Mon | May 27, 2019

Tony Becca | For whom the bell really tolls

Published:Sunday | July 1, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Brazil's players celebrate after teammate Thiago Silva (centre) scored his team's second goal during the Group E match against Serbia.

One of the beauties of retirement is the freedom to relax, sit at home, and do whatever one wishes to do, especially around the time of football's World Cup.

The World Cup has always been something to see, but this time, it has been a real spectacle, parading some wonderful football and some evenly contested matches. This time, in my estimation, the World Cup has really lived up to its name and its billing as the showpiece of football and probably the greatest show on earth.

Except for the opening game when Saudi Arabia disappointed and lost 5-0, and the game when England defeated Panama 6-1, all 32 teams were really competitive and of a high quality.

All the matches in the first round, with the exception of two, including the game in which England led Panama 5-0 at half-time, and with the exception of Groups A and G, were close and exciting affairs with a number of them ending with 1-0 and 1-1 scorelines.

On top of that, there were a few matches, like the Brazil-Costa Rica and the Germany-Sweden games, that went into injury time before Brazil and Germany escaped by the skin of their teeth, so to speak.

It was football of the highest quality, and it was football played by most of the best teams in the world.

With the defending champions, Germany, beaten 1-0 by Mexico before going into injury time against Sweden in the second match tied at 1-1 with the peoples' favourites, Brazil, drawing 1-1 with Switzerland and entering injury time locked at 0-0 with Costa Rica and with Argentina, one of the early contenders for the cup, held to a 1-1 draw by Iceland and then beaten comprehensively by Croatia, the first round of 48 matches was filled with many shocks and surprises.




The biggest surprise of all, however, was not the almost elimination of Argentina, and Spain, and Portugal, but the surprising elimination of defending champions Germany, who were beaten by South Korea.

It has been 14 days of excitement and brilliance, of wonderful, defensive play with a touch of thrilling skills, during which the VAR system (video assistant referee) really influenced the matches, dishing out penalties, turning down penalties, and days in which penalties were scored and penalties were missed.

It was a time when 'big' players like Lionel Messi of Argentina, Neymar of Brazil, and Mo Salah of Egypt went missing sometimes, while 'lesser' mortals, not like Harry Kane of England and Luka Modric of Croatia, but like Ahmed Musa of Nigeria, Aleksandar Kolarov of Serbia, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri of Switzerland, and Julian Brandt of Germany, stole the show, some with creative skills heading towards goal, others with their thundering shots from a distance, and some with acrobatic skills in goal.

Somehow, after all the excitement, the men, mostly, have now been separated from the boys, and to be fair, most of the fancied teams have made it to the last 16.

The teams that got away were two-time winners Argentina, one-time winners Spain, and the still-to-win Portugal.

Argentina, population approximately 44 million people, were made to sweat right up to the last match before clipping Nigeria 2-1 to snatch a place in the second round of the tournament after collapsing to little Iceland, population somewhere around 350,000, and to Croatia.

The draw between the big, bad Argentina and the newcomers Iceland was undoubtedly the disappointing result of the tournament.

It showed the improvement of the little teams, and it proved that, especially in sport, the sky is the limit. It proved that tradition, size, population, and money count for little, or not for much, and that what counts are training, fitness, skill, knowledge, and self-confidence.

Germany, after losing their first game to Mexico and beating Sweden, were surprisingly knocked out by South Korea - and by losing the match finished last in the group and became the third straight defending champions to leave the action so early.

Spain made it through in the last-minute when they squeezed out a draw with Morocco, and Portugal also made it through, after drawing with Iran.




World Cup 2018 has been a beautiful spectacle because of some other things, however, including the passion of the fans.

The fans, who represented all 32 teams and more, and who were decked out in their national colours and what have you, packed into the stadiums in every single match and cheered on their teams lustily and passionately. The emotions were out of this world as they went from losing to winning and from winning to losing.

Nothing in sport compares with the World Cup in this respect, and certainly not franchise sport.

The World Cup is the players giving everything they possess for their country. It is people turning up in their thousands, in their national colours, with their national flags, and with all sorts of paraphernalia supporting their countrymen with their heart and soul through thick and thin, win, lose, or draw.

It is, simply, nationalism at its best.

It was something to see: England leading 6-0, England knocking the ball around, 12 minutes to go, the 37-year-old Felipe Baloy scoring for Panama, and despite the futility of the goal, the pandemonium that followed from the Panamanian players and the cheering, colourful Panamanian supporters was unbelievable.

It was the same thing when Morocco's Youssef En Nesyri headed home a corner to take the lead with minutes to go against Spain in a match of little consequence for them, and it was even more emotional when Argentina's Marcos Rojo slammed in the winner with four minutes to go.

All those show of emotions paled in comparison to that of the players and the fans when South Korea, who also could not move out of the group, knocked out Germany.

The World Cup is now in the knockout stage, and with the likes of Brazil, Belgium, and France still in it and fighting, the best is yet to come.