Thursday 24 November 2022 saw the last eight teams take to the pitch, from Groups G and H, to commence their FIFA World Cup 2022 campaigns.
The stadia were still suffering from blocks of empty seats; one would have thought that all matches would have been sell-outs; maybe they were and, more likely, no-shows were the issue.
In the match between Uruguay and South Korea, the South American side started off most robust while the Asian champions were quicker both on and off the ball. Tottenham's Son Heung-min played with a face mask protecting broken bones around his eye socket he sustained in the club's Champions League victory over Marseille on 1 November: he was up against Spurs' club-mate Rodrigo Bentancur who lined up in midfield for the South Americans. Mid-way through the first half, Uruguay started to get more possession as their midfield started to assert their authority. On 25 minutes, Uruguay had a great opportunity only for Liverpool's Darwin Nunez to be foiled by the South Korean goalkeeper, Kim Seung-gyu, racing off his line to thwart the attack. By now, South Korea were relying on breaks with their supporters very vocal once the ball approached the opposition box. Son Heung-min cut in from the left and curled a right-footed effort in towards goal, but Mathias Olivera headed it clear. On 33 minutes, as his team enjoyed another spell of possession and territory, South Korea's Hwang Ui-jo had a great opportunity to put his team ahead, but his shot was well over the bar. South Korea were pressing hard. It was Uruguay who were now relying on the counter-attack. On 43 minutes, from a corner, Uruguay almost broke the deadlock with Diego Godin hitting the left-hand post. Just 1 minute of added time. HT 0-0. The second half started as the first ended, with South Korea on the ascendancy; just 7 minutes in, they were denied a penalty after claiming a foul by Bentancur in the box. The ball bobbled around the central third of the pitch with neither team seemingly able to make a decisive breakthrough. With half an hour left on the clock, Uruguay replaced Suarez (their highest ever scorer) by Cavani (their second highest ever scorer) to try to break the deadlock; they then made two more substitutions with 12 minutes to go as they had not really tested the South Korean defence in the 2nd half. 2 minutes later, Nunez had a rasping shot that was just wide of the upright. With just a minute left on the clock, Uruguay's Valverde sent a rasping shot goal-ward; it beat the keeper but rebounded off the top of the upright. Immediately after this, Son had a glorious opportunity at the other end of the pitch but shot wide. 7 minutes of added time announced and both teams were going for the win, but neither side could get the breakthrough. Full-time 0-0.
Portugal (fancied by many to do very well in this tournament) played against Ghana in the 17:00 (CET) kick-off that was being played at the Stadium 974, named after Qatar's international dialling code as well as the number of containers used in the construction of this so-called "sustainable stadium" which can be taken down and reassembled elsewhere, after the tournament. One of the big questions people were asking before kick-off was: would Portugal's captain, Cristiano Ronaldo, be focussed on his football, following his release from his contract with Manchester United just a couple of days ago after his infamous interview with Piers Morgan? Playing as a centre forward, he was involved in a few early skirmishes, but on 9 minutes he was clear on goal only for Diogo Costa, the Ghanaian goalkeeper, to smother the ball at his feet. He had another opportunity a couple of minutes later but could not get enough power on a header. Even without possession, Portugal looked hungry as they hassled Ghana at every opportunity. On 30 minutes, Ronaldo had the ball in the back of Ghana's net but the referee had blown his whistle for a foul by Ronaldo in the build-up. Ghana were continually playing catch-up and their defence was remaining solid, repelling all Portuguese attacks. Ghana, though, were not being submissive and managed a couple of attacks and attempts on Portugal's goal late on in the first half. 2 minutes of added time announced. HT 0-0. After the break, Ghana started to have more possession and started to put some pressure on Portugal's defence. The match was opening up. On 62 minutes, the referee awarded a penalty to Portugal after Ronaldo was bundled to the ground in the box. Ronaldo took it himself and blasted the ball into the back of the net, becoming the first player to score in 5 World Cups. 1-0 to Portugal. Ghana upped the tempo and harried Portugal whenever and wherever they could in the pitch. On 71 minutes, Younis had a rocket of a shot blocked by Portugal's goalkeeper. Less than a minute later, Ghana had the ball in the back of Portugal's goal following a well-worked move down the left with Andre Ayew, Ghana's captain, slotting home Mohammed Kudus' cross despite the best efforts of Portugal's defence. This was the first goal of the tournament for an African team. On 77 minutes, Portugal went ahead when Félix Sequeira broke through on the right and shot over the advancing goalkeeper. 2-1 Portugal in a pulsating finish to an intriguing game. Ghana put men forward but left gaps at the back; Portugal's 3rd goal came just 2 minutes later, this time da Conceição Leão scoring from the left following a delightful through pass. Amid a raft of substitutions by both teams, Cristiano Ronaldo was replaced with 3 minutes remaining of normal time. The game was well and truly won by then. Or was it? Just a minute later, Ghana pulled back a goal out of nowhere when Portugal's defence went asleep and Osman Bukari got Ghana's 2nd of the evening. 1 minute of normal time remaining and 9 minutes of added time announced. Could Ghana rescue a point? The main challenge was to get possession, with Portugal slowing the ball down. Portugal held on for a 3-2 win, but not without a mighty scare in the last minute when Inaki Williams cheekily stole the ball from goalkeeper Diogo Costa but slipped at the crucial moment when attempting a shot into what was an open goal.
