Football, FIFA and A Russian Summer

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To put it simply, football is the undisputed king of sports in terms of viewership at 3.5 billion views per world cup. Olympics, is a distant third after Tour de France at 2 billion views. O jogo bonito or the beautiful game is the most popular sport in the planet and the simplest to play. All you need is a ball or anything that passes for one and an empty lot and you are ready to join the millions who play the game across the globe.

Television viewership – https://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2018/02/21/10-most-watched-sport-events-in-the-history-of-television_a_23367211/

The world cup is the crown jewel of the game and is conducted every four years with a two-year gap between Olympics. In fact, Olympic football event has a limitation of only three players above 23 years per team so the primacy of the world cup could be retained.

FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is the organization that runs football worldwide with a membership of 211 countries.  Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England compete as separate entities along with a few others like Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong. These countries are grouped in to 6 federations covering Asia (AFC), Africa (CAF), North America, Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF), South America  (CONMEBOL), Oceania (OFC) and Europe (UEFA).

FIFA has alternatively been glorified and vilified for its conduct of the game. For much of its history of 114 years, it has been perceived as an oligarchy with regular scandals keeping the fans interested for the wrong reasons.  A look at the list of past presidents shows the last three elected presidents Stanley Rous, Joao Havelange and Sepp Blatter had a tenure of 12, 24 and 17 years respectively and Sepp Blatter had to quit office as he was found guilty of corruption and impeached or he could have hung on for a few more years.

List of Presidents – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_presidents_of_FIFA#cite_note-11

Sepp Blatter Saga – https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32985553

In this kind of opaque administrative setup, the biggest prize of hosting the world cup usually went to the countries that could lobby across the federations and paved the way for more corruption. Qatar’s successful bid is still being talked about for playing conditions and match timings given how hot it could get in the gulf. One of the ways the past presidents kept onto their power is by doling out additional entries to blocs favourable to them. This has resulted in the world cup getting bigger and bigger. There were 16 teams (maximum) until 1978 which rose to 24 in 1982 and 32 in 1998. This will become 48 teams in 2026.

Russia 2018

Russia started its bid for 2018 world cup in 2009 and on December 2, 2010 was successful in winning the right to hold WC 2018. Work began in earnest on construction of stadiums and associated infrastructure. Twelve playing venues were chosen of which six were brand new stadiums and one in Sochi was converted from winter Olympic to a football stadium.

Draw of lots

Draw of lots for grouping happened on December 01, 2017 and there were some promising fixtures at the group stage on paper.

Groups A, C, E & F looked straightforward with Russia, France, Brazil and Germany tipped to top and get through. Group H looked anybody’s game even though Poland was the seeded team. Groups B, D, F & G promised the most interesting games. Group B had Spain and neighbour Portugal drawn together, group D had seeded Argentina against Croatia and group H was interesting only because it had no clear favourite even though Poland was the seeded team.

You can view all the groups here http://www.espn.in/football/fifa-world-cup/story/3291440/2018-world-cup-draw-results-and-full-daily-schedule

 

Games of the Group Stage

The game of the group stage for me was the one between Spain and Portugal, for more reasons than obvious. Both teams had oodles of talent and players known for their professional (read cynical) approach. With players like Vincent Pique, Sergio Ramos and Diego Costa in the fray, you would not be surprised about fouls or diving.

There was additional needle to the game with the Spanish government sentencing Christiano Ronaldo (of Portugal) for tax evasion to a 2-year (suspended) term in prison and £16.5m fine just hours before the match. A hat-trick of goals was the reply from CR7. The first one, a well-taken penalty made CR7 the fourth player (Pele, Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose) to score in four different world cups.

Diego Costa replied with a sublime goal to equalize. Portugal went ahead once more with a David de Gea fumble of an innocuous shot from CR7 and Costa equalled again with a well poached goal. Spain then went up with looked like the goal of the match with Nachos (who gave away the first penalty) controlling a deflection and scoring with an excellent shot. But Christiano was not done yet and on the 88th minute scored off a set piece with the entire world watching.

This was the game to set off the fireworks and the tournament looked bright with more goals being scored and matches looking more attractive.

Croatia defeated Argentina 3-0 in another game. Lionel Messi had his moments but could not do what CR7 did for his team. The Argentine coach had already said that this was Leo’s team and he would be just a facilitator. This approach was going to take Argentina nowhere. Dybala the talented youngster with Juventus did not find enough playing time because for all his talent and goals as his positioning would affect Leo’s comfort zone on the pitch. Argentina went down 0-3 with excellent goals from Rakitic and Rebic.

