World Cup winners, losers (so far): Lionel Messi soars, Cristiano Ronaldo misses the mark




On the field, there have been surprises, disappointments and some absolute shockers - we see you, Morocco! Off the field, FIFA sold out fans and sponsors alike by caving to Qatar's repressive policies on alcohol, the LGBTQ community and women.

And while there were many delightful scenes of fans from different nations celebrating together in the Souq Waqif, in their zeal to prove they belong on the big stage, Qatar organizers have made this World Cup feel inauthentic, like a Disneyfied version of the world's biggest sporting event.

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FUTURE FOR US: Culture USMNT built during this World Cup is central to its continued progress

WHERE IS THE NEXT FIFA WORLD CUP? The 2026 tournament is coming to a city near you.

As the quarterfinals get set to kick off, a look at the winners and losers from the first 17 days of the World Cup, and the team that falls somewhere in the middle:

WINNERS

Kylian Mbappé

France
France's Kylian Mbappe celebrates scoring his side's third goal during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between France and Poland, at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Dec.  

For all the attention on the greats playing in their last World Cup, it is the game's next big star who has taken center stage.

Kylian Mbappé is carrying a France team that should be limping along after the injuries to Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante and Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema. Mbappé has five of France's nine goals in Qatar, including a brace against Poland in the round of 16.

"My sole objective is winning the World Cup," Mbappe said after that game. "That's my dream, my only dream. That's why I'm here."

But Mbappé's success has also firmly established him as the leader of this next generation. His nine goals from this and the 2018 World Cups are the same as Lionel Messi has from five World Cups. The 23-year-old has also surpassed Pelé for most goals scored before his 24th birthday.

Mbappé isn't just a scorer, either. He has two assists for Les Bleus, second only to Portugal's Bruno Fernandes (three) among multiple goal scorers.

Brazil

The World Cup is better when Brazil is making it a party.

Brazil has been a bit lackluster since winning its record fifth title in 2002. It hasn't gone beyond the quarterfinals, and let's not even speak of that horror show on home soil in 2014 after Neymar injured his back. It didn't look that imposing in the group stage, scoring all of its goals after halftime.

But Brazil harkened back to the Seleção of old with its flair and style against South Korea in the round of 16. Keep playing like that, and Brazil very well could reach the finals, if not win it all.

African soccer

Africa sent two teams into the knockout rounds for only the second time, and Morocco joins Cameroon (1990), Senegal (2002) and Ghana (2010) as just the fourth team from the continent to reach the quarterfinals. Morocco is also the first Arab nation to reach the quarterfinals.

Morocco's deep run is no fluke. It's given up just one goal - an own goal, at that - while holding the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Alvaro Morata scoreless. It humbled a talented Belgium team that many had as a darkhorse to finally break through and win its first World Cup title - how wrong that was! - and stymied Spain and all its pretty passing.

Though Senegal advanced to the knockout stages, it's hard not to wonder what could have been had Sadio Mané, runner-up in this year's Ballon d'Or and a two-time African player of the year, not been ruled out of the tournament just days before it began with a leg injury.

Lionel Messi

Argentina forward Lionel Messi dribbles the ball against Mexico during the second half of a group stage match during the 2022 World Cup at Lusail Stadium.
Argentina forward Lionel Messi dribbles the ball against Mexico during the second half of a group stage match during the 2022 World Cup at Lusail Stadium.  

The greatest to ever play the game's hopes of winning the one title that's eluded him are still alive.

Things weren't looking great for Lionel Messi and Argentina after they were shocked by Saudi Arabia in the opener. But they wound up winning the group and put away a pesky Australian team in the second half of the round of 16.

A date with Brazil looms in the semifinals, but that's angst for another day.

Group stage

FIFA president Gianni Infantino declared this the "best group stage ever" at the World Cup, and he's not wrong. Saudi Arabia's victory over Argentina in their group-stage opener is one of the greatest World Cup upsets ever. Several other surprise results completely upended the expected order and made for a frenzied finish in most groups.

Argentina won its group but could just as easily have been knocked out. South Korea's goal in the 91st minute in the group-stage finale against Portugal sent the team through - and Luis Suárez and Uruguay packing. Spain won its first game 7-0 and still was teetering on the brink of elimination in the Group E finales.

Which makes Infantino's declaration all the more maddening. He's championed the expansion of the World Cup field from 32 teams to 48, and there is concern whatever the new format is will water down the group stage. So great job, Gianni!

USMNT

Simply getting back to the World Cup after missing the 2018 tournament, its first absence in 28 years, was a big accomplishment for the U.S. men's national team. Proving this young and immensely talented group could play with anyone in the world by holding mighty England scoreless was hugely encouraging, especially with the United States co-hosting the 2026 World Cup with Canada and Mexico.

