2022 World Cup, the breakthrough of “small” nations

There had to be a surprise guest in the rollercoaster of a world party in Qatar that was already quite upside down. The Japanese had tried to get on board, Monday, December 5, by pushing the Croats on penalties, but the vice-world champions finally imposed themselves on the wire (1-1 after extra time, then 3-1 on penalties aim). It was therefore the Moroccans, this Tuesday, December 6, who finally got on the train of great thrills, leaving the Spaniards in disbelief, unable to honor their status as favorites (0-0 then 3-0).

The five continents in the round of 16, a first

Morocco maintains its historic performance, qualified for the first time in the quarter-finals of the 2022 World Cup, the fourth African team to reach this level after Cameroon (in 1990), Senegal (in 2002) and Ghana (in 2010 ). A great reward for coach Walid Regragui, who in just a few months has been able to unite a group of talented players, and the result of in-depth work carried out by Morocco in recent years.

In any case, the Atlas Lions disturb the usual banquet of European and South American ogres, and this is not so frequent. Since 1998 and the transition to 32 nations in the World Cup, and before 48 selections compete for the title from 2026, unexpected teams in the quarterfinals have not been legion: Costa Rica in 2014, Ghana in 2010, South Korea, the United States and Senegal in 2002, the most shocking World Cup of the period for the hierarchy of the round ball.

Morocco confirms this time a trend discernible from the end of the group stage in Qatar. For the first time, the round of 16 of the planetary competition included representatives from the five continents. For the Asian Football Confederation, another first: the presence of three countries (Japan, South Korea and Australia). They were only two in 2002 and 2010. The African Football Confederation, by winning two places in the top 16, equals 2014 (Algeria and Nigeria). But in Brazil, the five African teams in the group stage had only recorded a total of 12 points. In Qatar, they have 24 points, a record.

Really complete teams

Morocco first in its group? This had never happened to an African or Arab team. Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina (2-1), Japan falling Germany and Spain (2-1 both times), Morocco still extinguishing Belgium (2-0), Tunisia, Cameroon and South Korea winning against the B teams of France, Brazil and Portugal… examples abound of thunder claps in the Qatari sky.

“There are more and more countries capable of competing at the highest level”, welcomed the former coach Arsene Wenger, now director of development of the International Football Federation (Fifa), presenting on December 4 a first sports progress report for the World Cup. “This is due to an improvement in the adversary’s preparation and analytical capacity, two phenomena that reflect a more homogeneous access to technological tools”, added the technician.

Arsène Wenger provides FIFA’s after-sales service there, which promotes data analysis tools that it is gradually making available to improve the technical expertise of many nations. But beyond the actions of the international federation, the rise in power is explained first of all by the improvement of training in many countries which are also gradually structuring their championships. Japan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia are advancing on this path which is no longer paved with good intentions. The players then go harden up in the best European championships. The Japanese Blue Samurai have thus benefited from 8 players playing in Germany, 3 in France, 2 in Spain and 2 in England. On the Moroccan side, 5 Lions are roaring in France, 4 in Spain, 4 in England and 3 in Italy.

It is no longer a few rare individuals who stand out. More and more nations have a real bench depth. For Japan as for Morocco, the entry into play of effective substitutes was often decisive. “There are no more small teams”, we have long heard. It was released with a paternalistic half-smile. Now it’s serious.


Portugal in demonstration

Appetite comes with eating, and Morocco, qualified for the quarter-finals, no longer wants to limit its ambitions. But on their way, the Atlas Lions will come up against a Portuguese selection which was full of confidence by crushing Switzerland 6-1 in the round of 16, Wednesday, December 6. A festival staged without captain Cristiano Ronaldo, left on the bench of substitutes for the benefit of the young Gonçalo Ramos, 21 years old and barely three selections on the clock, author of a hat-trick more than noticed. For Morocco, this is not good news.


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