After a two-day pause, the World Cup returns to action on Friday as the quarterfinals kick off. Eight teams left in the tournament, and there are no shortage of star power and intrigue. Regardless of who moves on to the semifinals, we certainly expect a high degree of drama and heartbreak!
Be sure to check in with ESPN throughout the tournament as we bring you the latest from Qatar. Here’s what you might have missed from Thursday’s World Cup happenings, and a look ahead to Friday’s action.
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World Cup quarterfinals: Prepare yourself for heartbreak
As the World Cup progresses, each passing elimination becomes that much harder to stomach. Cinderellas return to scrubbing floors, no glass slipper or Golden Boot to show for their heroism that won the hearts of so many neutrals. Favorites slip up, blinded by the brightest spotlight in the sport. All the while, the tournament marches on without them.
On Friday, two teams’ Qatari fairytales will come to an end, and no one is going to be happy about it. After this two-day hiatus that followed the round of 16, the World Cup returns to action with the quarterfinals, with Croatia taking on Brazil and the Netherlands facing Argentina. Regardless of which of those four teams advance, there will be legions of football fans sobbing over the two who will be heading home.
Brazil are always, always, always the neutrals’ favorites, and their eye-catching play and joyful demeanour in this tournament will have done nothing to change that. So of course a defeat will take the wind out of the sails of fan zones up and down Qatar, and yet, a win will hardly be satisfying for so many fans of the game, as such a result will surely end the international career of legendary midfielder Luka Modric.
The 37-year-old Croatia captain has won everything there is to win in the club game with Real Madrid, and his individual achievements have been recognized by taking home the Ballon d’Or in 2018, but a World Cup semifinal that year in Russia is the closest he’s ever come to lifting silverware in the international game. One of modern football’s true artists deserves more, don’t you think?
If that’s got you down, just wait until the late game. Are you ready for Lionel Messi to have played his last game in a World Cup should they fall to the Dutch? The 35-year-old has hinted that he won’t partake in the 2026 edition, making this his last opportunity to finally win the one trophy that’s eluded him throughout his illustrious career.
There won’t be a dry eye at Lusail Stadium if it’s confirmed that soccer’s greatest ever never did win its biggest trophy.
And still, there’s reason to root for the Dutch. Sure, their antics at South Africa 2010 made them a longstanding enemy of beautiful football, and the famous Arjen Robben penalty que no era won them few fans across North America, but there is a feel-good story in this team in the most unlikely of places: manager Louis van Gaal.
In April, the 71-year-old on his third stint in charge of the Netherlands announced that he’s been battling an aggressive form of prostate cancer, something he’d been keeping not only from the public, but also his players, in an effort to keep their focus on qualification for Qatar 2022. Van Gaal has long had a reputation, known as the “Iron Tulip” and mentor to Jose Mourinho, but at this tournament, he’s become something of a celebrity, turning into a source of inspiration for his players and the object of affection from all corners of the sport.
This has been a welcome 48-hour respite from what’s been the most nonstop World Cup in history, but with the quarterfinals looming, everyone is eager to get back to it and see their team move one step closer to the game’s holy grail. Just spare a thought for everyone else who’s going home instead.
As Pele backs Brazil, Neymar nears O Rei’s record
A sub-plot to the quarterfinal match between Brazil and Croatia is whether Neymar surpasses Pele as the Seleção‘s all-time goal scorer for the men’s national team.
Going into Friday’s match, Neymar has 76 goals with the senior squad, one shy of Pele’s record of 77 (which doesn’t include goals from unofficial friendlies or against club teams). Having scored twice already at this World Cup, it’s plausible that Neymar — who missed two games due to an ankle injury — could reach the tally as Brazil continue its incredible form in Qatar.
However, he has a long way to go before he can lay claim to hold the outright goal record for his country, with the legendary Marta scoring 171 goals and counting for the women’s national team.
Pele’s presence is always felt when Brazil takes the pitch, even if he is not physically in the stands. In fact, his absence looms even larger these days as the 82-year-old recovers in a Sao Paulo hospital from a respiratory infection. The three-time World Cup winner has also battled colon cancer, and was hospitalized last week to reevaluate his treatment. His daughters confirmed that he also had COVID-19 and a heart rate below normal.
Pele shared a heartfelt message via Instagram to the squad ahead of the 4-1 win over South Korea in the round of 16, with Neymar and Co. reciprocating the gesture by unveiling a banner of support following the game. And its safe to say that Neymar will be ready to pay homage to O Rei if he does find the back of the net against Croatia.
