Week one – and where are all the flowers?
Posted on June 20, 2018
IT HAS not been a totally disappointing World Cup, but it hasn’t quite ignited into the festival of football we are always promised and rarely get. The fancied teams have yet to find their form, although it is feasible they are merely pacing themselves after long domestic programmes.
The surprise of the first week was surely Mexico’s win against reigning champions Germany, although it didn’t warrant being treated like fictional non-leaguers Steeple Wanderers winning the FA Cup. Mexico is a huge nation in terms of population (123 million and change) and has hosted two World Cups, and will co-host a third in 2026. Mexico deserved their 1-0 win, regardless of how ill-prepared or complacent the Germans were.
Yet Germany were not the only big name that under-performed: Brazil, Argentina and France all struggled to find their mojo. Expectation can weigh heavy on favourites at times but Brazil are still in recovery after that soul-crushing 7-1 defeat in 2014. “I am still bruised and coming to terms with 2014,” said a Brazilian former colleague when asked about his country’s hopes. “We cannot even think about 2018.”
Certainly, Brazil seemed to have plenty on their mind, while Neymar, their key man, had plenty on his head, a new hair-style that resembled a bowl of Japanese ramen noodles. He was pushed around vigorously by Switzerland, a team that refused to yield to the legend of the Brazilian World Cup campaign. While a lot of the nation’s hopes rest with Neymar, it is a similar story for Lionel Messi, who missed a penalty and seemed to be playing with something of a scowl on his face. Argentina were not highly rated before the tournament and on the evidence of their display against Iceland, that was a pretty good assumption. Little wonder that Messi looked disgruntled.
Messi’s rival, Cristiano Ronaldo has sent signals that this might just be his World Cup. Not necessarily to win, but to finish as the top player or scorer. Four goals in two games, including a hat-trick in that memorable 3-3 draw with Iberian neighbours Spain, suggest he wants to take the golden boot back to Madeira.
But he has a competitor in Russia’s own Denis Cheryshev, Villareal’s left winger, who has netted three goals in two games, the first two as a substitute. Russia have surprised people with their eight-goal start, the best ever opening by a host nation, but still nobody is suggesting a home country triumph. “Wait till they play someone decent,” is the cry from planet pundit.
Nevertheless, Russia have shown they are not the worst team in the World Cup and the crowd, the noise, the passion, and of course, host nation advantage, could still send them on the road to the latter stages of the competition. Russia have actually scored some very good, well-crafted goals and as well as Cheryshev, they have a 6 feet 5 inch forward who is menacing if a little short on finesse. He could be an unlikely hero for the motherland.
Harry Kane is now firmly the hero of England, scoring twice in his country’s 2-1 win against Tunisia. There was no expectation, we were told, and with seconds remaining, the journalists were undoubtedly writing a critical, “same old, same old” story about the “Three Lions’” failure to beat an African team. Then he popped up and changed the headlines, the mood and the group table. Now, expectation has risen. “If they just get through the group…”.
Amid the nonsense about the camp being the “best ever” (a similar story is told each World Cup), how wonderful the manager is (ditto) and that “this time it’s different”, it is pretty much the same script. One pundit, a former England defender, complained that in the past, it was “us against the press”, who then wrote negative things about the team. It may well be the hubris attached to the so-called and self-appointed “golden generation” may have had something to do with that. One thing is different – the players don’t appear to have the arrogance of past squads. England’s hopes will change like a barometer over the coming weeks.
It sounds bizarre, even delusional, but the way Russia have started, or at least the atmosphere around them, is reminiscent of Argentina 1978. A troubled regime, stories of political intrigue and some scandal lurking in the corridors of power. A relatively unknown team, said to be incapable of mounting a decent challenge. There’s no Ardiles or Kempes, for sure, but Russia is discovering its World Cup icons as we speak. Whoever knocks them out will have to overcome more than 11 men.