The group so close and yet so far

This is part 6 of Rappler’s 2022 Worlds series.

Group F – Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Morocco

‘Almost’ doesn’t count, except for horseshoes and hand grenades.”

I can’t remember how many times I heard that snarky comment as a high school player in Texas, every time someone got close to goal, hit the post, or a goalie touched the ball to almost save.

For Group F, this little adage seems to apply to youngsters in different contexts.

Hard-boiled Eastern block grit – that’s how I characterize the Croatian style of play, exemplified by Luka Modrić and Ivan Perišić. With that determination and work ethic to persevere against the odds, they almost won the whole thing in 2018. Nearly…

They stayed with the French in the first half. Without Mandžukić’s own goal and an expensive penalty, the Croatians would have led at the break. Who knows how that would have changed the complexion of the second half? The Croatians stood on the brink of ultimate glory, so close and yet so far.

The Croatians appear as determined as ever again after topping their Nations League group, including an aggregate loss to the world champions, and ruling out the Blues at the Stade de France.

At 37, Modrić’s swan song will be in Qatar. One of the best midfielders of the day, the Real Madrid star will lead Croatia back to the knockout rounds for the third time since the Yugoslav FA was dissolved and they will almost reach the final again. Nearly…

The Moroccans have it difficult. Of 16 games in the last five playoffs they’ve qualified for, the Atlas Lions have won just two, for a total goals deficit of -8.

Not that they lack quality. Morocco’s most important man at the helm, Hakim Ziyech, had excellent years in Holland and England. He won the Eredivisie Championship with Ajax and has gone even further with his current club Chelsea, winning the Champions League and Club World Cup two years ago.

Defender Achraf Hakimi has not only excelled in La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and now Ligue 1 – all four leagues are considered the best in the world – but has also picked up silver for Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Paris Saint-German taken home.

Against the determined Belgians and Croatians, the Moroccans will just barely make it past the first round unless something magical happens.

The crème de la crème of Canada is Alphonso Davies, who is currently playing an outstanding ball at Bayern Munich. Davies was born in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana. At the age of five, his family moved to Canada, where he began playing football at a nonprofit community called Free Footie, an inner-city after-school program aimed at economically disadvantaged youth.

At the age of 14 he made it into the youth development academy of the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer. It wasn’t long before Davies signed a professional contract, and at 16 he not only became the second youngest player in Major League Soccer history, but also the youngest to score.

The same day he passed Canada’s citizenship test, he was included in the country’s senior team pool and soon debuted as the youngest Canadian international in history.

Needless to say, Davies attracted the attention of Europe’s top clubs as he continued to shine. Four months before his 18th birthday he signed a contract with Bayern Munich.

He eventually worked his way into the regular left-back rotation and joined Bayern’s semi-Filipino centre-back David Alaba to form one of the most impregnable defenses in the world.

Davies, now 22, has been appointed Ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and has been capped 34 times by Canada, scoring 12 international goals so far.

Davies represents the future of a program in one of the few countries where football is by far Not the most popular spectator sport and still has a lot to do.

A player like Davies can be the catalyst needed to spur that national growth. Meanwhile, 2022 will be its first World Championship and a major milestone in its development, a key step in Canada’s preparation to host the 2026 edition.

Chances are that Canada won’t be able to escape a first-round elimination for the next few weeks, but they will almost do it. You will be so close and yet so far…

In 2018 I predicted that Belgium would reach the final for the first time in its history. With the likes of Lukaku, De Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard, Kompany and Courtois raging all over Europe, the Belgium side were the most populated in Russia and coached by a genius in Roberto Martinez.

This 2018 Belgium squad reached world No. 1 ahead of the World Cup final tournament. They almost made it into the league game when they lost to eventual champions France by a hair’s breadth in the semi-finals. Nearly…

In 2022, the Red Devils arrive in Qatar as almost the highest-ranked team in the world, sitting second in the FIFA rankings with the most experienced squad. Eight of Belgium’s squads have won over 90 caps, the most of any 32 team.

As I have followed Major League Soccer in the United States over the decades, I have had the opportunity to witness some of the biggest stars come to invest the latter part of their respective careers in the development of the American system.

I’ve seen guys like Kaká, Thierry Henry, Ibrahimovich and Beckham come across the pond after the peak of their European careers.

What these guys brought to the pitch was an intelligence that set them apart from the younger generation. What they gave up in speed, they more than made up for in creativity, ingenuity and efficiency.

These guys didn’t need the kind of blistering speed of their past years. They had far more tools and weapons in their repertoire than anyone around them. They were all still the best players in the park in their 30s and absolutely fascinating to watch. They were masters of their art and taught the class how to do it.

So when these Belgians arrive in the desert – Lukaku with his 102 caps, 31-year-old captain Eden Hazard and De Bruyne with 123 and 94 caps respectively, 35-year-old dean Dries Mertens with 107 and vice-captain Jan Vertonghen with a whopping 142 Internationals, defender Toby Alderweireld won 97 internationals at the age of 33,

Axel Witsel aged 33 with 127 caps and Courtois still considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world at 30 with 97 caps – what we are about to see is one of the smartest footballers we will ever see at a World Cup .

With his 68 caps and counts, Romelu Lukaku is the fourth-best goalscorer at the 2022 World Cup. Only the three living legends have achieved more together – Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi and Lewandowski.

With that kind of experience and deadly firepower, the Belgians deliver an offensive punch that will be stunning to watch and that very few defenses in the world can match.

Because of this, I’m ready to fight back and bet on Belgium in the final. Four and a half years ago they were so close and yet so far away. But almost doesn’t count, except for horseshoes and hand grenades…

Group F table prediction
  1. Belgium
  2. Croatia
  3. Morocco
  4. Canada

(Next: Part 7 – The Proverbial Group of Death)

– Rappler.com

Kokoy Severino is a career educator and board-certified youth soccer coach in the United States, now residing in his native country of the Philippines. For over 23 years he implemented the beautiful game as a gang intervention program in high poverty urban school districts in the greater Houston, Texas area. He has also worked with economically disadvantaged communities in the Philippines, using football to lift youth out of poverty. He is on the coaching staff of the Football for Peace movement, the Elmer Lacknet Bedia Football Academy and a core member of Initiatives and Hearts for Indigenous People, a collective of volunteer football coaches who work with youth in poverty, particularly marginalized minority ethnic groups in the Philippines.

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