With 48 matches and the whole of the group stage in Qatar behind us now, here are some of the things we have learnt so far …
1. Time flies when you are having fun
Fifa have insisted on referees meticulously adding time that has been “lost” on goal celebrations, VAR decisions, and general time-wasting. It was initially astonishing to be seeing nine or ten minutes added at half-time and at the end of games, but halfway through the group stage fans seem to have mentally readjusted to being disappointed that the officials had only added six or seven minutes extra play. And when the conclusions of games have been as much fun as Portugal v Ghana or as tense as Ecuador v Senegal, who wouldn’t want more?
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2. Pulling off one upset isn’t enough
Morocco and Japan upset the odds to top their groups, but both of them needed more than one shock result to do it. Japan managed identikit comebacks from a goal down to beat both Germany and Spain 2-1 to progress. Morocco added a defeat of Belgium to their draw with Croatia giving them the springboard for success. But one shock is not enough, as Saudi Arabia proved. They couldn’t capitalise on their stunning opening win against Argentina. Though it will still rank as one of the greatest World Cup shocks of all time, and the Saudis got a national holiday out of it, Argentina ended up top of the group and in the round of 16, and Saudi Arabia did not.
And imagine telling Cameroon before the tournament started that they would beat Brazil and draw with Serbia and still not qualify?
3. Semi-automated offside is a chore
The idea of using sensors in the ball and motion tracking of players to assist in making marginal offside decisions isn’t terrible in and of itself. However, the implementation, rather than speeding up decision-making, seems to have led to a plague of fussy decisions. Goals are being chalked off or penalties denied on the basis of microscopic offside infractions in the buildups that no human has noticed or even appealed for. Surely offside wasn’t so broken that it needed to be fixed like this?
4. The golden boot is still up for grabs
Enner Valencia has gone home with his Ecuador teammates, but while you wouldn’t back against Kylian Mbappé prospering as France go deeper into the competition, England’s Marcus Rashford, the Netherlands’ Cody Gakpo and Spain’s Álvaro Morata all have more minutes ahead and are tied with Mbappé with three goals.
Lionel Messi, Richarlison, Bukayo Saka, Olivier Giroud, Ritsu Dōan, Bruno Fernandes, Breel Embolo, Andrej Kramarić and Ferran Torres are also all on two goals with second round matches ahead of them. One hat-trick could swing it.
5. It has been one of the most well-disciplined group stages ever
World Cups are often marked by flurries of red cards after Fifa gives new refereeing directives – think the instant red for a tackle from behind that suddenly appeared in 1994, leading to Marco Etcheverry of Bolivia getting his marching orders in the opening match against Germany and being just the first of many. Not this year.
Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey was sent off for a high challenge, and Cameroon’s Vincent Aboubakar picked up a second yellow card for taking his shirt off celebrating his winner against Brazil, and that was it for players throughout the whole of the group stages. Admittedly South Korea’s Portuguese coach Paulo Bento also picked up a red card for protesting after South Korea’s defeat to Ghana, but it was all friendly child’s play compared with the 18 red cards in the group stages in 2006 and the 13 in 2002.
6. Brazil are always going to be Brazil – just about
They topped their group for the 11th consecutive time. It may have been on goal difference after that unexpected defeat to Cameroon, but 1978 was the last time Brazil failed to win their opening World Cup group. The lesson remains, if you get drawn with Brazil, set your sights on finishing second.
7. Balance of the confederations (slightly) restored after 2018
Uefa nations tend to overperform during European-based World Cups, and in Russia in 2018 – as it had been in Germany in 2006 – fully ten of the 16 slots in the second round were taken by European teams. There’s a greater mix to emerge from the groups this time – eight European teams, two from South America, one from North America, two from Africa and an unprecedented three from Asia make for a more globally balanced last 16.
8. European teams with star players can’t just turn up and expect to go through
Denmark, Belgium, Germany and Wales all went into the tournament confident of progressing, with some of them thinking they even had an outside chance of going far enough to pick up the main prize. All of them turned in a series of lukewarm performances against teams from other confederations that meant despite being the big pre-tournament names, Christian Eriksen, Kevin De Bruyne, Thomas Müller and Gareth Bale all ended up on early flights home.
9. The spectre of human rights issues remained at Qatar’s feast
The constant vacillation of organisers and Fifa on whether captains could wear LGBTQ+ armbands, or if fans could bring in clothing items with rainbows, meant that the issue of Qatar’s human rights record was never out of the picture. Qatar got no consolation on the field. With 12 years to prepare, and a reported $200bn spent for the privilege of hosting, Qatar put in the worst ever World Cup performance by a host nation. Was it worth it?
10. We will never see its like again
The 32-team format was first introduced for France in 1998, but this year is the last time. For 2026, co-hosts US, Mexico and Canada will be welcoming an expanded 48 teams. That means, according to current plans, 16 groups of three. Seeding will mean the chances of “groups of death” are slim, and there’s every chance groups could descend into lukewarm final matches where two teams know a draw will suit their purposes and see them both through. There are whispers, however, that Fifa may revisit this decision. Regardless of the format they end up picking, this was the last World Cup group stage as we’ve known it for the last 24 years.