Sunday, January 21, 2018


Question marks hang over two-time champs vs Belgium...


ATTACK: Argentina’s Lionel Messi attacks against Switzerland’s Ricardo Rodriguez.

Mark Fraser

 The heat is well and truly on at the World Cup, and the only people not feeling it are those few fans who find themselves not the least bit tempted to look at a television screen. For the rest days on Wednesday and Thursday, social media was buzzing with fans going through withdrawal symptoms, and wondering what to do with themselves since the football had cruelly been taken away from them for 48 hours.

Of course, any loss of life is so sad, and my heart goes out to the families of those who lost their lives in Thursday’s overpass collapse in Belo Horizonte. It is a tragedy that should remind FIFA that life is precious and that money and saving face is not more important the people vulnerable to the decisions that we make. It is a testament to, not just the polarising impact that sport in general —and more specifically football—have had on us regular fans, but to the appeal this World Cup to football fans—old and new alike—in its capriciously unpredictable glory.

If any team has stood out so far it would be Colombia, only if because they have been the most consistent squad out there. But should they have passed yesterday’s true test against Brazil in the quarter-finals to book a date with Germany, they would really be considered serious contenders and earn many new fans, arguably most of them being bandwagonists, since the Colombians are playing in their first World Cup since 1998.

If they fail to do so, they would probably be compared with France, who have exceeded expectations of the football-loving world, but ultimately, could not sum up that extra bit of class needed to beat the best of the best. The Germans may just have renewed hope in their some doubting fans—and critical newspapers that can at times border on fanatical—that they can finally shake the “almost” bogey, after becoming the first team to reach four consecutive semi-finals. But supporters don’t want consistency; they want to be the final nation standing, World Cup in sweet embrace with more kisses than a Hershey’s factory. They were not spectacular, but looked much more settled and comfortable than under Joachim Loew’s experimental line up, Philipp Lahm shored up central midfield a la Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich tactic rather than the wing back slot he has made his own over the years.

They were not 100 per cent convincing, but they showed a glimpse of the workmanlike, utilitarian approach of Germans teams of old, that is not pretty too look at but effective, and adding some hints of their current style, including a frightfully high back line.

Today, the other two semi-finals present four more teams with their own unique opportunities. Argentina have not seemed to get out of third gear to date in this World Cup. The fact that they have managed wins against Bosnia-Herzegovina (2-1), Iran (1-0) and Nigeria (3-2) and the Swiss (1-0 in extra time) seems to have not mattered much to many fans, even the most diehard amongst us. They are being regarded as a one-man team for the big impact Lionel Messi has had at this tournament, coupled with other players failing to step up. Their performances won’t be enough to Argentina’s faithful that the team can lift their third World Cup trophy; for the critics, it’s the reason Argentina won’t win it all. Messi shone in all four matches so far, but he can’t afford a bad day on the pitch. 

The Swiss may have given Belgium the formula to keep Messi out of the game; they managed to do so for nearly 120 minutes before their luck ran out. The Europeans are unlikely to follow that schematic to the letter—they seem to relish attacking and they have impressive reserves as well as a solid defensive line.

The Belgians also have the most shots on goal for the tournament so far and the most on target, meaning if Pablo Zabaleta and company slip up, the South Americans could slide all the way out of the tournament. If there’s going to be an upset in the quarterfinals, that might well be it. Still, there is the feeling that the match is Argentina’s to lose, although Belgium give no indication that they will be pushovers today. The other final-eight match today is going to be a lot more entertaining than some might think. On paper, Costa Rica are the biggest underdogs going into their contest against the well-oiled Dutch machine. Australia, though, were also underdogs in that group, as were Chile, who also put up a fight against the Dutch. 

Mexico in the Round of 16 gave the Netherlands the scare of their lives before Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben intervened late, the latter earning a controversial penalty that Klass-Jan Huntelaar buried to send “El Tricolor” home.

Netherlands should go through, but Costa Rica have slain their share of European giants in the tournament so far, having contributed to both Italy and England’s early trips home, as well as a frustrating Greece team from the penalty spot. The football of World Cup so far has done everything but disappoint; it’s unlikely that will happen today.