Soccer  

Spain KO’d, Portugal win without Ronaldo

The World Cup’s round of 16 has come to an end, and what drama it delivered. We were treated to an upset of a tournament favorite, and one of the biggest names in the game had to watch from the bench … as his team advanced without him — and looked better than they have all tournament.

Be sure to check in with ESPN throughout the tournament as we bring you the latest from Qatar. Here’s what you might have missed from Tuesday’s World Cup happenings, and a look ahead to what’s coming later in the week.

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Spain eliminated, Portugal move on — without Ronaldo

For the second straight World Cup, Spain have been knocked out on penalties in the round of 16. Four years ago it was at the hands on hosts Russia; on Tuesday, it was Morocco who ended the hopes of La Furia Roja — and more specifically, it was Madrid-born Achraf Hakimi who converted the game-winning spot kick.

After Pablo Sarabia began Spain’s shootout with an effort cannoning back off the woodwork, Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou stole the show. The Sevilla No. 1 proceeded to make saves on Carlos Soler (who had converted each of his past nine penalties in regulation across all competitions) and Sergio Busquets, setting up Hakimi to deliver the dagger to the country of his birth.

The Atlas Lions become the fourth African team to make a World Cup quarterfinal, joining Ghana in 2010, Senegal in 2002 and Cameroon in 1990. All three were defeated, and Morocco have a tall task ahead of them if they’re to end that run, as they’ll face a Portugal team looking better than ever.

– World Cup bracket: Spain eliminated in last 16

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Sebastian Salazar breaks down how Spain crashed out of the World Cup and credits Morocco for their performance.

And that is quite the statement, considering Fernando Santos’ team did so without Cristiano Ronaldo. The 37-year-old free agent, having left Manchester United by mutual consent following an explosive falling out with manager Erik ten Hag and much of the club’s hierarchy, found himself on the bench after reacting angrily to being substituted in Portugal’s group-stage finale defeat to South Korea. It was behaviour that Santos said he “didn’t like at all.”

Almost on cue, the man who started in Ronaldo’s place, Goncalo Ramos, opened the scoring with an exquisite near-post finish just 17 minutes in. The 21-year-old Benfica phenomenon added a second just five minutes into the second half, registered an assist five minutes after that, and completed his hat trick in the 67th minute. Now his manager has plenty to think about ahead of that quarterfinal date with Morocco.

Was Ronaldo’s benching meant to send a message? Or does Santos believe that his team is better off without a captain whose abilities have not kept up with his ego? With Ramous flourishing and Portugal as convincing as ever in their 6-1 win over Switzerland, the evidence suggests it might be the latter.

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Gabrielle Amado believes Fernando Santos will keep Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench in the World Cup quarterfinals.


Croatia-Brazil, Argentina-Netherlands kick off quarterfinals

For the first time at this World Cup, there are some days of no games before the quarterfinals kick off on Friday. When things pick back up, we’ll see Croatia take on odds-on favorites Brazil while Netherlands will face Argentina — which could set up a giant semifinal match if both South American powerhouses advance.

Croatia needed penalties to defeat Japan on Monday after a hard fought 1-1 draw in regulation time in the Round of 16, while Brazil’s 4-1 win over South Korea was the latest dazzling display of jogo bonito.

In a World Cup that may well be the last for a number of bonafide superstars — from Cristiano Ronaldo to Luis Suarez to Lionel Messi — we are also likely approaching the end of Luka Modric’s storied career. Four years ago, in Russia, the Real Madrid midfielder dragged Croatia to the World Cup final on way to winning the Ballon D’Or. Now at 37, Modric wants to capture one last moment of magic at the international level.

It all nearly ended prematurely for Modric when he was substituted off against Japan with nine minutes left in extra time and penalties looming. Of the 13 players who were involved in the 2018 final against France, just five made it to the 2022 squad, with Dejan Lovren and Marcelo Brozovic the only holdovers who lasted until the final penalty against Japan. But Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic’s gamble of taking out his star veterans and replacing them with less heralded players Mario Pasalic and Nikola Vlasic before the shootout paid off.

