The World Cup so far has been apocalyptically good.
How else to describe a group stage where Germany—perennial finalists, current and four-time trophy holders, 7–1 thrashers of Brazil in Brazil at the last World Cup—lost decisively to Mexico in their first game, gave themselves hope with a miraculously parabolic ninety-fifth-minute top-corner Tony Kroos free-kick to beat Sweden in their second outing, and then were finally swatted out, David-and-Goliath style, by already-eliminated Korea, a team who had “nothing to play for” but scored two killer goals in the dying minutes. The final, giant-crushing blow in this particular saga came from the slingshot of Ju Se-jong, who as it turns out is in the middle of his mandatory military service and was presumably relieved to be in Russia experiencing the stresses of international soccer. In an encounter his country will never forget, the substitute midfielder Ju found German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, generally considered the best in his position, tragicomically out of position, a gangly marionette sent upfield for a last-gasp Germany corner-kick, now caught, probably gasping, a full sixty yards from where his hands could be of use, or where his fluorescent jersey would make any kind of sense. Ju duly dispossessed Neuer and sent the ball quickly looping eighty yards, where it landed and slowed—implausibly, cinematographically—so Son Heung-min could catch up right at the touchline and dink it in. The last time Germany went out this early in the tournament was in 1938.
I did say apocalyptic. How else to describe the feeling of staring at men running across a green lawn for two hours while footage of state-kidnapped children was drifting across social media? Was the manicured turf effectively muffling the screams of toddlers, or was this an acceptable respite from battles of consequence? I think for probably a billion of us, the world-historic dread and World-Cup release have both been very intense. I say “release,” but that of course presumes you can temporarily ignore the bribes that put the Cup in Putin’s Russia, ignore the cesspool of corruption that is FIFA itself, ignore the dead migrant-worker bodies already piling up to build stadiums in Qatar for 2022, ignore Trump threatening Morocco about their 2026 World Cup bid, and—as Žižek so memorably puts it—so on and so on.
Spain vs. Portugal was the first game I watched, and it opened with so much drama I thought the best game had come too soon—as it often does. Spain’s defender Nacho took a starring role right away by tripping his club teammate, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, in a way that was so precise and angular—toe out!—it looked like a ballet move. Nacho’s arms jerked immediately to the innocent-shock position above his head, but this pose resolved quickly into the grief-of-recognition position, hands dropping to his head, as he uncharacteristically gave up the protest. Ronaldo duly converted the penalty, and at that point, only four minutes in, things looked pretty bad for Spain.1
Not just because Spain was losing 1–0 so early on. More ominous was the fact that Spain had just fired their head coach, Julen Lopetegui, two days before the tournament. Not because he was a bad coach, no. In fact, Spain was ranked number one coming into the games. Lopetegui was doing so well, in fact, that Real Madrid offered him a job starting after the tournament. Understandably, he accepted this offer from the best club team. Less understandably, they decided to announce this fact before the premier international competition, rather than after. So the infuriated Spanish soccer federation immediately fired Lopetegui and installed Fernando Hierro, a former player whose head-coaching resume featured a solitary season at Oviedo, in Spain’s second division. The national team were apparently so good they could coach themselves. Even more apparently, however, they had just gifted Portugal a goal after four minutes, and after Nacho had forgotten how to be sneaky and feign innocence.
The near-constant drama unfurled from there, with Diego Costa retaliating for Spain in the twenty-fourth minute, then Portugal going ahead via Ronaldo in the forty-fourth, then Costa again in the fifty-fifth followed by his teammate Nacho in the fifty-eighth, to put Spain ahead. From there it looked like a reassuring new-old Spain, their veteran players now pleasingly self-managed, and the same-old Portugal, overly dependent on some magic from Ronaldo. You may have already seen the footage of him pulling his shorts up over his thighs in a new, patented CR7 adjustment that apparently gives his movements more precision. As with all things Ronaldo, the gesture seemed at once to be a ridiculous, annoying excess and an absolutely essential component of his unparalleled goalscoring abilities. Of course, he put it precisely in the top corner, keeper had no chance, hat-trick in the opening game. Spain 3, Ronaldo 3.
