2022 Men's World Cup: Winners and Losers of the Group Stage
What on earth just happened?!
The group stage at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was spectacular. We had stunning goals, major shocks, tears of happiness and, if you’re Luis Suárez, tears of sadness.
With the knockout stages upon us, it’s time to take a deep breath and reminisce about what we’ve just been through together.
Here are your winners and losers.
Winner: Kylian Mbappé
It’s quite strange to say this, considering Kylian Mbappé has already scored in a World Cup final and got a winner’s medal. But even so, this year’s tournament has felt like a proper changing of the guard, with the France forward embodying "main character energy" more so than he ever has.
The waning powers of older stars have contributed to this. Cristiano Ronaldo looks slow, off balance and prone to missing chances he would have buried years ago. Kevin De Bruyne’s great passing attributes evaded him, and despite a stunning goal against Mexico, it’s clear Lionel Messi is slowing down.
Perhaps Karim Benzema’s absence has also allowed the light to shine brighter on Mbappé, who is in electric form. He destroyed Australia with a goal and assist in Les Bleus’ first game and then followed it up with a two-goal performance against Denmark, including the game-winner in the 86th minute.
Didier Deschamps only played the Paris Saint-Germain talisman for half an hour in France’s defeat to Tunisia, but by then, keeping him rested and sharp was more important than getting a result.
The rest of the tournament looks set up for Mbappé.
France face a pretty toothless Poland side next and are en route to taking on England or Senegal in the quarter-finals. None of those sides feel equipped to deal with Mbappé for 90 minutes. In this World Cup of final bows for older icons, Mbappé isn't so much as taking centre stage—he is pushing those alongside him off it.
Host nations quite often perform well above expectations.
Although Qatar weren’t expected to provide too many shocks, everyone involved in the team will be disappointed by defeats to Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands.
It really felt like Félix Sánchez’s side never recovered from conceding in the 16th minute of the opening game. Enner Valencia’s penalty drained any hype and hope from the crowd, many of whom decided to leave the Al Bayt Stadium early in the second half.
Qatar became the first World Cup host nation in history to be eliminated after two games. They followed that by becoming the first World Cup host nation in history to lose all three group games.
This side won the 2019 Asian Cup, beating Japan 3-1 in the final, so we could have reasonably expected a better fight than one goal and zero points after all the investment.
Winner: Cody Gakpo's Next Club
Where would the Netherlands be without Cody Gakpo?
The PSV Eindhoven forward has provided the only real spark for a side that is struggling to get into full flow. His 84th-minute winner in the Dutch opener against Senegal paved over some glaring cracks in the forward line, while his stunner against Ecuador earned a draw and ranks among the best goals of the tournament.
Gakpo’s early strike against Qatar makes him one of two men to have scored in every game this World Cup (the other is Spain striker Álvaro Morata).
Considering Gakpo has largely operated from a No. 10 role, with uninspiring performances from the likes of Vincent Janssen, Steven Bergwijn and Memphis Depay around him, it’s mighty impressive to witness the 23-year-old stand up and be counted for his country.
Gakpo’s next club, whether it’s Manchester United or someone else, will be getting a player with huge potential to become one of his generation’s best. He is benefitting from working with Louis van Gaal in the national setup and would likely continue to round out his skills under Erik ten Hag or another top coach.
Although the Dutch are likely to fall short in Qatar, Gakpo’s stock has rocketed, and he now looks set to land the big-money move that evaded him in the summer.
Loser: CONCACAF...aside from USA
Four CONCACAF teams qualified for the World Cup: the United States, Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica. None managed more than a single group win, and aside from the USMNT, each representative will be disappointed with its showing.
Atop that list is Mexico, who only put together 45 minutes of good football across three games. This came in the final group match against Saudi Arabia when it was too little too late, though, as a disjointed draw with Poland and passive defeat to Argentina left Tata Martino’s side needing too much to progress.
Luis Chávez’s unbelievable free-kick may be one of the moments of the World Cup, but the ripple of the net only underlined what an exciting force Mexico could be. Tata paid with his job, and Mexico were rotten in an admittedly tough group.
Costa Rica also only really got going for one half across the tournament, although their expectations would have been lower. Coming back from the 7-0 defeat to Spain to beat Japan 1-0 was impressive, even if the smash and grab came after their first shot on target all tournament.
At one point during Thursday’s 4-2 defeat to Germany, Costa Rica were actually through to the knockout stages, but a late three-goal collapse plummeted Luis Fernando Suárez's squad to the bottom of the group. They were close to doing something special without ever really playing consistently well.
A similar theme followed Canada, who lost momentum after the 1-0 opening defeat to Belgium, a game in which they deserved so much more. Alphonso Davies’ missed penalty isn’t really to blame for that; Canada had 22 attempts on goal and should have made their misfiring opponents pay.
Coach John Herdman’s vow to "F Croatia" piled unnecessary pressure on his men for the second game and led to a 4-1 demolition. While many will argue he was trying to direct pressure to himself, the reality is Croatia’s players were pumped up by the remark, as striker Andrej Kramaric noted after the game.
Canada’s final defeat to Morocco, compounded by goalkeeper Milan Borjan’s mistake, felt like little more than another kick to the torso of a kid who heckled the much stronger bullies in Group F.
And with that, the USA are the only CONCACAF team still standing.
Coach Gregg Berhalter will have wanted more during the 1-1 draw with Wales, but his team responded. USA dominated England in a 0-0 draw, showing great control and tempo in midfield, and then overcame Iran in what was essentially a knockout tie.
There’s no reason the USMNT can’t trouble the Netherlands in the next round, especially if Berhalter continues to loosen his restrictive style of football.
Winner: Group E Drama
Japan, Spain, Germany, Costa Rica. In that order.
How do you even begin to discuss this group? Every team sat in the top two at least once during the final round of games. There were three minutes in which Spain AND Germany were heading out. Germany fell on goal difference in the end, despite a 4-2 win that could have seen them score the additional five goals needed to progress.
Group winners Japan even lost to bottom side Costa Rica and produced 2-1 comebacks against Spain and Germany. Just amazing results all over the place. This group was absolutely full of exciting momentum swings and shocks that will go down in World Cup legend.
Neutrals, say it with us: thank you!
Winner: The Underdog Story
Just think about this for a moment:
Australia escaped a group that included France, Tunisia and Denmark. Morocco came out on top in a group that pitted Belgium, Croatia and Canada together. Japan topped Spain, Germany and Costa Rica. South Korea made it beyond Uruguay on goals scored.
This has well and truly been a World Cup of shocks.
The underdog story has many chapters right now, with the aforementioned teams set to face their biggest tests in the round of 16. Will any be standing afterward? We'll go through it, and more, next time...