When the final whistle blew on June 26th, pundits, fans, and even the most casual of observers were drawn to the top half of the left side of the knockout bracket. Uruguay v Portugal and Argentina v France were intriguing, not because of the match-ups themselves, but because of what they could yield.
A Portugal v Argentina, ahem Ronaldo v Messi matchup would be a show stopper. It'd be the type of game every advertiser could only dream of--except maybe if it had been in the finals.
Both players would have much to prove. Despite winning nearly every major trophy, neither have won the World Cup. Ronaldo, at least, won the European Championship two years ago in France--but some would be quick to point out, he wasn't on the pitch for the victory. Messi has managed to earn the ire of many Albiceleste fans, who claim the Barcelona star plays harder for his club than his nation.
But the hopes for a dream World Cup quarterfinal match up were, for fans and marketing managers alike, all for naught.
Argentina succumbed to France side that seemed finally willing to fire on all cylinders, even if it took well going down 2-1 to realize their potential. For Messi, it seemed more like a necessary exercise that capped off a miserable Russian adventure. His teammates, and really the Argentine manager, seemed far too willing to let their talisman take over answering nearly every question tactically. With a team chock full of super stars, it was confounding to see just how anemic they looked in attack. And how cynical they looked in defense, reckless tackle after reckless tackle made it surprising they ended with eleven players on the field.
But why couldn't Jorge Sampaoli find a way to fit Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Ganzalo Higuain, in the lineup at the same time as Messi? Some argued it's because they all played similar styles. But wouldn't you want to have your best scoring and creative threats on the pitch simultaneously? It seemed, though, being content to let Messi carry the team was the overall strategy. Everyone else would fall in line.
Messi, surely, is a game changer. That type of superstar coming once (or twice in this case) a generation. But even the most successful ones--Pele, Diego Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldo--had teammates who didn't just pull their own weight, but also stepped into the breech when their leader was having a bad day. Those role players turned on field leaders were in short supply and thus Messi and Company are headed home.
For Portugal, a team that seemed far more adventurous and unified than Argentina, they fell victim to a surprisingly in-form Uruguay team. The South American side's strong central defense duo, who play together at the club level too, made one mistake during the Round of 16 match up. Portuguese defender Pepe made them pay. But it wasUruguay's dynamic due from Salto, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who ran riot at the opposite end of the pitch with Cavani burying two wonderful goals--the first, possibly the best worked combination play of the tournament.
It's not a stretch so say that Portugal's early exit isn't surprising. Maybe I'm wrong. But even when one takes into account their title in France two years ago, we'd all be remiss to think it was anything but a fluke. The Ronaldo led side couldn't win a match in the group phase and only progressed because of the expanded tournament field. They finished third to Hungary and Iceland. But it took them all the way to the semi-finals against Wales to win their one and only match during regulation time (they won the finals vs host France via a 109th minute goal by Eder).
Unlike the Argentines, the Portuguese side played with a bit more tactical and strategic unity. They had skilled players outside of Ronaldo, but nothing of the firepower Sampaoli refused to utilize. Despite the lack of reserves, Portugal was far more entertaining and we were left knowing they put everything into each performance in Russia. Ronaldo was certainly impressive during the tournament, scoring a hat trick in his first group match versus Spain. But where Messi's teammates' ill-discipline left him hanging, Ronaldo could play knowing his teammates wouldn't let him down because of lack of concentration. Rather they'd simply be out classed. Nonetheless the European Champions are headed home early too.
Some thought that a Ronaldo v Messi match up in the quarter finals would end the debate over who's better. I highly doubt that. If their multiple head to head match-ups when playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona haven't solve that riddle, one match at the World Cup wouldn't likely tip the balance.
Both teams are home by now, leaving exactly when they should have. Although, Argentina didn't deserve to make out of their group. They were far too uninspiring to have been rewarded with an extra game.
Now we're left with a tournament bereft of a mega star, but plenty eagerly waiting to challenge Messi and Ronaldo for their shared throne.