing Argentina. By the cusp of halftime, Argentine fans from Buenos Aires to Bangladesh believed that their prayers have finally been answered.

But the French are certainly not the ones to back down and are a country known for their revolution when things looked bleak. Of course, it had to be Kylian Mbappe to restore optimism as he converted a penalty, like his opposite number, Messi. Argentina holding a lead in this tournament is as thin as a rake and they once again conceded to that man again. Ninety minutes were completed in a flash, and this was a level playing field with two players in the prime of their powers.

Messi appeared to be on the verge of winning the coveted trophy, only to have it snatched away from him. However, the game took another turn with Argentina’s leader showing the way with a simple tap into the net. At that moment, it felt like the movie was approaching its credits. Nonetheless, there was another twist in the tale with Mbappe still not being put down completely. France also had an opportunity to pile on Argentina’s misery, but Emiliano Martinez’s stunning save from the last kick of the game was probably a hint that he was going to do it all over again from the resulting penalty shootout.

And that he certainly did. While the protagonists did no wrong in the shootout, the mighty Martinez expertly pushed away Kingsley Coman’s penalty and displayed a couple of moves himself. The pressure of the occasion got the better of the young Aurelien Tchouameni and only Gonzalo Montiel’s kick stood away from Argentine glory. Remember, Montiel was the culprit toward the second half of the extra time as he handled the ball in the penalty box. But he had his moment of vindication when he scored his spot kick to send the whole of Argentina into improbable madness.

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Messi was on his knees surrounded by his teammates, while Mbappe was shaken, needing consolation from the French president himself. The pantomime villain had the world at his feet; he instilled fear through every one of Argentine supporters’ hearts and a hat-trick in the grandest of stages cemented his legacy.

For Messi, this moment was elation, and more importantly, a sense of relief. He had performed miracles and magic in front of millions with a ball in his feet, but on the 18th of December, he completed his canvas. Comparisons to Diego Maradona’s epic fame in the famous blue and white colors were frequent, which undoubtedly took a toll on him. Years passed with no glory to cover his tracks, but the scriptwriters saved the best for the last. Sergio Aguero, his closest compatriot and the one who had seen his rise and fall from within, carried Messi on his back after the victory. It was poetic. Football, in its own way, paid tribute and expressed gratitude to the art of Lionel Messi.

The Group Stage drama

The World Cup provided a fairy tale end for Argentina and Messi, but this tournament lived up to its billing in some fashion even before the final. La Albicelestes’ first game of the World Cup seemed like a cakewalk. Coming up against Saudi Arabia, the world tuned in to watch an Argentine side that was unbeaten in the last 36 games. The pre-tournament favorites and an in-form team were up against a side given no chance to compete against the mighty.

However, Saudi Arabia, ironically led by a Frenchman – Herve Renard, produced a performance that shocked the planet. It was perhaps the only time Lionel Messi and his namesake, Lionel Scaloni, looked dumbfounded in the entire month. This was a sign that things were about to get tasty as the competition progressed.

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Japan stunned Germany, whilst Morocco relished a famous victory against the second-ranked team in the world, Belgium. It set the tone of what is coming, with drama everywhere during the last day of the group stages. We could hardly keep count of the teams who were advancing to the knockout rounds and who weren’t. Dramatic scenes engulfed Australia at 3:30 AM as the country down under knocked Denmark out of the World Cup. On the other side of Group B, Tunisia had all to play for against France, who already had their foot in the round of sixteen. Nevertheless, the African side’s tenacious display secured a memorable victory against the World Champions. Although they learned Australia qualified for the next round, Tunisia celebrated a historic result in Qatar that will never fade away from their memories.

The following day, Morocco beat Canada and, as a result, qualified for the knockout rounds only for the second time in their history. Elsewhere, Japan, fresh from their victory against the Germans, shocked Spain and secured the top spot in the group. The best was once again saved for the last day of the group stage, as South Korea emphatically defeated Portugal to step into the last 16 at the expense of Uruguay. Eight days passed in no time; the group stages, especially the final set of fixtures, produced nail-biting moments like never before.

The underdog tale

Out of all the stories that make their way around, an underdog tale never fails to get attention from people all over the world. The FIFA World Cup, in particular, has produced several of these age-old tales. And this time, it was a nation that not only defied expectations but also had the consistency to come out on top against several talented outfits. Morocco, led by Walid Regragui, ticked every box. A solid defensive structure, a technical midfield, and a lethal attack meant that the teams found it hard to beat them.

On the biggest stage, the Atlas Lions certainly didn’t look out of order. Instead, they played like they belonged there. Belgium were the first victims, with Morocco restricting the star-studded attack, while capitalizing on the other end. Many predicted that they will finish behind Belgium and Croatia, but Morocco finished top of the group unbeaten. Even so, they had a tough path from here. A round of sixteen tie against Spain served to test their strength and determination.

