It’s a bold thing to say, but I’m starting to think that this World Cup has been the best in living memory. Here’s a look at the reasons I think this has been such a great tournament.
Russia As The Hosts:
In the build up to the tournament, the British media did not give the greatest impression of Russia as a country. Negative press focusing on the current Russian political situation, hooliganism and ongoing racism issues certainly had an affect on the amount of England fans that attended the matches. In fact most European nations were very poorly followed, with most not selling anywhere near their ticket allocations. Compare that to the tens of thousands of South Americans who travelled to Russia and its clear that Europe as a continent did not trust the hosts. The good thing is that the fans who made the trip to the World Cup have been pleasantly surprised. They have been met with a warm welcome from the Russian people who have embraced the tournament and the fans from all countries have behaved respectfully in return. This has created a relaxed police presence in the last 4 weeks which was unexpected in the lead up. Beautiful culture, hot weather and affordable prices have really made Russia an attractive country, which has seen more and more English and European fans enter the country as their respective nations have progressed. This may not be enough to mask the continued political unrest, and rightly so, but you have to congratulate the population for putting on such a spectacle for the world.
The Best Team Won:
There’s always a sense of justice at the end of a World Cup when the right country is lifting the trophy. This has definitely happened here. France topped their group of Australia, Peru and Denmark with little difficulty, even if a dour 0-0 draw with the latter was the worst match of the tournament. You cannot however suggest that the French have not done it the hard way. In a World Cup where one side of the draw opened up to allow a smaller nation to reach the final, France’s half of the draw was packed with the big footballing nations. A thrilling 4-3 over Argentina in the second round was followed by a comfortable 2-0 over the difficult Uruguay in the quarter-finals. Top scorers of the competition Belgium, were beaten in a hard fought 1-0 win in the semis to secure a third World Cup final appearance in 20 years for the French. Today they beat a Croatian side who have battled hard to get to the final and gave a good account of themselves tonight, but in the end it was just one match too far for the Croats as they went down 4-2 in the most entertaining World Cup final for decades.
The reason the draw opened up massively on one side was because the so called ‘bigger teams’ failed to win the games they were expected to in the group stage. The main culprits of this were Germany. They lost their opening group match 1-0 against a very well organised Mexico side. After beating Sweden in the last minute in their second match, the Germans needed a victory against South Korea to be sure of qualification to the knockout stage. With the Koreans defending gallantly for most of the 90 mins, Germany were getting desperate and whilst pushing players forward they conceded two injury-time goals; one confirmed by VAR, the other confirmed through goalkeeper Manuel Neuer playing on the left wing! It was a stunning end to a match which saw the world champions go out in the group stage for the first time since 1954. Argentina drew with Iceland and were thrashed 3-0 by Croatia in the groups. Spain scraped through to the second round, only to be knocked out on penalties by the hosts. Sweden got to the quarter-finals, along with Russia who were ranked 70th in the world. England reached the semi-finals for the first time since 1990. Croatia became the smallest nation by population to make it to a World Cup final since Uruguay in 1950. Russia 2018 has been one of the most open tournament in recent times.
VAR (Video Assistant Referee)
It has been the talking point of the whole World Cup. For the first time ever the referee in the middle could get help from the Video Assistant Referee in a control room with replays and different angles at their fingertips. Four different types of calls could be reviewed.
- Goals and wether there was a violation during the build up.
- Penalty decisions.
- Direct red card decisions.
- Mistaken identity in awarding red or yellow cards.
The first few games in the tournament looked a bit shaky to say the least, with a couple of tight decisions going the wrong way from referees who looked uncomfortable making a final call after watching a replay on the side of the pitch. Portugal vs Iran especially became a farce when the ref seemed to be going to the pitch-side screen every minute during the final 10 mins of the game. But as the competition progressed, VAR really did become an asset to matches. No decisions are bigger than the correction of a wrongly given offside for South Korea’s first goal against Germany. From then on it seemed justified and there didn’t appear to be anymore dramas, only correct calls. In fact from the quarter-finals onwards it has barely been used as the officials have been immaculate with their decision making. That was until the final tonight, where a penalty was given after a review by VAR for handball against Crostia’s Ivan Perisic. A debatable decision that says more about the confusing law of handball more than the video referee. VAR adds a bit of drama, it doesn’t take very long from start to finish and the most importantly it gets the decisions right. No team can complain because the players, managers, crowd and television audience at home are all watching the same replay. I think it’s been a great addition and the sooner it comes to the Premier League the better.
TV and Radio Coverage:
There is usually a lot to criticise with terrestrial television coverage of football tournaments, but I must say I was impressed with how BBC and ITV covered this World Cup. The BBC’s frontman Gary Lineker is as smooth as ever, almost like you have a friend on your screen, but ITV’s Mark Pougatch has also been very good as the face of the channel over this summer. Pundits were strong for both channels; BBC’s main man Alan Shearer’s passion shines through as the competition goes on and you can tell Rio Ferdinand does this week-in-week-out for BT Sport with his modern approach. ITV’s big signing Gary Neville got involved with the rest of the team showing that his days at Sky haven’t gone to his head. Ian Wright continues to be man of the people with his nonconstructive yet enthusiastic analysis. Of the foreign pundits, Slaven Bilic (who seemed to be on everyday), and the laidback Henrik Larson impressed for ITV, newcomer Cesc Fabergas and the very kind Pablo Zabeleta made an impact for BBC. Guy Mowbray and Clive Tyldesley are always reliable as the main commentators for each channel. Of the co-commentators, debutant Ally McCoist and Glenn (love-train) Hoddle stood out for ITV, and were more appealing to the ear than the deadpan Danny Murphy and Martin Keown for the Beeb. I have also been listening to Radio 5 Live’s ‘World Cup Daily’ podcast every day. Presenters Mark Chapman and Kelly Cates brought humour and an extra insight to the tournament, with Chris Waddle, Dion Dublin and Chris Sutton among regular contributors. I will certainly miss turning over from game to game each day, but my wife won’t miss the uncertainty of what time Coronation Street is on – back to normal next week!
England Doing Well:
Slightly biased in this part, but as an Englishman it certainly helps you enjoy the World Cup more if you have an invested interest in it until the last weekend. England for the first time in years gave us something to shout about. Regardless of the standard of teams they had to beat to get there, this English side did things they had never done before. A tight last minute 2-1 win over Tunisia was followed by a 6-1 drubbing of Panama; a record win at the World Cup for England. A loss to Belgium in the final group game ensured entry into the easier side of the draw, and did not halt momentum as first feared. A first ever penalty shootout win for England at a World Cup followed in the second round against Colombia, probably the biggest hurdle they overcame all tournament. The 2-0 quarter-final victory over Sweden was as comfortable as it got for the Three Lions, before a dramatic 2-1 extra time defeat to Croatia ended the dream. England finished 4th in the tournament after a 2-0 defeat to Belgium in the 3rd place play-off. If someone had said before the competition that England would finish fourth in this World Cup, then we would have all snapped their hand off. This team has reconnected with its fans and made the country fall in love with football all over again. They’ve also given us a reason to follow this World Cup with avid interest right until the end. And for that we thank them.
World Cup 2018 in Russia has been a fantastic month full of superb goals and great drama right through to tonight’s final. Now it’s all over we have to get back to reality. There will be no more drinking on a weeknight simply because your country is playing. My wife and my bank account will be pleased.
Спасибо россия (Thank you Russia)