So what is Croatia’s reward for advancing? A big date against high-flying Brazil, who have enthralled fans with their dominance (and their goal celebrations) while equally instilling fear to opponents. Following a group stage where Brazil teased their potential, the first 45 minutes against the South Koreans was a blur of brilliant yellow and blue. Neymar, returning after a two-game absence due to an ankle injury, served as chief conductor in the Seleção‘s symphony that also saw Richarlison, Vinicius Junior, and Luis Paqueta all find the back of the goal.

Neymar’s goal from the penalty spot was especially poignant as it put him within one of tying Pele’s record of 71 goals for most all-time scored by a Brazil men’s national team player. With Pele recuperating in a hospital back home amid health concerns, Brazil’s emphatic win served in honoring one of the game’s all-time greats as this current side writes its own chapter in Qatar.

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Netherlands manager Louis Van Gaal praises his side’s victory over USA and discusses the other quarter finalists.

Netherlands will have been off nearly a full week since defeating the United States last Saturday when they next step onto the field against Lionel Messi and Argentina. This Dutch side isn’t a textbook example of the “total football” philosophy that historically defines the Oranje, but it is clear that manager Louis van Gaal is more focused on doing what it takes to win over playing attractive, expansive football.

Not that the Dutch are winning ugly by any means. With Memphis Depay up top and Frenkie de Jong controlling the midfield, it has even allowed wing-backs Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind get on the scoresheet. Keep an eye on Cody Gakpo, has been one of the tournament’s breakout stars. His playmaking prowess that has produced so far three goals shows why sides like Manchester United are wanting to sign him from PSV Eindhoven.

If the Dutch are to advance in Qatar in the quest to win their first ever World Cup title, it will have to go through a familiar foe. These two teams have faced off in the 2014 semifinals, the 2006 group stage, the 1998 quarterfinals, and most famously in the 1978 final that saw Argentina win it all as hosts.

Messi is aiming to finally win the only major trophy missing from his mantle, and he’ll need his supporting cast to continue stepping up. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni has settled on a formidable midfield trio (Alexis Mac Allister, Enzo Fernandez and Rodrigo de Paul) and striker Julian Alvarez has cemented his spot over a struggling Lautaro Martinez, but there are some questions. Angel di Maria’s injury has left a bit of a weak spot at left winger and Scaloni seems to be oscillating on his backline’s formation.

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Sebastian Salazar reacts to an underwhelming Argentina win vs. Australia in the round of 16.


Today’s top reads

Way-too-early look at USMNT’s depth chart for 2026 World Cup
How will the US player pool take shape for the 2026 World Cup? Here is a position-by-position breakdown.

Why Brazil’s dancing goal celebrations: Rehearsed on TikTok, performed on the pitch
Some may call them disrespectful, but Brazil don’t care. Neymar & Co. are going to keep on dancing every time they score a goal at the World Cup.


News and notes

  • Spain coach Luis Enrique took full responsibility for his team’s shocking World Cup exit at the hands of Morocco on Tuesday night in Qatar’s Education City Stadium. “The responsibility is mine,” he said after the match. “I chose the first three penalty takers, who were those I thought were the best specialists on the pitch. We didn’t even get to the fourth. Bounou is a spectacular goalkeeper in this aspect, he has a high percentage in going the right way. He was great.”

  • Cameroon football federation president and former star player Samuel Eto’o has apologised for being involved in a “violent altercation” with a man outside a World Cup stadium on Tuesday. Eto’o had paused to pose for photos with fans near Stadium 974 after Brazil’s 4-1 win over South Korea in the round of 16. Footage circulating on social media showed him then reacting to comments by a man holding a camera. The former Barcelona and Internazionale forward was initially held back by people in his entourage then got clear and appeared to aim a kick at the man, who fell backward to the ground.

  • Contrary to what some are suggesting, sources tell ESPN’s Adriana Garcia that Ronaldo has not signed with Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr. Reports in Spain claimed Ronaldo will join the team on Jan. 1 for a a 2½-year €200-per-season contract, but sources say Ronaldo is focused on the World Cup and does not plan to make a decision until after he is finished with the tournament.