British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said in 1964 that a week is a long time in politics. Due to the fast-changing pace of the political landscape, Wilson commented, the fortunes of an individual or political party can change dramatically in just a few days. This oft-cited piece of homespun wisdom should be applied to international football.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup only kicked off on June 14, but it is fair to say that the daily feast of football has already generated enough drama to spark months of conversation and analysis.
With half of the tournament already played (in terms of games), lovers of the Beautiful Game have been kept glued to television screens by a never-ending stream of potentially defining moments in the sport. Many of these incidents will form the basis of bar-based conversations long after the final whistle is blown in Moscow on July 15.
We have seen several stoppage-time goals and a bunch of net-busting moments from numerous set pieces. As an added piece of excitement, the defensive tactic of wrestling a player to the ground in the penalty area has either given teams the chance to score from the spot or has been ignored completely by match officials.
And the much-anticipated World Cup showdown between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—arguably the two greatest players in the modern game—has basically skewed very much in favor of the Portuguese striker.
Taking all of that into account, here are a few of my thoughts on the tournament so far, what we have learned, and the possible drama left to come.
32 Started, One Will Triumph
Hosts Russia have made a mockery of its current lowly FIFA ranking and are one of the top scorers in the tournament with eight goals to date. Granted, five of them came against a Saudi Arabia team who were woeful in the opening game, but the Russian Bear has looked like it wants to stick two fingers up at the people who dismissed them as realistic challengers.
In fact, it could be argued very few of the FIFA top-ten ranked teams present in Russia have had a great tournament to date. And there could be a couple of high-profile casualties by the time the group stages end on June 28.
Holders Germany lost to Mexico in its first game (before stoppage-time redemption against Sweden in game two, while Spain struggled to get past the might of Iran. Argentina has been fairly ordinary in their opening fixtures (the understatement of the decade), Portugal have had to work hard for its four points so far and much-fancied Columbia lost to Japan. Even Brazil needed two stoppage-time goals to see off Costa Rica after drawing with Switzerland in its opening fixture.
In addition, the tournament said goodbye to some teams after just two games.
Egypt—despite having EPL Player-of-the-Year Mo Salah and Fox Sports favorite—will not be in the Round of 16, and its squad will be hanging out at the airport with the aforementioned Saudi Arabia. They are joined by Morocco, Costa Rica (who enjoyed Brazil 2014 far more than Russia 2018) and Peru, the latter’s 38-year wait for World Cup appearance ending in two one-nil defeats by Denmark and France, respectively.
England’s two opponents—Tunisia and Panama—will play out a dead rubber on Matchday 3, with only honor at stake. Poland, who came to Russia as the 8th ranked team, have also lost twice and their superstar striker (Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski) has struggled to make an impact. Which basically means that the Poles are going home as well.
South Korea are still in it (mathematically) but after two defeats from two games will need something truly bizarre to happen in the third round of games if they are not to pack their bags. And when I say bizarre, I mean that they have to beat Germany (not going to happen) and hope that Mexico wallop Sweden … which might happen. But it won’t.
As the herd begins to be thinned out, some fans will know that their tournament party can keep moving forward. Russia and Uruguay are through to the last 16, as are France, the hugely impressive Croatia, Mexico, England and Belgium. Which means that heavyweights such as Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Germany and Argentina still have some work to do in their respective third and final group games.
Any lingering hopes that the World Cup Final would not feature a European or South American team are also diminishing.
The final itself is almost the exclusive property of Europe and South America as no country from outside of these two footballing continents has even got the chance to play for the ultimate prize. Senegal or Nigeria could upset the balance but, as the last two representatives from Africa, it is fair to say that they have both looked OK against relatively inexperienced opposition.
And with the end of the second week basically reducing the number of daily games down to a rather paltry two—until the quarter-final stage—then this may be the last chance for neutrals to watch a bunch of players on the global stage. It might also be the last time that we see Lionel Messi in an Argentina shirt.
Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina
Let’s be blunt. Argentina have been terrible. A draw in the first game against Iceland (that included a missed penalty by Messi), was followed by a crushing three-nil defeat to Croatia.
The latter game was notable for two reasons.
