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In Argentina’s loss, a warning for three European giants.

In Argentina’s loss, a warning for three European giants.

Nov. 23, 2022, 9:52 a.m. ET

Nov. 23, 2022, 9:52 a.m. ET

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Credit…Philip Fong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

1

Germany

2

Japan

Japan took a shocking 2-1 lead over Germany late in the second half of their World Cup match on Wednesday, a game that began with a protest by Germany’s entire starting lineup.

Takuma Asano picked up a long ball in the 84th minute, and all by himself in the German box deked a defender and slotted home a shot from close in.

Ritsu Doan had poked in a loose ball to bring Japan level at 1-1, with 75 minutes played.

Takumi Minamino sent in a wicked cross that German keeper Manuel Neuer parried. But Doan was in the right place and easily scored. Both Minamino and Doan had just been subbed into the game.

A penalty kick by Ilkay Gündogan had given Germany a 1-0 after Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda brought down David Raum, leading to Gündogan’s penalty in the 33rd minute.

This article will be updated as the game continues.

Nov. 23, 2022, 8:47 a.m. ET

Nov. 23, 2022, 8:47 a.m. ET

The players who started for Germany in their opening match at the World Cup on Wednesday covered their mouths during the traditional pregame team photograph before facing Japan at the Khalifa International Stadium on Wednesday in protest of a FIFA decision that kept their captain from wearing a rainbow-colored armband in the match as part of a social justice campaign.

FIFA, soccer’s governing body, had prevented Germany and several other European team captains from wearing armbands promoting gay rights by threatening them with yellow cards.

The campaign was meant to raise awareness of marginalized groups in the host country, Qatar, which criminalizes homosexual conduct.

“It wasn’t about making a political statement — human rights are non-negotiable,” the team said in a statement posted on its official Twitter account. “That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important to us. Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice.”

Germany was part of a group of at least seven European countries, including England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands, who backed down from the plan to have their captains wear rainbow armbands after FIFA’s threat. “As national federations, we can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings, so we have asked the captains not to attempt to wear the armbands in FIFA World Cup games,” the national federations said in a joint statement.

It wasn’t about making a political statement – human rights are non-negotiable. That should be taken for granted, but it still isn’t the case. That’s why this message is so important to us.

Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice. We stand by our position. pic.twitter.com/tiQKuE4XV7

— Germany (@DFB_Team_EN) November 23, 2022

Nov. 23, 2022, 4:33 a.m. ET

Nov. 23, 2022, 4:33 a.m. ET

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Credit…Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Morocco

Croatia

Flashes of brilliance! Bursts of energy! They’re things you’ll find in other games, and there were a few in this one. But there were no goals, and that produced a largely unsatisfying 90 minutes of soccer, and a 0-0 draw. There was little to get your heart racing.

Croatia, one of the tournament’s more veteran squads, began the game looking more old than experienced. They began to wake up in the final minutes of the first half and looked slightly more alive in the second, but none of their chances were particularly frightening, despite holding possession for 65 percent of the time.

Morocco had more sparks of danger, but the Croatian goalkeeper had little to fear. Achraf Hakimi uncorked a powerful strike on a free kick, briefly looking like it could be dangerous, but it flew straight to the goalkeeper and the sheet remained clean.

Group F was already thought to be perhaps the most inscrutable group of the tournament, and the draw brings no further clarity. The other members of the group, Belgium and Canada, play later Wednesday.

Nov. 23, 2022, 4:23 a.m. ET

Nov. 23, 2022, 4:23 a.m. ET

Slowly, quietly, Argentina’s players made their way back to their training camp in Doha, away from Lusail, away from a place they will never want to see again but where they will hope, more than anything, to return.

Nobody on that journey wanted to talk. The only voice was that of Lionel Messi, urging his devastated teammates to remain united, reminding them that even after defeat against Saudi Arabia, their fate is still in their hands. When they reached the hotel, Lionel Scaloni and his coaching staff told the players that, for once, their postgame meal was optional. If they did not feel like talking, they could stay in their rooms, to contemplate, to grieve.

Argentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia may, in time, come to be seen as the worst in the country’s history, beyond even the embarrassment of Cameroon in 1990. It is scant solace, but it should not go down as the greatest shock in the World Cup’s history: It is not of the order of the United States beating England in 1950 and North Korea overcoming Italy in 1966.

It is, though, a stark warning to the three European heavyweights who enter the contest today that nothing can be taken for granted. None of Spain, Germany and Belgium came into this tournament with expectations quite as high as Argentina, admittedly.

Spain, with only the apparently immortal Sergio Busquets remaining from the team that won the World Cup in 2010, is young and energetic, but inexperienced; Belgium’s age is seen as its weakness, the sense being that its moment has come and gone. Germany has the air of a team in transition.

Their opponents, too, will have been heartened by Saudi Arabia’s achievements. Costa Rica made the quarterfinals eight years ago; why should it fear Spain? Canada has not been here since 1986 but has two genuinely exciting stars to unsettle the Belgians’ creaking defense. Japan has a squad with plenty of experience in Europe. They all, in fact, have advantages that Saudi Arabia did not. If the Saudis could cause a shock, what is to stop anybody else?

Nov. 23, 2022, 4:09 a.m. ET

Nov. 23, 2022, 4:09 a.m. ET

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Credit…Julio Cortez/Associated Press

How to watch: 11 a.m. Eastern. Fox, Telemundo, Peacock (free).

Matchups: One of the youngest teams in the field, Spain brims with one-named stalwarts in the midfield, from Pedri to Rodri to Gavi, who will thrust into the attacking third and stay there. At some point, though, Spain would be wise to relinquish the ball by shooting it — on goal, ideally — and it figures they will have plenty of opportunities to do so.

However, never, ever underestimate Costa Rica, which reached the 2014 quarterfinals and still features the elite goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, and top attacking threat, Joel Campbell, who powered that surprising joyride. Los Ticos will not control possession against Spain — in fairness, who does? — but they have the potential to absorb all means of pressure and then swipe a result off the counterattack.

Nov. 23, 2022, 4:09 a.m. ET

Nov. 23, 2022, 4:09 a.m. ET

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Credit…John Sibley/Reuters

How to watch: 8 a.m. Eastern. FS1, Telemundo, Peacock (free).

Matchups: Germany abounds with playmaking talent up front and in the midfield, but it is the back line that will dictate, to a degree, whether it flops or flourishes. Beyond Antonio Rudiger, the Germans are sturdy if not spectacular defensively, and that variability could benefit patient teams willing to wait and probe for mistakes.

Like, for instance, Japan, which would surprise few from Cologne to Leipzig if it emerges with, at worst, a draw in this match. Its strength is in the collective, not in any individual superiority, though Japan must contend with a relative paucity of finishing options up top. Many players compete in the Bundesliga and are familiar with their German counterparts.

Nov. 23, 2022, 4:09 a.m. ET

Nov. 23, 2022, 4:09 a.m. ET

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Credit…Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

How to watch: 2 p.m. Eastern. Fox, Telemundo, Peacock (free).

Matchups: Despite never progressing beyond the World Cup semifinals, Belgium’s so-called golden generation remains in its waning stages a pleasure to watch, with Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard capable of wondrous feats of sorcery every time they touch the ball.

But a reliable, if older, back line headlined by Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld could be vulnerable against the speed, speed and speed of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan, who thrive in transition and have the capacity, if not the certainty, to make Canada’s first World Cup match in 36 years a surprising delight.

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