“Messi Wainaq,” Saudi Arabian fans chant at every chance they get. They roam in the streets and stadiums of Qatar, buzzing with football fans. Probably they are going to chant it for years to come, as their victory against Argentina has become a legend.
The historic shockers in the first round of the group stage are considered a beginning of a new wave in global football. At least, that is what Asian fans are expecting.
After a poor performance by host Qatar against Ecuador in the opening match which ended 2-0 with Enner Valencia scoring both, fans expected a similar dominance by South American teams and Europeans like all other editions of the tournament.
Iran’s 6-2 defeat against England, in the second match, reinforced it.
African reigning champions Senegal gave a hard time to Netherlands even though they conceded two goals in the last 10 minutes of the game. Next, the USA played Wales in a close match which ended in a draw — one of the many draws to come.
But in the next match, in front of thousands of Argentinian fans in Lusail Stadium, Green Falcons shocked the world with a comeback in the second half. But Saudi upset was not a stroke of luck. It has a well-deserved victory as Saudi outplayed La Albiceleste with offside traps and impressive counter-attacks.
It must have inspired other teams from Asia and the Arab region. Tunisia fought hard against European favourites Denmark to settle for a goalless draw, winning a pivotal point. Morocco and South Korea joined Tunisia in rattling the football giants and finishing in a tie.
Morocco played against 2018 World Cup finalist Croatia and South Korea met twice champions Uruguay in the first round of the group stage.
But it was not totally dull for Europeans and Latin America. England, France and Spain showered goals in their first appearance, while Portugal got an impressive win in a close match against Ghana.
The second shocker was Japan beating four-time champions Germany after a second-half comeback.
Japan, with no big names in the squad, played with passion. Both goals for Japan were scored by second-half substitutes. For the first goal all three substitutes linked up — Mitoma, Minamino and Doan. For the second goal — Asano scored.
Belgium showed a poor performance against Canada, although they struggled and scored once.
Iran also recovered from the first blow defeating Wales in the second round of the group stage 2-0.
While Qatar got better in the second game against Senegal, they repeatedly failed to finish their set pieces and defend the African invasion in their penalty box. The match ended 3-1 with Qatar scoring for the first time in World Cup history, the only takeaway for the host team.
The draw in Netherlands vs Ecuador game confirmed Qatar’s exit from the tournament.
Showered in Goals
A total of 41 goals were scored in the first round with Spain contributing seven goals in the opener with Costa Rica. Six players scored for La Roja, in a display of confidence by Luis Enrique’s squad.
But the best goal came from the World Cup favourites Brazil’s new number 9 Richarlison, who controls Vinicius Jr’s low cross and strikes with a scissor kick into the Serbian goalpost, his second for the night.
Ecuador’s Enner Valencia is the top scorer so far with three goals in two games. Spain’s Ferran Torres, Brazilian Richarlison, France’s Olivier Giroud, Iran’s M Taremi, Dutch player Cody Gakpo and England’s Saka are behind Valencia with two goals each.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi scored penalties for their country while Robert Lewandowski failed to get the ball past the keeper from the spot.
Ronaldo became the first man to score in five World Cups.
Star Brazilian striker Neymar couldn’t contribute to his team’s goal tally. He will not play other group-stage matches due to an ankle injury.
Kylian Mbappé, last World Cup’s sensation, also scored against a weak Australia team.
Players to watch
The first round saw several new names making headlines for their impressive performance. Spain’s Gavi become the third youngest scorer in the tournament’s history at 18 years and 110 days. He played a magnificent game — dribbling and passing — reminding fans Messi in Barcelona.
Luis Enrique is sure he has on his hands a player who will become one of the best in the world.
Saudi Arabia’s goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais also won hearts for his stunning performance against top strikers in the world, including Messi. Green Falcon’s Salem Al Dawsari is also a player to watch.
England’s Saka also had a good game against Iran but he was nowhere seen in a disappointing match against England. Yet European clubs will put their money for the Arsenal player.
Valencia, who has become the talisman for Ecuador, will also be under radar of fans and agents. Captain Luka Modric pulled strings for Croatia against dangerous Morocco and Ronaldo motivated his team on the pitch and from the sideline.
Rather than individuals, teams have got spotlight in the early stage of the tournament. Many players are having their debut in World Cup this time. Fans hope they will shine in the coming days.