Week Two of the World Cup wrapped up on Friday with the end of the group stage, sending 16 teams through to the knockout stage. For those back in school or back in the office, catching all the games probably proved impossible. In the spirit of a review week, which Boston College students are getting ready for, here’s one word for every team that participated in the World Cup group stages. Brush off those old SAT vocab words, and let’s dive in.
As always, the skinny is: upsets, Germany finally does not win, shifting power in soccer, VAR, the dreaded offsides, and defensive soccer.
No one is surprised by the Netherlands making the round of 16 or topping the group—they’re a reliable, quality team. The tie against Ecuador was a wrinkle in the game plan, but only a small one. Like other teams in the tournament, the Netherlands has no problem with possession but often finishes behind opponents in shots. What sets the Netherlands apart is that on the few shots they do manage, they score.
Good in transition, Senegal plays an exhilarating brand of soccer and has the ability to remain calm under pressure—such as when Ecuador scored to tie the game. Even without their star, Sadio Mané, Senegal has looked dangerous in the final third and finds ways to come up with possession even after losing the ball. Playing adaptable soccer, Senegal can fit itself into any game, frustrating opponents with their versatility and flair.
Even when pressuring and in control of the ball, Ecuador just couldn’t seem to connect together the passes and attacks the players wanted. In a group with Senegal and the Netherlands, Ecuador knew it would have to beat one of them to make it out of the group stage and just couldn’t find the gaps to put either the Dutch or Senegal to bed, struggling to find that killer instinct, even when fighting to advance in their last game. From the start, the bounces just didn’t go Ecuador’s way.
It’s an open secret that this World Cup was bought and Qatar shouldn’t have made the World Cup. Shut out in two of their three games and failing to win a single point, Qatar isn’t ready for soccer at this level and never should have been on this stage. Keep Qatar in the news for the continued human rights violations because no one is going to be talking about their on-the-field performance—except to mention that it’s the worst host nation performance since, well, ever.
Per usual, the English are talking a big game, especially with winning the group stage. But the game against the United States shows that England can have off days, and when they do, they look... average. With depth across the squad, England has relied on goals off the bench to add to their firepower up top. They haven’t looked awful, but they also haven’t looked convincing enough to escape the criticism that they’re good, but not great.
United States: Stressful
The United States loves a defensive block to protect a lead, as well as late subs. The youngest team in the World Cup, the team played the last twenty minutes of a 1-0 win-and-in game in a defensive survival mode. Stressful stuff. The USA’s midfield has plenty of speed on the wings, Gio Reyna on the bench, and the kind of scrappy mentality that keeps them in the game. Both Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent are day-to-day, which hurts the USA’s attack, and the substitutes Gregg Berhalter chooses might not reduce the stress levels of fans. Trust in the midfield, hope in the attack, and pray for the defense.
This was not an easy world cup for Iran, with the political turmoil happening at home and the draw that Iran found itself in. Emotionally, with players' families back in Iran, it couldn’t have been easy to play group match games, much less beat Wales in extra time. Iran was also difficult to play against, giving the USA trouble and scoring two goals against England. They’re a tough team to play and that won’t change anytime soon.
To give Wales some credit, tactically, they managed to figure out the USA. Otherwise, this tournament didn’t showcase the best of Wales. Gareth Bale couldn’t pull the team with him, and the late-game shenanigans by the keeper kept the team from tying Iran. Wales made the tournament, but didn’t do much or create many headlines, speaking to how average the team was with no area of their game being better or worse than any other.
From a sluggish start to a game where Poland struggled to mount an attack, Argentina has come roaring to life in dramatic fashion, kickstarted by a Messi banger against Mexico. Now that they’ve started, Argentina looks to be rolling, with scoring coming from avenues not named Messi. When the team plays connected, they look like the No.3 team in the world and their depth is all over the field. Argentina has to be warmed up, but when they are, not much can stop them, even before Messi works his magic.
There was a significant amount of time where Poland was going through on fair play alone, making Poland the luckiest (and nicest) team in the group. Struggling, the group stage saw star Robert Lewandowski drop deeper and play a supporting role, creating chances for both himself and his teammates in an attempt to make Poland appear more dangerous. Poland is capable of doing a lot with a little, but right now, it’s too easy to mark Lewandowski out of the game and take away any credible Polish threat.
