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First World Cup in Middle East is turning into great one for teams from Asian Football Confederation

Saudi comeback and Japan’s heroic win over Germany have been the moments of the tournament so far

In the first round of matches three teams stood above the rest: France, Spain and Brazil. Brazil had to overcome the toughest opposition, and maybe the most impressive thing about their stylish defeat of Serbia is that the Serbs didn’t have a single shot on target. Neymar’s ankle injury is a worry but they have enough forwards to compensate.

Spain were brilliant from start to finish against Costa Rica. France struggled for 20 minutes but then, prompted by Kylian Mbappé and Adrien Rabiot, seemed to remember themselves. They’ll need to be switched on from the start against better teams than Australia.

Then there are teams that have potential but also problems. Losing to Saudi Arabia made a joke of Argentina’s pre-tournament status as third favourites after Brazil and France. While they can surely play better than they showed last Tuesday, their hollowness in midfield looks a problem without an obvious solution – and then there are the rumours that Messi may not be fully fit.

Portugal have many excellent players but the declining Ronaldo remains undroppable. Germany actually played well for an hour against Japan before their stunning collapse. Afterwards players accused each other of not showing for the ball. Will the shock shatter the team or jolt it back to life? With a do-or-die game against Spain on Sunday night, at least they won’t have to wait long to find out.


The apparent faultlines in the German camp seem to reflect the tortured attitude to Qatar 22 back in Germany, where collapsing TV ratings suggest the public is rejecting the tournament en masse – a shocking development in one of the world’s foremost football nations.

That is a worrying trend for Fifa, but it makes no immediate impact on the ground in Doha, where in the organisational sense this strange World Cup has been proceeding much like any other. The main organisational difficulty is an unfamiliar one: getting enough people to come to the games – or in the case of matches involving Qatar, getting the home supporters to stay until the end once it becomes clear their team was going to lose.

Fifa are claiming an attendance rate of 94 per cent but this figure fails the eye test. Empty seats have been clearly visible at every match, most obviously in the highest-priced Category 1 sections - these are the prime seats over the half-way line. There have been swathes of empty VIP seats even at games involving the most popular sides Argentina and Brazil. Is this chiefly because people who bought tickets have just decided on the day not to bother going? The fact that every journalist has heard of tickets being offered around by people linked to Fifa sponsors suggests a different explanation: the sponsors, who all receive generous allocations, have been struggling to get rid of their tickets.

Some lower-profile games have seen stadiums no more than three-quarters full. The number of supporters travelling from participating countries has generally been low compared to the World Cups in Russia or Brazil, the main reason likely being that accommodation in Qatar is so much more expensive. In the first couple of days there was critical media reporting on the tent cities being offered as fan accommodation, but temporary accommodation along these lines is not unusual at tournaments. What is unusual is the $200+ per night price tag. The tents would seem more reasonable at a tenth of the price.

Unsurprisingly the lack of travelling fans has been bad for the matchday atmosphere. Some countries’ support includes organised groups who determinedly make noise throughout the whole game - the singing ultras of Japan and South Korea, the bands that accompany Ghana and Senegal. But generally the stadiums have been rather quiet. Local fans in Argentina shirts might be absolutely genuine in their adoration of Messi, but they don’t know the words to Vamos Vamos Argentina. These might be the biggest matches of the players’ careers, yet most of the time they sound like pre-season exhibition games. A notable exception was Saudi Arabia’s victory over Argentina, when tens of thousands of travelling Saudis made the Lusail stadium come alive.

The Saudi comeback and Japan’s heroic win over Germany have been the moments of the tournament so far. The first World Cup in the Middle East is turning into a great one for teams from the Asian Football Confederation. After Iran’s win against Wales – their first against Uefa opposition in the World Cup – the Asian teams have three victories from the first six days of action. The most matches won by Asian teams in a single tournament is five, in 2002, when co-hosts Japan and South Korea both qualified from the group stage and the Koreans reached the semi-final.

There is now a great chance of the Asian Confederation setting a new wins record and also of getting three teams into the knockout stages for the first time – with Japan and Saudi Arabia overcoming football superpowers to do so.

These results sit awkwardly next to the talk brewing in the Nordic countries of a possible mass European withdrawal from Fifa. Discontent with Fifa is now widespread among the European federations. The European TV rights market is Fifa’s goldmine, but it’s a long time since Europe had the political influence on the organisation to match its commercial importance. With Gianni Infantino now lecturing Europe that it owes the world 3,000 years of apologies, some in the Uefa countries are questioning the current dispensation, wondering out loud “what’s in it for us?”

Uefa and the South American confederation CONMEBOL have recently been exploring the idea of adding the South Americans into the Nations League. It’s an attractive idea in terms of creating more regular opportunities for European and South American teams to compete against each other. Since every past World Cup finalist, and all but one of the past semi-finalists, is a member of one or other of these confederations, there is an obvious temptation for the Europeans and South Americans to wonder if they could cut Fifa out of the deal entirely and organise an effective replacement for the World Cup between themselves.

Except this new competition would not be a World Cup. How can you sustain the argument that it would include every team that really “counts” when we have seen Saudi Arabia beat Argentina and Germany lose to Japan? From that perspective it looks more like an attempt to bolt the door on the future.

The key word in “Fifa World Cup” is not “Fifa”, but “World”. The winners of the notional breakaway competition could not say, as the winners of the World Cup can say, that every team on the planet had a go at winning this competition, and in the end we were the best. Something beautiful would have been lost. Fifa may be increasingly infuriating to deal with, but surely we haven’t yet reached the point where it makes sense for the Europeans to take their ball and go home.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer