Except for some shockers like powerhouses Argentina and Germany losing to unheralded opponents at the start of the Group Stage, the 22nd FIFA World Cup in Qatar began uneventfully. But as expected, the quadrennial event exploded into life with the semifinals set this week.
Anxiety levels soared through the roof in this weekend’s quarterfinals, in which four of the remaining eight teams were decided via the cruellest method for ending tournament dreams: penalty shootouts.
Favorites Brazil have crashed out after losing 4-2 on penalties to Croatia. Meanwhile, Lionel Messi and Argentina survived the Netherlands in a nail-biting 4-3 shootout, right after blowing a 2-0 advantage in the final 20 minutes of regulation.
For those not yet familiar, a penalty kick is resorted to in order to break a tie. Per current FIFA rules, if a World Cup knockout match ends level after 90 minutes, a 30-minute extra time, divided into periods of 15 minutes, is given. Teams also swap ends at half time.
Should the game remain in a draw by the time it hits the 120th minute, a penalty shootout will be the next deciding factor, in which each team will initially take a total of five penalties. As soon as one of the teams has gained an unassailable lead, it will progress to the next round. Per FIFA rules, if the scores are still tied after both teams have taken five kicks, the shootout continues until “one team has scored a goal more than the other from the same number of kicks.”
The semifinalists are now set with Croatia and Argentina facing off on Wednesday, Dec. 14 (3 a.m. in the Philippines), and Morocco against the defending champion, France, on Thursday, Dec. 15 (also at 3 a.m. here),
Meanwhile, chew on some gripping tidbits that CoverStory compiled:
— There’s a chance a game in the semifinals could be decided on a penalty shootout. Croatia is peerless from the penalty spot so Argentina should avoid, if they can, going into a penalty shootout. During the Round of 16, Croatia beat Japan on penalties (3-1) after ending the match at 1 all.
— While Argentina is a clear favorite with the bookmakers, one should remember that Croatia finished second in the last World Cup (2018) held in Russia. It was Croatia’s first-ever finals appearance where France beat them, 4-2. Incidentally, it was Argentina that France defeated to reach the finals.
— Argentina won the World Cup as the host nation in 1978, and again in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The Albicelestes (white and sky blue) as they are known, have since lost in the final of the 1990 World Cup in Italy (vs West Germany) and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil (vs Germany).
— There could be a looming battle of two goalkeepers when Argentina and Croatia face off. Saving spot-kicks has become the specialty of Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, and he now has quite a collection just from the past week: versus Japan during the Round of 16 last Dec. 5 and versus Brazil last Dec. 10. Meanwhile, Emiliano Martinez came to Argentina’s rescue as he saved three penalties in the penalty shootout.
— For all that Messi has achieved in his club career in Europe, hoisting the famed World Cup trophy is still what separates him and his fellow Argentine, the legendary Diego Maradona. “El Diego” did it in 1986. Messi–who at 35 years old may be retiring soon–has just two more games left to try and match Maradona’s feat.
–The Croatia-Argentina match could also be the last World Cup appearance for the Croatian legend, and team captain, Luka Modric. The 37-year-old midfielder also plays for Real Madrid.
— On the other side of the semifinals bracket, underdog Morocco became the first African team to advance to the semifinals of a World Cup after beating Portugal, 1-0, through a Youssef En-Nesyri header on the 42nd minute of regulation, last Sunday morning, Dec. 11.
— The Atlas Lions (the Morocco team, as they are also known) heads to the semifinals having conceded just one goal in their five games, and even that was an own goal against Canada during the Group Stage.
— In that Morocco-Portugal quarterfinal match, 37-year-old and five-time world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo did not start for the second straight game but came in as a substitute in the 51st minute. Regarded as one of the game’s greatest players, Ronaldo is likely to finish his 20-year professional career without capturing the World Cup, or ever getting to the final.
— In their World Cup quarterfinal match this Sunday morning (Philippine time), England blew a huge chance to tie the game in the 82nd minute against France. Harry Kane booted a penalty kick well over the bar, allowing France to advance to the semis on 2-1 score.