The result? They passed with flying colors. Archaf Hakimi’s Zinedine Zidane-Esque panenka during the penalty shootout certainly described that they aren’t fazed by anyone. The sheer audacity to perform this in a knockout round for the winner! A close victory against another European giant, Portugal followed this and suddenly only one game separated them from a World Cup final. Morocco gave France a run for their money, but the World Champions broke their hearts in the final four stages. Nevertheless, they created occasions that will last in every fan’s memories. The image of Sofiane Boufal, Archaf Hakimi, and several others embracing and joyfully dancing with their mothers, as well as the post-game celebrations undoubtedly warmed the hearts of millions. Their victory imparted hope to the rest of the world.

Amidst Morocco stealing the headlines, Japan and Croatia also had a World Cup to embrace. Japan’s squad now boasts depth, and they showed tactical flexibility to outwit both Germany and Spain. Beating two former World Champions is no simple task, so it was an achievement to withhold. They’ve come in leaps and bounds in recent years and although they were once again knocked out of the round of sixteen, the Blue Samurais arguably had their best World Cup campaign.

Croatia, meanwhile, did not hit the heights of their last World Cup, but they showed their persistence throughout the tournament. The combination and relationship between Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, and Marcelo Brozovic was Croatia’s highlight as they kept toying with their opponents in midfield. Josko Gvardiol and Dominik Livakovic also played their part at the back in what was another successful campaign, without a doubt. It was a World Cup to remember, as several of Croatia’s stars bid adieu on the international stage with a bronze medal around their necks.

The disappointments

Several teams had their joy, either advancing to the knockout stages or getting the better of elite teams, but it’s time to look at the ones who struggled to defy expectations and ultimately underperformed. First up are Belgium’s Golden Generation. The consensus was that this generation of stars failed to reach their heights, and the 2022 World Cup was their last gasp at glory. The journey certainly did not get off to a smooth start, with Kevin De Bruyne stating that the team were ‘too old’ to make a run for their money ahead of their first game.

Canada rolled past them in the opening fixture of Group F. Belgium were no match to their opponents’ energy and high pressing and they were very lucky to get away with three points in the end. This was a wake-up call, but the Red Devils were still sleeping by the looks of it, as Morocco overcame Belgium by two goals to nil. A do-or-die tie against Croatia presented an opportunity to redeem some faith, and although there was a mark of improvement, it was ultimately too little too late. A group stage exit is unquestionably a horror result based on expectations. Perhaps the frustrations of not being able to achieve silverware in the previous competitions finally boiled over into one hot colossal mess.

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Next up are Hansi Flick’s new-look German side, who were even termed as one of the pre-tournament favorites. Unlike Belgium, they started the tournament well, or at least the first forty-five minutes. Things were looking positive, yet the Japanese wave hit them hard in the second half. A tactical shift by Hajime Moriyasu combined with defensive calamities meant that Germany were ousted by Japan. Just one game in and their hopes were already hanging by a thread. The upcoming game against Spain was crucial, for it was the opportunity to bounce back. Well, they didn’t exactly do that, although Flick was satisfied with a point in what was an enthralling tactical battle between the two sides who wanted to play on the front foot.

A win against Costa Rica would all but secure their place, but the Germans also needed a favor from their old foe, Spain. The final fixture of Group F was indubitably one of the most dramatic events, with Spain and Germany heading into the break with a comfortable lead. But, as we have seen, this World Cup is full of twists and turns. Japan scored twice within minutes, while Costa Rica stunned Germany on the other end. At one point, the two minnow nations in the group set foot into unchartered territory. Nevertheless, Germany turned the game around, but unfortunately, Spain failed to adhere to the favor, meaning the Die Mannschaft were eliminated from the group stage for the second time in a row.

Germany were arguably unlucky, but such are the margins in the World Cup. They have struggled to hit the same strides as they did in the past years, but there are a few emerging exciting young talents in the squad. Nonetheless, for the history and a team of Germany’s stature, departing this early from the contest is a disaster. Meanwhile, Brazil’s case was different compared to the two teams mentioned. They bought the Samba flair and flavor that we have all enjoyed in the past as their performance in the group stage campaign and the round of sixteen tie against South Korea genuinely made the fans believe the biggest prize could return to Rio after a twenty-year exile.

Neymar’s artistry peaked in the extra time of the quarter-final against Croatia; there was a lack of central creativity in Brazil’s attack, but the PSG star turned it around with a neat give-and-go with Paqueta before slotting it past the keeper. This moment made the entire nation believe. However, as fate turned out, Croatia, who themselves are a team known for their resilience, bounced back and stunned Brazil. The team that brought joy to so many faces were seen in utter disbelief. It just wasn’t meant to be, and manager Tite eventually left his role in the aftermath of the result.

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Serbia and Wales are two other teams who failed to deliver during the World Cup. Pre-tournament, the former were termed as the dark horses, but ultimately struggled to impose themselves in all three games. Wales, on the other hand, looked short of ideas as the USA dominated them in the opening game, while Iran convincingly came out on top in the second one. The 3-0 defeat against England was the nail in the coffin, as Gareth Bale and Co finished bottom of the group.

The 2022 World Cup was one huge rollercoaster ride. It was the crowning moment for the greatest player of our generation, Lionel Messi. While the off-field issues in Qatar took center stage, and rightfully so, the football on the field certainly did not disappoint.

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