MOSCOW – Fans hated the battle of backpasses that the Denmark-France World Cup match devolved into, and they likely will watch more teams collude when soccer’s showcase expands to 48 teams.
The sellout crowd at Luzhniki Stadium started booing early in the second half, angry that two talented teams were passing the ball back to goalkeepers and refusing to go on the attack. It was a throwback to the 1982 “Disgrace of Gijon,” which pushed FIFA to run group finales at the same time so teams wouldn’t know what they needed to do to advance.
That didn’t work Tuesday as word spread that Peru was beating Australia, meaning Denmark and France were safe even if the game ended 0-0.
No great Danes here, even though Denmark earned a berth in the round of 16 against Croatia.
Vive la France? Hardly, despite Les Bleus winning their group for the second straight World Cup and advancing to a second-round matchup versus Argentina.
“It was a shame,” said Alison Elias, a 34-year-old from Puebla, Mexico, who watched from the upper deck. “We were actually expecting a nice game. They knew that Peru was winning, so there wasn’t much at stake. Well, it was fun to be there. And let’s see what happens in the next round.”
FIFA decided to expand the World Cup from 32 nations to 48 starting in 2026, when the tournament will be hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Adding a dozen weaker teams will likely produce more group-stage blowouts. And the expansion forces a format switch making collusion more likely in a sport known for shenanigans.
In 2026, two teams will advance from each of 16-three nation groups. One country will be done with group play before the other two meet in the finale. If neither team needs a win, well, you know what to expect.
World Cup group-stage finales have been played simultaneously since 1986, a change instituted after West Germany and Austria played listlessly four years earlier, knowing a German win by one or two goals would advance both countries and eliminate Algeria, which had beaten Chile the day before. Horst Hrubesch scored in the 10th minute, and attackers pretty much took a siesta for the rest of the evening. West Germany’s 1-0 win caused a protest by Algeria, which FIFA dismissed.
A similar mindset was in place Tuesday. France began the day with six points, Denmark four, Australia one and Peru none. Australia needed to win and overcome a minus-two disadvantage in goal difference. Andre Carillo put Peru ahead in the 18th minute, and when Paolo Guerrero doubled the lead in the 50th, Denmark’s offense vanished like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
“At the end, when it 10 minutes left, of course, you’re going to keep on your feet and just avoid in the air really dangerous things,” star Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen said. “Yeah, we got what we wanted. Probably from the fans, it was a bit disappointing, of course. But I’ll make sure if they come to the next game it will be much more exciting.”
Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel – a son of former Denmark and Manchester United great Peter Schmeichel – held the ball under his foot and tapped in between his cleats like a school kid waiting for his tardy friends to arrive.
When right back Henrik Dalsgaard made a long clearance that freed Kasper Dolberg for a breakaway about 75 minutes in, Dolberg passed the ball back to the midfield.
“We did what we had to do, and we got the result we came to get,” Dalsgaard said. “From a fan perspective, yeah, definitely a bit boring, but football can be boring sometimes. They got the result they wanted and us the same, so I think we can both say job well done.”
Denmark extended its unbeaten streak to 18 matches dating to October 2016. Coach Age Hareide admitted his strategy was play for a draw.
“We were up against one of the best teams in the world doing counter-attacks, so we would have been stupid to open a lot of space for the French team,” he said through a translator. “So we stayed back whenever we could. We were playing hard to get the result we needed. It was a nil-nil. We are very pleased with that.”
Denmark, population 5.7 million, plays above its weight. It was a surprise winner of the 1992 European Championship and reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 1998. France won at home that year and hopes 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe, one of the few players who attacked after he entered in the match in the 78th minute, can spark Les Bleus to a second championship.
“We didn’t need to take any risk given that they wanted this result,” said French coach Didier Deschamps, a member of the 1998 champions.
FIFA should worry that mindset becomes more common.
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