And So It Begins…

  • The knockout stage of the World Cup begins on Saturday
  • Previous tournaments have provided some classic sudden death clashes
  • Russia 2018 is well set for a stellar second phase

The knockout stage of the World Cup has only been in existence in its current format since 1986. There were only a handful of knockout games between 1974 and 1982 – two semi-finals and three finals, to be precise. That’s because all three of those generally excellent tournaments had second phase group stages and semi-finals only returned to the competition for the first time since 1970 in Spain.

The 16-team knockout format was introduced in Mexico in 1986 – and produced a number of classic encounters. While Argentina’s quarter-final win over England is remembered for Diego Maradona’s contrasting goals, the best two games of that tournament were surely Belgium’s fantastic 4-3 win over the USSR, and France’s epic penalty shoot-out triumph over Brazil in Guadalajara.

Guy Thys’s side was undoubtedly the best the country has ever produced – and the real golden generation of Belgian football. Jan Ceulemans, Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets, Enzo Scifo, and Franky Vercauteren were eventual semi-finalists, defeating Spain as well as Igor Belanov’s crack Soviet side in the last 16 in an all-time classic.

That same generation also reached the 1980 European Championship final and beat holders Argentina at the World Cup two years later. Only a match-fixing scandal disturbed their run of achievement at Euro 84 when they crashed out to a brilliant Danish side having lost 5-0 to Michel Platini’s France.

Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard may be today’s heroes, but even the shirts they currently wear are a tribute to the Belgians of the 1980s, the gold standard against which they will now be compared.

An inferior Belgian side were unlucky to lose to England in 1990’s knockout stage, but the best matches of that edition in Italy were surely West Germany’s wins over Holland and England, England’s comeback win over Cameroon, and Argentina’s dramatic win on penalties against the hosts in a steamy Naples semi-final.

USA’94 gave us two classic knockout encounters, Romania’s epic 3-2 win over a Maradona-less Argentina at the Rose Bowl, and Brazil’s narrow 3-2 defeat of Dennis Bergkamp’s gallant Dutch in Dallas.

Four years later, Bergkamp was front and centre again as Holland beat Argentina in a Marseille classic a few days after the South Americans pipped England on penalties after a marvellous 2-2 draw in Saint-Etienne.

2002 saw South Korea defeat Italy in controversial fashion, but the next European World Cup provided ample consolation for the Azzurri in a momentous semi-final against hosts Germany who had previously defeated Argentina on penalties in an emotional Berlin crucible. Argentina had already been involved in a Leipzig epic with Mexico, winning 2-1 in extra time thanks to a wonder goal from Maxi Rodriguez.

2010 was all about the nascent Germany crushing England and Argentina on an aggregate score of 8-1. How the mighty have fallen. And that’s before we recall the seven they stuck past a shell-shocked Brazil in Belo Horizonte only four years ago.

Yes, Russia 2018 has been enjoyable, but it has a hell of a lot to live up to over the next fortnight. Fortunately, the draw for the second round provides us with spine-tingling possibilities.

France v. Argentina and Uruguay v. Portugal are epics in waiting, replete with all manner of potential. Russia v. Spain also has intrigue written all over it. England are always good for an hilarious exit. Messi and Ronaldo could clash in the last 8. How about Argentina v. Uruguay in a River Plate derby? Or a rematch of the Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal? There’s still a chance of Argentina facing Brazil in a semi-final, too. Or a repeat of the 1998 final. And that’s before we imagine Spain waiting for all-comers in the final.

The group stage has been good – but we need a great knockout phase to remember this World Cup as something special. Saturday’s matches will set the tone. Here’s to history.

Soccer Scribe.

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