The first World Cup hosted by an Arab nation enters its knockout phase on Saturday, but such has been the daily rollercoaster of shocks, comebacks and head-spinning group climaxes that everyone involved should perhaps lie down for a week in a dark room before carrying on.
Forty-eight games and 120 goals into the latest edition of FIFA’s showpiece and there has barely been a dull moment at a tournament that just keeps giving.
The last three nights of simultaneous group action were mind-boggling, with Japan stunning Spain to qualify from Group E and South Korea scoring a stoppage-time winner to beat Portugal and make it out of Group H.
Four-time champions Germany, on the other hand, are going home, still scratching their heads at how.
The tournament began with a glitzy ceremony and a tame opening game between Qatar and Ecuador when the narrative was still very much centred on the controversial host nation’s treatment of migrant workers and the LGBT+ community.
That debate will continue after the final ball is kicked, but as far as what has happened inside the eight gleaming stadiums, the World Cup has been a stunning spectacle.
England’s 6-2 hammering of Iran on day two and France’s Kylian Mbappe-inspired 4-1 defeat of Australia were the early headline acts. Then the script was flipped upside down.
When Lionel Messi gave Argentina the lead from the penalty spot in their opening Group C match against Saudi Arabia, all seemed normal. But Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari sealed a 2-1 Group C win for the 51st-ranked Green Falcons that, according to data company Nielsen Gracenote, was the biggest statistical shock in World Cup history.
Normal service resumed a day later when Spain thumped Costa Rica 7-0, but hours later Japan’s Samurai Blue cut Germany down with a 2-1 victory that threw the doors of Group E wide open.
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo became the first man to score at five World Cups by netting a penalty in a 3-2 win over Ghana at the shipping container 974 Stadium.
Brazil eased into the tournament by beating Serbia, only to lose Neymar to injury.
But the unpredictability continued.
Iran scored in the eighth and 11th minutes of stoppage time as they recovered from their drubbing by England to beat Wales 2-0 in a game in which Wales keeper Wayne Hennessey was sent off, one of only two red cards in the group stage.
Like Iran, Costa Rica also showed incredible bouncebackability as they edged Japan 1-0 to set up what was to be a stomach-churning climax to Group E.
And the shocks kept coming.
Belgium, the world’s second-ranked team, was humbled 2-0 in Group F by a magnificent Morocco, whose fans turned Doha red in celebration. Morocco went on to reach the knockout phase for the first time since 1986, while Belgium is back home.
The simultaneous final group matches ratcheted the tension off the scale.
Tunisia thought they had given themselves a shot at reaching the last 16 with a symbolic win over France but their joy turned to tears as Australia stunned Denmark.
Argentina completed their recovery from their Saudi shock to outclass Poland in a gripping conclusion to Group C.
Poland also went through on goal difference, although at one point all that separated them from Mexico – who were desperately trying to rack up goals against Saudi Arabia – were yellow cards.
If that was exciting, what happened the following night almost threw the football world off its axis.
Spain, serene in their first two games, led against Japan at the Khalifa Stadium and appeared set to clinch top spot in Group E, while across town Germany were beating Costa Rica and also looked on course to qualify. Then everything went crazy.
Goals by Itsu Doan and Ao Tanaka gave Japan the lead and Costa Rica hit back to lead Germany. For four minutes, both Spain and Germany were heading for the exit door.
Germany ended up saving Spain’s bacon by winning 4-2 but not their own as Japan hung on to take their place in the last 16. They were joined 24 hours later by South Korea after Hwang Hee-chan’s added time goal beat Portugal 2-1, although South Korea’s players had an excruciating wait in the centre circle praying that Uruguay would not score again against Ghana.
Even then the group stage chaos was not done, as Cameroon signed off with a 1-0 victory over already-qualified Brazil – statistically the 12th shock of the tournament – and goalscorer Vincent Aboubakar was promptly sent off for over-celebrating.
After probably the most memorable group phase of any World Cup, now for the serious business. But please don’t stop the fun.
World Cup 2022: guide to groups in FIFA tournament
The following are the eight groups for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which is being held in Qatar from the 20 of November till 18 of December.
WHAT IS THE FORMAT FOR THE GROUP AND KNOCKOUT STAGES AT WORLD CUP 2022?
* There is a round-robin format in the group stage when each of the 32 teams plays three matches. Teams get three point’s for a win and one for a draw.
* The top two in each group advance to the last 16.
* The knockout rounds feature one-off matches, which can go to extra time and then penalties to decide the winner.
GROUP A: QATAR (HOSTS), ECUADOR, SENEGAL, NETHERLANDS
* Netherlands finished top with seven points. The Dutch, who are seeking their first World Cup title, failed to qualify for the last edition in Russia four years ago.
* African champions Senegal were runners-up, despite being without their talismanic forward Sadio Mane, while hosts Qatar finished bottom after three defeats.
GROUP B: ENGLAND, IRAN, UNITED STATES, WALES
* England, semi-finalists in 2018, won Group B, with the United States finishing second.
GROUP C: ARGENTINA, SAUDI ARABIA, MEXICO, POLAND
* Argentina recovered from a shock 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia to top the group.
* Poland finished runners-up, edging out Mexico on goal difference.
GROUP D: FRANCE, AUSTRALIA, DENMARK, TUNISIA
* Despite being hit hard by injuries heading into the tournament, with the likes of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema missing out, defending champions France won their group, while Australia finished second.
GROUP E: SPAIN, COSTA RICA, GERMANY, JAPAN
* Japan secured shock wins over four-times winners Germany and 2010 champions Spain to top the group.
* Spain had to rely on goal difference to edge out Germany, who were handed another early exit after their shock first-round elimination in 2018.
GROUP F: BELGIUM, CANADA, MOROCCO, CROATIA
* Morocco beat Belgium and Canada to finish group winners.
* Croatia, who reached the final of the 2018 edition, scraped into the last 16 as runners-up, while Belgium crashed out.
GROUP G: BRAZIL, SERBIA, SWITZERLAND, CAMEROON
* Brazil ended the group stage as Group G winners, despite losing to Cameroon in their last game before the knockouts.
* Switzerland, level on points with Brazil, finished as runners-up due to their inferior goal difference.
GROUP H: PORTUGAL, GHANA, URUGUAY, SOUTH KOREA
* Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo in the twilight of his brilliant career, topped the group with six points.
* South Korea, who were level with Uruguay on points and goal difference after three matches, went through to the Round of 16 by virtue of notching more goals than the South Americans.