Thursday, February 22, 2018

Football still taking centre stage

Despite the Suarez ‘bite’ incident…


JOINT LEADER: Miroslav Klose celebrates his equallising goal for Germany against Ghana, overall his 15th in World Cup finals which puts him tied with Brazil’s Ronaldo.

Mark Fraser

Two weeks have just flown by, and the 2014 World Cup has become that gift that just keeps on giving. We watched the amazing departure of Spain in Week One, the quickest exit by defending champions ever in just two matches before their consolatory win over Australia.

England were widely expected to exit very early on from what looked a very testing Group D—which housed fellow former champs Italy and Uruguay—but the list of nations following them to the airport carried its own surprises. It has made brought a thrilling sense of anticipation for the knockout round, which starts today with hosts Brazil tackling neighbours Chile.

For all their flaws magnified, replayed, analysed in ‘slo-mo’ and scrutinised from every possible camera angle, Group A winners Brazil are still the team to beat. They are chasing “La Sexta”, the unprecedented “sixth” World Cup title, and few would rule them out at this stage. The weather will be much less of an issue for Brazil than say, the Asian or European teams, and they’ve had it reasonably easy anyway so far, playing in the hot North-Eastern city of Fortaleza in their 0-0 stalemate with Mexico in between cooler conditions at Brasilia and Sao Paulo.

There have been question marks over Brazil’s home performances to date, but they are improving. Their confidence on the ball and belief despite a lack of “Samba” flair expected of them are high due to the presence of a certain Neymar, who has answered questions about whether he would fire for the tournament with four goals that put him in the joint lead with Argentina’s Lionel Messi and German Thomas Muller.

The Brazilians are more than that. They seem to have gelled very nicely, and judging by history and the way some of their European counterparts have fared, their greatest threat may come from within South America. Still, no team has looked invincible thus far, and this is, at least in part, the reason the tournament has managed to hold the interest of the so many, even exciting the most casual fans among us.

Perhaps the weather has been a factor. Europe has seen its fair share of trouble South American team have thrived; four of their five teams are in the final 16. But for the second tournament running, Italy are out before the knockout phase, while Portugal, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia are all eliminated.

Greece only just slipped through on a dubious penalty call that stymied a brave and unlucky Ivory Coast outfit, and Switzerland rebounded from a 5-2 whipping by France to conquer Honduras 3-0. Africa is represented in the Round of 16 despite the Ivorians, woeful Cameroon and tumultuous Ghana bowing out, with Nigeria and Algeria impressing in Groups F and H, but Asia is the only continent that will go no further.

A couple of elder statesmen have shown they still have what it takes. Miroslav Klose, 36, drew level with (Brazilian) Ronaldo for the most World Cup goals when he scored his 15th to save Germany’s blushes and salvage a 2-2 draw with Ghana. And Jose Pekerman made a classy gesture to goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon in bringing the 43-year-old on late against Japan to become the oldest player in World Cup history. The player, who had to make a late save during the match, was in Colombia’s 1994 World Cup team but did not play.

Off-the-field issues have continued to dog FIFA, who have had to deal with the Luis Suarez affair after the Uruguay striker seems to have let his hunger for the World Cup trophy (yes, I’m aware of the risks of adding to the surplus of puns on the matter already circulating the internet) get the better of him by biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini.

Uruguay will face exciting Colombia without the Liverpool forward, who was slapped with a four-match ban from all football-related activities and a nine-match suspension. His third such offence—after infringements while at Ajax (2009) and Liverpool (2013) that incurred a total ban of 17 matches—will not be an easy incident from which he can walk away.

Suarez’s endorsement deals are already in jeopardy over the matter, while his place at Liverpool is uncertain. He garnered interest from Barcelona during this transfer period for his remarkable season where he scored 33 goals and led his club to an unlikely second-placed finish in the Premier League. But that could vanish after his ill-advised attempt to leave a mark on the Italians.

Ghana’s “indefinite” suspension of Kevin Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari has also been a negative distraction, while the flooding of Recife and the standard of refereeing have been sore talking points this past week. And Germany’s meeting with the US, where a draw would have been a mutually-beneficial scoreline between two teams coached by close friends and fellow Germans Joachim Low and Jurgen Klinsmann, brought comparisons with the 1982 World Cup’s “Disgrace of Gijon”, where Germany and Austria “played” (there was hardly any real play in the match) to a 0-0 draw to both progress at the expense of a plucky Algeria.

That talk died after Thursday’s efficient 1-0 Germany win in sodden conditions at Recife that left them atop Group G and a last-16 meeting, ironically, with Algeria. What the tournament has lacked so far are the kind of sportsmanlike gestures—or at least equal exposure to the sweeter side of the sport—that would inspire a young generation of football lovers.

Images of Brazilian defender David Luiz spending time with a differently-abled youngster, who brought tears to Neymar while juggling a football, failed to be as popular on social media as Suarez’s snack time pursuits. Some would argue that it’s not that difficult to bring the Brazil No. 10 to tears, but through all the negatives, the football has been the most outstanding thing of the competition to date. That is what makes it the beautiful game.