The other opening games were all so good they made “group stage” sound orgiastic all of a sudden. Russia shocked everyone by playing extraordinarily well, and by not benefiting from anything that looked like a bribe or a threat as they beat Saudi Arabia 5–0, and Egypt 3–1. Uruguay did them one better by winning all their games and beating Russia 3–0 in the final match of the group. Spain eventually won group B, and Portugal came in second, sending Morocco and Iran, who both actually played really well, home. Super-talented France dominated group C, as predicted; solid Denmark came in second; Australia and Peru went out.
Group D produced tremendous and dysfunctional drama as mighty-but-flighty Argentina could only manage a 1–1 draw in their first game, against Iceland. Argentina have Lionel Messi, but Iceland play like a team, so that evened things out quite a bit. The smallest country to ever qualify, Iceland is coached by a man who was until recently also a part-time dentist. Everybody loves them. Nigeria, for their part had the best uniforms by far, so they were also a neutral’s favorite, as their black-green-and-white zig-zag ensemble sold out in minutes in stores all over the world. The other uniforms this year were uniformly boring, it must be said, and the only thing I could observe was that the similarity of all the Nike uniforms, which all have these dumb shoulder designs, regardless of the country, and the Adidas ones, which all have a variation on a three-stripe diamond thingy, was another clear marker of the nation’s imperiled status under late capitalism. (OK, except Belgium, who are wearing a distinctive argyle pattern but are nationally imperiled for other reasons.) Croatia then eviscerated Argentina 3–0 in their second game, after beating Nigeria 2–0 in their first, so it looked certain they would win the group. Everything else came down to the last game for Nigeria and Argentina. In a tightly fought contest that either could have won, Argentina’s Marcos Rojo ended up the hero with an eighty-sixth-minute winner, so the albiceleste managed to slip through. (And Nigeria only got to wear their iconic uniforms in one game. Look for them shortly on eBay.)
Brazil won group D, as expected, and Switzerland came second, sending Serbia and Costa Rica home. Check out the Neymar rolling meme for everything you need to know there.
Group F had been chosen as the group of death, but nobody thought it would be Germany’s death. Sweden ended up winning, with spirited Mexico coming in second, and South Korea joining Germany on the way out after their thriller. Group G had England and Belgium at the top, with Tunisia and first-timers Panama going home. Group H saw Japan squeak through over Senegal. With both of them having equal points, equal goal difference, and an even head-to-head record, Japan’s two fewer yellow cards ended up winning it for them. Colombia got an early red card in the first game, against Japan, but ended up finishing first. Despite an excellent qualifying campaign, Poland played listlessly until it didn’t matter, in the third game where they beat Japan and went home anyway.
All of this set up a conspicuously one-sided bracket, with Uruguay, Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Belgium, and Japan on one side and Spain, Russia, Croatia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Colombia and England on the other. That’s ten winners’ trophies on the left, and two on the right. The terrain was so lopsided that Belgium and England were accused of playing to lose their third game match-up, so as to come in second and avoid the harder side. (According to this logic, England won by losing 1–0.)
France and Argentina played first in the round of sixteen, and the encounter was operatic from the start. France’s 19-year old Kylian Mbappé had already announced himself as the breakout star of the tournament, drawing comparisons to Pelé in the 1958 World Cup, and he absolutely terrorized the Argentinian defense in the opening minutes, running past them at will, whether they came at him individually or in clumps. There was nothing to do but pull him down, which they did, for a penalty. Angel di Maria appeared suddenly after doing nothing for most of the competition, to bend a perfect shot in from thirty yards past Hugo Lloris. All was forgiven. Then another beauty as Messi shot and Gabriel Mercado diverted it elegantly in. But Benjamin Pavard put France level with the most beautiful goal he will ever score, a backspun parabola whose spin and trajectory combined to such elegance I’m sure the French, and only the French, have a word for it. Then Mbappé scored two very direct goals that seemed to seal it until Kun Agüero hit back in the ninety-second minute. But it was not to be. As they said on Twitter, “Don’t cry 4–3 Argentina.” Or even better: “Liberté. Egalité. Mbappé.” Lionel who?