For the first time in the country’s history, Mexico is leaving the World Cup without making the top 16 teams. The scoring woes from 2018 continued on, with Mexico shut out until their last game, where they needed three goals to safely qualify. Memo Ochoa’s PK save and Luis Chávez’s screamer are the big moments of a World Cup performance that left no one satisfied. The team never delivered on any of the talent present and looked sluggish and disconnected for large stretches of matches.
Saudi Arabia: Facetious
First, they beat Argentina in the opening game, and then they score a goal to dash Mexico’s hopes of a miracle—Saudi Arabia definitely has a flippant attitude toward big teams. Mostly playing the role of spoiler, Saudi Arabia didn’t dazzle in any of their matches, but they have a nose for the big moments, doing just enough to put pressure on the other team. There were moments of what the team could be, but the final product isn’t there yet, with Saudi Arabia still building towards a serious team.
The loss to Tunisia shows that France has vulnerabilities, or at least the potential for vulnerabilities, but should be counted as an outlier. Kylian Mbappé is off to a strong start this World Cup, and France have proven their ability to dismantle opponents. Even when France isn’t in control statistically, the game feels like France is in control. This ability to control, or appear in control, forces teams to push while playing France, opening up gaps that France will be relentless in exploiting.
Advancing with a win over Denmark, Australia demonstrated a remarkable amount of patience in waiting for the tide to turn and offer them a chance on goal. Knowing they were in control of their own destiny certainly helped, but Australia weathered the storm and converted on their chances, content to play as a team without coalescing around one star or another. Patient soccer pays off, as long as teams stay connected and mentally sharp—something Australia has had no problems with yet.
Sometimes soccer comes down to how badly you want it. And Tunisia badly wanted to win against France—so they did. They also tied Denmark and kept Australia to one goal, proving to be a gritty, tough-to-play-against team. Though Tunisia did a lot of defensive work, their grit came out in the offense, fighting for extra chances and striving forward to get to second balls or rebounds on shots. Playing against Tunisia might not cost points, but it does cost energy.
Finishing last in the group is disappointing for a Denmark side that showed real promise in their game against France. Denmark has the ability to play a press on both offense and defense, fighting for loose balls and holding their shape while doing so. The team didn’t sacrifice their shape while pushing for a goal against Australia, but unfortunately, despite the technical and tactical ability, Denmark came up short, underperforming significantly and failing to win a game.
No one believes more than this Japanese team, and they’ve proven again and again that all you need is one banger and you can slay Goliath—twice. Japan may not have possession often (a mere 17.7% against Spain), but they convert their chances and never, ever surrender, putting together complete performances full of heart and belief in themselves. They play as a team, connected on the field and in sheer determination to make a win happen, no matter what the score is. Don’t give Japan a chance at goal—they’ll convert.
When Spain is on, they’re on—see Costa Rica—but most of the time, they’re recycling the ball to keep possession without threatening the opposing team’s goal. The spin cycle of passes might seem like it's helping Spain, but soccer isn’t a game of logic, and if Spain can’t score, opposing teams just need one chance to put the ball away. With a good mix of veteran players and youth, Spain has the right ingredients and the technical talent to make 7-0 wins the norm… but they’re going to have to start shooting instead of passing to do that.
Someone rewrite that old saying, because at the end of 90 minutes Germany might beat Costa Rica, but they won’t be advancing. Germany struggled this tournament, never seeming to put away the chances they had or finding a consistent connection that led to goals being scored. Though never shut out, Costa Rica gave Germany trouble and Japan’s win was an early warning sign, not a fluke. Knocked out in the group stage for the second time in a row, Germany is mortal and other teams are figuring that out.
Costa Rica: Fickle
Lose 0-7 to Spain, then beat Japan, then give Germany a run for their money? Only the multi-faceted Costa Ricans could do that. Costa Rica plays thrilling soccer, is gritty on defense, and is capable of sudden, deadly attacks. The problem is that attacks can fizzle out suddenly and in key moments, meaning you never know what Costa Rica you’ll get or for how long. The full 90 minutes isn’t there for Costa Rica, at least, not consistently.
