World Cup pandemic

Tomorrow, the world’s population will begin its quadrennial vacation from reality. Other than deaths within one’s immediate family, and perhaps the arrival of a first-born generation heir, everything else will take a back seat and will be dealt with at a later date.

The twenty-first Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup kicks off in Russia and it appears as though everyone on the planet will be following the tournament. Today, fans will be busy filling in their last minute picks for fantasy pools and tournament predictions. Casual fans have been familiarizing themselves with their country’s schedule and starting line-ups while the fanatics have already laid out their complete attire – jerseys, sox, scarves and hats – and booked their seats at their favourite location to view their team’s games. Rituals will be followed to the letter; no chances can be taken here. After all, this is the World Cup. Nothing else really matters right now.

Advertisers, manufacturers and retailers of sporting apparel, along with bookmakers are enjoying the moment and are questioning why they have to wait every four years for this wave of interest in a singular event. Business owners outside the realm of the football/entertainment sectors and governments around the globe will be scratching their heads and lamenting the sudden rise in absenteeism and drop in output, except perhaps in Italy and the Netherlands.

The fans in these two perennial football powerhouses will go about their business as per normal, pretending than nothing is amiss, probably ignoring the deluge of television coverage that is being delivered, since their teams have failed to qualify for the tournament. It is only the third tournament that Italy, the four-time winner and twice runner-up, will be missing. They failed to qualify only once before, in 1958 and didn’t enter the inaugural competition in 1930. The Dutch, labeled as the perennial bridesmaid, having being runners-up on three occasions – 1974, 1978, & 2010-, and only the second team to have topped the FIFA rankings without having previously won the World Cup, also stumbled in the qualifiers, finishing behind France and Sweden in Europe’s Group A. The 2018 tournament will not be the same without the trend-setting fashion conscious Italians and the waves of the orange-clad Dutch supporters.

The one major change has been the number of teams in the competition at the finals. Thirteen teams contested in 1930 and 1950, while the 1938 tournament had fifteen participants. Sixteen teams played in the 1930 tournament, likewise from 1954 to 1978, with the number increasing to twenty-four from 1982 to 1994. The 1998 contest saw yet another increase to thirty-two entries, the current number until the 2026 finals, when the tournament will be further diluted to the cumbersome number of forty-eight entries.  The latter decision has drawn frowns and the ire of football experts and keen followers of the game, who view this move as nothing other than a cash-grabbing exercise by FIFA.

This year’s significant change will be the long overdue introduction of the use of video assistant referee technology (VAR).  The VAR is designed to improve on field refereeing decisions and hopefully, eliminate the controversies that have flared on the possible outcomes of the tournaments.

Older fans will remember England’s Geoff Hurst’s disputed first goal in extra-time of the 1966 final versus West Germany, which is forever being analysed as the latest technology becomes available. The younger fans can recall the goal which convinced the guardians of the game that the introduction of goal-line technology had become necessary. In the round of sixteen in 2010, England’s Frank Lampard’s chip over the German goalkeeper clipped the underside of the crossbar bounced a yard inside the goal, rebounded off the crossbar and into the hands of the goalkeeper. Incredibly, the referee ruled no goal, a decision which otherwise would have made the score 2-2, and changed the outcome of the game and arguably, the entire tournament, as a very strong English team was eliminated.

The jury is still out on whether VAR is a good idea or not. Will it slow down the game too much? Will all the right decisions be made? VAR will focus on four game-changing situations, namely, goals, penalties, red cards and cases of mistaken identity.  Thirteen FIFA appointed officials will perform the roles of VAR during the tournament and each match will have one VAR, who will be supported by three assistants. They will have access to video footage from thirty-three cameras, and if they notice an error upon reviewing a situation, the referee will be advised by earpiece, of the possible error, which he in turn can further review on a screen on the side of the field, if he so desires.

No system is perfect, and it is hoped that this process will correct blatant errors made by referees during the fast pace of the game at this level. VAR has undergone testing around the world over the last eighteen months, and it has shown that the accuracy of refereeing decisions has improved anywhere between 93 and 98 percent. When the positive influence of video technology on cricket is considered, in just the areas of LBW and caught at the wicket decisions, one can expect that only good will come out of this implementation, despite the problem of applying the letter of the law as against the spirit of the game.

But, what about us will we ever qualify for the tournament? Last week, with much fanfare the Guyana Football Federation announced the hiring of a new head coach, English-born, former Jamaican international, Michael Johnson, a highly qualified coach. His task is an onerous one since Guyana is currently ranked 182nd out of the 211 FIFA members, and plays in the CONCACAF (mercifully, not in the South American) qualifying group which is projected to receive six slots from the 2026 tournament, up from the current three and half (there is a playoff with the South America group that could yield a fourth spot).

The very earliest Guyana could possibly think about qualifying for the World Cup would be 2030. This farfetched dream would require an intensive developmental programme which will begin immediately by focusing on the current crop of six to ten year olds. The products of this programme could be blended with members of the diaspora offspring, (as is the current situation with the Lady Jaguars), who have being exposed to very high standards of coaching and play, available to them on a year round basis.

Until our dream of making the World Cup is realised, Guyanese will just have to continue supporting our neighbour, five-time champion and perpetual favourite, Brazil as our very own.

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