Tanya Lee | World Cup hits and misses
We're in week two of the FIFA World Cup, and all 32 teams are off the mark with their opening fixtures in what has truly been a captivating first round. What a mixed bag of hits and misses it's been so far!
The biggest surprise, so far, has been how level the playing field looks between the seeded tournament favourites and their clinical contenders. Seemingly, gone are the days when the lesser-revered teams took to the field tense, nervous, and buckling under the weight of the opposition.
Most impressive of all the unseeded teams, for me, were the menacing Mexicans, who looked quite cohesive and fearless in beating tournament favourites and defending champions, Germany 1-0. It really makes me wonder if Germany have what it takes to do what no team has done since 1962: mount a successful defence of their title.
If history has any say, Germany is not likely to see the final of this World Cup. Historically, on average, the defending champions crash out in or before the quarters.
Another surprising hit is tournament hosts Russia. With little football pedigree, and being the lowest ranked team coming into the tournament, I had no expectations of the hosts doing well at all. In my mind, scoring all of five solid goals in their opening encounter against Saudi Arabia was probably a fluke, but to follow that up with 3-1 against Egypt is actually impressive. Those eight goals account for the best start by any host in World Cup history. You'd have to go back to Italy in 1934 to get eight goals, but they conceded two goals on that occasion.
As it relates to stand-out players, the biggest hit so far is Cristiano Ronaldo. With all of four goals from two matches, and a hat-trick against another tournament favourite, Spain, Ronaldo fans have to be impressed with his solid display. Ronaldo accounts for the two fastest goals so far in the 2018 World Cup and is now the highest goal-scorer in European football history, having hit the back of the net on 85 occasions for Portugal!
But enough about the hits! There have been many misses so far as well. Possibly the biggest to date is Argentina. Argentina were not tournament favourites this time around but are seeded on pedigree and afforded a group that on paper, shouldn't present a significant challenge.
Who Would Guess?
It's thus difficult to imagine that the script could be written the way it has. Who would guess that Iceland, a country over 100 times smaller than Argentina, would open their account with such an impressive draw against the former two-time champions and in the presence of Argentina great, Diego Maradona. Much credit is due to Iceland's steely defence in shutting down Lionel Messi, but the missed penalty in that encounter, a goal Argentina needed to secure their win, is likely to haunt him on what looks to be an early flight back to Argentina.
In Argentina's second match against Croatia, a team that has never fared well against South American opposition, Argentina looked a dishevelled unit, which was shocking, to say the least. Shocking because the parts are, for the most part, world class! Who could believe that a team containing Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, and Paulo Dybala would struggle so badly to hit the back of the net against unseeded competition!
But Jorge Sampaoli has to take the blame. He hasn't used his tools to good effect - neither in the tournament nor in qualifying. The writing was already on the wall, but for Argentina fans, I can imagine that the match against Croatia must have been painful to watch!
Another miss for this World Cup has been the African teams. The second most-populated continent is yet to produce a team that advances beyond the quarterfinals over the decades. They've had some memorable teams before - Algeria of 1982, Nigeria in 1994, and most recently, Ghana in 2010. This time around, Egypt and Morocco have failed to impress and are already out of the tournament, with Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia yet to play their second matches. Let's say a prayer for football on the mother-continent, and let's hope Senegal advances to the round of 16. Small steps here! One Love!
- Tanya Lee is a Caribbean sports marketer, author, and publicist.