FOR A while, we were led to believe this World Cup would be the one of shocks and surprises. We had Brazil spluttering to a draw, Argentina getting hammered and Germany beaten by Mexico. Messi would exit, leaving his last World Cup unfulfilled, Ronaldo would be crowned the greatest of all time and perhaps “little” Mexico would produce a fairy story. As for England, they had struggled to beat Tunisia, so you could probably discount them.
At the same time, FIFA and its representatives on the field blundered their way through the great VAR debate and the pundits criticised as games were held up for TV replays. VAR became a point of contention rather than solving contention. These are early days, for sure, and VAR is here to stay (rightly so, one might add), but experiments need to be conducted before the big occasion. But, the narrative has changed.
Messi’s one-man band scraped through, Brazil (not the Brazil of way back) are comfortable, England played flat-track bully against Panama, and that left us with the shock of our World Cup lifetimes – Germany out in the group stage, totally unprecedented. Russia 2018 had its story that will be retold for decades, plucky South Korea beating the mighty Germany 2-0 and sending them back to a Berlin drawing board.Embed from Getty Images
And what of VAR? Suddenly, the pundits like it. They say football fans are fickle, but so, too are panel members. VAR will get better, but the way some teams played-out the last group games should be investigated. It wasn’t quite the disgrace of Gijón, but the closing stages of Japan versus Poland were so ridiculous that the referee blew up for time early. Belgium versus England, with nobody wanting to put themselves out for fear of winning – one tweet praised Rashford for missing a golden opportunity – does beg the question whether second stage rounds should be drawn rather than pre-determined.
As with all World Cups, there’s been some disappointing games, but overall, very few yawn-inducing contests. The goal count has picked up (2.54) but still below 2014 and some of the goals have been superb. The last 16 includes six teams from pot 1 of the finals draw, seven from pot 2, two from pot 3 and Japan from pot 4, so really, few surprises. There are no African countries in the last 16, the first time since the format was introduced in 1986, which is disappointing for those that predicted an African World Cup winner some 40 years ago.
The climax of the competition is now plain to see, the top half of the draw is very tough, including Belgium, Brazil and France, not to mention Argentina, Portugal and Uruguay. There could be a Messi v Ronaldo clash if France and Uruguay are beaten in the last 16, but there will not be a romantic battle of the titans in the final. The second half is, dare we say, weaker but this won’t allow Russia to progress – the hosts were exposed in their final group game, although they were probably happy to be placed in this half, avoiding the bigger guns. Despite this residence of convenience, Russia will surely be too weak for even an out-of-sorts Spain. England may never have a better chance, but the danger is complacency, believing the hard work has been done in not falling short in the group. World Cups have not always been won by the best teams, but often by a “team for a job”.
Can England actually go all the way to the final? Playing the low profile game, which Gareth Southgate does so well, does not mean success is guaranteed, but all through his reign, the former England defender has managed public expectation very well. He will have trouble doing that if England beat Colombia and come up against Sweden or Switzerland. After 2014’s debacle and the tarnished generation of previous campaigns, Southgate will return home a hero if the last eight is reached. Anything more and public holidays will be declared!
Header photo: PA