Uruguay vs. Portugal brought us, mercifully, to the point where Ronaldo was also gone. Nothing against either of them, but their presence is such that even having one of them involved means the epic Messi–Ronaldo debate eats up all the air time and “analysis.” Men who know nothing pontificate. Good and evil are spoken of in utter seriousness. 7 percent of the internet is devoted to this debate, so let me take a moment to end it. They are both utterly amazing! And brace yourselves: they are equally amazing, and they are differently amazing. I don’t know why this is so hard for people to accept. There is no way, in a team sport, to bring the issue to further clarity, so I recommend everyone drops this line of debate. Please, take the fact that the universe put them out in the same round as a sign.
Belgium vs. Japan was blown open early in the second half with two quick and beautiful goals from underdog Japan. First, Genki Haraguchi sliced a shot past Thibaut Courtois into the far post. Then, a few minutes later, Takashi Inui curled another shot in from distance. Belgium was reeling. Arguably the most talented attacking side in the tournament, the question hanging over Belgium has always been about experience. They haven’t won a big tournament, so can they manage the incomparable stress of the World Cup? Suddenly desperate, their young Spanish coach Roberto Martinez brought on Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli. Fellani is a huge-afroed midfield enforcer. Let’s just say he’s an acquired taste and doesn’t generate much confidence that two goals are imminent. He’s more for shutting things down. Chadli is an attacker, but given the brilliance of Lukaku, De Bruyne, and Hazard already on the pitch, he doesn’t feel like an upgrade. People were saying, “If Fellaini and Chadli are the answer, what was the question?” But this is the apocalyptically good World Cup, so you kind of know what happens next.
But you still won’t believe it. First, defender Jan Vertonghen headed in a goal from the distance and precision of a three-point shot in basketball. You’ve all seen internet clips of this kind of thing, where the hoop is on someone’s garage; this was in the biggest game of his international career. (The idiotic commentator for Fox narrated such a miracle thusly: “It comes off the side of his head and finds the back of the net.”) Then Fellaini afroed in a second goal to make it 2-2, and with twenty seconds to play, Courtois collected a Japan corner and rolled it out to De Bruyne, who took it to the halfway line before sliding it to Thomas Meunier on the right, who first timed it to Lukaku who was in the middle, right in front of goal, but tightly guarded, so he decided to dummy and let the ball pass through to an unmarked and underappreciated . . . Nacer Chadli!
Brazil vs. Mexico: The real story here is the Mexican election, right? So as some Mexicans pointed out somewhat cruelly afterwards, the people with a good government are the real winners. But if you must know, Brazil are looking very strong, their star Neymar is annoying everyone with his elaborately choreographed foul-reception routines, and with Germany, Spain, and Argentina having been eliminated—and Italy and the Netherlands not having qualified—this is all looking pretty good for Brazil.
Russia vs. Spain: The shock is that sixty-sixth-ranked Russia eliminated first-ranked Spain, but how they did it wasn’t too shocking. For a decade now, Spain has used the tiki-taka method, which sounds festive, but is actually a way of simply draining and demoralizing opponents who have to chase short passes around forever. Russia isn’t very good, but they are very good at running, so they made the only choice they could and just let Spain pass the game away, hoping this would lead to penalties, where Russia would have less of a disadvantage. And so it came to pass. On the fifth penalty, Russian goalie Igor Akinfeev dived the wrong way, but jutted out his foot, and the ball went looping skyward. Russia were through! Curiously, the recently issued 100-ruble note shows Russia’s legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin in an identical pose. What is time-space, when it comes to penalty kicks?
