World Cup's finest turned topsy-turvy in dramatic games

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo reacts after missing an opportunity to score during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Morocco and Portugal, at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar on December 10, 2022.

On the evening of November 22, in the 53rd minute of intense football action at the Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lionel Messi stared up at the 88, 012 fans in dejection, arms akimbo, as Saudi Arabia's Salem Al-Dawsari wheeled away in celebration. Normally, it should have been the other way around; Messi triumphantly sprinting to the corner flag to celebrate a goal for Argentina.

Against all odds, Saudi Arabia was leading Argentina two goals to one. The latter side came into the tournament ranked third by football federation (FIFA) with Saudi Arabia a distant 51st. The underdogs went on to win, snapping Argentina's 36 match winning streak.

The World Cup 2022 had begun.

It was only the fifth day of the tournament and the drama was here with us. These unorthodox occurrences make the World Cup truly remarkable. They are the memories fans cling on to until the next showpiece four years later.

Qatar, who won a highly contested bid to host the 2022 World Cup, came into the tournament as overwhelming underdogs and did not disappoint. They became the first host country ever to lose the opening World Cup match, losing 2-0 to an inspired Ecuador, before bowing out at the group stage.

They could take pride in not flying home early. They were already home.

But they were not the only group stage casualties. Germany, who won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil but capitulated in the 2018 edition and were eliminated in the group stage, were again sent packing after three matches.

Theirs was one of the most exciting groups in the tournament. The football giants lost to Japan in their opening match, settled for a hard-fought draw against Spain and frantically sought multiple goals to beat Costa Rica so they could pip Spain to second spot in the group in the final match day.

The Japanese onslaught did not stop with Germany. Japan beat Spain, 2010 World Cup winners, but somehow lost by a solitary goal to Costa Rica who had crumbled under Spain's tiki-taka, losing 7-0, which is the current tournament's biggest win margin so far.

The unpredictability of match outcomes has been dumbfounding. It is the thing of the World Cup.

At some point in the group, during the last match, both Spain and Germany were losing 2-1, and Japan and Costa Rica were qualifying. It would have been one of the biggest fairytales of the world cup but Germany turned their match around and won 4-2, dragging Costa Rica down with them.

Spain would later lose to Morocco in the round of 16, failing to net a single penalty in the post-match shootout in spite of their manager, Luis Enrique, insisting the team had practiced 1, 0000 kicks in anticipation of such eventuality.

In what is most possibly his last World Cup, Portuguese superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo endured painfully tough moments in crunch matches.

He was fresh off an explosive interview with journalist Piers Morgan in which he lambasted his Manchester United coach Eric Ten Hag and the club's recent culture, and the club had consequently parted ways with him.

Christiano Ronaldo reacts after Portugal lost 1-0 to Morocco. [AP Photo]

With speculation on his next destination swirling over his head, the 37-year-old won, and scored, a controversial penalty against Ghana in Portugal's opening match, the only goal contribution he has had so far.

He was momentarily credited with a goal against Uruguay with the ball seeming to have brushed his hair en route to goal following a fine Bruno Fernandes cross. That moment was blown out of proportion as Ronaldo was benched for crucial matches, including in the 6-1 rout of Switzerland in which his replacement, 21-year-old Goncalo Ramos, scored a hat-trick.

In Portugal's group, group H, South Korea went into the final game with only one point earned, and seemed to be 90 minutes away from what looked like certain elimination. However, South Korea stunned Portugal 2-1 and went on to qualify second in the group, on the same goal difference as Uruguay but having scored more goals.

As Africa's teams battled to qualify from the group stages, drama ensued. Ghana decried what they felt was a soft penalty awarded to Portugal in the opening match, and in spite of their most valiant efforts, including an Osman Bukari 89th minute goal that had him hit Ronaldo's 'Siuuuu' celebration, and an Inaki Williams near-moment at the death, they had lost the group.

They were beaten by Uruguay in the last game, which was seen by many as revenge for a moment in the 2010 World Cup where Uruguay striker Luis Suarez used his hands to repel the ball on the goal line, earning a red card and gifting Ghana a penalty. Ghana missed the kick, Asamoah Gyan blasting the ball over the crossbar. Uruguay advanced courtesy of that moment of madness. Here in Qatar, in the same matchup, Ghana won, and missed, a penalty. Both teams were, however, in this instance, eliminated.

Cameroon goalkeeper Andre Onana was dismissed from the team's camp "for disciplinary reasons", according to reports from Reuters, with head coach Rigobert Song saying he had "put the team first ahead of an individual".

Cameroon flattered to deceive, eventually beating Brazil 1-0, which was historic. They were, however, already eliminated by the time they performed that miracle.

Pre-tournament favourites Brazil lost on post-match penalties to Croatia in the round of 16. Later that night of December 9, Argentina, who were leading 2-0 in the 82nd minute, were held back by Netherlands after conceding twice before the conclusion of the match and were pushed to penalties after 120 minutes of play. Messi and co won the match but after a near-collapse.

In the group stages, Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey received the first red card of the tournament, paving way for Iran's quick-fire two goals for the team's 2-0 victory. The same Iran had been hammered 6-2 by England days before.

A disjointed Belgium was eliminated after a lackluster showing, winning only once in their group, against Canada. Morocco topped the group after beating Belgium 2-0. Croatia held the Belgians to a barren draw. This was Belgium's golden generation but they disappointed.

While off the field antics of the now celebrated Kenyan Metro guy entertain the fans and the ever-present Croatian diva rallies her team to victory, the World Cup continues to give upset after another, the very reason the tournament is the world's most watched.

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