FIFA World Cup

Hope springs eternal

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Luka Modric shoots to score Croatia’s second goal in its group D match with Argentina in Nizhny Novgorod, which Croatia won 3-0. Photo: AP

Kim Young-gwon scores South Korea’s first goal past German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer at the Kazan Arena in Kazan. Favourites Germany lost the match 0-2. Photo: PILAR OLIVARES/REUTERS

Jo Hyun-woo was the star of the South Korean side with saves such as this against Germany in their group F match at the Kazan Arena. Photo: Lee Jin-man/AP

Blerim Dzemaili scores the opening goal for Switzerland against Costa Rica in a group E encounter in Nizhny Novgorod. Photo: AFP

Thiago Silva heads the ball to score Brazil’s second goal in its group E match with Serbia at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow. Photo: YURI CORTEZ/AFP

Iceland’s Hannes Halldorsson saves a penalty from Argentina’s Lionel Messi in a group D match that ended in a draw at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow. Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Iceland’s fans at the St. Petersburg Fan Fest to cheer for their team, which was making its first appearance in the World Cup Finals, during its clash against Argentina. Photo: HENRY ROMERO/REUTERS

Nacho Fernandez (left) of Spain and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal during their group B match, which ended in a 3-3 draw, at the Fisht Stadium in Sochi. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP

In the group stage, some of the less-fancied teams make their mark with hard-fought victories or narrow defeats against some of the superpowers of the Great Game.

 IT is only once every four years that the whole world comes together in one mighty cheer that shatters all barriers and destroys all hate. It is the FIFA World Cup! The greatest spectacle on earth! It is the time of high drama, when tragedies, triumphs and farce are played out simultaneously in a stadium which for that period of time becomes the world stage, and the hero, the villain and the clown are, more often than not, the same player. It is the arena in which the mighty are humbled and the humble become heroes; where punishment for hubris is pitiless and fast, and where reward for courage and resilience is nothing short of immortality. To a fan, each and every World Cup is a separate experience, with its own set of heroes and martyrs, highs and lows. The emotions oscillate between extremes, floating in a cloud of ecstasy one moment and crashing down to the depths of despair the next. 

In his lyrical book Soccer in Sun and Shadow, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano has presented the essence of the game from the perspective of the fan or the spectator:

“… A fan is a person who resigns himself to things. A stadium, that cauldron of voices and flares, might not seem like an incubation for stoicism, and yet it very much promotes coolness in the face of adversity. The referee gets a lot of things wrong, the turf becomes slippery, the most accurate player of your team misses every now and then. A whole catalogue of imponderables, all kinds of surprises can happen in football to put a dent in our mood; no one goes expecting the sure thing…. The spectator tacitly accepts that the unimaginable is what they have come to witness and it won’t be pretty…. This is the way with football: It doesn’t happen, or half happens, or happens just in the way you don’t want it to happen, but constantly teeters on the edge of coming together just right.”

The unimaginable

If to expect the unexpected and to face the “unimaginable” is what watching football is all about, then the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia is turning out to be a fascinating affair. At the group stage itself the unthinkable happened. Defending champion and four-time winner Germany crashed out after losing to unheralded South Korea. The star-studded Germany, ranked number one in the world, looked like a shadow of its former invincible self. In the magnificent Kazan Arena, the team that had entered as one of the cup favourites made a humiliating exit, beaten 2-0 by a team ranked 57 in the world. Both goals came during injury time. The day belonged to an unknown South Korean goalkeeper, Jo Hyeon-woo, who the galaxy of German superstars, including Matts Hummel, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller, just could not beat. On the other side, towering under the German goalpost stood the legendary Manuel Neuer, helpless against the late Korean surge. This was the first time since 1938 that Germany could not go past the group stage. The historic win did not allow South Korea to advance either, but the team left having made an indelible mark in World Cup history.

 Germany was the overwhelming favourite in its Group F, which also included Mexico and Sweden. But it was clear from the start that the going would be tough for the defending champion. Its campaign began disastrously: it lost to Mexico 1-0 in its first game and then somehow managed to scrape past Sweden 2-1. In fact, had it not been for a spectacular goal in the dying minutes of extra time against Sweden, Germany’s hopes would have ended then and there. This is for the third consecutive time that the defending champions were shown the door at the group stage in the World Cup—in 2010 it was Italy and in 2014 it was Spain. In fact, the last time a country won the championship twice in a row was Brazil, in 1962.

In group D, another football superpower, two-time champion and last year’s runners-up Argentina led by the iconic Lionel Messi, was teetering on the brink of defeat. In its first match against Iceland, which was making its World Cup debut, Argentina could manage only a draw. A clinical goal by Sergio Aguero, the former son-in-law of Diego Maradona, put Argentina ahead, but within five minutes Iceland levelled the score. However, it was the missed penalty by Messi that became the talking point of the match. Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson’s diving stop kickstarted the nightmare for Messi and the Argentines.

Croatia’s golden generation

In its next match against Croatia, Argentina got a 3-0 drubbing. The first goal was due to a terrible mistake by Argentine goalkeeper Willy Caballero when he practically handed over the ball to Croatian forward Ante Rebic. The second one, however, was a beauty by midfielder Luka Modric, who consolidated the lead with a curling right-footed goal. Ivan Rakitic further added to Argentina’s woes with another goal in the 90th minute. Successfully contained by the Croatian players, Messi could do nothing to save the situation for his country. 