Croatia vs. Denmark: what to say? It feels like this game was included to torture viewers who had joined the World Cup late, thinking that entertainment was absolutely guaranteed. The parceling of drama was incredibly cruel, a finger in the eye of Netflix-bingers who expect perfectly-dosed tension. But soccer hasn’t been engineered to that point yet. This misadventure began with two goals in the first four minutes—blistering excitement, but punishment for anyone who turned it on mid-game. It dragged on for two full hours of regular- and extra-time stalemate—retribution for anyone who got excited during the first minutes. Then it finished with a missed penalty and further penalty kicks at the at the end—blistering excitement to punish anyone who had given up. If you didn’t live through all of it, you don’t deserve the details, but they don’t matter much anyway. (Croatia survived and are still looking really solid.)
Switzerland vs. Sweden: Immigrants and the children of immigrants make up very high percentages of the European teams in the competition. (There was a meme going around saying France was the best African team, for example.) Even in relatively closed places like Switzerland and Sweden, the national teams have a lot of immigrants. This causes some tensions, because nationalists love to use sports to be racist. In Sweden’s case, this mean a lot of internet goons threatening their player, Jimmy Durmaz, who has Assyrian parents, after he gave away a crucial free-kick in Sweden’s loss to Germany. For Switzerland, the international tensions of their backgrounds meant fines for Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri for making Albanian-eagle hand gestures after they scored against Serbia. The Swedish players rallied around their teammate and they advanced here. The Swiss players weren’t banned for their celebratory gestures, and they continued playing really well, but they went out, 1–0 to Sweden.
The truth is, whatever country wins, it will have been with migrant players of one kind or another. OK, except Russia.
England vs. Colombia: A match going to penalty kicks is almost always a bad thing, especially for England, who went out on PKs in the 1990 World Cup, the 1996 Euros, the 1998 World Cup, the 2004 Euros, the 2006 World Cup, and the 2012 Euros. Here, it was especially bad because they relinquished a 1–0 lead in the ninety-third minute. Colombia, playing without their playmaker James Rodriguez, seemed intent on doing everything to avoid playing England in a straightforward way, receiving six yellow cards for their efforts, but the strategy had worked. On top of that the young English keeper, Jordan Pickford, had been criticized publicly by his much taller Belgian counterpart, Thibaut Courtois, for . . . not being tall. Keepers are alone in their role, so there is a lot of solidarity among them; the unspoken rule is that they don’t criticize one another, but Courtois must not have gotten the memo. And on top of all that, Pickford had just made the save of his life, to stop what would have been an otherwise amazing game-tying volley from Mateus Uribe. But no one was going to remember that, because Colombia scored from the resulting corner. When the penalties emerged from that deadlock, Pickford did his job, producing gorgeous piece of mid-air martial artistry—when diving to his right he flung up his arm to connect decisively with Carlos Bacca’s shot. The vector was perfect, his agility and reflexes were the perfect riposte to the large—and let’s just say it, slow-witted—Courtois.
With the penalties tied at four, it came down to England’s last penalty taker, who everyone expected to be Jamie Vardy, the striker from Leicester. You would usually want to end with a striker. But Vardy apparently strained his thigh, so up strode a surprisingly defensive player, Eric Dier. He had the look of melancholy concentration that usually ends badly, and everything in the game, and in England’s overall soccer history, spelled disaster for the young player. Even his coach, the pleasantly practical and up-to-now successful Gareth Southgate, had been marked forever by his defining penalty miss against Germany in the semi-finals of the 1996 Euros. I felt certain Dier was like a lamb to the slaughter. He had come on as a sub. He had never before taken a penalty in a competitive match. He grew up in Portugal, which would certainly be used against him. We would be talking about Jamie Vardy’s pulled muscle for decades. Vardy would avoid the question in press conferences. Southgate would have to resign, this young team scarred for life. Waistcoats would go back out of style. Dier lined up, again the look of melancholy concentration. Again, the weight of history. But then he calmly stuck it in the low-left corner. England were through. Very much through. Cathartically through.
And everyone could take a breath before the quarterfinals.
An earlier version of this piece misidentified the man who tripped Ronaldo as Sergio Ramos. Though we regret the error, we are pleased that it was our other World Cup writer, Jeff Blum, who identified it. Read his preview of the World Cup here. ↩