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World Cup 2022 Briefing: Lesser Lights Sharing Stage With The Stars

Main event

Welcome to the final eight of the World Cup, an incredible group of teams with players plying their trade in various corners of the globe. Many represent some of the biggest names the sport has to offer, from Barcelona to Manchester City, and will go back to challenging for silverware in domestic and continental competitions but others will eventually return to less glamorous surroundings.

Morocco’s giantkillers have a broad array of clubs among their ranks from Qatari owned Paris Saint-Germain to Serie B’s Bari. Those who play in the less assuming places know things are unlikely to get better than this, going toe-to-toe with Spain and getting the better of them. No wonder the celebrations after the final penalty were so exuberant. Even if their paypackets do not match those of teammates at Chelsea or Bayern Munich, for this tournament all 26 are equal. The Championship’s Burnley and QPR have representation within Morocco’s ranks, as does Saudi Arabia’s domestic league thanks to three players from Wydad AC.

Even the more favoured teams include some surprise elements. Netherlands, now famously, have a first-choice goalkeeper who almost gave up the game to become a police officer following gloriously forgettable spells at NAC Breda, Foggia and Dordrecht. Andries Noppert made it back to Heerenveen, where he started his career as a reserve goalkeeper in the summer, and muscled his way to the No 1 spot earning himself a callup from Louis van Gaal and an international debut in Netherlands’ opening victory over Senegal. Whenever he returns to his homeland, it will be to keep goal for the team that are currently eighth in the Eredivisie, which is a long way from trying to stop Lionel Messi in anyone’s book.

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Photograph: Caspar Benson

Luckily for Belgian fans there is still some interest to be had in this World Cup with players from Genk, Club Brugge, Standard Liege and Antwerp still vicariously flying the flag. Antwerp’s representative is Vincent Jansson, who is remembered in England for an underwhelming spell with Spurs. Since then he has taken in tours of Turkey and Mexico to keep his World Cup dreams alive.

Portugal are representing the Premier League’s bottom club Wolves through Matheus Nunes, Rúben Neves and José Sá. They would have had Pedro Neto, too, if not for injury. Progressing to a very winnable World Cup quarter-final against Morocco – and potentially further – might just be the tonic they require to help inspire their clubmates once they return from Qatar. Portugal have won three of their four World Cup matches, whereas Wolves have only secured three points twice all season. Max Kilman can almost certainly wait to be regaled with stories of their success. Not to forget, they have the one unemployed player at the tournament: Cristiano Ronaldo.

When Thiago Almada departed Vélez Sarsfield to join Atlanta United earlier this year, he cannot have imagined he would be the last-remaining MLS player in the competition, especially because he did not have a cap until late September. With USA and Canada packed off home, Almada is flying the flag for his new home nation, ensuring Fox Sports still has an interest in the competition so they can push their agenda. The good news for him is that the MLS season does not start up again until February so he will get a decent rest.

Whoever those remaining play for, they are two games away from a World Cup final. They will be putting every ounce of their talent and fitness into trying to make it to the last two. Whether they succeed or fail, they will have enjoyed a life-changing experience.

Talking points

If the group stage ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Gianni Infantino used the first rest day of the World Cup to wax lyrical about the global pull of Qatar 2022 and the quality of football that had been on offer. He was hardly going to be critical of it now was he? And while much of what he said likely would have been uttered if the tournament had been a dull parade of the most powerful nations into the last eight, his view that the group stage had been “the best ever” was perhaps a precursor to a climbdown on plans for a format change for USA 2026. Fifa has already hinted that it might abandon the three-team groups for the 48-team edition of the next World Cup but, after the high drama in the final group matches in Qatar, sticking with four teams would appear to be an open goal for an under-fire organisation that could do with making a popular decision or two. GB

Hazard bows out but how good was he for Belgium?

