World Cup 2022 briefing: the joy of Mbappé and Argentina’s escape plan

<span>Composite: Getty</span>
Composite: Getty

The main event

Yes, yes, and you really need to check out a promising band called the Arctic Monkeys as well. It’s a statement of the offensively obvious that you should watch Kylian Mbappé play football. But it’s not about watching Mbappé per se, it’s about watching him now, when he looks in the form and the mood to do something career-defining, something we’ll still be talking about when we’re old. If Mbappé plays for France against Tunisia – and godspeed Didier Deschamps if he wants to have that conversation – then it’ll be worth renouncing the more important Group D game between Australia and Denmark.

Mbappé looks on a mission to win the lot: the World Cup, the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball, the Ballon d’Or. As if to emphasise the old cliche about his football doing the talking, Mbappé declined to speak to the media after the Denmark game and is facing a fine from Fifa’s reliable arbiters of acceptable human behaviour. He can probably afford it.

Unlike club football, the World Cup has nothing to do with money, at least not on the field, and there has been an exuberant purity to Mbappé’s performances. When you couple his talent with the intent and focus that he showed against Australia and Denmark, it’s hard not to reach for hyperbole. His sparkling dominance has tentatively evoked the pinnacle of association football: Diego Maradona at Mexico 86. But Maradona peaked at the business end, and Mbappé could easily end up like Lionel Messi in 2014: electric in the group stage, all out of charge when it mattered.

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Mbappé already has three goals and an assist at Qatar 2022; the other 18 players who received at least one vote at this year’s Ballon d’Or have three goals and two assists between them. Many have been absent, either literally (Karim Benzema, Erling Haaland, Sadio Mané, Mo Salah) or metaphorically (Kevin De Bruyne, Son Heung-min). That, and the poignant sight of so many galacticos in denial has made Mbappé stand out even more, as an all-time great in an entertaining but not especially high-quality tournament. Only Casemiro has been as influential; only Vinicius Jr has sent the pulse into the cardio zone.

The thrill of Mbappé is about so much more than the hard currency of goals and assists. He doesn’t just capture the imagination; he enhances it. Watching him in this form, on this stage, should be prescribed by doctors. It gets your heart rate up, it releases endorphins, it reduces anxiety. And you don’t even need to leave the couch. RS

Talking points

Koulibaly crucial for Senegal at both ends
The injured Mané is sorely missed by Senegal, but a deep run at any World Cup is built first and foremost on defence. Chelsea supporters (and the club’s opponents) have been discovering Kalidou Koulibaly’s qualities since his arrival from Napoli last summer. An uncompromising defender, yes, but also a natural leader who provides a significant scoring threat. The centre-back demonstrated his finishing ability by tucking away the goal that secured Senegal’s progress at Ecuador’s expense. Alongside his centre-back partner Abdou Diallo – on loan at Leipzig, but on the books at Paris Saint-Germain – the last-16 meeting with England is a chance for Koulibaly to further demonstrate his undeniable talent on the biggest stage. LMc

Kalidou Koulibaly (left) celebrates scoring Senegal’s winner against Ecuador.
Kalidou Koulibaly (left) celebrates scoring Senegal’s winner against Ecuador. Photograph: Raúl Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

Could it be the Netherlands’ year?
Every qualified team arrives at the World Cup with big dreams; one of them goes home with the trophy. Could this finally be the year that the Netherlands go one better than those three previous runner-up spots? There is the sense they have the raw materials in terms of playing talent. There is also an inspirational back story, with the 71-year-old coach Louis van Gaal receiving cancer treatment while leading his beloved Oranje at one last major tournament. Cody Gakpo is soaking up plenty of attention, but as a whole, this is a unified squad that looks capable of building towards big things. They will face the United States in the last 16. LMc

The Dutch celebrate during their 2-0 win over Qatar.
The Dutch celebrate during their 2-0 win over Qatar. Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/Rex/Shutterstock

Beyond the football

Hassan al-Thawadi, the Qatari official responsible for the delivery of the World Cup, has made the belated admission that the number of workers who have died on projects related to the tournament is far higher than Qatar’s official total of three work-related fatalities. Speaking on the TV show Piers Morgan Uncensored, Thawadi said: “The estimate is around 400. Between 400 and 500. I don’t have the precise number, that is something that is being discussed.” After the interview Nicholas McGeehan, of the advocacy group FairSquare, said: “This is just the latest example of Qatar’s inexcusable lack of transparency on the issues of workers’ deaths. We need proper data and thorough investigations, not vague figures announced through media interviews.” An investigation by the Guardian found that 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died in Qatar between 2010, when the tournament was awarded, and 2021. WM

Global media-watch

The Australian media aren’t in quite the frenzy you might expect as their team attempts to reach the second round for the first time since 2006. The Herald Sun may have conceded the clash with Denmark was “Australia’s biggest World Cup game in 16 years”, but it also put its focus on coach Graham Arnold explaining to the rest of the world “where football sits in Australia’s pecking order”. Definitely not at the top.

