As Week One of World Cup play wraps up, so too does the Thanksgiving holiday. As everyone knows, sometimes you just need a break during the holidays, and with four matches a day, there was always a game on to distract the family from talking politics or provide an escape from some commitment or another. Sorry, you want me to do what while the USA is busy tying Wales? I don’t think so! If it’s the season of being thankful, then I’m grateful for a full slate of games.
In the theme of being thankful, let’s recap the first week of action with some things that teams have to be grateful for. (If you don’t have a lot of time, most teams are thankful for good goalkeeping, 7+ minutes of extra time, offsides rulings, and upsets.)
With one game left, Group A will be determined by the Ecuador-Senegal game on Tuesday, November 29th. The Netherlands, barring an upset by Qatar, looks to advance in first place. A win or a draw sends through Ecuador, while Senegal needs a win to advance. Qatar is eliminated but should be thankful that they scored their first goal of the World Cup—a beauty of a header from Mohammed Muntari in the 78th minute.
The Netherlands should be thankful for their goalie, Andries Noppert, who had his first cap in Monday’s matchup against Senegal. Noppert was key to the Netherlands winning the game, keeping a clean sheet and frustrating the Senegal defense. He also came up big against Ecuador, helping to secure the draw and ensuring that, barring disaster against Qatar, the Netherlands advance.
Both Ecuador and Senegal should be thankful that their last match controls their destiny. Both teams play fast, creative soccer and can attack from anywhere on the pitch. Senegal is missing winger Sadio Mane, ruled out due to injury at the start of the tournament, and his absence has been felt, especially in the Netherlands game. It’s a shame that the knockout rounds will only feature one of these two teams.
After a much-hyped USA v. England Black Friday game that failed to live up to expectations, the USA should be thankful to come away with a tie against England. They should also be grateful for their captain, Tyler Adams, who was everywhere during the match, mopping up messes and keeping England from looking dangerous. In the same vein, England should be grateful that USA head coach Gregg Berhalter doesn’t like to use substitutions and wants his players to play a possession-heavy game that leads to too many passes in the final third. England is a better team than the USA matchup showed, though not as good as the Iran blowout made them seem.
Wales doesn’t have much to be thankful for, sitting in last, but should be glad for the tie against the USA and the tactical adjustments made at halftime that led to an improved second half and the goal. Iran is thankful for the fact that this World Cup has seen extended extra time, with 5-7 minutes seemingly being added every round. Both of their goals were scored in extra time and were probably aided by the red card handed to Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey after he took down an Iranian player outside the box.
With one game left to play, Poland controls their destiny: a win or draw with Argentina guarantees them the first-place finish. Mexico needs a win over Saudi Arabia and an Argentine loss in order to advance, or to overcome Poland’s goal differential advantage should Poland lose. A second Saudi Arabia upset could throw the whole group into chaos.
Argentina is thankful for Lionel Messi… who didn’t see that one coming? But the No.3 team in the world has looked tepid and unsure, relying on Messi for two of their three goals this tournament. It took until the 64th minute for Argentina to break through against Mexico, who are thankful for Memo Ochoa. His penalty kick saves on Robert Lewandowski have proven to be the biggest moment for Mexico so far. The team has yet to score a goal, and Ochoa is a big reason that Mexico’s hopes for advancing out of the group stage remain alive.
Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is thankful for offsides. In their upset win against Argentina, three Argentine goals were called offside, one by no more than a hand. The superb deployment of an offside trap, as well as goalkeeper Mohammed Khalil Al Owais, kept Saudi Arabia in the game long enough for them to score two goals against Argentina. Meanwhile, Poland is grateful for the chaos of the group—Mexico and Argentina's underperforming has given Poland a chance to not only advance, but advance as the top of the group.
To the surprise of no one, France is dominating Group D with two wins and the easiest opponent in their last game. Australia and Denmark control their own destinies; a win or draw sends Australia through, while a Denmark win sends them through to the knockout rounds. Group D has always been about the second-place finish, and it will all come down to the last game.
As for being thankful? France is thankful for Kylian Mbappé, who scored both goals in the win over Denmark. France doesn’t seem to be suffering a slump in their attempt to win a back-to-back World Cup. Australia and Denmark are grateful for the schedule that allows them to control their own destiny at the wire. Both teams put up a good fight against France and look to be in good form. Denmark has proven able to score against the run of play, a skill that will help them against Australia. Tunisia is the toughest spot to find something to be grateful for, but they should be thankful for scoring already in the tournament and for coming away with a point.
Following the theme of the tournament, Japan managed to upset Germany 2-1, while Spain cruised past Costa Rica with 971 completed passes in a 7-0 win. Japan’s victory means that all eyes are on the Spain-Germany game on Sunday. A German loss gives Japan a chance to move out of the group stage—if they beat Costa Rica.
