There is an air of suspicion that precedes the World Cup. Coming after a season of domestic football, and the headiness of the Champions League, there is much to be wary about. With national teams dedicating relatively little time for preparation and tactics, one can never be too sure whether the football will be as good as we see all-year around.
However, there is a chink in that narrative. It overlooks the possibility of the compelling stories that the World Cup has to offer. The ongoing tournament in Russia has once again shown that it can leave us questioning much that we know about football, while we grapple with a deluge of new information. The debutant Panama, the long-suffering Peru, the latest defending champion with feet of clay -- Germany. All of these storylines and more have shown us the possibilities of surprise – the element which drives the currency of the World Cup.
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Club football, despite its success in refining the game of football, is increasingly dominated by a handful of super clubs. The international game, however, reduces the gap between the traditional powerhouses and the weaker outfits. The difficulties encountered by the contenders in navigating ostensibly simple challenges in Russia shows that the difference in quality can be bridged by compact organisation, especially when the best of sides look like a motley crew of individuals.
Germany’s weak tactical rigour was a case in point. In theory, most of its squad members were familiar with the way Joachim Low wanted them to play. Yet when it came to performing the strategy on the pitch, they were found wanting in the face of determined opposition like Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea. Other heavyweights like Brazil, Spain, and France have not made a meal of their task like the Germans but their football has not exactly set the pulses racing.
Instead, the best displays have been produced by teams who are not among the outright contenders. Belgium, Croatia, and England are underdogs at best but their fluidity in attack has been a sight to behold at times. Even if they fail to win the World Cup, plenty of reels will be dedicated to their displays in the group stage.
The closer nature of contests in Russia has also meant that not one team has threatened to take the tournament by the scruff of its neck. With the knockout stage around the corner, we are none the wiser about any of the contenders. Instead, the group stage has allowed a time to reflect on teams like Iran, Morocco, and Peru, who brought much colour and plenty of fight to the tournament. Even though none of these sides made it to the last 16, there was much delight to be had from their performances and, with a bit of luck, they could have achieved a shock result or two.
This World Cup will be particularly memorable for the Asian sides, who broke new ground – for the first time ever, four teams from the confederation won a match in the tournament. At the time of writing Japan also had the chance of being Asia’s only representative in the round of 16, which would mean a repeat of its best-ever performance in the World Cup.
In addition to the compelling narratives, there has been plenty of controversy as well as the introduction of the VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has given headaches to managers, players, and referees themselves. FIFA’s insistence on pushing ahead with the new system, despite the doubts over its readiness, has created fertile ground for miscommunication.
Nobody still seems to be sure of what the VAR actually does, as teams often seek to get marginal decisions reviewed. It must be remembered that the technology was introduced to merely police blunders. Furthermore, it remains impossible in football to deal with refereeing decisions in a black-and-white manner since much depends on the match officials’ discretion. Interestingly, the introduction of the VAR has brought a more lenient approach to sending players off as only three red cards were issued in the first 44 games even as the number of penalties rise.
Another point of surprise in the opening 10 days was the lack of goals as teams put up their best defensive effort to combat superior opposition. Since offensive tactics demand greater refinement and international teams cannot afford the time, teams with insistence on defending are able to make up for other deficiencies. However, such is the nature of round robin football that eventually you must step out and attack if enough points are to be mustered for progress into the knockouts.
Once attack became an imperative, the goals were more frequently seen. The first 26 matches brought 58 goals, so did the next 18. Although one would expect a dip in the goals column as the knockout stage comes around and teams become wary of losing, it is unlikely that the well of drama and narrative will dry up. There are plenty of stories still to be told in this World Cup.
Priyansh is an independent writer based in New Delhi. He tweets @GarrulousBoy.