ST. PETERSBURG — If it’s connected correctly, turning a single small gear can be enough to turn another, more distant one that’s a whole lot bigger on the other end. That’s sort of how the World Cup works. Because of the scrutiny and the stage—and because four years is a long time—one goal, one moment or one performance can be amplified to an astonishing degree. It can shape perspective, policy and history.
Consider Lionel Messi, for example. He was among the more tragic figures of this tournament. But had Gonzalo Higuaín finished off that breakaway at the Maracanã four years ago, the pressure and conversation surrounding Messi and the Albiceleste would’ve been completely different. Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said this tournament in Russia was “like a gun to Messi’s head.” Instead, imagine if he’d already won it, and he could approach this summer with more serenity. The team wouldn’t have been so skittish. Maybe Diego Maradona would’ve stayed home. Rather, an entire World Cup cycle, and perhaps the legacy of the most gifted player of all time, was transformed by that one shank in Rio.
Soccer is a day-to-day occupation and/or obsession for vast numbers of people. And a lot happens on those days, often behind the scenes, that determines success or failure. But the results of three of four games every four years move narrative mountains.
Spain was a favorite this summer. Now, after just one win and 120 minutes of trying to lull Russia to sleep, tiki-taka needs a rethink. Coach Fernando Hierro acknowledged as much after going out to the hosts on penalties in the round of 16. Germany’s approach to its title defense represented the power of teamwork, unity and humility—of a restless refusal to settle for the status quo. Until it didn’t. Now we’re all wondering if arrogance or selfishness took root again after that dour, disjointed performance.
The 21st World Cup is at a tipping point. For every country save a handful—and all but two of those are already gone—making the quarterfinal represents a successful tournament. Take one step further, however, and if you’re not legendary, you’re at least validated (unless you lose 7-1 at home). Simply put, success over the course of the next 90-120 minutes demonstrates you’re doing something right, and that the sport in your country is on the correct path.
One game changes everything, as a former World Cup broadcaster told us. Look at Kylian Mbappé. For two weeks, he was one part of a France team that just never really got going. Now, after his unforgettable one-man show against Argentina, he’s he Golden Ball favorite and getting photoshopped into a Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped Real Madrid shirt. One World Cup game is a gear with long, sturdy teeth.
The quarterfinals scheduled for Friday and Saturday will be decided by players, coaches, bounces, posts and referees. Edinson Cavani’s anticipated absence will change the way Uruguay approaches France. The Belgium-Brazil game will be shaped by whether Tite decides Roberto Firmino should start over Gabriel Jesus, or whether Roberto Martínez opts to get Belgian wrecking ball Marouane Fellaini in there to disrupt Brazil’s midfield. Maybe Luka Modric will be able to puncture Russia’s resolve in a way David Silva couldn’t.
It’ll be stuff like that which determines the winner. But when four teams emerge on the other side, much larger narratives will be formed or confirmed. We’ll think we know new things about players, coaches and countries that we don’t today. That’s the power of this stage. With four games coming up, here’s a look at four longer-term storylines in play:
Is the gap really closing?
Germany’s and Argentina’s group stage elimination and Spain’s round-of-16 departure, not to mention the absence of Italy and the Netherlands, have led many to conclude that either the gap between soccer’s haves and have-nots is closing, or that we’re finally due a surprise World Cup winner. The group stage felt like carnage. This tournament has been mayhem.
But maybe the gap hasn’t shrunk. While it’s true that the half of the bracket featuring Croatia, Russia, Sweden and England will produce an unexpected finalist—either a first timer or one that’s waited at least a half century for a return trip—that’s as much or more a result of the draw than it is the closing of a gap. The fallen powers were earmarked for that side.
If Brazil and France win Friday, that semifinal will be a showdown between established powers, former champions and two of the three or four pre-tournament favorites. And if England and Croatia win Saturday, it’ll set up a surprising semifinal, but not one that’ll change the way we perceive the World Cup. Croatia is one of several European countries that has generational ebbs and flows of talent, and a few hit the World Cup at the right time and made the final four—including Croatia itself in 1998 (see also Portugal in ‘06, Turkey in ‘02, Sweden in ‘94, etc.)
As for England, it has long been considered an underachieving power. If the Three Lions progress, they’ll simply have found a formula that gets them closer to reaching their potential. France finally broke through in 1998. Spain, after decades of disappointment, rewrote its story in 2010. If England moves on, it doesn’t mean the gap is closing. It means a power stopped shooting itself in the foot.
The primary point here is that it’s the results over the next week and a half, and especially the next two days, that’ll determine the conclusions the world draws about the solidity and predictability of soccer’s hierarchy.
Is English football renewed?
Speaking of England—Tuesday’s shootout win was cathartic and cleansing, and highlighted the intangibles this squad seems to possess that its predecessors lacked.
