THE BEAUTIFUL GAME: THE TWENTY FIRST WORLD CUP
The Twenty First Soccer World Cup finished in Russia on 15 July, with France, the best and most consistent side, winning an enthralling final 4-2 over the tournament’s surprise package Croatia, which joined the select band of countries, now thirteen, to have reached a World Cup Final.
The Coming-of-Age tournament has been described by some as the greatest ever. This for a combination of factors – the humbling and elimination of most of the pre-tournament favourites, the emergence of several surprise teams, including from outside the traditional strongholds, the general absence of thuggery on the field (though there were exceptions), the perceived levelling up of standards between the participants ( with, again, a couple of exceptions) , some fine matches, few goalless draws and, certainly not least, the excellent organisation, hospitality and atmosphere throughout.
The greatest ever? The players are certainly faster and fitter, and coaching methods have evolved, yet there was no outstanding team, like Brazil in 1970, no outstanding player, like Maradona in 1986, and no matches to compare with, to name but two, the 1970 Brazil –England classic, and the 1986 quarter final France against Brazil. And, more recently, nothing to compare with the 2014 demolitions of the holders Spain, 5-1 by the Netherlands, or of hosts and favourites Brazil, beaten 7-1 by Germany in the semi -final. As in 2014 four matches were decided by penalty shootouts. There were fewer goals than in 2014 and considerably more penalties, though not necessarily because of more foul play but rather because of a technical innovation.
For the first time VAR (Video Assisted Referee) technology was employed to assist referees address controversial incidents in the penalty area. The technology is still in its teething stage, will no doubt be refined, and has been criticised by some soccer purists for interrupting the flow of play. Nevertheless, on balance its application has been positive and has helped referees to reach correct decisions. Judgement calls will remain, but there is now recourse to a record of what happened. In the final itself a crucial penalty was awarded that otherwise might have been missed. VAR has also undoubtedly contributed to a significant reduction in holding and pushing in the penalty area at set pieces. Once referees could review what happened the number of unsightly melees declined. Soccer will never be quite the same again though there is surely a case for stopping the clock during the VAR procedure.
There were several sublime moments and goals: the pass by Banega and Messi’s opening goal against Nigeria in a must-win game, the marvellous move involving Suarez and Cavani who scored for Uruguay in the elimination of Portugal, probably the goals of the tournament, as well as the last minute combination move by Belgium to snatch the comeback winner against Japan. There were goalkeeper “howlers,” one by the Argentine keeper, which paved the way for a Croatian victory in the Group , another from Uruguay which sealed France’s win in the Quarter Finals, and one by Lloris for France in the Final, but at a time when it scarcely mattered. These were balanced by some fine goalkeeping performances, by Lloris, Courtois of Belgium, and England’s Pickford, whose save against Colombia was surely the outstanding save of the finals (and is up there with Banks’ wonder save from Pele in 1970).
The tournament was notable also for the high proportion of goals from set pieces – 42 % – showing that coaching and practice pays. England proved particularly proficient here with nine of their thirteen goals coming from set pieces. Unfancied beforehand, and therefore unburdened by the suffocating shroud of the demanding UK media, England exceeded expectations, advancing to the last four for the first time since 1990, and laying the penalty shootout bogey in the Round of Sixteen against Colombia. The luck of the draw may have helped but that should not diminish England’s young team’s achievement, which promises well for the future. In the semi-final England succumbed in extra time to another surprise team, Croatia, despite leading after five minutes.
Croatia, given an outside chance by some, did not disappoint. Superbly marshalled by Modric, probably Player of the Tournament, assisted by Rakitic and Perisic, and with the Juventus striker Mandzukic up front, Croatia easily topped their group, brushing aside Argentina 3-0 in the process before winning two successive penalty shoot outs, against Denmark and hosts Russia, another team which performed beyond expectations. In the semi -final against England Croatia displayed their trademark mixture of skill, grit, and solid battling, coming from behind to win out worthily after extra time.
It was not a tournament for favourites, players or teams. The world’s acknowledged three top players, Messi, Ronaldo and Neimar all underperformed, their hopes disappearing as their teams faltered in the knock out stages. The Argentine defence and midfield proved woeful throughout and not even Messi could rescue them in one of the matches of the tournament against France. Portugal fared no better, with nothing to offer apart from Ronaldo and exited to Uruguay. Brazil, the bookies’ favourites, blew hot and cold, losing to Belgium in the quarterfinals, with Neimar never reaching his best.
Of the other favourites, Germany, the holders, had a disastrous competition, crashing out in the Group stage after defeats by Mexico and South Korea, the third holders in a row to fail to progress past the opening round. The 2010 winners, Spain, went out on penalties to Russia in the Round of Sixteen after an inept display against a well marshalled defence. For Uruguay, with a fine defence and two world class attackers, it was a case of what might have been, as they succumbed to France without one of their stars. Belgium, on paper with one of the strongest squads, for once did not disappoint, impressing until the semi-finals, where they were eliminated by France in a tactical and boring contest.
France, the last favourite standing, proved deserved victors, winning six of their seven matches (the exception a meaningless nil all draw with Denmark), keeping four clean sheets and always appearing to have something in reserve. They were only behind briefly once and seemed always in control except for a short period during the final after which the result was never in doubt. Verane, Kante, Matuidi and Pogba were impressive, while the teenage Mbappe was one of the tournament stars.
Teams from elsewhere are catching up. Japan were particularly impressive, running Belgium close, while Mexico, Colombia, Senegal and South Korea also shone. A special word also for Iran, well drilled, well coached, but doomed in a tough group. Watch Iran. There are now no easy matches as better coaching methods spread. The game is now becoming truly universal with results we could see next time around. In 2022 the Finals will be held, bizarrely, in Qatar, a statelet with money but little soccer tradition; and in the northern hemisphere’s winter! As we say in Ireland: “Let’s hope they get the weather they’re expecting.”
Finally, my Team of the Tournament: Pickford; Varane, Godin, Trippier; Kante, Modric, de Bruyne Perisic, Pogba; Mbappe, Mandzucic; with subs Umtiti, Vida, Maguire, Hazard and Rebic. Ten from the Final line up. Some Team! Some Tournament!