29 December 2022
Australia’s best ever World Cup performance, a worthy winner in Argentina, a high quality and efficiently run tournament, and Lionel Messi still does not compare to Diego Maradona. That was the story of 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
For the unheralded Socceroos, with a team of mostly domestic players and no big names, the portend of bigger things to come began early with a shock goal by Craig Goodwin on 9 minutes against the previous world champions, France. It was a quality goal too, after Mathew Leckie, on the right flank, ran onto a long pass from defender Harry Souttar, turned his defender, and crossed it beautifully for Goodwin to score. While this jolted France into action and they eventually ran out 4-1 winners – notably due to Kylian Mbappe unable to be controlled – it never stopped the aspirations of this Australian team.
With coach Graham Arnold instilling an intense belief and a strong work ethic into the team, and fashioning a disciplined, well structured defensive unit, this was the springboard to winning their next two games, holding their opponents goalless for the first time since 1974, and qualifying for the knockout stage for only the second time ever. It was a glorious move that started from defence that saw Mitch Duke head home on 23 minutes to beat Tunisia 1-0, and then Leckie’s solo break on the hour against Denmark saw another 1-0 win and guaranteed passage to the next stage. This goal and victory proved critical, as Australia could easily have relied on a draw in expectation France would beat Tunisia in the other game. Of course, France rested many players, and lost 1-0.
This qualification to the knockout stage automatically made the 2022 team Australia’s most successful World Cup team ever, and they still weren’t done. Facing eventual champions, Argentina, they had them under control for the first half and even dominated large portions of play at times, with one passage consisting of about 40 passes and almost resulting in a juicy chance on goal. Unfortunately, their discipline finally broke, when Aziz Behich gave away a silly free kick in a dangerous area near the side line, and while the free kick was initially defended, Lionel Messi was able to prod it into the net after some nice interplay on the next phase of play.
That first Argentine goal was on 35 minutes, and then 12 minutes into the second half was a moment of madness when goalkeeper Mathew Ryan, upon receiving a back-pass, tried to dribble past an Argentine player, only to be dispossessed and gift Argentina their second goal. While Ryan was clearly at fault, questions must be asked why defenders play these short, dangerous back-passes to the goalie, only for it to be usually booted upfield, when they could do it better themselves, and avoid any risk in the process. Seemingly down and out, Australia scored on 77 minutes when a Goodwin shot was deflected into the net by Enzo Fernandez.
Amazingly, Australia had two golden opportunities to equalise, when Behich made a breathtaking run into the box, only for his shot to be blocked. He really should have layed off the ball to a player waiting in the box. In the dying seconds, Garang Kuol found himself on the end of the cross, beautifully trapped the ball and spun around, and had his shot narrowly saved. It would have been fitting for this team to push the game into extra time. They deserved it. It’s not just that the results were far beyond expectations, so was their performance. They were defensively tough, scored a goal in every game, and kept two teams scoreless. Goals also came from open play, not the penalty spot as were both goals in 2018. In fact, unlike then, Australia were never involved in a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) penalty decision. The only area in which Australia disappointed was set pieces, primarily from Aaron Mooy. So many were over-hit or simply wasted.
As for coach Graham Arnold, like his style or hate it, results count. Just prior to the World Cup, when Football Australia ran a competition for fans to name their Socceroos Team of the Century, I named Arnold as coach of my team. He earned it simply from the tough qualification process he had to endure, so a competent display at the World Cup would be enough to compare favourably to his predecessors. He did far more than that.
For all the controversy about such a nation with poor human rights records hosting the World Cup, the threatened protests and moralising by many countries, including Australia, just prior to the tournament, was appalling. Qatar’s issues were known well in advance, and should have been expressed vociferously before they were announced as host. It’s certainly rich to wait all these years, on the precipice of the tournament starting, to pompously get all virtuous. It was similar with the 2008 Beijing Olympics when Tibet suddenly became an issue during the torch relay. The reality is, if such rights are so important to an individual or a team, don’t attend at all. Credit to FIFA for stamping out any chance of on-field protests by sanctimonious teams and players.
The final between Argentina and France, to finish 3-3, and then go to penalties, was as good and dramatic as you could hope, with France having two of the best chances late to steal it. Overall, Argentina were the better team, and best of the tournament, and finally got their third World Cup. No, this win does not immediately elevate Lionel Messi to legend status alongside Diego Maradona. Maradona won the World Cup almost single-handedly for Argentina in 1986, whereas Messi was merely an excellent, occasionally exceptional, player. He only really had one moment of magic for the tournament, and that was setting up the third goal in the semi final against Croatia. He’s at the second level of best ever players. Pele and Maradona sit at the top.
Qatar 2022 was a thoroughly entertaining and engaging tournament. Having four matches a day to reduce the closure period for domestic leagues, certainly added a nice, breezy flow to it. The groups developed evenly, and at pace, and we were onto the knockout phase before we knew it. In contrast, with the traditional three matches a day of previous tournaments, the group stage can seem never ending. Games themselves were good, with very few dull draws, and there were some crazy upsets, notably Saudi Arabia beating Argentina in their first group game. The refereeing was brilliant. Absolutely no concerns, and they have honed the use of VAR. Clear rules over handball certainly help, as is adding accurately all the stoppage time to prevent time wasting. Although, when it’s 8 and 10 minutes of additional time, FIFA might want to considering reducing halves from 45 minutes to 40.
It was a great tournament for Asia too. Along with Australia advancing to the knockout stage, so did Japan and Korea. The hosts, Qatar, were a disappointment when losing all three games, especially after all the investment and being Asian Cup champions. Japan were players in two of the most memorable games. Firstly, beating Germany 2-1 in their first group game, and then Spain 2-1 in their final group game. Unfortunately they fell apart during the penalty shootout in the first knockout game against Croatia, after the match finished 1-1 after extra time. Arguably the most memorable game was Korea stunning Portugal, 2-1, in their final group game. They scored the winner in the 91st minute, then waited for the result of Ghana vs Uruguay to determine if they would progress. Everyone huddled on the pitch looking at phones for several minutes was a sight to see, and then came the jubilation. Of course, let’s not forget about Morocco becoming the first team from Africa to reach the semi finals of a World Cup. A great achievement, eventually losing to France, 2-0.
In comparison to other World Cups, Qatar 2022 is on the second level. Russia 2018 remains my favourite, with USA 1994 and Brazil 2014 at the next level, and mostly let down by some weak games in the knockout stages, including the finals themselves. Germany 2006 was great simply due to Australia’s return after 32 years and then performing well. Qatar delivered a great final and semi finals, had Australia’s best every result, while being patchy elsewhere. The images broadcast were superb, especially the wire camera that could put you on the field, and the supporting graphics like for offside. Holding the tournament in winter, despite all the whinging at the time, was clearly no issue. The default commentary feed from the host was excellent, which made SBS’s continued use of the dreary Martin Tyler for certain games, like the final, extra puzzling. He waffles on inanely and is a living barometer of the state of the game. If it’s dull, he reflects it, draining all energy from the broadcast. He only pipes up when there’s a hint of action, which was at least beneficial for the times I would drift asleep.
When Qatar bid for the World Cup, their motto was “Expect Amazing”. While it didn’t quite reach such heights, we did at least get “Excellent”. They can be proud, and now we look forward to 2026, with the USA jointly hosting the World Cup with Canada and Mexico, and it will be the first World Cup to feature 48 teams. Finally, I might actually get to one.
That was Qatar 2022 – The 22nd World Championship of Football