This look at how coach Gareth Southgate prepared his team for penalty kicks is enlightening—it turns out they're not entirely a lottery—as is this piece on the squad’s use of a sports psychologist. This is a modern team comprised of modern men, and it isn’t weighed down by history or baggage, nor is it riven by interpersonal issues created by club affiliation, jealousy or hubris.
That’s catapulted them to their first World Cup quarterfinal in a dozen years.
To get further, however, they’ll have to play better soccer. Sweden is stout and well-organized. It has yielded just two goals in this competition (one from open play) and blanked Italy in the UEFA playoffs to get here. And the Swedes are unlikely to play with the same lack of penalty-area discipline that cost Colombia against England.
The Three Lions have done a lot of running here in Russia, and they’ve been fantastically composed and well-drilled on set pieces. But the performance from open play leaves something to be desired, as only two of their nine goals were scored on the move—and one of those was an accidental deflection off Harry Kane’s heel.
Sure, penalties and corner kicks come from having the ball and attacking. But it’s tough to be one dimensional and go deep in a World Cup. The wingers in Southgate’s 3-5-2, especially Kieran Trippier, have done well. But more connection and penetration is needed from Raheem Sterling and the three central players behind Kane (Jesse Lingard, Eric Dier, Jordan Henderson, et al) if England is going to contend. Kane has taken only nine shots, including his penalties.
Otherwise, this World Cup will represent progress on the intangibles, but raise questions about whether England is any closer to matching the tactics and technique of the elite.
Either Belgium or Brazil will make a statement
Front to back, they’re two of the three most talented teams left in the tournament. But neither Brazil nor Belgium has beaten a contender so far. Belgium eased past a second-choice England side in the group stage, and neither Brazil’s round-of-16 win over Mexico nor the Red Devils’ last-gasp escape of Japan represented the on-field establishment of title credentials.
Now they play each other in Kazan. The loser will leave the World Cup having failed at the first high hurdle. The winner will feel a whole lot better going up against France or Uruguay in the semis.
Martínez spoke with reverence about Brazil and painted his team as the underdog.
“It’s a dream match for our players. They were born to play in a match like this. Naturally we want to win, but we are not expected to and that is an important difference,” he told reporters this week.
If that’s the case, it’s because of pedigree, not personnel. Belgium is loaded with world-class players in their prime, and it boasts the talent to achieve something unprecedented. None of those aforementioned up-and-down European sides has broken through and lifted the trophy. None has made the final since 1962. If Belgium beats Brazil, it will convince some it’s possible. If it fails, even though Croatia still may get its crack, it could be a while before the Red Devils come this close again.
“There is something special about this squad. If we play well, we can create a lot of chances. But there is no margin for error. If we give Brazil a chance, they will take it. I think it will be the match of the tournament," Martínez said.
Brazil has been improving steadily, but Belgium represents the most significant test faced by Tite, Neymar and Co. They haven’t had to deal with a center forward like Romelu Lukaku, nor a team whose midfield can keep the ball and change the point of attack so adroitly. This is the round where the wheels started to fall off for Brazil in 2014, when a brutal quarterfinal against Colombia, in which Neymar was injured, set the stage for the Mineirazo.
Brazil has waited four years to establish its championship bona fides. It finally has the chance Friday.
Bigger isn’t better—proximity as an enhancer of player development
The World Cup creates copycats. One team goes far, alters its trajectory or wins the whole thing, and others seek to follow a similar path.
Look for those kind of copycat conversations to gain more traction after the Uruguay-France game, especially if the winner moves on to the final. These are two countries whose excellence in player development is sure to garner even more widespread attention.
As The Washington Post details in this Thursday feature, Uruguay and veteran coach Óscar Tabárez have used the country’s small population (3.4 million—about that of Connecticut) to their advantage by creating an accessible, hands-on culture in which personality and style of play are cultivated consistently throughout all age groups. Even though most promising Uruguayan players move abroad when they’re relatively young, they return to the national team with a recognizable temperamental and tactical core.
Over the past decade, Uruguay will have played in a World Cup semifinal and quarterfinal and won the Copa América.
France also has benefitted from a development crucible. It’s obviously much larger than Uruguay, but the number of players coming from the middle and lower-class Paris suburbs—the banlieues—is soaring. And they’re really, really good. From Mbappé to Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Blaise Matuidi and Benjamin Mendy—around one-third of Didier Deschamps team hails from the banlieues.
Take a look at this remarkable dive into the concentrated soccer culture in the Paris suburbs from The New York Times, then consider what these two overachieving areas—Uruguay and the banlieues—have in common. Ability and ambition are generated by proximity, attention and friction, and over time, that may be enough to produce world champions. Maybe you don’t need millions of people and billions of dollars. And maybe there’s something about those environments that’s replicable.
If either Les Bleus or La Celeste win three more games, it’s guaranteed that a bunch of countries will start trying.