Firstly, Argentinean coach Jorge Sampoali seemed to have no real idea of how poor some of his team selections were, an error compounded when Chelsea backup keeper Willy Caballero gifted the Croatians with a goal that would have drawn dark murmurings on a Sunday League pitch. Second, Messi looked as he wanted to be anywhere in the world apart from Russia.
Messi has been the lifeblood/savior of this team for so long that it is often hard to forget that he has never really managed to escape the shadow of Diego Maradona. Prior to the game against Croatia, the TV cameras kept focusing on Diego watching from the stands, a weight of expectation that may have been responsible for the headache that Messi seemed to be trying to deal with during the national anthem.
What followed was both predictable and slightly sad.
Croatia blew Argentina away, with Messi a peripheral figure for most of it. He was not helped by a shambolic performance from his team mates and a series of “tactical” substitutions that underlined how clueless the coach was. As the final whistle went, the cameras went to a shell-shocked Maradona, while Messi trudged off the pitch without (it appeared) shaking hands with any of the Croatian team.
The inquests have been constant ever since. Numerous media sources claimed that the coach was going to be fired before next game, something that the Argentine FA have denied. There have been reports of the players holding meetings to discuss tactics without the input of the coaching staff, also denied.
But the simple truth is that this Argentina team is a long way short of the quality that we have come to expect. World Cup winner and Tottenham legend Ossie Ardiles said that it was the worst Argentina team he had ever seen, while there have been numerous pundits who have jumped on the team-in-crisis bandwagon.
Here’s the thing. Yes, Argentina have been awful so far but they can still qualify for the knockout phase by beating Nigeria and hoping that Croatia show no mercy to the plucky Icelanders. Anything less than that and Messi’s quest to emulate Diego is likely to be gone … forever.
VAR: A Love/Hate Relationship
Prior to the start of the World Cup, I was not a fan of the video-assisted referee technology. The times I had seen it in action was a combination of shambolic and confusing. In this tournament, the use of VAR has sparked similar feelings, much of which has centered around what defines a “clear and obvious error” by the match referee.
In so many ways, the VAR system has been both a blessing and a curse. For instance, the decision of FIFA to tell match officials not to flag for close offside decisions has meant that most players are already miming a TV screen whenever they feel an error has been made. Which, when combined with the readiness of certain players to raise their arm in the air when they believe an opponent is offside, makes certain crucial moments look like a series of involuntary muscle movements.
The unintentional hilarity of seeing the fully-kitted-up VAR referees in what appears to be a bunker in Moscow has also meant that most fans (at home or in the stadium) are still trying to get their head around both the decision-making process and when the tech comes into play.
We have seen referees sprint to a pitch-side monitor to look at a replay, a scenario that is instigated by the full kit wankers in their bunker. And on other occasions, the VAR has made the decision on goals, clear offsides or the aforementioned and popular penalty-box wrestling. Which fits nicely into the shambolic and confusing category.
The consensus by the media and, apparently, match officials is that VAR is working. Serbia may have protested to FIFA over an obvious foul by Switzerland that went unpunished (the Serbs went on to lose the game), the BBC reported, but VAR appears to the casual viewer to be right around 60 percent of the time. Goals have been reversed, fouls picked up (sometimes) and penalties awarded … all of which proves that VAR can be part of the football experience.
Granted, it is still a nascent technology and there will be mistakes, but the system is designed to both alleviate the chances of a referee making a game-changing error and remove the uncertainty that comes with a fast-moving game.
Ultimately, the jury is still out on VAR, and I expect that—sooner rather later—FIFA will insist that the tech will become part of the professional game. In other words, something else to complain about when decisions go against your team.
Fox’s World Cup Coverage Is … Not Good
The network has so far been the media version of Argentina … terrible, baffling and capable of making the average football fan shout at the TV for no apparent reason.
The skeleton crew in Russia has been dreadful to watch and listen to. Alexi Lalas seems to have taken up permanent residence in Red Square and seems to like either shouting at the other panel members or coming out with comments that are not related to anything in particular. Rob Stone is just irritating and the other pundits (all of whom seem to tolerate Lalas, secure in the knowledge that he lives a long way away from their homes) offer a variety of views that are reassuringly beige.
