Ranking the 16 World Cup group stage exiles
Can you imagine the fit that club presidents and managers would have if FIFA announced a Europa League equivalent for the World Cup?
Like third-place finishers in the Champions League group stages, the World Cup group also-rans could decamp to a nearby country, let’s say Germany in this case, even though it would give die Mannschaft an unexpected home advantage they could have used in the tournament proper. Wherever the castoffs land, they could play one-off elimination matches to determine a secondary champion.
What to call it? We could go all WWE and label it the Intercontinental Cup, even though that’s already been used by FIFA. Recycling is a good thing, though, isn’t it?
Alright, that’s settled. The next thing would be to seed the countries. Let’s do that. Only, not by their FIFA Rankings or the squad’s general quality. That will have something to do with it, but I’m thinking the primary criterion should be how well or badly they performed in the tournament.
Here then, seeded from top to bottom, are the 16 teams bumped from Russia 2018.
One caution per match cost the Teranga Lions a place in the Round of 16. Otherwise level with Japan, Senegal finished with five yellow cards to a pair for Samurai Blue. Margins do not get much finer, which is why the Africans deserve the top ranking in this exercise.
They were so close that some people find it harsh. One person I spoke to even said it was "unfair", a bit ironic when the deciding factor is fair play. Personally, I find it appropriate that skill is offered some protection from brute strength and bullying. Else what's the point?
Which is not to say Senegal were thugs. Far from it. They are a team blessed with skill. Japan simply applied theirs better.
What do you do when you draw Spain and Portugal in your World Cup group? More to the point, what do you do when your country is an unpopular theocracy that faces economic sanctions from more powerful nations, your equipment sponsor withdraws at the last minute due to the political pressure, your players, many of whom play for tiny domestic leagues that pay minimal wages, must suddenly pay for boots out of their pockets and you draw Spain and Portugal in your World Cup group?
All you can do is fight. Iran did that admirably. Team Melli hung in for 90+ minutes against Morocco then forced an own-goal at the death to seize the group lead while La Roja and the Selecao were waging a six-goal war. Then they held Spain to a single goal in defeat. It could have been a draw but VAR caught a touch that put Milad Mohammadi offside when it looked like he had equalised.
Against Portugal, VAR gifted Carlos Queiroz's side a dubious penalty to rescue a draw. Sometimes you need a bit of luck and an intimidated referee who thinks he must reverse his call if the booth tells him to review it.
In the end, Iran finished third in Group B on four points, with no goal difference. It wasn't pretty, but heart made up for that.
Los Incas didn't play as badly as their opening two defeats indicated. Their downfall was an inability to find the final ball and the finish in the opponent's box, especially reinstated team captain Paolo Guerrero. It was as though he was intimidated by the World Cup ball. One chance went wide, another over. Then he put one right into the keeper's breadbasket and chipped a backheel barely beyond the post. The pressure was telling.
When it was off in the final match, the world saw what the 30-something striker could do. A perfect cross from one side of the 18 to the other found Andre Carillo. The Benfica winger's volley back the other away nestled inside the post. Guerrero then found his own World Cup goal.
It's the measure of top players how they respond to pressure, but also to failure. The 45,000 Peruvians who crossed an ocean and two hemispheres to see their team play in Russia wanted only a goal from the final match. Their team gave them two.
It was a short ride but the Super Eagles derived full value from the World Cup rollercoaster. First disappointment, then hope, then heartbreak came their way in three group matches.
A comprehensive 2-0 defeat to Croatia opened the competition for Gernot Rohr's side. Luka Modric and company outclassed them, plain and simple.
Nigeria responded on Match Day 2, turning that score around to defeat a tough Iceland squad. Next up would be Argentina, but with three points in the bag, Rohr's group were ahead of La Albiceleste and Lionel Messi had gone missing in a major tournament again.
