After nearly three weeks of high-octane excitement and bewitching magic and madness, the most unpredictable and thrilling World Cup in recent memory has arrived at the quarter final stage. Thirty-two teams have been whittled down to eight. With the group stages (the most remarkable group stages in a World Cup this century) and the round of 16 over, we are now only seven games away from discovering which country will earn international football’s most coveted prize in 2018.
Five great, proud football nations will be missing in action in the quarter final in Russia. Italy and the Netherlands failed to make it to the tournament. Four-time champions Germany, two-time champions Argentina, and 2010 champion Spain have been knocked out already.
One way of looking at what we are confronted with now is this: of the six pre-tournament favourites, three have been eliminated. Another way of viewing the same situation would be to realise that three of them (Brazil, France and Belgium) are very much in the reckoning.
Brazil are growing in to themselves, cranking up the gears, a wealth of attacking options flourishing on a platform of a parsimonious, disciplined defence. France, blessed with outrageous talent and counting among their number the prodigiously gifted Kylian Mbappe (who has already drawn comparisons with Pele and put his stamp on this tournament as he likely will in future World Cups), are looking formidable. Belgium, not having ever won an international tournament, but fleet of foot and quick of mind, a front three of attackers capable in theory of taking on any defence in the world, will be fancying their chances.
But if we have these three big teams vying for the title, we also have Sweden, 250-1 outsiders before the tournament began. We have a young, swift, expressive England, who won on Wednesday their first knockout match in a World Cup in 12 years. We have the hosts, Russia, the lowest ranked country in the tournament, who, through bloodymindedness and soaring home support somehow conspired to send Spain home. We have Croatia, joyful in their play, bonded as a team, who last won an international knockout game 10 years ago, looking to go further than they ever have. And we have Uruguay, once champions, of late not quite among the elite, with the meanest of defences and two purring, elite-level strikers, Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani.
What a feast lies ahead. An established world power could win the title. Just as well, a so-called smaller team could lift the trophy. This is usually not the scenario at the quarter final stage. The fact that it is so is a tribute to the unpredictable, glorious nature of this edition of the competition.