Spain should be thankful for how their youth, Pablo Gavira (better known as Gavi) in particular, shined against Costa Rica, and for the fact that their possession game is complemented by creativity in the attack. All too often possession translates into a goal for the other team on the counter-attack, but Spain, while being excellent passers, knows when to push forward and shoot the ball, registering 17 shots. Costa Rica probably wasn’t thankful for the extra eight minutes of time that allowed Spain to add another goal, but should be moderately thankful that they don’t have to face Germany after an upset.
Japan is probably thankful not to have to go and play Spain immediately, and the fact that Spain plays Germany means that provided Japan beats Costa Rica, they’ll know the result they need to advance in their final game. Germany is thankful that one game doesn’t make or break their whole tournament. The team traded chances with Japan and is dangerous… if they can find the back of the net more often.
Morocco and Croatia tying means that, despite Belgium’s win against Canada, all four teams are in a fighting position for the top two spots in the group. Although Belgium is ranked No.2 in the world, according to FIFA, Canada played at their level for most of the match.
Canada is grateful for the draw between Morocco and Croatia, meaning that their loss to Belgium doesn’t completely eliminate them—it just makes the path harder. Belgium is grateful for the fact that the phrase old age brings wisdom seems to be coming true for them. Despite being an older team, their win over an up-and-coming Canadian team places them at the top of the group and gives them some security points. Plus, they held the lead from the 44th minute on, proving the strength of their defensive core.
Morocco is grateful for their tie against Croatia, a result that isn’t shocking but was certainly unexpected. The draw gives them a point and means they won’t go home empty-handed, even as they wait to score their first goal of the tournament. Croatia is thankful to have two more games to play and to be playing Canada next instead of Belgium. The schedule allows Croatia to build into the form that saw them advance to the 2018 finals.
One game in and the group looks exactly like most experts predicted it would: Brazil and Switzerland top the group after winning their first matchup. Cameroon and Serbia were kept scoreless, and the result of their game against each other on Monday will determine if either team has a shot at advancing out of the group stage. A little help with a Switzerland-Brazil draw would make this group extremely competitive.
As has been the theme of the first round, Serbia should be thankful for their goalie, Vanja Milinković-Savić, whose incredible saves frustrated Brazil until the 62nd minute. The Serbs' smothering defense also prevented Neymar from being able to breathe, shutting down Brazil’s attack with heart-stopping, well-timed tackles. Heart doesn’t win World Cups, but it does convert fans—and Serbia certainly has a few more after their performance.
Brazil should be thankful for Richarlison’s half-volley that demonstrated the creativity Brazil is known for. The team is also thankful that Neymar’s ankle injury will only sideline him through the group stage. Switzerland has more to be thankful for than Cameroon since the former won their first game and the latter lost. Cameroon is thankful to face Serbia next, in a game where a win and some help from Brazil can put them right back in contention for the second spot in the group. Switzerland is thankful for their win—and that their style of soccer has worked so far, with one game going their way.
As of now, Portugal tops the group, with South Korea and Uruguay tied in the second spot after a tie between the two countries in the opening match. With two games still to play, anything can happen, and given the fight that Ghana gave Portugal, the group is relatively even. The next set of games on Monday the 28th will shuffle the group, but this will likely come down to the last match for all four teams.
Portugal should be thankful for Cristiano Ronaldo’s reputation—without it, the first goal in the Ghana-Portugal game, a penalty kick, doesn’t get called. Despite all the controversy surrounding the striker, his ability to get referrers to blow the whistle helps Portugal, especially in games as end-to-end as the Ghana affair was. Ghana should be thankful that the goal differential so far is only one, thanks to the impressive performance the team put on to force Portugal into a closely contested match. Ghana has plenty of heart and matches that with skill, a deadly combination.
South Korea and Uruguay should be grateful that both teams came away with a point in their draw, keeping the group relatively even and giving both teams breathing room as the next round of group play begins. Both teams have stiff competition in their next game, but neither of those results will be the sole determining factor in who moves on to the knockout stage.
To end on a serious note: sports are always political, and Qatar and FIFA are currently mired in controversy about the One Love armbands—which FIFA explicitly banned after caving to pressure from Qatar. The armbands, which feature a heart colored in rainbow and the #onelove, violate Qatar’s ban on homosexuality. Originally, the seven European nations participating in the World Cup were to wear the bands, but after FIFA threatened a fine and later on sporting sanctions, the teams appeared to back out of their commitment. Germany’s captain, Manuel Neuer, underwent an armband check after hiding the FIFA armband under the sleeve of his kit and the German National Team staged a protest, covering their mouths in their team photo before their match with Japan.
Uproars over Qatar’s human rights violations have been ongoing and will persist throughout the rest of the World Cup. Worth noting, especially in regard to the #onelove armband controversy and Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, is that the United States continues to advance anti-trans legislation on the state level. On November 19th, there was a shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs where five people were killed. The anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is not just a West versus East phenomenon where Western countries are morally superior. Qatar and FIFA should, rightfully, be called out for their abuses of power. But Western countries should bring the same energy to their own politics.