The main event
While everyone relives the lurid outrage of Luis Suárez’s handball against Ghana, the ghost of a different World Cup controversy haunts the other fixture in Group H. South Korea have met Portugal only once before: at the 2002 World Cup, which they co-hosted with Japan. While most expect Fernando Santos’s team to triumph and top the group, the one previous meeting between the two sides ended with the opposite outcome.
South Korea won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Park Ji-sung, the future Manchester United midfielder, which confirmed their status as group winners. Park’s goal was a heartbreaker for the Portuguese: clinging on with nine men, Sérgio Conceição was beaten by a clever flick at the near post and Vítor Baía allowed Park’s low shot to squirm between his legs to send Incheon into raptures.
There was nothing wrong with the goal, while Portugal fully deserved their two red cards. João Pinto had been shown a straight red after 27 minutes after leaping into Park two-footed in one of the least ambiguous sending-off offences imaginable, while Beto got a second yellow midway through the second half for scything down Young-pyo Lee out wide. Luís Figo, one of the biggest names at the tournament, was going home, but it was hard to begrudge South Korea their victory. The real controversy came later: in securing top spot in the group, the co-hosts ended up on a collision course with Italy and, later, Spain.
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What followed were two upsets which sent European football into meltdown. Against Italy, South Korea benefitted from a series of contentious decisions from Byron Moreno, the referee, including Francesco Totti being harshly sent off for diving and Damiano Tommasi having a good goal ruled out for offside. The Italian media reacted magnanimously after the hosts won via golden goal: “LADRI” (“THIEVES”) read the front page of Corriere dello Sport. When South Korea beat Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals after two goals for their opponents had been controversially disallowed, the conspiracy theories – with Fifa accused of favouring the host nation – took on a life of their own. “I don’t want to think that the referee went out to rob either team but the pictures speak for themselves,” said Carles Puyol. “It’s clear the referee was not in our favour.”
South Korea’s wild run came to an end against Germany in the semi-finals, halted by a goal from Michael Ballack. It remains their strongest ever showing at a World Cup, with their progression to the last 16 in South Africa – where they lost 2-1 to Uruguay, with Suárez scoring twice to set up that fateful quarter-final against Ghana – their only foray into the knockout rounds since. They can only hope to resurrect the spirit of 2002 against Portugal, with a few delicious VAR controversies thrown in for good measure. Technology may have come on over the last 20 years, but football’s penchant for absurdity, acrimony and melodrama remains much the same. WM
Belgium’s problems ran deeper than Lukaku’s sitters
Misfiring No 9’s make easy scapegoats and Romelu Lukaku has often found himself excessively lambasted for perceived square peg/round hole tendencies, even when the people designing the holes might warrant a tad more criticism. And so it was for Lukaku against Croatia. His introduction at half-time did give Belgium more menace but when your purpose is to score goals you need to put away at least one of the three notably gilt-edged chances that came Lukaku’s way, even if two of them weren’t quite as easy as they looked. If you’re into that kind of thing, Lukaku’s xG for that cameo alone (1.7) was higher than any other player’s in the tournament. But Belgium aren’t out because of one striker’s profligacy, but for the entire team looking a disjointed, pallid mess all tournament. A rebuild is needed for an ageing side. TD
Morocco have momentum and resilience
Canada have been huge fun at this tournament, and one of the few teams of whom you could say all of their group games were eminently watchable, but they’ve had the weakest and most erratic back line, and they were given a lesson in defensive organisation by Morocco, who richly deserved to win Group F. The Atlas Lions should have been out of sight at half-time but, marshalled by Achraf Hakimi, had to show their defensive mettle in the second half when Canada sought to go out with a flourish. With Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri looking sprightly up front and one of the tournament’s most numerous and vociferous fan followings, Morocco must fancy their chances of being the first African side in 12 years to reach the last eight. They would be worthy, and popular, quarter-finalists. TD
Chart-topping pop star Dua Lipa made waves before the World Cup by denying reports she would perform at the opening ceremony, explaining that she looked forward “to visiting Qatar when it has fulfilled all the human rights pledges it made when it won the right to host the World Cup.” Lipa eloquently expanded on that sentiment on Thursday: “The World Cup is a really unique opportunity to hold Qatar to account,” she told Variety magazine. “They made pledges on human rights when they signed the deal for the World Cup that have not been satisfactorily met on migrant workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and freedom of expression — what kind of message does it send if these pledges mean nothing?” MBu
Brazil’s press feels confident the Seleção are on their way to a historic sixth title. They don’t need psychic alpacas or octopi, as they have got Michael Bruno, 39, from Paraíba. The elementary school teacher claims to have predicted Spain, Germany and France as champions in 2010, 2014 and 2018, and now in Globo he says it is Brazil’s turn. He pinpoints political factors as one of the key ingredients in his predictions. “Brazil has been going through several turbulences in politics and in the economy, and nothing recovers morale more than a World Cup victory, a social phenomenon capable of reuniting and bringing together families and disaffections”. He also says Portugal are going to win in 2026 if you want to get in early.
