Just like that, the World Cup of upsets has morphed into the World Cup of superstars. How did that happen? And how did it happen so quickly?
What looked like a bloodbath for the favorites as underdog after underdog roared during the group stage, has seen order restored and the biggest names still here, with two weeks left, throwing punches and staring each other down.
Kylian Mbappe puts on a show
France’s Kylian Mbappe scored twice in a 3-1 win over Poland as the defending champs cruised toward a quarterfinal showdown with England.
All have taken one on the chin. All have survived, and they have only eyes for the big gleaming prize ahead now.
“My dream,” Neymar said, at the start of the tournament, when asked what the World Cup meant to him. Quickly, however, the dream started to get cloudy for the biggest of the big names.
On only the tournament’s third day, Argentina suffered a stunning defeat to Saudi Arabia, and Messi’s tournament survival seemed in jeopardy. Yet here is the little maestro, feet up, quarterfinal place booked against the Netherlands (Friday, 2 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App), peering with some confidence toward what he hopes is the one missing item on his career résumé.
Defending champion France suffered a loss, too, stunned by Tunisia, with even Mbappé’s late energy as substitute unable to shift the outcome. But with five goals so far, this has become his tournament, especially after the way he tore apart Poland in the round of 16.
Ronaldo’s Portugal went down to South Korea, and the former Manchester United ace got involved in an argument with rival players and looked thoroughly annoyed as he sat on the bench after being substituted. That didn’t stop them from clinching a spot against Switzerland in the round of 16 on Tuesday (2 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App), however.
What makes Neymar special
Brazil’s Neymar is known for his speed, dribbling, passing and ranks No. 5 on Stu Holden’s Top 50 players in the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup.
Neymar hasn’t played since his team’s opening game due to a ligament injury and had to watch as Brazil lost to Cameroon in its final group action, a match providing the delightful moment when scorer Vincent Aboubakar peeled off his shirt and held it aloft, and referee Ismail Elfath felt so bad at having to send him off for it that he dapped him up and shook his hand first.
But Brazil was still here as of Monday morning too, with Neymar primed and ready to take the field when the South Americans took on South Korea (2 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App).
Barring major shocks Monday and Tuesday, the quarterfinal lineup promises to be an absolute blockbuster. Half of it is already locked, with Messi’s men due to meet the United States‘ conqueror, the Netherlands.
As well as the established star power there is also the emerging kind. Four years from now, would it be a surprise if we are talking about Dutch scoring sensation Cody Gakpo in the same esteemed breath as today’s soccer superheroes?
Is England a serious contender?
Alexi Lalas and David Mosse react to Judge Bellingham and England’s victory over Senegal and debate whether they’re serious contenders.
Same goes for England’s Jude Bellingham, who will face the biggest test of his career when the Three Lions tackle France on Saturday (2 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App), yet shows no sign of being daunted by the task.
U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter repeatedly talked of the World Cup being two separate tournaments, and it certainly is beginning to feel that way.
Lionel Messi puts on a master class
Argentina’s Lionel Messi displays the ultimate skill and scores the first knockout-round goal of his World Cup career. Take a closer look at the action with every angle of the goal.
The wondrous ball movement and spirit of Japan, quite possibly the most entertaining team to watch in the whole tournament, set up victories over 2010 and 2014 champions Spain and Germany, which was enough to send the latter packing before the knockout rounds for the second straight time.
There was no shortage of special moments, time in the sun for players who produced the performance of a lifetime. Like Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Khalil Al Owais, who proved impossible to break down for Messi and company. Aussie Matt Leckie, playing in his country’s domestic league but who shined against Denmark and then gave Argentina a round of 16 fright. Tunisia captain — and goalscorer — Wahbi Khazri, the epitome of national pride.
The underdogs lit up the tournament, each shock result providing another burst of bewildering delight for the neutrals.
But it’s time for the big boys now.
Soccer likes its celebrities, but it confers such status for a reason. There is nowhere to hide in the beautiful game, because its global nature is all encompassing. Pretenders are found out quickly. Fame comes from sustained excellence, the kind that begets confidence and ultimate belief, even on the biggest stage of all.
That’s why the top teams and biggest stars linger, seeking the chalice they all want. Only one team — one megastar — can get it, which is recipe for a cruel reality, and an enthralling final fortnight.
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