World Cup 2018: The Cement Thickens

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Content advisory 16+ As I write this blog (Friday 29 June), the World Cup is taking the day off, the round-robin preliminaries having been completed last night. I doubt that any football fan could argue that the action has been less than compelling; I, for one, have enjoyed this World Cup immensely, with the exception of two matches: France-Denmark and England-Belgium. The reason that these two high profile encounters produced duds (France-Denmark was especially lousy) was that by the time they met there was nothing to play for -- both had already secured their places in the knock-out stage. Russia-Uruguay had a bit of the same sense of letdown, of being an afterthought, because, again, the issue had been settled in advance. But maybe it was also a reality check for Russia after the earlier euphoria.

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From a professional standpoint these lackluster efforts (France vs Denmark, England-Belgium) were understandable, but that won't mean much to the thousands of fans who paid top-dollar to see great football and instead were subjected to pure rubbish.
Not that they will listen to me, but maybe in the future it would be better if FIFA had it so that the teams that would surely be more highly seeded in their groups (if such seeding existed, which it doesn't) were to meet when something was actually at stake. I offer as an example Spain-Portugal which was played on the second night of the tournament and which has been probably the best match so far. The result, if you recall, was 3-3, with Ronaldo completing his hat-trick to save the evening for Portugal in the dying minutes. But had the match been scheduled after both sides had already qualified for the next round, we would have been subjected to the same dull pantomimes we saw in the other two "glamor" matches.
France-Denmark and England-Belgium would have adopted radically different styles had they met when there was still something to play for. Since the committee clearly forms the groups to contain two big names and two lesser lights, it would not be hard to identify the best probable match-ups. And we could leave Belgium vs Tunisia and England vs Panama until the end, as the mere formalities they in fact were.

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OK. What else have we seen so far? The biggest shock was the demise of Germany. To me, it looked like the "Mannschaft" simply got old overnight, the same as happens with prize fighters. I've seen this a lot in the fight game. An aging champion looks OK one minute, and then he enters the ring against somebody younger, faster, stronger, and suddenly he's getting hammered. A lot of sad tales have come out of that scenario, and it happened to Germany in this World Cup, as well as what appeared to be (very unusual for them) a bit of complacency and confusion. But didn't defending 2010 champs Spain also fall apart in 2014? It happens. If the torch never got passed from one nation to another, we would all die of boredom, wouldn’t we?

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Another thing I have noticed is how the gap seems to have narrowed between the big name teams and those less awe-inspiring. For example, I saw very little difference in quality among Spain, Portugal, Iran, and Morocco. It turned out to be a wonderful, hotly-disputed group. The big names usually pull some kind of rabbit out of the hat in the end, and sometimes it really seems that the referees give them the benefit of the doubt, but that's always the way. Meanwhile the sides we expected a lot from, such as Argentina, Brazil, France, Spain, Portugal, and of course Germany, have been less than impressive. Of them all, only Brazil seems to be building towards something special, and I would make them the favorites at this point.
Russia got what it dreamed of, and now it can go out and play without pressure because no one expects them to win. I hope the Russian guys give a good account of themselves and don't make any stupid, game-changing mistakes early on. If Russia can get into the second half still level, anything can happen. Spain is not invincible. No one in this tournament is. Croatia or Belgium is as likely to win as Brazil or France. But we all know that Spain should triumph in their match with Russia. If Russia wins it will be viewed as a miracle and I'd love to see this come to pass. It has been a long time since I witnessed so much happiness on the faces of Russian people as when they made it to the next round.

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The officiating, as I suspected it would, has been questionable. Back when it seemed to matter, Sweden was blatantly cheated out of a penalty early on against Germany, and great controversy also plagued Portugal vs Iran and, some would believe, Argentina vs Nigeria. FIFA just has no coherent idea how to use VAR. For one thing, the referee on the pitch should NEVER be the one to make the final decision in instant replay. There should instead be a neutral arbiter in the press box who can judge without bias what actually happened You can not expect the on-the-field referee to always possess the humility and integrity to admit he was wrong and reverse himself. Like most politicians, these guys will go to their graves insisting they were right when everyone knows they blew it completely.
By the time you read this on Monday, 2 July, a lot of the first matches of the knock-out stage will already have been completed. Nevertheless, here are my predictions. Later, you can see if I was spot on or full of horse manure.

France 2 Argentina 1; Brazil 3 Mexico 1; Sweden 1 Switzerland 0; England 2 Colombia 1; Belgium 2 Japan 0; Spain 3 Russia 1; Uruguay 2 Portugal 1; Croatia 2 Denmark 0.

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As you see, the one surprise I expect is for Uruguay to win. I hope Argentina plays great and I see nothing special about France (For one thing, it would be nice to see a jubilant, tipsy Maradona staggering around in raucous celebration !). Which Messi will show up? One of the greatest players of all time or the international sleepwalker? To me, it is the most intriguing match. England should win against Colombia. But never trust contemporary England in a match like this. Mexico shot its wad against the Germans and will be cannon fodder for Brazil. Russia...well, I just say Good Luck. Boredom? If you need to take a break from football, then feel free to pass on Sweden vs Switzerland. Ho-hum. And let’s hope that Croatia kicks the hell out of Denmark. For a side that has never achieved ANYTHING, their lazy performance on a big stage again France really left me fuming. Europeans are often guilty of this sort of nonchalant, laid-back, who-gives-a-damn bullshit, and I hate it. Give me South American-Spanish-Portuguese passion or British-German work ethic anytime. And I hope that the absent Dutch are enjoying smoking their hash, or whatever they do.

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UPDATE : Well, two matches are in the bag and my predictions were correct for France-Argentina and Uruguay-Portugal (which I nailed exactly). I was surprised at how open and exciting both contests were. I saw France winning, but 4-3 was more goals than I expected, so nobody went home feeling cheated. Without Cavani, I don’t fancy Uruguay against France in the next round (maybe not even WITH Cavani). Lionel Messi has his staunch defenders, but again I saw a guy who mostly just looked bemused and out-of-focus. He is a great player at Barcelona, and that just about covers it. He lacks the fire to be the kind of leader that can make a good team great. And, let’s face it, Argentina was not a very good team. Same situation with Ronaldo as far as playing on a weak team is concerned, although you could see the fury mount in his face as Portugal’s chances slipped away. He was fighting the inevitable with all his might.
All these matches, by the way, appear increasingly violent. I predict more conservative play in the quarterfinals. Lower scores, games decided on penalties, and some major, outcome-affecting injuries. Soccer is NOT a pussy sport. It can get ugly.

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===Eric Richard Leroy===

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