The World Cup of Chaos: Looking Back on a Group Stage for the Ages

The late goals. The drama. The ousted champion. The powers on the brink of elimination. The VAR. The GOATee. The 2018 World Cup group stage was unlike any other.
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MOSCOW — There were just 16 hours between the conclusion of Thursday’s England-Belgium junior varsity game, which brought the curtain down on this World Cup’s group stage, and manager Didier Deschamps’ press conference in Kazan, which marked the de facto start of the round of 16. There, two favorites and former world champions, Deschamps’ France and Lionel Messi’s Argentina (because he’s apparently also the coach), will kick off the business end of the tournament.

Those 16 hours went by in a blink. It isn’t enough–not after the past 15 days and 48 games, which produced a World Cup group stage unlike any we’ve seen before. An extra day’s breather would be welcome, if only so everyone can effectively process what just occurred. From the absurd number of stoppage-time goals and the introduction of video review, to the chaos that embroiled Argentina and Egypt and the stunning performances by the host and reigning champ, the first round was a wild, compelling and controversial ride.

There’s very little time to reflect, or take the deep breath necessary before the knockout-round plunge. So here’s a quick overview of what made the past two weeks so engrossing and memorable.

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There was late drama on a daily basis

It was apparent from the Day 2 that this World Cup was going to be a relentless strain on the nerves. José Giménez headed Uruguay to victory in the 89th minute against Egypt. Aziz Bouhaddouz sent Morocco to a 1-0 defeat with a 95th-minute own goal. And then Cristiano Ronaldo completed an iconic hat trick—and drew Portugal level with Spain—with a trademark free kick in the 88th.

By 2018 World Cup standards, however, Ronaldo’s strike came with time to spare. The group stage finished with an astonishing 20 goals tallied in the 90th minute or in second-half stoppage time. That’s more than the 19 scored at that point in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 tournaments combined, according to Opta.

Among the highlights: Philippe Coutinho’s slick breakthrough against determined Costa Rica (91st); Xherdan Shaqiri’s breakaway winner and provocative celebration against Serbia (90th); Toni Kroos’s gorgeous curler against Sweden, which appeared to spark a German turnaround (95th); Harry Kane’s 91st-minute header, which lifted modest England to a confidence-building win over Tunisia; and the ridiculous conclusion to Group B, which we’ll get to below.

Overall, scoring (2.54 goals per game so far) is down compared to the full 2014 tournament, which produced 2.67 GPG. But they’ve been spread out, thus increasing the drama. There’s been just one 0-0 game here in Russia, and that was between French and Danish teams had no interest in winning. There were five goalless group-stage matches four years ago, and six in 2010.

And if you want narrow margins, this World Cup marked the first time a second-round spot was decided by “fair play.” Senegal and Japan couldn’t be separated by standings points, goal differential, goals scored or head-to-head result. So it came down to yellow cards, the second-half stoppage-time of tiebreakers. Japan will play Belgium on Monday. Senegal is out.

Even the big teams were challenged

You could count the number of non-competitive group-stage games on one hand. One of those routs, the opener, was between the two lowest-ranked teams in the competition (Russia and Saudi Arabia), and the others came in Group G, where Belgium and England were just a whole lot better than Panama and Tunisia.

Otherwise, this World Cup has been a tough test for everyone. Only three sides won all three first-round games (Belgium, Uruguay and Croatia) and this was the first World Cup where every entrant scored at least two goals. No one was truly out of their depth.

Most of the favorites still advanced, but they had to work for it. The slow boil of the tournament’s top teams shouldn’t be too surprising. The biggest countries have more tired players competing in high-pressure leagues and/or late into important tournaments, and national team football in general is less cohesive thanks to limited training time. But the big names have maintained an exclusive hold on the World Cup, so eyebrows are raised and headlines are written if they struggle.

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Argentina needed Marcos Rojo’s 86th-minute volley against Nigeria to survive. Spain and France, considered among the four or five obvious pre-tournament title contenders, haven’t looked the part. Brazil didn’t appear sharp until its third game, a 2-0 win over Serbia. And Germany, obviously, is already home, their invincibility destroyed by Mexico’s and Juan Carlos Osorio’s tactical masterclass in Moscow.

Conversely, it’s rare that people wish they could see more from eliminated sides, but that’s the case here in Russia. Most agree that the likes of Peru, Morocco, Senegal and perhaps Iran performed better than their records or early flights out indicate. Denmark coach Åge Hareide even said that the Peruvians “perhaps played the best in our group,” following his own squad’s second-place finish.

All of that just added to the drama.

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And there was so much controversy

There’s off-the-field nonsense at every World Cup. But again, everything about this tournament hosted by the planet’s largest country seems to be super-sized. The most amusing issues surrounded Argentina, which came so close to group-stage humiliation—and perhaps the end of Messi’s international career. Depending on which article or source you believe, there was a locker room mutiny, and/or coach Jorge Sampaoli is taking direction from Messi. His celebrity, the volume of Argentina supporters here in Russia and the constant, paramedic-necessitating, bird-flipping absurdity of Diego Maradona has amplified it to a ludicrous degree. On one hand, it would be fun to see it continue with a win over France. On the other, Argentina is just exhausting.

