World Cup observations

When the Air France jet carrying the triumphant French team, the 2018 FIFA World Cup champions, touched down at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on Monday it was greeted with a water cannon salute and hundreds of adoring fans.  The wild celebrations, which had begun the day before, continued with thousands of fans lining Paris’ most famous street, L’ Avenue des Champs-Élysées to pay tribute to their heroes, conquerors  of the world, as they were paraded in an open top bus through the city.

While France basks in its glory, the rest of the world will return to regular work routines, and over the next couple of weeks  coaches, managers, players, ardent fans, journalists, marketers, sport equipment manufacturers, advertisers, bookmakers, television executives, industry and financial analysts, FIFA and Qatar, the 2022 hosts, will be pondering and dissecting the 2018 World Cup tournament.

 Russia, the hosts, and FIFA, both of whom have not been the recipients of good press in recent times, have to be congratulated for the organization and execution of the tournament.  Media reports heaped praises on the Russian public for the warm receptions extended to the fans from various cultures around the world, who for the most part, were on good behaviour. It would be unrealistic to expect everyone to endear themselves to the hosts like the delightful Peruvians, who were unlucky not to have their representatives make the knockout stage.

It was certainly a tournament for the ages for the fans as 169 goals were scored, the third highest in the history of the competition, with 45 of them coming in the knockout stage.  Of the 29 penalties awarded, the most ever, 22 were converted and the most game winning goals after the 90th minute or later, including 10 in extra time, came in this event.

 Globalisation is quickly creeping into the world of sport as was evident at this recent tournament. There are no longer any true superpowers in the game, and even in a thirty-two team tournament, there were very few ‘pushover’ teams, as reflected in the score lines of the sixty-four games. Defending champions and four-time winners, Germany, for the first time in their eighty year history did not make it out of the group stage. Early tournament favourites, Argentina, Portugal and Brazil, led by superstars Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar, respectively, followed soon afterwards on planes heading west bound.  No doubt the heavy schedule of games, the superstars and their international teammates, most of whom ply their trade in the top European Leagues, were subject to in the last year eventually took its toll. Look for the Japans of the world, with their discipline, tireless running and unselfish play to become the new trend of football.

Another emerging movement is the hiring of the best coach available by national football associations. No longer is it a given that a native of that country will be coaching its national team. Five Argentines led contingents, including their own, to the 2018 World Cup. Third place winners, Belgium is coached by a Spaniard who is assisted by a Frenchman. These highly sought after coaches command huge salaries and have to accept the huge expectations of the fans of their adopted home. Failure to qualify for the World Cup in most instances will see them being replaced. These extremely demanding jobs are not for the faint of heart.

The introduction of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) at this tournament is probably the biggest single change in the game since the introduction of substitutes and the system of red and yellow cards.  Its influence on the quality of officiating, which got better as the tournament progressed, goes without saying. In addition to virtually eliminating (no system is perfect) bad penalty decisions and close calls on disputed/off side goals, it has served as a deterrent to defenders who had developed the distasteful habits of grabbing attackers around the waist or tugging on their jerseys, and forwards who had taken to artful flopping in opponents’ areas in dishonest attempts to draw penalties and free kicks.

As the eagle eyes of the VAR continues to pick up the minute fouls, the arts of penalty taking and saving and the importance of set pieces will become more important in deciding the outcome of games. In the case of the former, four teams were eliminated by way of penalty kicks after extra time. In the latter instance, one third of all goals, some quite spectcular, came off of dead balls, with England notably notching nine of their twelve goals from set pieces.

France may have won the FIFA World Cup but Croatia stole the hearts, tears and adoration of fans worldwide. The semi-finalist with the smallest population, Croatia provides a ray of hope for countries such as ours that size is not important, but discipline, well coached talent and belief in yourselves can take you a long way. Croatia had to survive three extra time games, the equivalent of another game by itself, and two heart breaking penalty shootouts, just to get to the final.

Croatia sounded early warnings that they were there for serious business. One player who refused to take the field as a late substitute was immediately sent home, and Argentina and Messi were not so much as beaten 3 – 0, but rather manhandled, as Croatia scooted to a perfect 3 – 0 record in the first round. The award of a penalty against Croatia in the final was definitely the momentum changer, as the VAR is fast becoming, as they slipped behind again, following the concession of an opening own goal.

Even down 4 – 1, the Croatians refused to quit and continued to dominate possession of the ball (they enjoyed 62%) and gave the impression that an all-time comeback was quite possible. It was not to be as the young French side rose to the challenge and defended stoutly. It was a game worthy of a World Cup final and kudos to the Argentine referee and the linesmen who called an excellent game and let it be played on its own terms.

What can Guyana take away from this World Cup?  Currently ranked at 182 out of 211 countries registered with FIFA we have a long, long way to go. We have to crack the top 100 before we start talking seriously about qualifying for the World Cup. Maybe the time has arrived for us to start looking to our southern neighbours and engaging their assistance in the development of our game.  

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