As we know, most of the matches are reportedly being called from a studio in LA. This means that we rarely get to see anyone apart from the Red Square crew.
The commentators themselves range from the confident (but frequently off-the-mark) Warren Barton to the bellowing Mark Followill … who sounds like Joe from Family Guy. And don’t get me started on Dr. Joe Machnik, a man who Fox turn to an average of every 30 seconds for his opinion on refereeing decisions … and who offers absolutely nothing in return.
Add into the mix former USWNT player Aly Wagner and “lead game analyst” Stu Holden, and it is not unreasonable to say that the match coverage has been tough for the in-home or bar crowd to follow at times. Wagner, for instance, has come in for repeated criticism on social media as she appears to have little actual knowledge of the subtle nuances of the game itself. This has meant that some people have fallen into the trap of unintentional sexism … but Wagner has not (as of yet) proved that she has the ability to talk about football at the highest level.
One final thing. Fox paid a lot of money for this tournament. And they will be present at the next one as well. The network has staked a lot on providing its American audience with a football experience that NBC have regularly knocked out of the park with its Premier League coverage. The problem is that they are just rubbish at covering even the basics.
Much like VAR, Fox’s coverage has been up for debate every day of the World Cup. For the moment, they are failing on almost every level.
England’s Three Lions Are Raising My Expectations. Again.
Prior to the start of the World Cup, I stated that England would not win the tournament.
I stand by my convictions, despite the flak that I have received from some of my friends (who will remain nameless) and the flicker of optimism that appeared after we beat Panama 6-1. And while the team have managed to erase some of my memories of Brazil in 2014, the Three Lions will still (in my view) need some luck if they are to progress.
Harry Kane obviously has his sights on the Golden Boot and has already scored as many goals in this World Cup alone than Messi has in the four tournaments that the latter has played in combined. The defense has looked solid(ish) and the midfield has displayed moments of creativity. The big plus is that England are looking very dangerous from set-pieces and Kieran Trippier has been (in my humble and unbiased Spurs-based opinion) a superstar on every level.
On the flip side, I can’t really see us getting much further than the quarter finals. Our round of 16 opponents will come from Group H—Japan, Senegal, Columbia—and we should have enough quality to get past whichever team makes it out of that group. After that, then we move towards the bigger hitters, with Brazil and potentially Germany waiting.
To be fair, anything better than four years ago was always going to be enough for me. And we have achieved that. After all, if you start with low expectations, then anything higher is a bonus.
The Russian Bear Is Roaring
Finally, we should doff our hats to Russia itself.
As The Turf’s Kevin Morin intimated prior to the start of the tournament itself, Russia was not considered to be the ideal place to hold a global and diverse tournament.
The country has a history of racism, hooliganism and anti-social behavior, with England defender Danny Rose reportedly telling his parents not to travel to games for fear of racial abuse. In addition, Russia has a very low tolerance for LGBTQ activity, which may be one of the reasons why many fans decided to stay home.
As I have mentioned before, Russia was the lowest ranked team in the competition—a statistic that can be negated when you are the host nation. Irrespective of the fact that the original decision by FIFA to award the tournament to Russia in 2010 not only brought the full scale of internal bribery and corruption to the surface, but also led to the removal/arrest of numerous high-ranking officials, then it has to be said that the country has (to date) thrown one hell of a party.
The level of hooliganism has been seemingly non-existent, the stadiums have been mainly full and the fan zones have apparently been a success. The size of the country has not hampered fans from traveling around to various stadia and the Russian people themselves have been (according to social media and personal sources) nothing less than welcoming.
If we gloss over the fact that the opening ceremony revealed that Robbie Williams is still being booked for events, then Russia 2018 can be considered a success so far, albeit that the tournament will not conclude in Moscow until July 15. And although there is still a lot of football to be played, it is kind of nice to be able to concentrate on the beautiful game without being distracted by everything else that Russia has gained a reputation for.
So, congrats to Russia. So far, you have done everything in your power to make this tournament a success. The fact that with great power comes great responsibility is neither here nor there.
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