Friday, December 15, 2017

CONCACAF shine in Brazil

Spain’s shame, English pain, Africa struggle…


HERO: Mexicoís goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, left, stops a shot by Brazilís Thiago Silva, centre, during their Group A match in Fortaleza, Brazil.

Mark Fraser

 It’s been a stunning week for football fans. World Cups are always surrounded by their own cloud of hype, and sometimes controversy. There are questions about the big players on the big teams performing on the world stage to cement their legacies, the upsets waiting to happen, the young stars coming to the fore, safety and other off-the-field issues, etc., etc., etc.

So far, in its first week, Brazil 2014 has had it all. By Thursday’s 0-0 stalemate between Japan and Greece, 23 matches had produced 65 goals at an average of 2.8 per game-- almost twice the number in South Africa 2010, which averaged 1.56, a World Cup record low-- and it took 13 matches to see the first draw, of which there have only been four thus far.

And barring the Iran-Nigeria snore-fest, even the deadlocked encounters had their thrills. Ask Guillermo Ochoa: the Mexican shot stopper has brought not only a plethora of memes--depicting him as everything from Superman to The Matrix’s Neo --but reported interest from Premier League clubs Arsenal and Liverpool as well, and quite likely, a number of others.

One great feature of this World Cup thus far has been the defending. Yes, the goals are consistently coming, but the tournament has also garnered attention for the acrobatics in the defensive third as well, and not just attacking suave.

Up front, the tournament stars are also proving their worth. Thomas Muller is already threatening to repeat his Golden Boot feat from 2010 with three goals, and Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie are both alongside him.

Neymar, Karim Benzema, Daniel Sturridge and Mario Mandzukic are all underway in the goals column, while Wayne Rooney has his first in his third World Cup, and Lionel Messi, finally his second, a magical  strike that Argentinians will be hoping he can reproduce.

Don’t forget Luis Suarez, who kept Uruguay hopefully with twin strikes a mere month after emergency knee surgery threatened to derail his World Cup, and saw Costa Rica upset the two-time champs with a 3-1 drubbing in the first match that has left Uruguay’s qualification in doubt.

What teams and players haven’t done has become just as important as what they have. Spain were woeful, and earned the ignominious record of the fastest exit by defending World Cup champions as they were dismissed in two matches, shockingly 5-1 by Netherlands, and then via equally poor showing in a 2-0 blanking by Chile.

Italy also felt the audacious bravado of Costa Rica, who yesterday triumphed 1-0 over Italy.

England are also out after 2-1 defeats to Italy and Uruguay, perhaps unfairly; they missed a few opportunities that could have seen them on two points at this stage, and the comments then, as well as the alignment of the group, could have been much different. Still, the English were inconsistent at best.

Aside from Ivory Coast’s 2-1 win over Japan, the African sides have been quite disappointing, especially Cameroon, who were well beaten by Mexico and Croatia respectively. They now await hosts Brazil.

CONCACAF has also been represented well so far with strong, brave performances from Mexico-- including their hard-fought 0-0 draw with Brazil-- and Costa Rica and a battling win by the US over Ghana. Only Honduras so far has failed to trouble the points column in a tough group featuring France, Switzerland and Ecuador.

The biggest boon to international football so far has been the young players. Midfielders Mario Gotze (Germany), James Rodriguez and Juan Quintero (Colombia), Cristian Atsu (Ivory Coast), strikers Joel Campbell (Costa Rica) and Memphis Depay (Netherlands), and defenders Ricardo Rodriguez (Switzerland), Stefan de Vrij (Netherlands) and Serge Aurier (Ivory Coast) have all made their mark at the start of the tournament.

The tournament has not been the smoothest run thus far from FIFA’s perspective, exacerbated by social media. FIFA were criticised for allowing a possibly concussed Alvaro Pereira of Uruguay to play on after he clashed with England’s Raheem Sterling.

As expected, and having threatened way before the tournament kicked off on June 12, the worrisome anti-government protests and demonstrations in Brazil continued with destruction of property in some quarters.

Security concerns are also popping up. Chilean fans stormed the Spain match on Wednesday; England fans snuck into the team’s hotel to take photographs with their players and coach Roy Hodgson; Croatia players “starred” --in the buff-- in a Croatian tabloid after being photographed while skinny-dipping, and consequently enacted a media ban.

Germany, meanwhile, have had no such problems, having built their own oasis away from home before the tournament, which is accessible only by air. With 14 two-story villas, 65 residential units, a 7,500 square-foot swimming pool, spa, FIFA regulation grass pitch, fitness centre and all the modern conveniences you can ask for in a previously-unused facility, they can have no excuses when it comes to performances.

Despite all the off-field issues, there has been no occurrence so far to overshadow the action on the pitch, as it should be. I’m looking to see if Week Two will also deliver as promised. Until then, see you next week!