The Journey Called 'World Cup'
What it means
The FIFA World Cups have been like easy reference points in a timeline for enthusiasts like us. This supposedly greatest show on earth provided us with pictures every four years which got permanently etched in our memories, not to mention the fights, arguments, passion, heartbreaks it involves among us, ardent fans.
All this goes on for an almost month-long period and we wait with bated breath for that particular time to arrive in our otherwise drudgery life, and well and truly jump on the bandwagon once the show starts.
Since the arrival of European leagues and the UEFA Champions League to our shores with the turn of the century, we, the football-mad race named Bongs, in the eastern region of India, do get a regular dose of top class football in our drawing rooms, but this mega quadrennial event means much more to us as we have our childhood memories attached to it.
We have grown up worshipping the Peles and the Maradonas and all this started with this showpiece that FIFA offers us.Now that its 21st version has come to an end, the curtains are well and truly down, let us have a re-look at what it brought with it and what it didn’t.
From its first foray to the Russian soil in its 88-year long history, it has been non-stop entertainment from the word go. The defending champs used to feature in the opening game previously but that changed with the 2006 edition, which meant two of the lowest rank sides in host Russia (ranked 65) and Saudi Arabia (63) were to commence proceedings but what followed was far from a dampener.
A scintillating display by the hosts and some terrible defending by the Arabians meant that we were in for a true goal-fest. This rollicking start to the event was, however, followed by a series of shocks, to new dreams built and busted and still newer ones replacing them, all through it has been truly a roller-coaster experience.
A few favourites go home early
Shock results in group stages and initial knockout rounds meant the fall of a few of the past champs and a lopsided draw which was taken most advantage of by promising teams who were expected to do well, but were still far from bookies’ favourite picks.
I start with the defending champions, who were again the prime favourites this time around. Their opening match against Mexico was a pointer for things to come, the first half of which was among the fastest 45 minutes of the tournament.
That they managed to find the net only once, that too in the dying seconds in total of almost 6 hours of play in 3 group matches, was a hard pill to swallow for the fans, considering their goal-scoring spree in the qualifying run, being second to none (43 goals in 10 matches equaling only Belgium).
Two of their talismanic men, Schweinsteiger and Lahm’s retirement, awfully poor form of Ozil, Muller, and Hector didn’t help matters though. Leaving out Manchester City winger Leroy Sane from the squad was certainly proved a mistake.
The young striker in Werner could not replicate his form from a year back in Russia (top scorer in Confederation Cup) and old horse Gomez failed to fire. South Korea did what they were least expected to do, sent Germany packing home with 2 injury time goals. Kroos was the only saving grace but then football was never a one-man game.
Low needs to have a hard look at the side and bring in some more young guns from his Confederation Cup-winning squad to replace a few ageing legs. Have a re-look at Germany’s pre-tournament friendlies (2 losses, 4 draws and only 1 narrow win against the lowest ranked side of the World Cup, Saudi Arabia), the writing was on the wall.
Messi missing out yet again
Argentina booked their place in this edition thanks to the come from behind win owing to a Leo Messi hat-trick in their final must win qualifying game and were certainly not rated among the favorites this time due to such scraping through and a series of poor results preceding the event.
Messi missed his mark from the spot against Iceland and a horrendous goalkeeping error by Willy Caballero replacing the otherwise assured presence of injured Romero below the stick made matters worse and a true genius of a Messi moment in first-half added with a late winning goal against Nigeria from Marcos Rojo meant they ended up facing the youthful French in the second round itself.
A good three-year gap in their average age (Argentina 29+ and France 26) meant that a tactically slow game would have done them favors but to the surprise of many, they kept on attacking even after a somewhat lucky lead within minutes five minutes of the second half, resulting in piercing counter-attacking moves by the marauding French with the Boltesque Mbappe doing most of the killing.
Much of the blame fell upon Jorge Sampaoli whose chop and change policy in every match without the necessary results never allowed the team to settle and made him pretty unpopular among his players who he was said to lose control on, even before the Nigeria game. He chose to keep the consistent Inter Milan front-man Icardi out of the squad and allowed little match time for in-form Aguero.
Favourites Brazil stunned in quarters
Perennial favourites Brazil went into the tournament with lots of confidence, Neymar looked inching close to his full fitness and form with a gem of a goal against Croatia in the pre-tournament friendly to announce his arrival. His on-field theatrics didn’t help matters though, but he let his foot do the talking against Mexico in the 2nd round face-off.
Come dark horse Belgium in quarter, and a suspension of Casemiro, their holding midfielder from Real Madrid, a few tactical changes by Belgian coach, and their dreams came crashing down.
Using Romelu Lukaku in a withdrawn position 30 minutes into the opening half against the not so physical Brazilian midfield was a masterstroke with his run down the middle and a sublime pass to Kevin De Bruyne killing the game then and there. Brazil’s second-half display was one of their best in the tournament but was not enough for the night.