Belgium impressed winning all the three group games and so did Uruguay and Croatia. Argentina scraped through with a win over Nigeria, but the story of the group stages was elimination of Germany, their first since 1938. One tends to take Germany for granted, they are always there (some would say like Chennai Super Kings!) But they lost the plot this time with added ignominy of losing to South Korea 0-2.

The much awaited match between England and Belgium was a let-down with both teams playing their reserves having ensured their positions in the next stage. Denmark, Japan and Columbia punched above their weight to ensure places in the next stage.

The table after group stages looked like this http://www.goal.com/en-us/world-cup/table/70excpe1synn9kadnbppahdn7

 

Round of 16

There was one mouth-watering tie on paper and that lived up to its promise. France versus Argentina was the match everyone looked up to and that ended in a 7-goal thriller with France getting their nose ahead by the odd goal.

Mbappe’s 70-yard run before being fouled resulted in the first goal for France via Griezmann penalty.  Di Maria replied with an outstanding long range goal for Argentina. Mercado then had a lucky deflection and Argentina were 2-1 up, but this French team oozes class and they put the record straight with Pavard scoring from an identical position to the one that Nachos scored for Spain against Portugal. Mbappe sealed it with two good goals for a 4-2 win. With pace like greased lightning Mbappe threatened whenever he went on a run and France looked ominous.

Edinson Cavani sealed Portugal’s fate with 2 clinical goals for Uruguay. Brazil dominated Mexico in a game full of running to emerge winners by 2 goals. Japan did Asia proud by running a talented Belgium team close playing honest football before losing the odd goal in 5. Sweden beat Switzerland by a solitary goal in a dull match.

England overcame their nerves, first during regular time when Columbia equalized during stoppage time, and then in penalty shootout to successfully come on top. England’s first win in a knockout stage of a tournament in 12 years and only their second penalty shootout win after Euro 1996. Columbia missed James Rodriguez’s creativity dearly; he had to sit out with an injury. Croatia strangely had an off day before shutting out Denmark in penalties after a 1-1 regular time draw.

The second shock of the round of 16 came when Russia with the support of the partisan crowd at their back defeated Spain. Igor Akinfeev, the Russian goalkeeper was the hero and Andres Iniesta’s farewell match resulted in a loss for the great Spaniard.

Quarterfinals

The business end of the tournament saw some good matches but the number of goals per match came down as teams sought to protect themselves from a knockout.

Uruguay Vs France

Uruguay’s luck ran out with Cavani’s injury and they lost to a much superior French side 0-2. Griezmann set up one for Varane and scored one through a keeping error to push France to the next stage. Suarez shone in patches but all his running came to nought. The Uruguayan tendency to resort to rough play when things don’t go well for them surfaced and France responded in kind which saw the match end up with 4 yellow cards split evenly and 31 fouls with Uruguay committing just one more than France.

Brazil Vs Belgium

Pentacampeon Brazil was shown the door by a purposeful looking Belgium, thus ensuring there would be no South American flair and presence in the Semis. This is Belgium’s golden generation with Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Thomas Meunier, Marouanne Fellani, Vincent Kompany and Thibaut Courtois the stars in a team that is ranked third in the world, just below Brazil. Their 3-4-3 with De Bruyne, Lukaku and Hazard looked menacing with Fellani playing just behind. Brazil’s reliance on Neymar for build-ups when any other player could easily do so too was unexplainable. Like in 2014, they looked to pass to Neymar at every turn, despite the fact that this Brazilian team is superior to the one that played in 2014. Gabriel Jesus, despite running his heart out in all the matches came out empty handed, though he was denied a penalty when Kompany fouled him. More about refereeing later!

England Vs Columbia

Harry Maguire and Dele Alli scored once in each half to ensure a composed win for England against an unimpressive Sweden. This team under Gareth Southgate looks full of running with Sterling, Alli, Lingard, Young and Walker all playing under the calming influence of Harry Kane the skipper. Pickford already had had a great game in the shootout against Columbia. This England team looked like it could go all the way with their 3-5-2 looking very good.

