World Cup Nuggets – 18th January 2023

Photo © Jono Vernon-Powell

Exactly a month ago, one of, if not the greatest World Cup finals reached a breathtaking endgame. With a nonchalance betraying the occasion and his relative inexperience (this was his 22nd international), Gonzalo Montiel stroked home the winning penalty. The 25-year-old had entered the frenetic match as a substitute in extra time with Argentina leading 3-2 and only four minutes away from victory, two minutes later he gave away the penalty through which Kylian Mbappé equalised to send the match to the penalty shoot-out. He could have been forgiven for being a tad nervous.

As Lionel Messi finally got his hands on the one major trophy that had eluded him thus far the football world could at last celebrate his coronation. Awkwardly clothed in the black Qatari robe or bisht, Argentina’s captain had one last hurdle as he had to shrug off the cloying attentions of both the Emir of Qatar and the greasy clutches of Fifa president Gianni Infantino before he could lift the World Cup. This was one of the most surreal trophy presentations in the history of the World Cup, which was entirely fitting for this, the most surreal of the 22 World Cup. 

Here are my seven World Cup Nuggets, whittled down from the hundreds of notes that were strewn across my sitting room floor during the four weeks of the tournament. 

Closing titles Let’s start with the end, the very end. Whoever was responsible for choosing the background music for the closing credits of the BBC’s coverage should be awarded a medal. To be able to find a song that somehow summed up both the controversy of Qatar hosting the most cherished bauble of the Fifa kingdom and the beauty of the football on show was a mark of genius. Rarely can a track be so exquisitely right. From the opening spoken lines of ‘I’ll protect you from the hooded claw, Keep the vampires from your door’ all the way through Holly Johnson’s crystal clear voice beseeching us all to make love your goal. “The Power of Love” indeed, are you listening Gianni?

Shocks Back to the beginning and the first round of matches that enthralled us and hinted at what was to come, or maybe not. On the third day, Saudi Arabia came from behind to beat Argentina in what was widely regarded to be the ‘biggest’ shock in the history of the World Cup, especially considering the South Americans were on a 36 match unbeaten run. Little did we know that the stricken Goliaths would return to the Lusail stadium for the final, becoming only the second champions to lose their first game, Spain were the others in 2010. Japan shook the natural order by beating Germany after being behind at half-time, and repeating the trick against Spain who had previously walloped Costa Rica 7-0. That comprehensive victory by Spain provided further proof that notching up the biggest win at the Group stage is not good for the side’s prospects.  Since 1950, only Germany have won the World Cup after recording the greatest margin of victory in the Group stages, having beaten UAE 5-1 in 1990 (along with Czechoslovakia who beat USA 5-1).  

Lusail Stadium photo © Jono Vernon-Powell

Morocco were the story of the tournament, in reaching the semi-final, they not only became the first African side to reach the last four but also the first Arab country to go beyond the last 16. The manager Wahid Regragui, who had been in the job less than three months, masterminded their impressive run. They only conceded one goal in their first five matches and that an unfortunate own goal by Nayef Aguerd against lowly Canada. Alongside their collective spirit, as shown in their unbounded delight in disposing of both Spain and Portugal, they had some of the best players. From goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, through defensive rock Achraf Hakimi, midfield supremo Sofyan Amrabat all the way to striker Youseeff En-Nesyri. A recent estimate by Spanish Sports paper AS claimed that the market value of those Atlas Lions’ players had increased by 77% on the back of their World Cup exploits.

Photo © Jono Vernon-Powell

Discipline There were only four red cards throughout the tournament, as there were coincidentally in 2018, which the lowest number of dismissals since 1978. What was unusual was that the earliest red card came in the 86th minute when Wayne Hennessey was sent off against Iran. The other three were all in added time and indeed Denzel Dumfries was dismissed after the anarchy of the quarter-final penalty shoot-out against Argentina, a match in which Spanish referee Antonio Lahoz dispensed yellow cards like confetti, with a record eighteen, beating the previous record which also involved the Dutch in the Battle of Nuremberg against the Portuguese. 

The Final Back to the end and what an end it was. For fluctuating fortunes and a delicious sub-plot as the old king took on the new king was as close to perfection as you could imagine. Mbappé proved his class with his second goal, volleying with such aplomb allied with superb technique, sandwiched in between his two penalties under the most intense pressure. As he was completing what was only the second hat-trick of the tournament and the second in a World Cup final another milestone was reached. It was the 172nd goal in Qatar thereby edging one ahead of the previous record set in 1998 and matched in 2014. At the tender age of 44 years-old, Lionel Scaloni was the youngest manager in Qatar and was a fellow substitute when Messi came off the bench to make his World Cup debut in 2006.   

At the Double The 3-3 scoreline was the highest-scoring draw in a World Cup final and only the third to go to a penalty shoot-out, the others were 0-0 in 1994 and 1-1 in 2006. The other five have been decided in extra time [1934, 1966, 1978, 2010, 2014].It was the fifth final to have six goals. The other four were all 4-2 [1930, 1938, 1966, 2018]. This was only the third final when two players have scored more than once – in 1938 Italy’s Colaussi and Piola both scored twice as did Vavá and Pelé in Brazil’s 5-2 win over Sweden, twenty years later. The 2022 final is the first time that players from opposite sides had scored at least twice. Messi’s double was the seventeenth of the tournament. 

Legacy  There has been considerable debate over how much Qatar really benefited from spending an estimated $220 billion as hosts. Not even the most optimistic could claim that they will claw back even a fraction of that expenditure. The Qataris were also taken aback by the justifiable volley of criticism for their human rights record including the deaths of thousands of migrant workers during the construction of the stadia and infrastructure, and the intolerance shown to the LGBTQ+ community. The 2022 World Cup did stage a climax that was close to perfection as the tournament’s two top scorers traded blows for the ultimate prize. That both ply their trade for a club owned by Qatar Sports Investments provides the slightest smidgen of a return on that vast investment. 

Photo © Jono Vernon-Powell

A massive thanks to Jono Vernon-Powell for his stunning photos which accompany this piece. Lastly, a reminder that the World Cup Nuggets book is available through the usual channels, as well as from publishers Halcyon

Published by richardfoster60

Author, broadcaster, historian, journalist. A regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports and talkSPORT, my latest book is highly acclaimed Premier League Nuggets - "brilliantly written" - Darren Fletcher, "I love Premier League Nuggets" - Guy Mowbray, "the book is a labour of love" - Peter Drury.

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