But exiting in the round of 16 - again - also feels like an opportunity missed. The USMNT squandered scoring opportunities in every game they had, including a gimme by Christian Pulisic against the Netherlands. After being composed beyond their years during the group stage, they made costly mistakes against the Dutch.

"This was a big opportunity for a lot of us and I think we did really well with it," midfielder Weston McKennie said. "Obviously we went out and it sucks. But at the same time, a lot of us will use this as a chip on our shoulder over the next four years."

Time will tell.

LOSERS

Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo looks on against Uruguay during the second half of the group stage match in the 2022 World Cup at Lusail Stadium.
Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo looks on against Uruguay during the second half of the group stage match in the 2022 World Cup at Lusail Stadium.  

Has anyone's star ever fallen so fast as Cristiano Ronaldo's?

His penalty kick in Portugal's first game made him the first man to score at five World Cups. Since then, he's had: a parting of the ways with Manchester United after a cringeworthy TV interview; looked petulant in a loss to South Korea, complaining about being subbed off and arguing with Cho Gue-sung as he left the field; and been reduced to garbage time in Portugal's last-16 win after being dropped from the starting lineup.

Mexico and its fans

Mexico
Mexico's Hector Moreno and goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera react at the end of the World Cup group C soccer match between Saudi Arabia and Mexico, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Wednesday, Nov.  

Mexico has been a hot mess for months now, so no one was expecting big things from El Tri in Qatar. Still, crashing out in the group stage ended a streak of reaching the knockout rounds that spanned its last eight World Cup appearances.

Worse, though, was the behavior of Mexico fans. FIFA opened two disciplinary cases over the homophobic slurs Mexico fans have long chanted at opposing goalkeepers.

El Tri has been fined and forced to play games behind closed doors, and nothing has persuaded fans to abandon the chants. It's time for FIFA to take stronger action, like forcing Mexico to forfeit games or docking El Tri points next time they have to go through qualifying.

Germany, Belgium and Spain

They came to the World Cup as favorites to win the title. Or at least contend for it.

They didn't get anywhere close.

Germany, the World Cup champion just eight years ago, and Belgium didn't even make it out of the group stage, and are now set for rebuilds. Spain at least reached the knockout rounds, but it got nothing from its roster full of talent and exquisite technique, managing just two goals after its 7-0 rout of Costa Rica in the opener.

Fox coverage

The cost to Fox's credibility couldn't be worth what it got paid by Qatar Airways.

Its refusal to address off-the-field issues, even as they directly affect the World Cup, or criticize Qatar is glaringly obvious. Other rights holders like the BBC have managed to do both, but not Fox! According to their coverage, Qatar is a hunky-dory place and there's nothing strange at all about playing a World Cup in a country the size of Connecticut, with no soccer tradition, in the middle of the European season.

As if that isn't bad enough, Fox's coverage has been condescending. American fans have developed a level of sophistication about the game, and they don't need soccersplaining by Piers Morgan or a retired NFL player whose connection to the game seems to be that he's played a lot of FIFA.

Also, the video of U.S. fans being asked which USMNT player they'd "let" their daughter date was misogynistic and gross. It also was demeaning to the USMNT players, who deserve better than to be objectified.

Qatar

Its team had the worst-ever performance by a host country, eliminated with a game still to play in the group stage. It conceded seven goals while managing just one.

Off the field, its performance might be even worse.

Qatar hoped this World Cup would make it a global tourist destination like neighboring Dubai while at the same time convincing the International Olympic Committee it was worthy of hosting a Summer Games. It promised it would not impose local customs on a global event, and that everyone would be welcome.

Instead, Qatar reneged on the sale of alcohol at stadiums at the 11th hour, embarrassing a longtime - and lucrative - FIFA sponsor. It grew increasingly heavy-handed and antagonistic over LGBTQ displays, harassing people with rainbows on their clothing or accessories and barring them from entering games and the Fan Fest. It cracked down on Iran fans showing support for protesters back home, confiscating banners and confronting at least one fan who had a Mahsa Amini shirt.

Organizers also have repeatedly shown how little they understand the World Cup.

Bumping house music is played before games at such deafening levels it drowns out the singing of Argentine and Brazilian fans, one of the great World Cup traditions. The "fans" who were brought in to make it look as if each team had throngs of supporters were easy to spot. The picturesque waterfront in downtown Doha looks like Las Vegas with water features and light shows.

The World Cup doesn't need to be tricked out. The players and the games are enough of a show on their own.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Cup's winners, losers include Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo

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