Diverse World Cup knockout stages a leap forward for Africa and Asia | World Cup 2022

AIn the midst of the crippling debate over whether the ball crossed the baseline before Ao Tanaka’s winner for Japan against Spain, something more important was lost. The goal finally ensured that for the first time every inhabited continent was represented in a World Cup round of 16. Less than a day would pass before South Korea strengthened Asia’s contingent, guaranteeing the most diverse knockout round in the tournament’s history.

It makes for a delicious connection and will also be music to the ears of Qatar, who, despite evidence to the contrary, are eagerly positioning themselves as a unifying force. Hosting a competition with a bigger roster than any other in the world is not difficult to see in positive terms: the mix is ​​a consequence of the drama that, after a slow start, made this group stage claim to be the best of all time purely football-wise.

Those outside of Europe and South America have particular reason to agree. Six countries across football’s traditional continents have reached the knockout rounds and the nine previous iterations, including the last 16, have never done so. Africa achieved its best performance in the qualification of two of its five participants, Morocco and Senegal, without the presence of stars like Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Victor Osimhen and Mohamed Salah; Asia has reached its 2002 peak. The Asian Football Confederation can claim their best performance since Australia have been under their aegis since 2006.

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What does it all mean? It may be foolish to jump to conclusions because, for those not in Europe, small allocations mean the line between perceived success and failure can be razor-thin. One result can change everything. Just four years have passed since Africa searched for soul after failing to advance beyond the group stage in what Didier Drogba described as “a major step backwards”.

It can now point to a World Cup that was in some ways already their best: African sides won a record seven games in Qatar and only one decent side from Ghana, whose fortunes turned after André Ayew’s early penalty against Uruguay, recorded less than four points. In practice, the level of football in Africa has not changed that much in the last half decade.

“It’s very, very difficult to get far when you have five places,” emphasized the then Ghana coach Otto Addo after the opening defeat against Portugal. “When you have 12 or 14 slots, there’s a much, much higher chance that a team will advance.”

Africa will have at least nine sides at the expanded 2026 World Cup, one of whose infinitesimal blessings is that increased allocations to previously less-favoured regions should make it easier to spot trends. Asia’s quota will increase by at least two. A third of the slots will come from Europe from the current 40%.

Given the failure of hopeful proclamations of a new world order to materialize after 2002, when Senegal met hosts South Korea in the quarter-finals, optimism about a broader tie should be tempered. But the idea is not entirely out of the ordinary. It was impressive to hear Moroccan coach Walid Megraoui follow the narrow goalless draw against Croatia that laid the foundation for his side’s eventual success.

Abderrazak Hamdallah challenges Luka Modric as Morocco take on Croatia in the group's opener
Abderrazak Hamdallah challenges Luka Modric as Morocco take on Croatia in the group’s opener. Photo: Aijaz Rahi/AP

“We played like a European team and that’s why I’m so happy,” he said. “If we played brilliantly and lost, everyone would be very upset. We played very solidly like a European team and made it difficult for them to play us. We need to look at the African specifics and understand how to win when a game is tight.”

It suggests that in a footballing world with few secrets, the intensely drilled methods honed in the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A may finally have made their way into the more chaotic realm of the international game. Barring Qatar and Saudi Arabia, whose respective fortunes have been decidedly mixed, each squad at this tournament has a generous spread of players from these major domestic leagues.

This is not new: it has been like this for two decades. But if they are supplemented by a generation of tactically clever, quick-thinking coaches who know how to use the qualities taught abroad in a short preparation time, that might herald the next step. “The gold standard of the world” was how Japanese coach Hajime Moriyasu described European football before beating Spain. Japanese football has had close ties with Germany in particular for many years.

On one level, such assessments create uneasiness: the instinctive thought is that Asian and African teams shouldn’t feel compelled to eschew their own styles out of deference to theories honed in Manchester, Munich and Madrid. Homogenization should not be the only way. But that’s exactly where football has long since evolved, and it becomes tastier when the ‘European’ scale is seen as a global one, practiced by players and coaches from all over the world and having happened to take hold there.

South American teams have long found a successful balance between what works locally and what works abroad. But this has been an unremarkable World Championship for Conmebol so far, with only two of their teams progressing. This has only happened twice so far. Brazil and Argentina both started the tournament with convincing claims, but even if Ecuador and Uruguay had qualified on four points in another year, there are no support acts in the knockout stages.

Those fine gaps again: seven of the eight groups contained a team that missed despite one win and one draw. It means nobody has too much to worry about; If previously unannounced outposts are now speaking out louder, it simply means this tournament is doing its job as it should. And while Europe has only been thinner twice in the bottom 16, 50% of the spots still speaks for a lot.

For all the analysis and reasoning, on Saturday night an Australian striker named Mitchell Duke from Japanese second division club Fagiano Okayama will have had every reason to believe he can beat Lionel Messi and Argentina. Perhaps that speaks more than anything to the vastness that lies ahead.

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