Russia Vs Croatia

Russia’s locomotive lost steam and came to a stop against Croatia who pipped them on penalties after a 2-2 draw. There was some drama as one goal apiece was scored in added time but Russia never really made a case for itself, save Cheryshev’s outstanding first goal with a glorious finish. The goalkeeper Danijel Subasic ensuring victory saving Smolov’s effort and Fernandes shooting off target.

Semi final

Four very good teams made it to semi finals. France and Belgium had class and consistency, Croatia showed lot of heart and England looked young and vibrant.

France Vs Belgium

Samuel Umtiti’s goal separated the winner from the loser Le Bleus came out on top in a match that saw plenty of good football and misses too. Belgium missed Thomas Meunier due to suspension and that affected their shape and system. Martinez, the wily coach of Belgium changed their 3-4-3 to strengthen their midfield to 3-5-2, pulling de Bruyne back on the left and adding Chadli on the right. Belgium took too much time to build and the Frenchmen simply waited and counter attacked with pace. Umtiti beat Fellani, one of the best players in the air for his goal which was a bit of irony, but France it was and Didier came out on top in the battle of two fine managers.

Thierry Henri, France’s top scorer in internationals, world cup winner in 1998 and Wenger’s talisman at Arsenal was the deputy for Martinez but that inside knowledge obviously did not help!

Croatia Vs England

This match had no clear favourite. England were higher ranked at 12 to Croatia’s 20 but that never reflected anything as was the case with Germany (1) and Poland (8) which were knocked out in group stages.

Despite all the noise the English media made about the cup “coming home,” England has not won anything significant since their 1996 world cup win and their last significant achievement was a third place in Euro 1996. The team had already overshot their ambition by reaching the semis under Southgate who seemed to have found a fine balance between strategy and man management and to some extent exorcising the ghosts of his penalty miss against Germany in Euro 1996 which knocked his team out. But Croatia has talent in plenty and most of their players play for big name clubs of Europe. Under the unassuming Luka Modric they seemed to have gelled as a team well and were better equipped.

England started brilliantly with Trippier scoring early but despite two consecutive matches playing time and the possibility of playing another at hand Croatia rallied stubbornly. Perisic found the key to English goal at 68th minute and Mario Mandzukic who was a pale shadow of himself willed his tired legs to run and thrust a stiletto into English hearts at extra time. It was a not so brilliant end to a brilliant campaign from England and they lost despite looking good for a long time in the match. They suffered from slow build-up and the Croatian tendency to press high kept them on their toes.

Final

Very often the final of a great tournament would turn out to be an anticlimax. Two very good teams ensured we would have a memorable final. That France took it 4-2 is indication of their class, perseverance and skill but in no way a reflection of Croatia’s commitment and hard work.

France Vs Croatia

Sport is a cruel leveller of egos and Manzukic’s time in the clouds was ended abruptly as the winning goal scorer of the previous contributed to a goal he didn’t want, one on his own side.(This tournament set the record for highest number of own goals  at 12). Perisic scored one and contributed to another by handling the ball (video assisted refereeing) before Pogba and Mbappe wrapped it neatly for France. Mandzukic scored at the right end for the final score line of 4-2 in favour of France. Fatigue seemed to have caught up with Croatia finally though they played their heart out.

Didier Dechamps thus becoming third man to have won the world cup as player and coach (previously Maria Zagallo of Brazil and Franz Beckenbauer of Germany).

Both countries’ heads of state were at hand. French President Emmanuel Macron and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic were there to cheer their respective teams and the latter was a clear winner on popularity stakes, with her unassuming manners and obvious joy at her countrymen doing well. Les Bleus achieved what Napoleon couldn’t; mount a victorious campaign in Russia!

Based on quality of play, this was a most entertaining tournament and the winners really stamped their authority with no help from hand of God or human.

 

Post-Cup Thoughts

Russia’s first victory came when they were awarded the world cup and FIFA staying with that decision despite the setback on doping front which seemed to implicate its footballers too. That it went on to build excellent infrastructure ensuring smooth travel for the fans showed its determination to present a strong face to the rest of the world. Other than a stray incident of a group of tourists arriving at the wrong city, no major incidents were reported. Compare this to the cases of pick pocketing, harassment of tourists and local protests during Brazil 2014; one has to say Putin nailed it!