Messi woke up with Argentina on the brink. The Barcelona star scored the opener and his adoring legions thought the natural order had been restored. The Super Eagles made half-time adjustments, however. Both the Maestro and Angel di Maria were shut down in the second half. Nigeria then found an equaliser that had their fans believing the Round of 16 beckoned. But the South Americans finally remembered they had other players who could score. Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo turned a Gabi Mercado cross home from the penalty spot to turn the match on its head a second time [if that is anatomically possible].
When they needed, Nigeria punched above their weight. It just wasn't enough.
The Taeguk Warriors didn't show much in their two defeats. Sweden and Mexico did everything except mathematically eliminate South Korea. But when you embarrass Germany and send them spiralling out of the World Cup in the group stage, you deserve some credit. True, true, Jogi Low's side let the Asians hang around until luck finally smiled on them. But they put the match away in style, even though results elsewhere put them out of the tournament.
Besides, Spurs winger Son Heung-min's expression was classic as, judged guilty of simulation, he remained seated on the turf, hoping the referee would tire of waiting for him to stand and go off in search of easier prey. Replays clearly showed Son was fouled just outside the box, by the way.
Maybe they should be the Carnage Eagles. Carthage it is, though, even though Tunisia stumbled through three matches of utter carnage in Group G.
It began innocently. Belgium defeated the North Africans 2-1. Then England ripped through them, putting up five goals, including two goals on penalties. Tunisia would not be going through on fair play. Finally, they claimed three points against a woeful Panamanian squad, erstwhile Sunderland star Wahdi Khazri potting the winner.
Overall, Tunisia scored five goals and shipped eight. Among all 32 sides, only Panama saw as many goals in their matches, but the Carnage Eagles were the highest-scoring side among those eliminated.
In all, 13 teams scored only two goals in the tournament. One, Denmark, actually moved on to the Round of 16. Serbia, noted primarily for its defence, were among the dirty dozen who did not. Had they a few more intimidating attackers, beyond Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Newcastle's surplus forward Aleksandar Mitrovic, the White Eagles may have flown higher. Other problems included sacking their coach before the tournament. You don't do that when you are not Spain, even if it's October.
To their credit, Mladen Krstajic and Serbia showed a lot of fight. Now they have another four years to either work on their technical ability or convince Jose Mourinho to manage the side.
Honestly, die Mannschaft played so far below their standard I feel I should rank them even lower, but their quality has to count for something. Unfortunately, the only time it showed was on Toni Kroos' brilliant free kick against Sweden. Germany not only crashed out of the tournament, they scored just two goals while conceding four, matching Serbia and finishing joint-bottom in the tournament for goals.
Things were so bad that Manuel Neuer took a page from the NHL, abandoning his goal in stoppage time to play as an extra attacker. It's a desperate gamble even in hockey, which is played on a comparatively tiny surface. When the Germany keeper turned the ball over near the centre circle the worst happened. Kim Young-gwon ran the ball down to nullify an icing call and tapped it into the empty net.
The episode wasn't as embarrassing as Brazil's 7-1 capitulation to die Mannschaft in 2014, but it was close enough that some Brazil fans in Lebanon staged a mock funeral celebrating their nemeses' early demise. Thoughts and prayers.
The Atlas Lions rose to the occasion too late in this World Cup. A two-goal draw against Spain when already eliminated demonstrated spirit, but failure to crack Iran's granite block had already cost. That, and an early moment of inattention against Cristiano Ronaldo.
Morocco also failed in an equally spirited bid to host the 2026 World Cup. The future is bright, however. The team must be considered a favourite for the coming African Cup of Nations and they have a ridiculously handsome French manager. Who could ask for more?
An odd trend in this World Cup has been the number of countries that changed coaches at the last minute. We've already mentioned Mladen Krstajic, who replaced Slavoljub Muslin and, of course, Fernando Hierro was thrust into the Spain job when Julen Lopetegui was dismissed 48 hours before Spain kicked off against Portugal. Bert van Marwijk experienced both sides of the coin. Sacked after qualifying Saudi Arabia for the tournament, he was picked up by Australia, who had just lost Ange Postecogliu to Yokohama FM.
