As we move into the business end of the World Cup it’s time to celebrate and commiserate with those departing Russia. There will be 16 teams going home early, here’s final eight…
They say you should never talk about politics and religion when inebriated. The same can probably be said in football. There is enough division based on club colours or national flag without bringing in further reasons for vitriol. The problem with Serbia is that the political and religious scarring is still fresh. That is why comments from the coach, Mladen Krstajic, that the German referee who failed to give them a penalty against Switzerland should be sent to The Hague and tried for war crimes “like they did to us” was so provocative. In the same match we saw Swiss players making the sign of the double eagle to declare sympathy for Albania. Again a very provocative gesture which may see two of their biggest stars banned. Serbian football is not synonymous with the family friendly game that FIFA hope to promote through the World Cup and comments and gestures such as that are unlikely to change world opinion. In terms of the football Serbia were dogged and determined. Powerful as always but ultimately not technically strong enough to emerge from a fairly challenging group. Their performance at this World Cup is no improvement on their previous performance which was their first as Serbia without the Montenegro attachment. I can’t say I am disappointed to see them exit and not just because of Mitrovic. They offer nothing that draws you to them as a team.
Oviedo aside, Costa Rica were not a side that stood out for any meaningful reason. A goal against the Swiss in the final game meant they became the final team to register a goal in Russia which is perhaps the most significant thing I can say about them. That goal meant that every team has scored. Oviedo did nothing to really boost his price tag. That would have been nice. They had moments against Brazil where they looked promising but two late goals did for them. Neighbours Panama probably made more of an impact than Costa Rica, but more on them later.
One of the most frustrating sides in the World Cup, you could see there was something about South Korea. As a footballing nation they really burst on to the scene in their hosted World Cup , going as far as the semi finals. That result brought European clubs to the door of Asian football and an influx of Korean players spread across Europe. Some hugely successful, some less so (Ji). This squad had some star quality in Tottenham’s Son and of course Ki, a player who we are all familiar with. Watching Korea was a little like watching a footballing production line. Passing was often done with precision and seemed well drilled. However, with little effect. The team was capable of more and that probably explains a thorough egging for the squad on their return home. I still think an Asian nation will rise to the top in world cups to come but not if they play as dispassionately as Korea were this time. That said. They did provide us all with one of the greatest moments in the World Cup so far as two late goals led to the exit of ...
Now I’m as European as the next remainer. I embrace my European neighbours as friends and allies, but this is football. The birth of my footballing cognisance began in Italia 90 watching the World Cup progress on South African television. By the time that penalty shootout came about I had invested enough of myself into football and specifically England so as to feel genuine pain. Gazza’s tears and Waddles slumped mulleted head still stand strong in my emotional memory. Since then I have grudgingly admired the German capacity for consistency. An arrogance. A swagger. They get the job done. When Brazil or Spain or France won, it was on the back of rapier style football with genuine world beaters at the heart of it. When the Germans won it was down to the strength of the team rather than individual flair. You really could never write off the Germans. Well now you can. The swagger turned into a drunken stumble at this World Cup. Far from convincing in any of their games and fortunate to get 3 points against Sweden after as woeful a performance as I have ever seen from them. By the time Korea scored their second I was in shock. It was going to happen. I hadn’t felt that shock since they played Brazil at the last finals. VAR decisions were correct. They were done for by the efficiency of technology. There’s a certain poetic irony in that. By the time we moved on to the next day and a fairly meaningless set of fixtures we celebrated with relish the fact that the arrogant Germans were on the plane home. Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
An opening display of explicit shithousery both in terms of niggly fouls and injury simulation did not instantly draw me to Tunisia as a team. I willed Khazri to score but only to increase his sale price. Every time I saw him it riled me a little. Deep in conversation with Januzaj at the end of the Belgium match, no doubt telling him that there was no chance of him going back to Sunderland. He then promptly shoved Januzaj’s t shirt into his undies. Tunisia never displayed any real promise of achieving more than they did in the end. They should have been Dead and buried by the time they were awarded a dubious penalty against England and it was only profligacy from England’s forwards that prevented it. That and the baffling decision that it was perfectly ok to wrestle England players to the deck in the box. No love lost for Tunisia and their tactics do not offer any promise that they will ever hold a place in my heart.
Every World Cup has a team with a bit of a romantic story. Whether that’s Cameroon and Roger Milla or that time that Trinidad made it through. Panama were this year’s team. They were there on merit and the scenes when they qualified will be long cherished. Any romance rapidly vanished as they sought to rebalance their lack of technical ability with whole hearted rough housing. I can’t really blame them for that and, at the end of the day, it contributed to their downfall against England. Whether or not this is the start of something for Panama will bear out in the years to come. It may have been a case of good fortune and we will not see them again for a long time, or it may be that football is building over there. Either way they return home with a reputation for dirty football.
I am always wary of Poland. They are another team who were in a really good place in terms of talent 4 years ago. Now that talent is on the wane. In Lewandowski they have a forward who is a gem in the European football crown, but gaps are plugged by much less effective players behind him. This year they seemed a shadow of their former selves and the fact they were largely complicit in the farce of an ending to the Japan game meant they lost a huge amount of respect from football fans the world over. For me that was humiliating. The fact that they didn’t put a side to the sword because they just couldn’t be bothered. They deserved to leave at the group stage after that and I hope the players involved in that shambles remember it for a long time.
Everyone’s favourite second team at this World Cup. Senegal brought the African rhythm to the tournament. Warm ups consisting of dance routines. A coach mimicking a lion on the sideline. Supporters who stayed behind after the match to pick up litter. This was a far cry from the snarl of El Hadji Diouf. Senegal demonstrated what Africa can bring to the World Cup. Coached by a man who still bears the scars of his failures as a player in the national team, Cisse is managing to bring out his pain through perfectionism. He is driven based on his past experiences. Known to be an absolute perfectionist he instills confidence whilst encouraging players to play with a smile. I hope he retains his position and Senegal go on to achieve even more. Their presence was everything magical about the World Cup and to see an African coach at the helm shows that you need the spirit of Africa in an African team. Thank you for the memories Senegal, you were undone by the shambles of the Japan game and you deserved so much more than that.