As the FIFA World Cup proceeds through its second week, here is a review of the major events that took place during the championship so far.
Upsets and shock results are part of sporting lore. There is always a special place in the hearts of sports lovers for the “underdog” who takes on and bests a stronger opponent in trying conditions. In championships like the FIFA World Cup finals where the top soccer sides of the globe play each other and only a small margin separates the teams, the ones who are able to raise their performance levels on a particular day would merge triumphant. The converse that a team which has a bad day would find itself holding the wooden spoon is also true. It is a fact that since most of the sides take time to settle down and adjust to the pressures of performing on the big stage, one can expect a greater share of unexpected results during the initial stages of the tournament.
The losses suffered by Germany, the reigning champions, and Argentina, the runner-up during the last edition, were, without doubt, the points for animated discussion amongst the followers of the game. While Germany went down 0-1 to Mexico in their opening match, the 0-3 loss suffered by Argentina at the hands of Croatia in their second match stunned their supporters. The Latin American country, which had started off their campaign with a listless draw against Iceland, was expected to defeat
Croatians without breaking too much sweat. However, Croatia turned the tables on their more fancied opponents and inflicted a crushing blow that has brought Argentina to the brink of elimination from the championship.
Fingers would be pointed to Argentine goalkeeper Willy Caballero, who unwisely attempted to chip the “minus pass” received by him inside the penalty box, over the head of Ante Rebic, rather than collecting it or kicking it into the midfield. Rebic intercepted the lob he received from Caballero with alacrity and coolly placed it inside the net to put Croatians ahead. This was a mistake that even a goalkeeper at club level football would not have made and Caballero should certainly accept his share of the blame for the debacle of his side. What made mistake particularly galling was that fact that he had committed a similar blunder during the first half of the match but managed to get away only because Croatians did not seize the opportunity.
Though it is not fair to arraign one player more than others for reverses suffered in a team game, it must be admitted that Lionel Messi being off colour is the main reason behind the lacklustre show of Argentines. He has been a pale shadow of his usual self and projects a negative image right from the time he steps on to the field, which would not help the confidence of his side. One does not know who advises him on matters of appearance and grooming but his face with the beard on looks like that of a dejected lover suffering from some terminal illness. He has seldom taken the lead to make forays into the defences of the opponents and is often found wandering aimlessly around the midfield. There is a cloak of indifference around him which has hurt the interest of the side he leads more than the penalty that he missed or the free kicks he failed to convert.
It is too early to say whether this is the end of the road for Messi and Argentina. The loss of Iceland to Nigeria makes the match against the latter side critical for Argentines. If they can defeat Nigeria by a good margin, then they can assure themselves of a berth in the last 16. Based on FIFA rankings, where the Latin American side figures at 5th spot and Nigeria is placed at a lowly 48, this should not be too difficult for the two-time winners. But on present form, one suspects that even Nigeria would be fancying their chances against Messi’s boys!
There is one cricketing parallel which would suggest that doors are not yet closed on Argentina. Imran Khan had announced his retirement from international cricket after Pakistan was knocked out of 1987 cricket World Cup in the semifinals by Australia. However, he was forced to withdraw his retirement and playing again for the Pakistan after the cricket lovers of the country, including President Zia ul-Haq, requested him to reconsider his decision. Imran had stated categorically, on his return, that his goal was to lift the 1992 World Cup. But Pakistan side performed so poorly at the start of this championship that at one stage they were on the verge of being eliminated. But gradually the tide turned and Imran marshalled the resources under his command shrewdly to guide his team to winning the tournament. In a similar manner, Messi was also pressurised to come back after his retirement by football fans of Argentina and like Imran’s Pakistan, they have started their campaign on a poor note and are on the verge of exiting the championship. Nevertheless, they can take heart from Pakistan’s performance and utilise the last opportunity available to bounce back and show the world their true class and calibre.
Ronaldo on song
If Messi was in the news due to his poor form, Cristiano Ronaldo stole the thunder during the first week of 2018 World Cup with his brilliant performances. He started with a hat-trick against the strong Spanish side, which included a incredible free kick that found the goal minutes before the final whistle, which helped Portugal to seal a draw in their tough first match.
Ronaldo followed this by netting the winner in the next tie against Morocco. His debonair looks, the positive aura that he imparts, the stories about his posing for pictures with children and his contributions towards charity have combined to create the image of a warm and caring human being besides being one of the best contemporary footballers. It remains to be seen whether Portugal would be able to ride on his back during the more difficult knockout stage of the championship. If he is able to continue his present form and guide his side to winning the championship, he would get elevated to the pantheons of football legends as Pele and Maradona. There is little doubt that his fan following has increased world over and even Kerala reported that many of the erstwhile supporters of Messi and Argentina have shifted allegiance to Ronaldo and Portugal during last week!
The hosts Russia has surprised the entire world, both on account of the excellent organisation of the championship and the performance of their side. There were many who had expressed reservations when Russia won the privilege to host the tournament. The apprehensions were on the ground that Putin administration might not be comfortable with the fun and gaiety that the fans bring to the host country. However, all such fears have been proved to be baseless as Russians have proved themselves to be the perfect hosts creating the proper environment for the teams to perform and for the fans to soak in and savour the joy that this game creates. Meanwhile Russian side surprised everyone, including their diehard supporters, by wining their first two games in style.
Video Assistance Referee (VAR) has made its debut during the present edition of the championship and proved its utility straightaway. In the match between France and Australia, the referee changed his initial decision and awarded a penalty kick to the former after seeing the replay on the display monitor by the side of the field.
Similarly this system also helped to identify clearly and quickly that the ball had landed inside the goal line before it was held by the Aussie goalkeeper standing outside the line when France scored a second time. It is only natural that there are criticisms from certain quarters about use of technology to assist the referee, which has happened in other games as well. But there is no doubt that this would help to improve the accuracy of decisions and thus help to promote quality of football being played. Instances such as the infamous “hand of God” goal of Maradona in 1986 as well as feigning of injury by players would come down once technology is employed to assist decision making. Similarly players would also be more circumspect in committing fouls and attempting physical contact once they realise that each action of theirs would be caught by the cameras.
It is too early to predict who would lift the trophy on the evening of July 15. But the first week of the championship has provided enough hints that the quality of football on display in Russia 2018 would be amongst the best that the world has seen so far. So let us await more exciting action during the coming weeks as the tournament enters the knockout stage.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)