Spanish armada rocked even before it started
The absence of Italy, Netherlands and back-to-back Copa winners in two years Chile already made the tournament poorer in terms of big names, if not quality, and the Spanish side was yet another giant of a name to bite the dust early.
They did not help their cause much though when their head coach Julen Lopetegui was sacked just a day before their opening encounter against their Iberian neighbour Portugal.
A much-vaunted central defensive pair of Ramos and Pique backed by a celebrated goalkeeper failed to gel, leaking no less than 6 goals in 4 matches and just an own goal to show against the hosts in over 120 minutes of play in the pre-quarter didn’t say much of their attacking threat too.
Kudos to Russia though for defending valiantly throughout. A historic intervention of the left foot of the diving Russian custodian Igor Akinfeev in the penalties and the Iniestas were heading home too.
Belgium's Golden generation goes far
The golden generation of Belgium led by a cunning coach in Roberto Martinez scored the highest number of goals (9 goals in 3 matches with a goal difference of +7 pipping everybody else) going into the knockouts and were staring down the barrel going down by 2 goals in the 52nd minute, but then we witnessed the most remarkable comeback in this World Cup, if not in its entire history.
Though they were second favourites in their quarter-final against a very good Brazilian side, they sprang up a surprise, not that they were not entirely unexpected to do such, but to materialize it on the ground was a different ball game altogether.
Sadly, they couldn’t really match that performance in an otherwise very close encounter with France in the semi, a real chess game between two of the best coaches in the tournament, in which Didier Deschamps had the last laugh. They overcame that disappointment and finished third in what was their best ever show in World Cups, thereby somewhat redeeming themselves of the Euro failure.
England surprises everybody with their run
The young English side with lesser-known names, and with even lesser expectations from an otherwise demanding and hysterical media did the best they could under the calming influence of their coach Gareth Southgate. They managed to do something that they couldn't in a few decades, that is, winning a tie-breaker.
But their inexperience showed up when they failed to capitalize on an early lead against a Croatian side in the semi-final who looked clueless in the attacking third until they scored their equalizer. England did not look threatening all through the match and a run or two more by Sterling and Co. or a clinical counterattack was missing in ideal settings.
Scoring most of their goals from set-pieces in the tournament, they did just that one thing right in the match. They lost their last group game against Belgium by a solitary goal (rested many of their first 11 players), thereby, fortunately, benefiting going into the weaker section of the knockouts, but they couldn’t really stretch it till July the 15th. Another encounter with the Belgians in the third place decider and the issue was settled with a 2-0 scoreline in favour of Belgium.
Coming of age of Croatia
Croatia has had a few big names playing in important positions which provided just the right balance and they showed resilience winning multiple matches going a goal down, and getting through back-to-back tiebreakers speaks volume of the character of the team.
Led by their master distributor Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in the midfield with Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic upfront, they more than lived up to their billing as the dark horse of the tournament along with Belgium.
France went in as favourites in the final
World Cups are mostly won by the most compact of sides, not necessarily the most flamboyant ones. And Didier Deschamps made no secret of the fact that they wanted to win it at the cost of sacrificing some flair.
The French side has looked the most compact in the tournament and just to give us a change of taste, their flamboyance against Argentina was for everyone to see. Getting over the desperate Argentines and tricky Belgians in the semis did immense good to their confidence and they went in as firm favourites to the final.
Come what may, we were geared up for a fascinating final on 15th of July, a battle of attrition was on the cards.
The game started much the way the first semi-final did, with Croatia dominating proceedings and France not seeing much of the ball. But they were happy to sit back and absorb the Croatian pressure and patiently waited for their opportunity to pounce upon.
Seventeen minutes into the match, Griezmann went down easily near the box and an own goal from Mandzukic of the resultant free-kick opened the account for France. Though Ivan Perisic equalized 10 mins later but he erred when he handed the ball off a corner kick from France at the 34th-minute mark.
VAR came into the picture and the referee awarded a spot-kick checking the video evidence, although the decision was somewhat contentious as it was tough be assured of the handball as deliberate even with the help of VAR.
Heading to the dressing room 2-1 down at halfway mark, Croatia was expected to make yet another comeback as they did in so many of their matches, but there emerged the 19-year-old wonder boy from the scene. Kylian Mbappe was the x-factor for France which few teams had.
First, a skilful run down the right to provide the ball into the box, and then a clinical shot of his own, 2 goals in 6 minutes killed the game. A goalkeeping error by Lloris gave Croatia a glimmer of a hope, but scoring 2 in 20 mins breaching the French defence was too much of an ask.
An own goal, a VAR penalty, a laughable goalie moment, and three sublime strikes, all so typical of this tournament (2018 edition with the highest number of penalties and own goals, and some startling goalkeeping blunders) happened on the same night. France narrowly missed lifting the Euro trophy on their home soil two years back but there was no denying them crowning World Champion in Russia. Qatar awaits us in four more years.