In Folha, they’ve adopted a more scientific approach, with a mathematical model showing the trophy is more likely to be destined for CBF HQ in Rio de Janeiro than to any other single country. Scientists have run a prediction algorithm that takes into account the relative strengths of teams and the cost of the players making up the squads more than one million times, and Brazil end up champions 15% of the time – surpassing anybody else. Paulo Henrique Trentin, a professor at the mathematics department at Centro Universitário FEI, also cautions that models have some limitations – they can’t predict crucial psychological factors or injuries. Sports publication Lance!, meanwhile, has focused on the path ahead, writing that fans in Brazil are already excited on social media at the prospect that if they get the point against Cameroon that they need to top the group on Friday, they will set up a potential World Cup “Superclásico de las Américas” semi-final against Argentina. However, Lance! does concede that, to get there, “Argentina will face modest Australia in the round of 16, [but] Brazil will face teams like Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay or South Korea.” MBe
The internet reacts
It’s not quite Melbourne-at-3am vibes but still an impressive show of support by Morocco fans at one of Qatar’s ‘fan festivals’, as the Atlas Lions celebrate reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Meanwhile, in London, Morocco fans in London make themselves heard. A police officer is overheard saying: “they are so much more genial than the West Ham fans I normally have to deal with”.
Ghana v Uruguay (Group H, 3pm GMT, BBC2) The re-match of that contentious 2010 quarter-final starts with advantage Ghana. A win will put them through regardless of what happens elsewhere. A draw will be enough unless South Korea can conjure a win against Portugal. Up against them is Uruguay’s ageing (and so far toothless) attack. No goals so far, but a win here – with a Portugal victory – could still see them progress. Villain of the piece Luis Suárez says: “We are going to put our lives and soul into this match. We know them, we have beaten them before, we know how to beat them again.” MBe
South Korea v Portugal (Group H, 3pm GMT, BBC1) The emotional scenes at the end of South Korea’s defeat to Ghana – coach Paulo Bento was sent off after the final whistle and will sit this one out in the stands – suggested the team knew the gig was up. They have to beat a supremely confident Portugal side well, and pray other results go their way. Portugal have motivation of their own. They have already qualified, but a point will manoeuvre them away from meeting Brazil next. “If we had to face each other, it would be a game between two great teams,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “But our wish, and Brazil’s, is that we meet later on”. MBe
Cameroon v Brazil (Group G, 7pm GMT, ITV1) Having already qualified, Tite is expected to field an entire reserve team for Brazil. The 39-year-old Dani Alves will become the oldest Brazilian to play at a World Cup, and a point will ensure Brazil win their group for the 11th straight finals. The Indomitable Lions’ stunning comeback against Serbia leaves them needing to a win – a feat they managed once at the 2003 Confederations Cup – and hope results go their way. MBe
Serbia v Switzerland (Group G, 7pm GMT, ITV4) This could be a corker and is probably the one to watch, as it has a grudge match element – Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka picked up fines for pro-Kosovo celebrations when the sides met in the group stages at the last tournament – and it acts as effectively a knockout match. Assuming Cameroon won’t get points against that second-string Brazil, Serbia can overhaul Switzerland and qualify with a win. The Swiss know a draw will almost certainly be enough to see them through. MBe
Player to watch
Cameroon are potentially one win away from reaching the knockout stages for the first time since 1990. The thing is, they must beat some team called Brazil, hope Switzerland draw with Serbia and do it all with their second-choice goalkeeper. With experienced Inter keeper André Onana sensationally suspended by Cameroon’s football federation “for disciplinary reasons”, his replacement, Devis Epassy, conceded three goals in the thrilling draw with Serbia. Despite making a great stop to deny Aleksandar Mitrovic, the prospect of facing Vinícius Junior and co must be a daunting one for Epassy. Still, these are the storylines that create heroes. The French-born journeyman, currently with Saudi Arabian club Abha, has his chance to be one. MBu
And finally …
If you thought the end of Tunisia v France was confusing on Wednesday, spare a thought for TV producers around the globe. In what appears to have been a breach of the VAR protocol, referee Matthew Conger blew the final whistle without waiting for the signal that the check on Antoine Griezmann’s seemingly last-minute equaliser was over. Consequently he was sent to the pitchside monitor to adjudge Griezmann offside – itself a messy decision – before blowing to restart the game for the final 40 seconds. None of which was seen by viewers in France, as broadcaster TF1 had cut to an advert break after Griezmann’s shot crossed the line, believing the final whistle had sounded, prompting millions of viewers to switch off thinking France had salvaged a draw. TF1 issued an apology for its hasty exit on social media, and on the Mag show journalist Grégoire Margotton was forced to explain the channel’s error to the viewers that remained. MBe