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World Cup’s glass ceiling cuts off chasing pack from promised land of quarter-finals

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in mexico they say “the curse of the fifth party”. The curse of the fifth game. The curse is, in fact, that there is no fifth game for El Tri, the team with the unwanted record of missing out on the most consecutive World Cup round of 16 matches. This year, it was the curse of the fourth game: for the first time since 1990, Mexico was not in the round of 16.

But others can testify to the curse. Since reaching the quarterfinals in 2002, the United States has been knocked out of the first round of play three times. Japan can top that, falling to the same hurdle in 2002, 2010, 2018 and 2022. South Korea was a semifinalist on home soil 20 years ago; abroad, however, they cannot make it to the last eight. Switzerland could also progress further in front of their own crowd but, since hosting the tournament in 1954, they have five round of 16 exits, including the last three in a row.

“We had big plans, we wanted to make history,” Switzerland coach Murat Yakin said. In one respect, his team did: they lost 6-1 to Portugal. Perhaps the outcome of the half of the first eight knockout games, however, was inevitable: a quartet of teams come out when they always do.

They keep hitting the same glass ceiling. “We couldn’t get through to the round of 16 and we couldn’t get a new perspective and see a new landscape,” lamented Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu. His American counterpart, Gregg Berhalter, said: “Now it’s a question of whether we can continue like this and take it to another level.” He has a young team and his country is co-hosting in 2026; otherwise the evidence would suggest not. For a group of teams, this seems like their level, their limit.

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Sometimes the margins are cruelly small. Japan have lost two penalty shootouts in the last 16 and took a 2-0 lead against Belgium in 2018, only to go down 3-2. Switzerland were thrashed this time, but penalties were their undoing in 2006. The nature of the shootouts may underscore how this has become a psychological barrier for some countries; the quarterfinals represent for them a mythical land. Winning any qualifying tie in a World Cup, against anyone, anywhere and anyway, can seem terrifyingly difficult.

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Which, to be fair, it often is. Japan can reflect that their best results have come in the group stage; they beat Spain and Germany in Qatar, just as Mexico and South Korea beat the Germans in 2018. The more significant blows, like Morocco’s elimination of Spain, come later.

There are other factors. For Japan, South Korea, Mexico and the US, if not Switzerland, the inability to stop the European and South American hegemony of the world game is reflected in the knockout stages. Late in the tournament, the old world of soccer tends to bring out the best in the new, as Nigeria, with three knockout knockouts, and Australia, with two, may also testify.

It is undeniable that the great teams from other continents have improved over the decades; Japan and the United States feel better than they did four years ago. However, it is also true that even making them competitive, tactically superior, and exporting many of their players to major national leagues, they still tend to be in the top 13.the and 25the best teams in the global game.

Japan reacts after losing to Croatia

(AFP via Getty Images)

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Soccer’s strength in depth is such that the quarterfinals can seem like the last frontier for many Asian, African or North American teams. At any given point, there tend to be about a dozen sides of a higher standard; Although two or three come out in the group stage and a couple more in the round of 16, often against other favourites, the rest can congregate in the round of 16. Those supposed powers that can come out of the group tend to have the potential to go a long way.

The rest can often be taken out by those who are expected to be the best. Sometimes it seems like an inevitable consequence of coming second in a group. Sometimes the draw seems unkind. For Mexico, the missed opportunity was its 2002 meeting with the United States; since then, their losses have come to Argentina, Argentina, the Netherlands and Brazil. Neither is anything remotely close to a disgrace.

But while there are European and South American teams that can move in and out of that top 12 (Croatia, Belgium and Uruguay are examples), perhaps their continental championships, with their higher standards, better prepare their teams for a World Cup. World. Perhaps the serial losers of the Round of 16 simply don’t have enough world-class players, and Heung-Min Son may be the only candidate among the four teams in question now. Perhaps the new format of a 48-team World Cup will alter the equation, and can at least give Mexico a chance at a fifth game before reaching the last eight. But for now, it may seem like the arc of progress has stopped for a large number of countries unable to advance to the quarterfinals.

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