Amid a campaign that has been defined by stellar midfield play and pressing prowess (and some joyous goal celebrations), Neymar surpassing Pele will be the capstone should Brazil win a sixth World Cup title.
Your best bets (odds via Caesars Sportsbook)
If you’re looking to bet on the World Cup, ESPN contributors Paul Carr, Dan Thomas and Dalen Cuff are here to give you key tips on odds, options and futures. Here’s what we have for the Friday’s matches.
Netherlands (+260) vs. Argentina (+117), Draw (+210)
Paul Carr: Argentina has been a lot better than Netherlands at the tournament, with an expected goal difference of +6.6, compared to the Dutch at -0.1. There’s some game state affecting those numbers, but Argentina is simply better at both ends. I’m wary of Louis van Gaal figuring out a way to slow down Lionel Messi and company, but ‘ll take Argentina to win in regulation at +117.
Daniel Thomas: Out of all of the quarterfinals I expect this one to be the ugliest. Neither side has particularly impressed thus far. I’d take the draw after 90 minutes.
Dalen Cuff: I think Argentina has not been impressive in this tournament. They’ve lacked creativity, dynamism and seem too Messi-dependent. The Dutch haven’t been great either, but they have been clinical, with 10 shots on goal resulting in seven goals. I think this match is especially tight early. I’ll take under 0.5 goals (+122) in the first half. I could see a draw after 90 minutes as well.
Croatia (+800) vs. Brazil (-280), Draw (+370)
Carr: I think we get goals in this one. Croatia and Japan could easily have been higher scoring than 1-1 in regulation, and (news flash) Brazil is better in the attack than Japan. If Croatia find a goal, this one should crack wide open with Brazil’s pressure and Croatia’s counterattack. If Brazil get one early, they’ll likely keep pouring it on, looking for more. I like over 2.5 goals at -125.
Thomas: I think that the win over Japan will have left Croatia somewhat exhausted. Brazil on the other hand will be so fresh going into the game. This is an easy win for Brazil, 3-0.
Cuff: I agree with Dan that Croatia, physically, are at a disadvantage given how each team’s round-of-16 matches went. Croatia have only been scored on twice in the tournament but Belgium should have had at least three in that game. I think Brazil will get the first goal here, forcing Croatia to commit forward in the end, and ultimately winning by two goals or more. I’m going to lay the spread with Brazil -1.5 goals (-105).
Today’s top reads
How tacos, homemade salsas and Mexican cuisine are feeding hungry World Cup fans
With the World Cup bringing together cultures from around the globe, Mexican cuisine has made an unexpected impact in Qatar.
What it’s like taking a penalty in a World Cup shootout
ESPN talks to those who’ve done it to detail what it’s like to be on the spot and the weight of a nation on your shoulders.
The eight most important players of the quarterfinals (ESPN+)
With eight teams remaining at the World Cup, it’s time to drill down and pick out the player on each team who will be the most impactful.
News and notes
World Cup officials has launched a work safety investigation into the death of a Filipino man following reports that the man died while working at a training site. Nasser Al Khater, chief executive of the 2022 World Cup in Doha, confirmed to Reuters that a worker had died, but gave no further details. He offered his condolences to his family and said “death is a natural part of life.” Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers has come under enormous scrutiny during the build-up to the tournament, with human rights groups accusing the Gulf state of systematic labour abuses.
Portugal’s Football Federation has denied media reports that Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to leave the national team during the World Cup after coach Fernando Santos dropped the captain for their round of 16 win over Switzerland. Ronaldo, Portugal’s most-capped player and all-time top scorer, was benched for their first knockout game on Tuesday as they beat Switzerland 6-1, with his replacement Goncalo Ramos netting a hat trick.
Spain announced the departure of Luis Enrique as coach of the men’s national team on Thursday following the team’s shock penalty shootout defeat on Tuesday to Morocco in the round of 16 at the World Cup in Qatar, and named Luis de la Fuente has his replacement. De la Fuente, 61, guided Spain’s under-19 side to a European Championship title in 2015 and led the under-21s to the same honour in 2019, while he was in charge of the team that won a silver medal at last year’s Tokyo Olympics.
Raheem Sterling will rejoin England’s World Cup squad in Qatar on Friday after flying home to deal with the fallout of a robbery at his house, the Football Association has confirmed. The 28-year-old left the camp on Sunday morning following talks with manager Gareth Southgate after it emerged he had been the victim of at least one incident at his Surrey home.