Europe, South America dominate World Cup’s knockout phase

Europe, South America dominate World Cup's knockout phase
The Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — The thunder-clapping Icelanders have gone home, along with the Egyptians and Peruvians. Now comes the business end of the World Cup, a European- and South American-dominated club that rejects most new applicants as unwanted hoi polloi.

The group stage is the crossroads of cultures, a mixture of multitudes filled with happiness and hope.

Then comes the knockout stage, where soccer’s powers pump their pecs and the blue bloods almost always prevail.

Ten European nations reached the round of 16, matching 1998 and 2006 for the most since 11 in 1990, the record since the current format began in 1986.

Four South American teams have advanced, plus Mexico and Japan. For the first time since 1982, no African team made it past the first round.

History is instructive: Europe earned 41 of 64 quarterfinal berths and South America took 16 since 1986. Among the other regions, Africa and CONCACAF got three apiece and Asia one.

Winnowing to the inner sanctum becomes even more pronounced after that: Europe filled 23 of 32 semifinal spots and South America eight, with South Korea in 2002 at home becoming the only outsider to reach the final four.

Among 20 previous World Cups, Europe has lifted the trophy 11 times and South America nine.

Germany’s departure was the biggest group phase jolt. Projected by many as the first repeat winner since Brazil in 1958 and ’62, Die Mannschaft became the fourth champion in five tournaments to exit early.

FIFA has favored the bottom of the bracket with far easier travel, with Russia and Spain potentially able to play a second-round match in Moscow, a quarterfinal in Sochi, then a semifinal and the final in the capital. Colombia and its opponent, either Belgium or England, could have a round-of-16 game in Moscow, a quarterfinal in Samara, then finish at Moscow.

A look at the Round of 16:

SATURDAY

FRANCE VS. ARGENTINA

Lionel Messi & Co. was on the verge of elimination before Marco Rojos’ 86th-minute goal against Nigeria. With an average age of 26, France is among the youngest teams, led by dynamic 19-year-old striker Kylian Mbappe. At 31, this likely is Messi’s last chance for the World Cup title he needs to match Diego Maradona in the minds of many Argentinians. While Argentina struggled, France must awaken from a somnambulant group-stage finale against Denmark.

URUGUAY VS. PORTUGAL

Cristiano Ronaldo, like Messi a five-time FIFA Player of the Year, leads the European champions against a Uruguay team known foremost for the bite marks Luis Suarez left in Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini four years ago. Portugal on penalty kicks. Uruguay is the least-populous of the round of 16 teams.

SUNDAY

SPAIN VS. RUSSIA

World Cup hosts outside the soccer powers usually perform better than expected. Russia should have huge support at Luzhniki Stadium. Andres Iniesta, who scored the goal that won Spain’s first World Cup title in 2010, remains on a rebuilt roster that struggled defensively in the group stage.

CROATIA VS. DENMARK

Tottenham past vs. Spurs present, with Luka Modric leading Croatia and Christian Eriksen sparking Denmark. Croatia was among the most impressive group-stage teams, beating Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland by a combined 7-1.

MONDAY

BRAZIL VS. MEXICO

El Tri fans hope for the elusive “quinto partido” — to reach a World Cup quarterfinal for the first time since 1986, which was on home soil. This is their best chance in years, with an attack led by Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela. Center back Hector Moreno is suspended for yellow-card accumulation. Brazilian players are trying to atone for the 7-1 humiliation against Germany in the semifinals at home four years ago. Philippe Coutinho has become as important to the Selecao attack as Neymar.

ENGLAND OR BELGIUM VS. JAPAN

Japan will be a heavy underdog against either opponent.

TUESDAY

SWEDEN VS. SWITZERLAND

In its first World Cup in the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era, Sweden is looking to get past the round of 16 for the first time since finishing third in 1994. Swedish midfielder Sebastian Larsson is suspended, as are Swiss defenders Stephan Lichtsteiner and Fabian Schar. Switzerland is led by midfielders Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka.

COLOMBIA VS. ENGLAND OR BELGIUM

Los Cafeteros were the only team to reach the round of 16 after losing their opener.

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