The saddest and most avoidable controversy surrounded Egypt and Mohamed Salah. The inspiring story of his unexpected superstardom and the Pharaohs’ return to the World Cup after an agonizing 28-year wait was ruined partly by his Sergio Ramos-induced shoulder injury, but mostly by the Egyptian FA’s inexplicable decision to allow Salah to be used as a political PR pawn by controversial Chechen president/warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. Salah reportedly threatened to quit the national team as a result, and Egypt lost all three group-stage games. Salah still managed to score twice. But his World Cup surely went far worse than he imagined.

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This World Cup also got political during the aforementioned Switzerland-Serbia game, during which Shaqiri and teammate Granit Xhaka celebrated goals with a two-handed “eagle” gesture referencing the Albanian flag and their Kosovar Albanian heritage. No one thought it an accident that this happened against Serbia, and FIFA fined each player CHF 10,000 (a bit more than $10,000).

From a more technical perspective, Spain’s decision to dismiss coach Julen Lopetegui just two days before its tournament kicked off was a stunning development for a World Cup favorite. Lopetegui was replaced by former defender Fernando Hierro after announcing his intention to take over at Real Madrid immediately following the tournament. Instead, that transition happened much sooner. It was messy, but hasn’t come back to bite La Roja just yet.

Also, while the “controversy” entry isn’t the ideal place for this, the fact that Ronaldo grew a goatee and stroked it after scoring to troll Messi is so stupid and amazing, that it must be included in any legitimate group-stage review.

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The scene was unique

All those Argentine fans contributed greatly to an atmosphere here in Russia that was dominated—somewhat surprisingly, considering the distance—by Latin Americans. From the streets surrounding Red Square to the stands in so many stadiums, the soundtrack to the group stage was chanted in Spanish. Argentines, Mexicans and Peruvians have come out in force, and they’ve even turned up at games that don’t feature one of those teams. Brazilians and Colombians are here in noticeable numbers as well.

To the extent the Russian government wanted to show off a sunnier, more welcoming side to their country, the World Cup has been a success to this point. The host cities are far from dreary. Half the budget surely has been spent on paint, flags and statues of the wolf mascot who’s wearing goggles for some reason. Volunteers and clean-up crews are everywhere, and the amount of security is significant. Metal detectors are omnipresent, from the stadiums and subways to popular streets and intersections, and bag scanners are common on mass transit and at train stations. It’s apparent—you can’t turn your head without seeing someone in a uniform—but it hasn’t been off-putting or overly intrusive. Fears about hooligan violence have proven to be unfounded so far. For the most part, the environment has been celebratory.

Bars and cafes are open late and the sun essentially never goes down, so the streets are packed at all hours and the momentum of the tournament doesn’t seem to stop. It’s been a unique group-stage setting.

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Video review has been mostly not a terrible thing

Speaking of stopping momentum, that was one of the primary concerns about the introduction of video review, which was introduced to MLS last summer. Speaking to media Friday in Moscow, Italian refereeing icon and FIFA Referees Committee chairman Pierluigi Collina said one of the intentions during the tournament was to “have as few interventions as possible,” but that players and coaches wound up asking for it constantly.

It turns out that may be the most annoying thing about VAR—the crowding and harassment from players following every potentially close call. Otherwise, it’s been a benefit by and large—or at worst a tolerable nuisance. On-field reviews have been efficient, and while subjectivity still exists (many feel that’s a good thing), several game-changing plays have been reviewed and adjudicated accurately thanks to the technology.

Among the most memorable uses were the simultaneous and decisive interventions as Group B play concluded in Kaliningrad and Saransk. As both games entered stoppage time, Portugal led Iran, 1-0, and Morocco was up, 2-1, over Spain. At that point, Portugal was leading the group and Spain was headed to the “bracket of death” and a second-round showdown with Uruguay. But Iran was awarded a video-assisted penalty, Iago Aspas’s brilliant goal was correctly ruled onside, and Spain overtook Portugal on the goals scored tiebreaker.

Opinions of those impacted seem to depend largely on whether the call went for them or against them, which is chatter we can all live with. Ensuring Aspas’s beautiful heel flick counted is why VAR exists. As Ramos said, “VAR didn’t save us. It just told the truth.”

Ramos will, inevitably, hate VAR at some point.

FIFA said Friday that VAR checked 335 incidents during the group stage (around seven per game) and was used on 17 full reviews (14 on the field by the referee and three in-house “factual decisions” that can be made on issues like offside or mistaken identity). After those 17 reviews, 14 initial referee decisions were reversed (including seven penalty kicks awarded and two withdrawn) and three calls were confirmed.

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Let’s move on to the knockout rounds with this

There can be no more emblematic moment from the group stage than one that happened at the very end. Adnan Januzaj scored a wonderful goal that lifted Belgium to victory in a game it may have been better off losing, and Michy Batshuayi celebrated by punting the ball of the post and back into his own face. It was timely, chaotic, silly and unique.

And as of Saturday, probably set to be forgotten.