Australian players during training on the eve of their big game against Denmark.
Australian players during training on the eve of their big game against Denmark. Photograph: Christopher Lee/Getty Images

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Vince Rugari was slightly aggrieved that all the talk coming out of Denmark’s camp ahead of the game was about Australia’s physicality, bemoaning that coach Kasper Hjulmand was “making no mention of the slick technical moves or tactical exploitation behind Australia’s goals so far at this World Cup”. Some things never seem to change in Murdoch-land, though – if you visited the sport page of News Corp’s Australian Daily Telegraph, the main story about the World Cup on Tuesday before the Socceroos’ do-or-die game was “Qatar slams ‘very racist’ BBC World Cup coverage”, with a huge picture of Gary Lineker. MB

The internet reacts

With the world watching and Senegal needing a win, you could have forgiven Ismaïla Sarr for just keeping his head down and absolutely smashing his penalty at goal in their must-win match against Ecuador. But no, the Watford winger found ice in his veins, sitting Hernán Galíndez down in goal with an insouciant no-look penalty. As you can imagine, Twitter lit up. His Watford teammates liked it, too. GB

Ismaïla Sarr
Ismaïla Sarr is ice-cold. Photograph: Ozan Köse/AFP/Getty Images

Today’s matches

France v Tunisia (Group D, 3pm GMT, BBC1) No, we’ve no idea why Group D finishes before Group C either. Les Bleus have been the most impressive team so far, and should prove beyond the abilities of Tunisia, who still cling to the hope that a win here and a draw between Denmark and Australia might sneak them through. Expect it to be tense in the stands – when Tunisia played in Paris in 2008 the atmosphere was so hostile that then-president Nicolas Sarkozy demanded no more matches on French soil against the national teams of former colonies. MB

Denmark v Australia (Group D, 3pm GMT, BBC2) The Danes arrived as much-fancied dark horses after their impressive Euros but disappointed against Tunisia, and then went down against France, even if it was an improvement. They’ve left themselves with it all to do against a side that will be full of confidence in the way they rebounded from defeat against France. If Australia can start with the kind of tempo and attitude they did against that European opposition, and keep it tight at the back, Denmark will struggle. MB

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen with teammates during training on Tuesday.
Denmark’s Christian Eriksen with teammates during training on Tuesday. Photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Poland v Argentina (Group C, 7pm GMT, BBC1) The great escape is on. After a humiliating defeat to Saudi Arabia, a win here will almost certainly see Argentina end up top of Group C. Enzo Fernández will relish another chance to put himself in the shop window. Poland will be hankering after their glory years – they had two third-place finishes in 1974 and 1982, but 1986 was the last time they reached the second round. They just need a point. Can they hang on for one against Argentina? MB

Saudi Arabia v Mexico (Group C, 7pm GMT, BBC2) There is something of Marcelo Bielsa’s methods in the way Saudi Arabia press and harry, and they were unlucky in the end that their backline cracked against Poland in what had been a hard-fought match. With the support again of what is likely to be a noisy crowd, you would not back against them getting the win they need to progress. Mexico need a win and to hope that Poland do them a favour, but more than anything they need a goal. Uruguay and Tunisia are the only two other sides who have so far failed to score. MB

Player to watch

Piotr Zielinski is just one of a number of Poland players yet to consistently bring his exceptional club form to the international stage. He can beat players, he can create goals, he can score goals: and yet for his country he has rarely, if ever, played with the kind of freedom and creativity he displays in Serie A. Collectively, Poland have sometimes seemed to riddled with anxiety when faced with the prospect of another tournament disappointment. But there was something that felt cathartic about the way Zielinski belted Poland’s opening goal against Saudi Arabia into the roof of the net. Robert Lewandowski soon had his first World Cup goal, too. Will the floodgates finally open? LMc

And finally …

Cristiano Ronaldo regrets patting his hair down so carefully.
Cristiano Ronaldo regrets patting his hair down so carefully. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

However much Fernando Santos tries to change direction, Portugal’s World Cup campaign keeps getting diverted back to Cristiano Ronaldo. “Ronaldo played a great game but all our team played a great performance … I think it was a great match, our team played very well and the rest for me does not matter,” he said exasperatedly, when asked about the debate over whether Ronaldo had touched the ball for his side’s opener in the 2-0 win over Uruguay. So keen were they for their ageing talisman to be immortalised alongside Eusébio as the nation’s all-time record World Cup goalscorer, the Portuguese FA was reportedly set to present evidence to Fifa proving that Ronaldo had got the final touch on Bruno Fernandes’s cross. Unfortunately for him, Adidas’s evidence says differently, with technology in the match ball allowing the manufacturers to confirm that Ronaldo, despite celebrating exuberantly, made no contact whatsoever. WM