The Dutchman wasn't able to replicate his success with the Netherlands in 2010, although it wasn't for a lack of effort or ability on his part. He took the job on as a package deal that included hiring his own assistants. The budget was A$1 million and led to rumours he was paying his coaches out of his own pocket. when he was simply adding administrator to his coaching duties. Not having to run his choices by a pencil-pusher saved time, a critical asset with the tournament fast approaching.
Van Marwijk settled on veterans, given he hadn't the time to explore the Aussie youth system. The core group included 30-somethings Mile Jedinak, Mark Milligan and Tim Cahill, but also Huddersfield midfielder Aaron Mooy and young sensation Daniel Arzani. The Socceroos gave France all they could handle but came out on the wrong side of VAR. A draw against one-dimensional Denmark gave them hope but they couldn't rescue promotion from a Peru side intent on closing out in style.
If they're smart, the FFA will act quickly to convince Van Marwijk to stay in Oz and build a new program.
You can bet Hannes Halldorsson wished he had a camera in his hand every moment between the sticks for Iceland. Of course, the part-time film director would have found it more difficult to deny Lionel Messi's spot-kick with an 8mm in in his grip. He had to settle for letting others capture the moment while he lived it.
The Vikings continued the assault on traditional football powers they began in Euro 16. Argentina were hard put to advance after their one-goal draw with the Nordic country in Group D. Ultimately a lack of finishing despite Gylfi Sigurdsson's creative presence kept Iceland from landing on the elimination stage's shore.
The question is whether the nation of 334,000 has the human resources to remain a thorn in the side of the elite?
The Ticos' defining moment in the World Cup was playing the straight man to Neymar's comic dive. The resulting penalty was quickly and rightly overturned by referee Bjorn Kuipers upon video review. Costa Rica were still overmatched, losing 2-0, but at least they ruined Neymar's day. A 2-2 draw against Switzerland in the final match offered a brief, albeit overly late reminder of their outstanding run in 2014.
Captain Bryan Ruiz is 32. Manager Oscar Ramirez could have fielded an entire XI of 30-somethings in Russia. Like Iceland, doubts exist whether the Ticos can make it to Qatar in 2022.
If we played a game of World Cup word association and I said Robert Lewandowski, many responses would in some fashion describe male genitalia. The man does not care to make friends. As he has done more than once, Lewi threw his Polish teammates under the bus after a disappointing group stage. If he wants more dedicated service, he might find loyalty an amazingly fluent currency.
That said, Adam Nawalka's squad, which came to Russia on FIFA's top ten list, underperformed. Their closing win against Japan, in which Jan Bednarek rather than Lewandowski scored the lone goal, was too little too late after defeats to Senegal and Colombia.
Juan Antonio Pizzi was preferred to Bert van Marwijk by the SAFF despite the fact the Dutchman had the Green Falcons flying at an unaccustomed altitude and the Argentine had left Chile in the red in CONMEBOL qualifying. That the Saudis looked nothing like the team that had marched to qualification in Asia in its first two World Cup matches wasn't a shock. Nor was the fact the team hemorrhaged the third-most goals of the 32 teams in Russia. The only surprise was they were able to get the better of Mo Salah and Egypt when nothing was on the line.
Mo Salah couldn't make the difference for Egypt. Of course, Sergio Ramos had a hand in that. With an injured shoulder, Salah was teased as a possibility but ultimately unavailable for the tournament's opening match against Uruguay. Perhaps manager Hector Cuper equated Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez of Atletico Madrid with their Real counterpart and decided discretion was the better part of valour in this instance. Salah was in the lineup for the final two matches, scoring in both, but he wasn't enough.
Pain and pleasure were one and the same for Panama supporters who travelled to Russia. On the one hand, it was a rare treat to qualify for the competition for the first time in their history. On the other, their woeful display illustrated why it had never happened before. The team scored two goals but conceded 11. Los Canaleros were the only side to reach double digits in either the for or against column. Their record in Russia only amplifies how massive the United States failure to qualify was.