Not even an own goal against Canada could knock Morocco off their rhythm. The team trusts each other and knows there’s a dangerous talent that can come in off the bench and can play short, connected passes or dangerous long balls over the top. Knowing that this is a tournament of upsets, Morocco isn’t afraid to go at big teams with confidence, determined to play their game, no matter what the opposing team throws at them. Mistakes happen in soccer, and Morocco’s biggest advantage is the mentality of not letting anything stop them.
Croatia moves like water, with every touch on the ball pulling the team into a new shape, restructuring the field through constant movement from the midfield. The midfield has a way of seeing the field that leads to a combination of creative and dangerous passes that prevent any defense from feeling comfortable. With a combination of vision and technical ability, Croatia can attack from anywhere on the pitch and possesses a deadly counterattack that ripples through the opposing team’s backline like water.
Belgium: Old… Well, Searching
Making a joke about Kevin De Bruyne’s comments would be too easy, but Belgium spent this tournament searching for everything: team unity, a goal, the next generation, and a little bit of luck. Belgium had opportunities, but was often beaten to second balls and couldn’t quite put the pieces together, with a No.2 in the world team never materializing. They played like a team that wasn’t quite sure what their next step should be, and that uncertainty played out across the pitch with missed chances, missed passes, and missed opportunities.
No one expected greatness from Canada, and small mental errors and lapses in judgment hurt the team’s chances of making waves in a tough Group F. Alfonso Davies scored the first Canadian goal in a men’s World Cup and players like Tajon Buchanan accrued valuable experience. This World Cup was like advanced scouting for 2026, where Canada has home field advantage and another four years of development under their belt.
Even without Neymar and the loss to Cameroon, Brazil looks dominant. Scoring with style and when it counts, Brazil comes to life in the second half. Despite the sluggish starts, the team can hold off opponents until the forwards get rolling, which means Brazil is firing on all cylinders. The loss in the last group stage match will likely only serve as motivation, making Brazil an even more formidable team to face.
The Swiss know their strengths and do not deviate from the game plan. Content to play a relatively even possession game, the Swiss dedicate themselves to defense first and wait for opportunities to arise to score. Conceding only three goals and handily snatching the second place in the group, the Swiss don’t need to make flashy statements—they just need to play their consistently quiet dominating game.
A loss, a come-from-behind draw, and a win over Brazil is how Cameroon’s World Cup went. There was additional drama with their starting keeper leaving the team before the second match, making Cameroon’s tournament a turbulent one, though one building towards better things. Although not qualifying for the knockout rounds, the team managed to survive Brazil long enough to score, showing their potential.
Part of the definition involves grim persistence and that sums up Serbia. In their game against Brazil, Serbia committed wholeheartedly to defense, and their team identity is built on survival at all costs, including breathtaking tackles in their own box to prevent a goal. The team is persistent in their attack and defense, tracking back to cover open players and willing to make the extra effort to stop a play from developing—even if that never translated into a win.
Portugal can score and look ruthless while doing so, even if Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t get his head on the ball. The team was rolling against Uruguay and had plenty of chances against South Korea, though failed to convert. Lethal in going for the attack or converting penalty kicks, Portugal looks a serious contender for good reason. On top of their striking ability, their ball movement hasn’t looked too shabby, and losing to South Korea will be a nice reality check before moving into the knockout rounds—no team is invincible.
South Korea: Tenacious
Don’t root against South Korea—they’ve proven able to dig themselves out of deficits against top teams as well as make tactical adjustments that change the momentum in the game. The team is one of the best at changing momentum, sneaking points away from traditionally good teams with a willingness to play the full 90 minutes no matter the score line. Coming back against Portugal is nothing to scoff at, and it shouldn’t surprise people—South Korea has consistently learned from previous games and improved their game.
All the pieces were there for Ghana to advance to the knockout rounds, but Ghana couldn’t put them together. A shaky defense and a poorly taken penalty kick against Uruguay prevented the team from advancing. The offense wasn’t a problem, but teams generally found success scrambling the defense, and Ghana couldn’t always keep up with the opposing team in terms of production.
For a historically good team, Uruguay only won their last game, which was the only game they scored in. While plenty feisty, the team struggled to turn that fire into more than pretty passing sequences and dramatic fouls. Out on total goals scored, Uruguay never found the perfect recipe to blend their talent together into a connected and inspiring team. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with the national team, but Uruguay never found the “it factor” to grit out the win or extra goal.