If Argentina had underestimated Croatia, it paid the price for it. Led by Modric, one of the influential playmakers of his generation, and with Dejan Lovren and Sime Vrsaljko in the defence, Modric, Rakitic, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic in the midfield, and Mario Mandzukic as the striker, the present team is undoubtedly Croatia’s golden generation in football. In fact, Croatia, along with Belgium, is the dark horse of the tournament. 

Argentina managed to scrape through by the skin of its teeth by somehow beating Nigeria 2-1. In fact, if Argentine defender Marcos Rojo had not scored in the 86th minute, Argentina too would have been out of the tournament, and Croatia and Nigeria would have qualified.

Goliaths struggle

One of the thrills of sports or any competition is to watch a David bring down a Goliath, more so in a scenario like the World Cup where nothing can be more dramatic than a stunning upset. The group stage of the World Cup in Russia was a thrilling roller-coaster ride in most matches, with many of the superpowers of football somehow managing to avoid spectacular upsets. Even if all the Goliaths did not fall, they were made to sweat and struggle by the so-called inferior teams. Brazil, France, Spain, Germany and Argentina, the five favourites for winning the cup, perhaps never dreamed they would face such resistance from the minnows of the tournament. The perennial favourite of the world, Brazil, was stunned by Switzerland, which forced the five-time champion to a 1-1 draw. It started well enough for Brazil with midfielder Phillipe Coutinho scoring with a long-range scorcher, but in the second half Switzerland’s Xerdhan Shakiri’s corner kick found the inexplicably unmarked Steven Zuber, who headed home the equaliser. Against Costa Rica, too, Brazil seemed heading for a draw, until two goals from Coutinho and Neymar saved the day for them.

Even France, one of the strongest teams in the tournament with players like Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, Ngolo Kante and Benjamin Mendy, were held by Denmark to a goalless draw. Their victories against Australia (2-1) and Peru (1-0) were not easy either.

The glorious, star-studded Spain almost lost to Morocco in a thrilling match. Trailing 1-2, a last-minute goal in extra time by Iago Aspas managed to keep the Spanish dignity intact. Another case of a minnow holding its ground against the mighty was Iran forcing a 1-1 draw against the European powerhouse Portugal.

It was as if the gods of football had decreed from the qualifying stage itself that the mighty shall, if not fall at the hands of the meek, at least be made to struggle hard to survive. It was not that there was any lack of early portends. Four-time champion and one of the mainstays of the World Cup, Italy, failed to qualify for the first time in 60 years. The Netherlands, the creators of Total Football, also could not make it; nor could Chile, the Copa America champions for the last two years. In fact, Argentina too came close to missing the bus.

 At the end of the group stage, most of the big names survived (with the exception of Germany) but not without receiving a serious scare. They had to dig deep into their inner reserves, their tradition and experience and, most important, their formidable reputations to pull through.

'Fair Play' reward

For the first time in World Cup history, a team got eliminated owing to FIFA’s “fair play” rule. Both Japan and Senegal were poised in identical positions in their group H draw, and both lost their last group matches (Japan to Poland 0-1 and Senegal to Colombia 0-1). In this symmetrical points position, the two extra yellow cards that Senegal had picked up sent it packing, while Japan continued to the second round. “This is one of the rules, we have to respect it. We would prefer to be eliminated another way,” said Senegal coach Aliou Cisse.

Worthy of a final

Easily the most fascinating match in the group stage was between Portugal and Spain in group B. It was an alternate display of sublime skills and unshakeable resolve as the two powerhouses of world football squared up against each other—Spain, with its army of legends and superstars, against Portugal, with its Cristiano Ronaldo. It was a first round match that was worthy of being a World Cup final game. Portugal struck first with a penalty, but Diego Costa’s superb goal, beating three defenders, levelled the score. Then a terrible mistake by the Spanish goalkeeper, David de Gea, put Portugal again in the lead. David de Gea, who plays for Manchester United and is considered one of the finest keepers in the world, allowed a weak shot by Ronaldo to slip through his fingers into the goal. Costa levelled the score again, and then Nacho put Spain ahead with a beauty that sent the ball curling between two defenders into the back of the net. At a time when it seemed that all was lost for Portugal, Ronaldo did what he does best—stun the world. 

It was a free kick that will forever be remembered in the annals of the World Cup not just for its magnificence but also for its timing. In the 86th minute, Ronaldo stared beyond the wall of Spanish players, took a deep breath and sent the ball swerving above the towering figures of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique as they leaped up in the air, and into the glory of the net. It was as though by sheer will the talismanic Ronaldo hauled his team back from the shame of defeat.

Spirit of the game

While the World Cup is all about losing and winning, it is not just about losing and winning either. One of the enduring moments of the group stage was not the shattered expression on Messi’s face after failing to score the penalty against Iceland or the Germans walking off the field and out of the tournament, a look of disbelief and dejection on their faces; it was the euphoric celebration of the Panama team after scoring a solitary goal against England. So what if they were trailing 1-6 and were sure to be out of the tournament! It was a momentous occasion for the first-time World Cup qualifier and its fans when Felipe Baloy scored Panama’s first-ever goal in a World Cup. They were not going to let a trivial matter like “defeat” come in the way of their celebration.

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