Five Iconic Moments from the Group Stage

On the pitch, the 2022 World Cup has already thrown up a plethora of entertainment for the average viewer. Shocks courtesy of Saudi Arabia and Japan as well as enthralling encounters involving the likes of Cameroon, Serbia, South Korea and Ghana have treated us to some captivating games in the absence of club football. However, among this surfeit of spectacles has been a number of moving moments. We all know that football is more than just a game – therefore in this piece, we’ll be picking out five of the most emotive junctures of the 2022 World Cup group stages. 

Germany players’ covering of the mouth prior to Japan clash

In the lead up to Germany’s opening World Cup game against Japan, all talk was not about the clash itself but the row over FIFA’s threats surrounding the ‘One Love’ armband. The captains of seven nations, one of which was Germany’s Manuel Neuer, were going to wear the armband which promotes diversity and inclusion in their World Cup matches. However, FIFA threatened these countries with sanctions should they go ahead with the armbands. Punishments may have included disciplinary action and were ‘unlimited’ according to CEO of the Football Association, Mark Bullingham. 

Due to these warnings, players chose not to wear the armband. Instead, the German national team elected to cover their mouths with their hands in their team photo prior to kick off against Japan as a method of protest. This gesture showed that the German players ‘would not be silenced’. 

In the match itself, Japan ran out shock 2-1 winners, but that wasn’t the end of the debacle. In Germany’s next game with Spain, Qatar fans inside the stadium displayed photos of Mesut Ozil. The significance of this is that the now Istanbul Basaksehir midfielder walked away from the German national team in 2018 because of ‘racism’ and ‘disrespect’. The Qatar fans were taking a dig at Germany from these allegations which showed them up as hypocrites due to their aforementioned protest. 

Now, the volcano surrounding this row seems to have gone dormant. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied we expected some fiascos of controversy such as this one at the 2022 World Cup. 

Neco Williams gets emotional in and soldiers through opening Welsh match amid Grandfather’s passing 

If the first ever rendition of the Welsh national anthem ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ at a World Cup didn’t capture the hearts of football fans everywhere, Neco Williams’ tears after his nation’s opening game in Qatar against the USA certainly did. In the one-all draw, the Nottingham Forest full back was subbed off with just over ten to play, moments before Gareth Bale emphatically equalised from the spot. 

Twenty-four hours before the stalemate kicked off, Williams received “the toughest news [he’d] ever had to face.” This came in the form of the passing of his grandad who’d been everywhere around the world to watch Williams play. This news was exceedingly difficult to take for young Williams, who admitted he cried throughout the day of the match. 

Nevertheless, the defender admirably kept it together for kick off and the game itself, putting in a respectable performance. Understandably, though, Williams burst into tears at full time in an emotional scene.   

The fact the Welshman played 79 minutes in his country’s first World Cup match in 64 years just hours after hearing of the passing of someone so close to him has to be commended. This resilience is a quality footballers worldwide continually show throughout their careers, and it is something that attention has to be drawn to. In most professions, few continue to work after a traumatic family proceeding but some footballers do so due to their love and passion for their job. This is something that must be noticed and praised. 

Iranian players remain silent during national anthem in opener before reluctantly singing it in following two matches 

In their opening match of the World Cup, Iran took on England at the Khalifa International Stadium. As is the case in any international game, the anthems of both nations were sung prior to kick off.n this one, however, the Iran players remained silent. This refusal to sing from the Iran players was a show of support for the anti-government protests in their home country. Said protests are speaking out against the regime for their views on things like the compulsory wearing of the hijab for women. 

After this match, it was said by The Guardian that the Iranian players may face ‘reprisals’ from the state for not singing the national anthem. Therefore, in their following game against Wales, Sorude Melliye Jomhuriye Eslâmiye Irân was sung, albeit half-heartedly, both by the Iran players and some fans. The same happened in Carlos Queiroz’s side’s final group game in Qatar, which they lost 1-0 to the USA

It is harrowing that Iranians cannot speak out and protest against the immoral regime of their country on the world stage however the way things back home makes this next to impossible. Testament is put to this point with the fact the Iran players went on to sing their national anthem in their final two games of the World Cup after not doing so in their first. 

Mario Ferri disrupts Portugal v Uruguay in brave protest 

Portugal took on Uruguay in the second round of group stage fixtures in the 2022 World Cup. Fernando Santos’ side won 2-0 thanks to a Bruno Fernandes brace, but one moment in the game which drew the attention of many was when activist Mario Ferri made his way on to the pitch. 

The Italian sprinted on in the 51st minute wearing a t-shirt which sported a few current issues in the modern world. “Save Ukraine” was displayed on the front of the shirt while the words on the back read out “Respect for Iranian Women.” At the same time, Ferri was also waving a rainbow flag which he dropped and left on the pitch before being taken away by stewards. Following his protest, the Italian was released after a “brief detention” and was banned from attending any further matches at the World Cup. 

Mario Ferri Ukraine Iran Qatar Protest LGBTQ
Picture: Getty Images (New York Post)

Initially when Ferri did run on to the pitch and was taken away, many feared the worst for him due to the strictness of the Qatari regime as well as the firm stance they take regarding their beliefs. The next day on social media, Ferri said “I am free”. 

One has to commend the bravery of Marco Ferri to run on to the pitch at one of the most controversial World Cups in history and do what he did. The Italian drew attention to some pivotal world issues in a place where many significant figures have been reluctant to speak out. 

Romelu Lukaku’s frustration after Belgium World Cup dream dies and golden generation fades away

Belgium had to win against Croatia on the final match day of group fixtures to progress to the last 16 but failed to do so. After a first half stalemate, the usually clinical Lukaku was introduced to try and get his nation ahead, yet it seemed as though the Inter man could do anything but that, no matter how hard he tried. As the game went on, the 29 year old was presented with countless chances, none of which he was able to take. Lukaku gathered an imposing xG (expected goals) of 1.73 in the 46 minutes he played, while the entire Croatia team accumulated 0.70xG throughout the whole match. The striker should’ve had at least one effort ripple the net. 

The ideology of the footballing gods being against a player is used rather frequently and said doctrine can certainly be applied here. Moreover, when the ball fell to Lukaku at the back post around three yards from goal in the ninetieth minute and it hit off his midriff before trickling into the grateful arms of Dominik Livakovic, one knew it wasn’t Belgium’s day nor tournament. When walking off the pitch at full time, Lukaku was clearly frustrated. In fact, before making his way back to the changing rooms, the 29 year old struck the clear, plastic material which separates the dugout from the tunnel area and caused it to cave in. 

The Belgian was an exasperated man at the end of the match and it is no wonder. This tournament marked the last opportunity for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ to succeed but the Red Devils exited at the group stage, a major disappointment for the players, fans and particularly manager Roberto Martinez. The Spaniard stepped down from his post immediately after the Croatia draw after a six year spell as manager some argue he could’ve done better in, particularly with the talent and quality he had at his disposal. 

Now for Belgium, a new dawn awaits as it is fair to say the squad which went to Qatar was an ageing one (it was actually the oldest on average in the tournament). Going forward, it will be intriguing to see who takes the job and what they can conjure up for Euro 2024 in Germany, should they even qualify in the first place. 

The 52 games of the 2022 World Cup group stages brought us a number of moments of drama, emotion and reflection. Whilst on the pitch it was one of the most entertaining group stages in several years, numerous events off the pitch made us think deeper about the sport and issues concerning the wider world.

Josh McCafferty

Josh is a 17-year-old passionate football writer and avid Celtic supporter.