Switzerland played Cameroon (nicknamed the Indomitable Lions) in the day's early match. Cameroon started the strongest as the Swiss players seemed to struggle to get into the match; the African side had chances by Eric Choupo-Moting, Bryan Mbeumo and Martin Hongla who all missed good opportunities with which they should have done better. HT 0-0: was this going to be the 4th scoreless draw of the tournament? Just after half-time, after a slick attack by Switzerland, Breel Embolo scored against the country of his birth; he refused to celebrate when he finished off the move. Switzerland had opportunities to extend their lead; however, the Cameroon goalkeeper Andre Onana pulled off a brilliant save to deny Ruben Vargas on a break, with Embolo and substitute Haris Sefer pic both denied by last-ditch defending. The hard-fought encounter had just the one goal, finishing 1-0 for Switzerland for whom this was a valuable win as both sides still have to face Brazil in the group.
In the last match of the day, Brazil (winners of the most World Cups, 5 in total) played Serbia (who had high hopes of doing well in this tournament with their "golden generation"). From the moment of kick-off, the crowd went wild every time Brazil surged forward into Serbia's half. Neymar seemed to be a target every time he got the ball, with the Serbians tackling hard. On 12 minutes, a Brazil corner almost caught the Serbian goalkeeper off-guard, but he saved well to negate the threat. Although Serbia looked dangerous on the break, Brazil's defence held firm, with their centre backs ensuring that danger-man Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham) was limited to half-chances. But it was the other end of the pitch where the first goal of the game looked most likely to come, with Neymar (PSG), Richarlison (the Spurs striker preferred to Arsenal's Gabriel Jesus) and Raphinha (Leeds Utd) all looking threatening with the ball near or in the box. The Serbian goalkeeper, Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, needed to be alert throughout. On 40 minutes, Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid) escaped the attention of the Serbian defenders and had a shot saved at point blank range at the far post. Just 1 minute of added time. HT 0-0. From the resumption of play after the break, Brazil had a couple of strong opportunities, with Raphinha guilty of wasting a golden opportunity. On 49 minutes, Brazil were awarded a free kick just outside Serbia's penalty box which Neymar could not get over the wall, with Richarlison coming close in the ensuing goalmouth scramble. Serbia were surviving, but only just. Vinicius Junior was posing a constant threat on the left wing with his pure pace. On 54 minutes, he whipped in a cross that Neymar connected with but could not keep down as it skittled over the bar. Brazil were getting closer to opening the scoring. On a rare excursion into Brazil's half, Mitrovic whipped in a cross that was comfortably dealt with by Brazil's defence. Up the other end, Alex Sandro, who had just headed Mitrovic's cross clear, saw a long-range pile-driver rebound off the bottom of the upright. On 62 minutes, Brazil broke the deadlock following a mazy run into the box, a cross by Vicinius Junior and a lightning reaction by Richarlison to get the finishing touch despite the best efforts of Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, Serbia's goalkeeper. 4 minutes later Neymar broke through but delayed his pass to Vicinius Junior - that could (or should) have been Brazil's second. Serbia reacted and won a corner but it was headed behind. Another corner and the ball bobbie around the goal but no Serbian player could force it over the line. On 73 minutes, Richarlison scored his, and his team's, second goal, following a cross by Vicinius Junior from the left to the edge of the box for him to touch it with his left foot, swivel and fire the dropping ball on the volley into the back of the net for arguably the goal of the tournament so far. A minute later Richarlison was replaced by Gabriel Jesus. Neymar was also taken off with the other games in mind. Midfielder Casemiro (Manchester United) then had a shot glance off the crossbar as Brazil hunted for more. On 86 minutes, Rodrigo went over with a curled shot. Brazil were playing dazzling one-touch football, with the Serbian players visibly tiring. 7 minutes of added time. But that was it for the evening: Richarlison has now scored 9 goals for Brazil in his last 7 games. 2-0 for Brazil.
Today, Friday 25 November, will see the teams from Groups A and B play their second matches. In Group A, Qatar will take on Senegal, and the Netherlands will play Ecuador. In Group B, Wales will face Iran, and England will play the USA in the late match.