By: Ras Wadada
There was a time in the past that one could have safely and/ or closely predicted the outcome of most matches and who will be crowned Champion, but in recent tournaments of the quadrennial showpiece – World Cup Football Finals – that has changed significantly and more evidently at Russia 2018.
A week from today the 21st Champion of World Cup football will be decided in Moscow City, the Capital of Russia and in the eyes of the World this edition has been like no other and arguably the most unpredictable and incredible in the 88-year history of the event.
The only foregone conclusion for the four matches remaining is that the title will go to a European country for the 12th time: as for the first time, since Germany 2006, all of the semi-finalists are from Europe. Only France, who lost the final to Italy in 2006, is still alive in 2018 and remains the sole pre-tournament favorite to live up to their billing.
I, very much, would disbelieve anyone who would claim that he or she had predicted: defending Champions Germany would be beaten by Mexico and South Korea and end up last in their Group and be booted out, for the first time in their history, at the group stage or that the lowest ranked side and host, Russia would have made it out of the Group stage, much less to go all the way to the last eight before painfully bowing out via penalty kicks.
Most of the acclaimed stars who were expected to pitch at Russia 2018 are now at home or elsewhere watching from way beyond the boundaries of the grassed rectangular pitch after their failures to deliver. Ironically, the two most followed and talked about players of the ‘Beautiful Game’ exited at the same stage and on the same day within hours of each other.
Neither, Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo, for all their monetary values and skills, could have inspired to propel Argentina or Portugal, respectively, further than the round of 16. The following week, Neymar, another pre-tournament hyped-up star, and his Brazilian cast followed, paving the path for a new star to pitch.
Spain, one of the most over-rated teams of this Millennium, in my honest opinion, also made an unexpected early farewell and while that can be attributed to the untimely dismissal of their head coach, on the eve of the kick-off of Russia 2018, one could add that in their decisive game against the host the ‘Tiki-Taka’ (emphasis on possession football through short passing and movement off the ball) could not conjure up the needed winning goal.
The many unpredictable moments at Russia 2018, including the downing of seemingly unstoppable power houses of football, bring back memories as far as Italy 1990 when Cameroon upstaged Cup holders Argentina in the opening game of the 14th edition. The African nation went on to become the first side from the Continent to reach the quarter-finals. It was the beginning of change for those who had claims to the coveted cup, as eight years later France, at home, joined the elite club of champions and Spain followed suit at South Africa 2010.
Eight years on and another nation is dreaming of becoming the newest World Champions of the ‘Beautiful Game’, as the many twists and turns of Russia 2018 nears the final chapter of a book that can be best described as – Unthinkable. Both Croatia and Belgium, who are gracing the semi-finals for the second time, must fancy their chances against former one-time home-crowned champions England (1966) and France (1998), respectively.
The introduction of Video Technology at the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ has certainly played its role in adding to all the drama that has unfolded thus far, though it has come in for criticisms from players, managers and fans. One cannot deny the usefulness of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in aiding the officials to bring more fairness to the games neither the fact that it will not be 100 per cent perfect.
The main function of the VAR is to review decisions made by the on-field referee, with the use of video footage where there are four types of calls that can be reviewed: Goals, on whether there was a violation in the build-up; Penalties; Direct Red Cards and mistaken identity in awarding a Red or Yellow Card.
One country and their millions of fans are still fuming with the VAR after what appeared to be a clear Penalty in their quarter-final loss to Belgium. Gabriel Jesus with the opportunity to reduce the 2-0 lead was clearly brought down in the area by Belgian defender Vincent Kompany, but after consultation with the VAR the on-field referee waved play on.
Before there was VAR the officiating referee was empowered, with two assistants, and a whistle to blow during the match according to his opinion in interpreting the laws as it related to the action on the pitch. Yet still, with the implementation of VAR, the referee retains such power as he can over-rule VAR like he can do with his on-field assistants and more importantly the interpretation of video footage also comes down to human opinion.
Own-goals and penalties have also featured prominently at Russia 2018, but the likes of Frenchman Kylian Mbappe, Romelu Lukaku of Belgium, Croatia’s Luka Modric and England’s captain Harry Kane are all determined to push their respective nations closer to the summit. Despite all the upsets and present claims to the top prize there might just be another tournament wait for a ninth champion as I pick France to get past England in the final.