The one thing Putin couldn’t nail was the Rain. It came down promptly after the final whistle and was heavy enough to disrupt proceedings. Putin was the only one in the podium with an umbrella. French President Emmanuel Macron and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic chose to live the moment and merrily mixed with the players and got soaked while Putin stood there like a reluctant host ready to knock down anyone trespassing. Given his background in Judo, he probably could.

Football associated violence has been a major issue, especially during matches involving Russian and English teams. England has systematically infiltrated and dismantled these groups but Russia chose to take a different approach to its hooligans. They were praised as heroes at home during Euro 2016. All that seemed to have changed and law enforcement authorities have successfully overseen an incident free world cup. In fact, post victory riots in Paris and other French cities were much worse than incidents during the world cup.

Racism was very much on the news, especially for Germany and France. Mesut Özil (Arsenal) and İlkay Gündoğan (Man City), both of Turkish origin, found themselves in trouble when they met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan is not a firm favourite of Germany to put it mildly. Last week, the crisis deepened with Özil quitting the national team citing racism and disrespect.

Read all about Özil story here – https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/22/sports/mesut-ozil-quits-germany.html

Joachim Löw, the manager of German team faced some tough criticism after the shock first round exit of the defending champions but chose to continue until his contract runs out in 2022. Löw was panned by former players and fans for picking an ageing team revolving around 2014 cup winning team. The replacements he made all were because of retirement (Lahm, Shweinsteiger, Podolski and Klose). He also brought in Manuel Neur, a top notch goalkeeper but who had missed the entire 2017-18 domestic season due to injury directly. Neur was tested in every match and found sorely wanting. Löw has had a very successful decade with German team and is capable of reinventing himself but he should share a good deal of ownership for the dismal show of Die Mannschaft. This German team looked slow and reluctant to run, which one would never associate with any German team.

Winning didn’t insulate Didier Dechamps from criticism either. Some French newspapers and fans accused him of picking an African Team. Twenty players in the team (87%) were either immigrants or sons of immigrants and only three players were of entirely French origin (Pavard, Thauvin, Varane).  Players in this team could trace their origin to Guinea (Pogba), Algeria (Mbappe), and Cameroon (Umtiti). Congo, Angola, Italy, Germany, Philippines (Alphonse Areola’s parents emigrated from Philippines!) were some of the other countries that contributed indirectly to the French team. But Didier is a pragmatic man and he chose his team based on the best talent available and reaped rewards. It must also be noted that barring a few who came in at a very young age with their parents, others were all born in France.  If success teaches us something, perhaps this is a valuable lesson on inclusiveness.

On the field, the much touted VAR or Video Assistant Referee made its debut. Pierluigi Collina, one of the most respected referees ever was the head of referee committee. After the tournament, he claimed that 335 incidents were checked and on field referees were right about 95% of the time and VAR boosted it to 99.3. That spin apart, there seemed to be a lot missed by the refs, especially fouls at the goalmouth during set pieces. Harry Kane was wrestled down to the ground during the England Tunisia match and that went unnoticed. He got a consolation penalty during the next match! This was just one of the many that escaped the referee’s eye. My general feeling was this was not one of the best tournaments for referees. I wish they were half as good as Pierluigi Collina! Talking about him, he resigned five days ago from his position as the head of refereeing committee!

All about VAR – https://football-technology.fifa.com/en/media-tiles/video-assistant-referee-var/

 

Here is my WC 2018 eleven playing a 4- 1- 3-2 formation

Goal Keeper – Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)

Backs – (Left) Diego Laxalt (Uruguay), (Centre) Thiago Silva (Brazil), (Centre) Diego Godin (Uruguay), (Right) Benjamin Pavard (France)

Defensive Midfielders – N’Golo Kante (France)

Midfielders – (Left) Eden Hazard (Belgium), (Centre) Luka Modric (Croatia), (Right) Kevin de Bruyne,

Forwards – Harry Kane (England), Kylian Mbappe (France)

Lesser known nations like Iceland made a mark here as did South Korea and Japan. Iran showed resilience and Tunisia sizzled in patches. Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not have a clue. The next world cup will host the same number of teams (32) but it is proposed that 48 teams be invited for the 2026 world cup with US, Canada and Mexico hosting it jointly. There are pros and cons associated with increase in the number of teams, but what is not stated is that often politics in football overtakes football in football.

One of my friends recently asked me if football is still O jogo bonito, I had to pause a while before answering and that pause will get longer and longer for all of us if FIFA doesn’t protect creativity on the field and curbs politics and corruption off it.

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