As with any member of Belgium’s Golden Generation, it’s hard to assess Eden Hazard’s international career as an individual. On the face of things, 33 goals in 126 appearances – 56 of them as captain – is a reasonable return for a winger, and Hazard also contributed in major tournaments. At Brazil 2014, he assisted two winning goals; at the 2016 Euros, he assisted four and scored one; and at Russia 2018, he scored twice, was man of the match three times and crucial to his team’s famous quarter-final win over Brazil. Like various of his teammates, though, Hazard must surely have regrets. It may be that Belgium were never quite good enough to lift a trophy or even reach a final, but their eliminations in 2014 and 2016 were tame to say the least, while the inability to create chances in their 2018 semi-final against France reflects poorly on one of their principal schemers. Though Hazard has been a fine player, the nature of international football means that success and failure boil down to moments, and neither he nor his teammates were able to seize theirs. DH

Eden Hazard is consoled by France’s Hugo Lloris and Olivier Giroud after Belgium’s defeat in the 2018 World Cup semi-final. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesBeyond the football

Much of the controversy around the Qatar World Cup has focused on the nation’s poor human rights record and treatment of migrant workers, as well as the concern for LGBTQ+ people in a country where it is illegal to be gay. But another point of contention is the environmental cost of staging a World Cup in a desert nation where air conditioning will be used and seven stadiums, some of which will have to be repurposed or dismantled, have been built from scratch. Is Fifa’s aim of a carbon neutral tournament a pipe dream? For a deeper dive on this subject, listen to this fascinating episode of Science Weekly, which has been posted on our Football Weekly feed.

Meanwhile, people in the Swiss town of Brig have been treated to an eyeopening reminder from the non-profit organisation Avaaz that Gianni Infantino, who grew up there as a migrant, has yet to sign Fifa up to a compensation scheme for the families of migrant workers who died on World Cup construction projects. GB

An activist wearing a Gianni Infantino mask calls for Fifa to set up a compensation fund for the families of migrant workers who died on World Cup sites. Photograph: Valentin Flauraud/AFP/Getty ImagesGlobal media-watch

Spanish media have not looked kindly on the national side’s defeat. El País produced a visual guide to how Morocco had stifled Spain’s movement, lamenting that “chains of horizontal passes hardly gave the Africans any trouble” and that “Sergio Busquets constantly had three or four opponents on top of him”. In El Mundo, Eduardo J Castelao wrote that Luis Enrique’s embrace of live streaming, “his messages about life, about fun football, that this is a show for the public, have definitely launched him to stardom, not only in Spain”, but that probably still won’t be enough to save his job.

For Javier Aspron in ABC, it was Enrique’s fixed ideas that were the problem. “He wants to have the ball and attack regardless. But the problem is that most teams seem to know how to counteract that pattern, and when Spain hits a wall, they don’t seem to know how to do anything other than insist and insist on hitting the wall. Spain accumulates the ball, but on too many occasions it doesn’t know what to do with it.”

Luis Enrique reacts to defeat to Morocco as Spain fans make their feelings known. Photograph: Pedro Nunes/ReutersLa Razón stuck to a similar theme. In a piece headlined “Spain, again a thousand passes for nothing”, José Manuel Martín wrote that while the statistics showed the number of passes and level of possession to be “overwhelming figures”, he complained that they were “sterile”, saying “the balance of the 90 minutes against Japan and the 120 against Morocco is one goal, including penalties.”

Back in El Mundo, Jorge Bustos suggested that we could see Enrique age before our eyes on Tuesday afternoon, and put his verdict even more bluntly than most, with an opinion piece simply headed “This cowardly Spain is where it should be. At fucking home”. MB

The internet reacts

The internet abhors a vacuum, and it dislikes even more a sudden lack of World Cup football after an absolute feast of it.

Still. It’s back on Friday. MBe

Today’s live coverage

It’s another rest day in Qatar but we’ll have rolling World Cup news between 9am and 5pm GMT and be sure to get your live football fix with the Guardian’s minute-by-minute coverage of Real Madrid v Chelsea in the Women’s Champions League at 8pm.

And finally …

In technological innovations you never knew you needed, Fifa have produced their latest rankings of the Peter Kay ‘ave it factor™, or the “most powerful Fifa World Cup goal ranking” as they’ve called it. Thanks to the “connected ball technology” they can tell us that:

Leading the Top 10 goals from the group stage and round of 16 combined is Luis Chávez’s spectacular free-kick in Mexico’s 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia. The distance to goal was 29.19m, with a top speed of 121.69 km/h. The distance to goal is measured from where the ball is kicked, to the centre of the goal – straight line, not flight path.

Luis Chávez’s free-kick screams over the wall at 121.69km/h. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty ImagesRitsu Dōan’s 120.04 km/h strike for Japan from just outside the box to make it 1-1 against Spain is currently the second fastest shot that led to a goal, with Germany’s Niclas Füllkrug’s goal – also against La Roja – in third place.

Hakim Ziyech of Morocco leads the table for goals by ‘distance travelled’. His fourth-minute goal against Canada in the group stage was struck 32.85 metres from goal. MBe

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