Over the last three weeks a significant majority of the earth’s population have been focusing their energies and attention on the 2018 World Cup in Russia. After fifty-six matches, eight teams survive and eight matches remain (including the third place play-off) to determine the winner of the tournament. As the twenty-four eliminated teams wind their way home, football fans will have a host of memories to reflect on their valiant efforts.
Germany, who had reached the final in five of the last nine tournaments, suffered the embarrassment of elimination in the first round for the first time ever in their eighty-year history in the tournament. Germany joins France, Italy, and Spain, the 1998, 2006, 2010 winners, respectively, as the latest defending champion to be eliminated at the group stage. A miraculous free kick goal in the dying seconds of added time to snatch a 2 – 1 victory over Sweden was the only positive memory, sandwiched between defeats by Mexico and South Korea, in which they failed to score.
Peru, one of the better teams not to reach the knockout stages, and their 15,000 fans who undertook the arduous twenty-five hour journey to Russia via five countries, will long be remembered for their appearance at this tournament. The former for their wonderful play and gallant efforts, the latter for the exuberance and good behaviour they brought to the tournament. Peru, who lost its opening match to the Danish by a lone goal, after missing a penalty and showering their opponents’ goal with an array of shots that went everywhere else but in the net, left on a high note, following their 2 – 0 triumph over Australia.
Senegal, literally and figuratively drew the bad card(s), when they were eliminated by the new disciplinary rule. With both teams having similar records, Senegal, having received six yellow cards to Japan’s four, had to pack their suitcases; it does seem a cruel way to be knocked out of a competition of such stature. This is one rule which FIFA might wish to revisit after this tournament.
With four minutes to go and the score tied at 1 – 1, it appeared as though Nigeria, who needed only a draw to advance to the round of sixteen, was going to break its jinx of losing to Argentina by the odd goal for the fifth time in the last six World Cups. It was not to be. Argentina scored and progressed to the next stage, where Lionel Messi and company’s weaknesses were exposed by a rampaging young side from France, in a 4 – 3 defeat.
Last Sunday was not a day for the faint of heart, as two matches in the round of sixteen were extended to extra-time, and then the nerve wracking penalty kicking contest. Spain, an early tournament favourite, fell to the surprising hosts, and Croatia, in an equally nail-biting affair, got the better of Denmark. Yesterday, it was England’s turn to stun Columbia in a penalty shootout.
Five-time champions and current betting favourite, Brazil have provided their fans with some anxious moments, including a 1 – 1 draw with the cautious Swiss. The notable disappointment has been the petulant behaviour and play-acting of their superstar, Neymar, which has detracted from his otherwise magical moves. The headline of the Brazilian newspaper, Globo, sums it up aptly, ‘ Neymar has charmed Brazil, but annoyed the whole world.’ Their deep roster of talent might just be the difference needed to win a month-long tournament of this nature.
The application and interpretation of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has improved as the tournament has progressed, and its benefit to the regulation of the game is there for all to see. Let’s hope as the technology evolves, this aspect of officiating will keep pace. FIFA is on the track here.
The 2016 European Champions, Portugal led by the brilliant play of Cristiano Ronaldo, succumbed to the surprise of the competition, Uruguay, 2 – 1. The two-time champions, one of three teams with a perfect record after the group stage, are led by a resolute defence and have become the dark horse to win it all.
Someone in a bar or restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal, is probably composing, or already has composed a fado. Fado, a Portuguese word meaning fate, is also a genre of music which can be traced back to Lisbon in the 1800s. The soulful songs, which cover a broad range of topics including love, separation, sadness, despair, betrayal, memory, tears, hope, passion, life, and death, are extremely melancholic and nostalgic. The Portuguese word saudade best expresses these deep emotional longings for missing somewhere or someone. No doubt, the European champions are experiencing a serious bout of saudade, for Russia and the World Cup, as they listen to fadista singers belt out these mournful songs.
The Portuguese heartbreak was equally matched by the Japanese, who on Monday blew a two-goal lead to Belgium, and lost it in the final moments of the fourth minute of added time. The underdogs gave everything they had and earned the respect of everyone for their fighting performance. It was the first time since 1966 that a team had come from two or more goals down in the knockout stage to win in regulation time. Their coach, Akira Nishino, as the norm in his culture, blamed himself and his tactics for the defeat. Some of their distraught fans then stayed to assist with the clean-up of the stadium. The Japanese players also cleaned their dressing room, leaving it absolutely spotless. On a table in the centre of the room, they left a one word note in Russian, Thank You.
Any team can win the 2018 World Cup now. The odds makers have placed the final eight teams in the following order; Brazil, France, England, Belgium, Croatia, Uruguay, Russia, Sweden. Have they gotten it correct? We will have to watch the games to find out.