FIFA World Cup

World Cup 2022: The Group So Close Yet So Far

Kokoy Severino
World Cup 2022: The Group So Close Yet So Far

TITLE BID. Luka Modric hopes to lead Croatia back to the World Cup finals.

Hannah Mckay/REUTERS

Luka Modrić and Croatia look determined as ever after coming on the cusp of ultimate glory in the last World Cup where they yielded to France in the title match

This is Part 6 of Rappler’s World Cup 2022 series.

Group F – Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Morocco 

‘Almost’ doesn’t count, except for horseshoes and hand grenades.”

I can’t recall how many times I heard that biting remark as a high school player in Texas, every time someone came close to scoring, hit the post, or a goalie got a finger on the ball to almost make a save. 

For Group F, this little adolescent adage seems to apply in various contexts.

Hard-nosed Eastern bloc grit – that’s how I’ve come to characterize the Croatian style of play, exemplified by Luka Modrić and Ivan Perišić. They almost won the whole thing in 2018 with this blue-collar determination and work ethic to persevere against all odds. Almost… 

They hung in there with the French for the first half. If it weren’t for Mandžukić’s own goal and a costly penalty, the Croatians would have been leading at the interval. Who knows how that would have changed the complexion of the second half? The Croats were on the cusp of ultimate glory, so close yet so far. 

The Croatians look again to be as determined as ever, having topped their Nations League group, including an aggregate defeat of the world champions, shutting the Blues out at the Stade de France. 

At 37 years old, Modrić’s swansong will be in Qatar. One of the best midfielders in the game today, the Real Madrid star will take Croatia back into the knockout rounds for the third time since the breakup of the Yugoslav federation, and they’ll almost make it to the final again. Almost…

The Moroccans have had it rough. Out of 16 matches played in the previous five finals for which they have qualified, the Atlas Lions have won only two, compiling a -8 total goal deficit. 

Not that they are lacking in quality. Morocco’s main man on top Hakim Ziyech has had stellar years in Holland and England. He won the Eredivisie championship with Ajax, and has gone even further with his current club Chelsea, winning the Champions League and the Club World Cup two seasons ago. 

Defender Achraf Hakimi has not only excelled in La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A, and now Ligue 1 – all four leagues considered the best in the world – but took home silverware for Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and Paris Saint-German. 

Against the determined Belgians and Croatians, unless something magical happens, the Moroccans will just almost make it out of the first round.

The crème de la crème of Canada is Alphonso Davies, currently playing some stellar ball with Bayern Munich. Davies was born in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana. At the age of five, his family relocated to Canada where he started playing soccer in a community non-profit organization called Free Footie, an inner-city after-school program targeting economically disadvantaged youths. 

At 14 years old, he made it onto the youth development academy of Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps. It didn’t take Davies long to sign a professional contract, and at 16 he not only became the second youngest player in Major League Soccer history, but the youngest to score goals. 

On the same day that he passed the Canadian citizenship test, he was added to the country’s senior national team pool and soon debuted as the youngest Canadian international in history. 

Needless to say, as he continued to shine, Davies drew the attention of top European clubs. Four months before his 18th birthday, he signed a contract with Bayern Munich. 

Eventually working his way into the regular left-back rotation, he partnered with Bayern’s half-Filipino center back David Alaba to form one of the most impregnable defenses in the world. 

Now at 22 years old, Davies has been named an ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and has already been capped 34 times by Canada, bagging 12 international goals thus far. 

Davies represents the future of a program in one of the few countries where soccer is by far not the most popular spectator sport and still has plenty of evolving to do. 

A player like Davies can be the catalyst needed to inspire that national growth. In the meantime, 2022 will be his first World Cup and a major milestone in his development, a key step in Canada’s preparation for hosting the 2026 edition. 

Chances are, Canada won’t escape a first-round elimination in the next couple of weeks, but they will almost make it out. They’ll be so close, yet so far…

In 2018, I predicted Belgium would get to the final for the first time in their history. With guys like Lukaku, De Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard, Kompany, and Courtois on a rampage throughout Europe, the Belgian squad was the most stacked in Russia, and coached by a genius in Roberto Martinez. 

That 2018 Belgium squad hit the No. 1 world ranking going into the World Cup finals tournament. They almost did make it to the championship game, falling in the semifinals to the eventual champions France by the narrowest of margins. Almost… 

In 2022, the Red Devils come into Qatar as almost the top-ranked team in the world, sitting at No. 2 in the FIFA ranking, with the most experienced squad. Eight of the Belgian roster have over 90 caps, the most out of all 32 teams. 

Watching Major League Soccer in the United States over the decades, I have had the opportunity to witness some of the biggest stars come to invest the last part of their respective careers to the development of the American system. 

I’ve watched guys like Kaká, Thierry Henry, Ibrahimovich, and Beckham come across the pond after the peak of their European careers. 

What these guys brought on the field was an intelligence that clearly distinguished them from the younger generation. What they gave up in speed, they more than made up in creativity, ingenuity, and efficiency. 

These guys didn’t need the kind of blazing speed of their yesteryears. They had far more tools and weapons in their repertoire than everyone around them. All of them in their 30s, they were still the best players in the park, and absolutely mesmerizing to watch. They were the masters of their art teaching the class how it’s supposed to be done.

So when these Belgian guys arrive in the desert – Lukaku with his 102 caps, 31-year-old captain Eden Hazard and De Bruyne with 123 and 94 caps respectively, the 35-year-old deans Dries Mertens with 107 and vice-captain Jan Vertonghen with a whopping 142 caps, defender Toby Alderweireld capped 97 times at 33 years old, 

Axel Witsel at age 33 with 127 caps, and Courtois still considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world at 30 years old capped 97 times – what we are in for is some of the most intelligent football we will ever witness at a World Cup.

With his 68 international tallies and counting, Romelu Lukaku is the fourth leading scorer of the 2022 World Cup. Only the three living legends have totaled more – Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, and Lewandowski. 

With this kind of experience and lethal firepower, the Belgians are packing an offensive punch that will be breathtaking to watch and which very few defenses in the world can handle. 

For this reason, I’m willing to stick my neck out again and predict Belgium in the final. They came so close yet so far four and a half years ago. But almost doesn’t count, except in horseshoes and hand grenades…

Group F standings prediction
  1. Belgium
  2. Croatia
  3. Morocco
  4. Canada

(Next: Part 7 – The Proverbial Group of Death)

– Rappler.com

Kokoy Severino is a career educator and nationally certified youth soccer coach in the United States who now  lives in his home country of the Philippines. For over 23 years, he implemented the beautiful game as a gang-intervention program in high-poverty urban school districts in the Greater Houston area of Texas. He has also worked with economically-disadvantaged communities in the Philippines, using football to mentor youths out of poverty. He is on the coaching staff of the Football for Peace movement, the Elmer Lacknet Bedia Football Academy, and a core member of Initiatives and Hearts for Indigenous People, a collective of volunteer soccer coaches who work with youths in poverty, particularly among the marginalized ethnic minorities of the Philippines. 

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