The World Cup knockout stage begins tomorrow. The first matches in the round of 16 are Uruguay vs. Portugal in Sochi and France vs. Argentina at Kazan.
Three of the world’s best players will be on display tomorrow. Luis Suarez (Uruguay) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal) go head-to-head, while Lionel Messi will look to keep Argentina alive for its first championship since 1986, when Diego Maradona dominated the tournament in Mexico.
In fact, today is the 32nd anniversary of Argentina’s 3-2 victory over West Germany in the 1986 World Cup final. Argentina maybe should not have been there, thanks to Maradona’s handball goal vs. England in the quarterfinals, now referred to around the world as the “Hand of God” goal.
Argentina struggled in Group D, playing to a 1-1 draw vs. Iceland in its first match after Messi was stopped on a penalty kick, then falling 3-0 to Croatia. Somehow, the South American side did enough to get through, as a 2-1 victory over Nigeria pushed them to four points, while Nigeria was stuck on three.
Europe and South America have all but two spots in the round of 16. The interlopers are Mexico (CONCACAF) and Japan (AFC), which advanced as the second place team from Group H over Senegal on something called FIFA Fair Play points.
For those of you less invested in association football, here’s what happened.
Japan and Senegal ended the group play with one win, one draw and one loss. Wins are three points, draws are one, so that left each side with four points.
The first tiebreaker is goal differential. Japan and Senegal each had a goal differential of zero. That’s no good.
The next tiebreaker is goals scored. As it turned out, each nation scored four goals in the group stage.
Head-to-head is the next tiebreaker, but a 1-1 draw rendered that moot.
Prior to 2018, had this situation occurred, a coin toss would have been conducted to determine which team went through.
However, FIFA decided after the 2014 World Cup that there should be more competition factors involved in tiebreakers before the coin toss would be necessary.
Therefore, the FIFA executive committee came up with a fair play formula, which would penalize teams for yellow and red cards accumulated. Here’s the breakdown:
- yellow card–minus 1 point
- second yellow card leading to red card–minus 3 points
- straight red card–minus 4 points
- yellow and straight red–minus 5
Senegal picked up two yellows in its first match vs. Poland, while Japan had one in its opener with Colombia.
The countries then met head-to-head in the second match of the group stage. Through the first 89 minutes, each county accumulated one yellow. But in the final minute of regulation plus stoppage time, Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi issued three, two to Senegal.
Heading into the final group stage matches, Senegal trailed minus-5 to minus-3 on fair play points. Of course, the African side could take care of business itself by defeating Colombia, which would have sent Senegal through regardless of the outcome of Japan vs. Poland.
Senegal’s M’Biyae Niang picked up his country’s sixth yellow card of the tournament in the 51st minute. The game was still scoreless, so hope was not lost.
Meanwhile, Poland took a 1-0 lead in the 59th minute on a goal Jan Bednarek. Several minutes later, Colombia got on the board in the 74th minute courtesy of Yerra Mina.
With 20 minutes plus stoppage time remaining in its match, Japan gave up the ghost. Poland was only too happy to oblige, since it had no chance to advance.
Therefore, Senegal, called one of the most exciting teams of the 32 in the field by most commentators, would be on a flight back to Dakar the next morning, while Japan remained in Russia to prep for Monday’s match with Belgium.
It’s a tough way to go for Senegal, but all it had to do was earn a draw vs. Colombia and it would still be playing, and Africa would still be in the tournament.
I expect it will be down to Europe and South America by 1500 CT Monday.
Mexico’s 3-0 loss to Sweden in its final group match forced it into a matchup with Brazil, which is hungry to prove its 7-1 embarrassment by Germany in the 2014 semifinals at Belo Horizonte was a one-time fluke and not an irreversible trend.
Japan has next to no chance against Belgium, which looked mighty good in its group matches, including a 3-0 dispatch of England Thursday.
Here’s how I’m thinking the knockout round goes:
ROUND OF 16
- Portugal over Uruguay (Ronaldo is the best in the world, period)
- France over Argentina (Messi won’t rescue his country this time)
- Brazil over Mexico (tough luck, Landon Donovan; CONCACAF is a third-rate federation compared to UEFA and CONMEBOL)
- Belgium over Japan (second most one-sided match of the round of 16; the next match is the most one-sided)
- Spain over Russia (that Russia is in the knockout round is an absolute joke)
- Croatia over Denmark (there is a lot of buzz on the streets of Zagreb, and with good reason)
- Sweden over Switzerland (a lot of commentators are picking the Swiss. Can’t go against the Swedes after impressive display vs. Mexico)
- England over Colombia (should be a great match)
- Portugal over France (Ronaldo too much for les bleus)
- Brazil advances over Belgium on penalty kicks (this match is a prime example of why FIFA should conduct a random draw before each knockout round prior to the final)
- Croatia over Spain in extra time (should be a great showcase for European football)
- England over Sweden (first time in the semis since 1990 for the Three Lions)
- Brazil over Portugal (a man vs. a team. The team wins)
- Croatia over England (crying in the pubs of London, Liverpool, Manchester and all other points)
- Brazil over Croatia (redemption is complete)