Newsmaker: Misfiring Big Guns

The 2018 Fifa World Cup has entered the quarterfinal stage. Going by the matches we have seen so far, it would be fair to say that this has been one of the most competitive editions of World Cup football in recent years. In fact, 61.5 per cent of the victories were achieved by a single goal margin in the group stages — the second highest proportion, behind South Africa edition in 2010.

The present edition has also been a heartbreak of sorts for supporters of some of the biggest teams in international football. Holders Germany crashed out in the group stages, continuing the ‘champions’ curse’. Traditional powerhouses and strong contenders Argentina, Spain and Portugal too bit the dust in the round of 16.

Germany came into the World Cup with one of the strongest sides on paper and a huge reputation to defend. Few expected Germany to falter in the group stages. But shock defeats to Mexico and South Korea in the preliminary round paved the way for an ignominious exit. Argentina, led by Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player in contemporary football, too crashed out in the pre-quarterfinal after going down 3-4 to France. While 2010 champions Spain did little to justify their top billing before losing to hosts Russia in the round of 16, Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal found an inspired Uruguay too hot to handle before bowing out in the same stage.

CHAMPIONS’ CUSRSE

Germany were last week eliminated from the World Cup in the opening round for the first time since 1938. It was the sixth time in the history of the competition that the reigning champions failed to make it past the first hurdle. In fact, Germany became the third successive champions to exit at the group stage after Italy in 2010 and Spain in 2014. Germany were stunned by Mexico 0-1 in their opening match, but hopes were raised after a stoppage time goal by Toni Kroos gave them victory over Sweden in the second group game. A solitary point in the last group fixture against South Korea would have guaranteed them a place in the knockouts, but two last gap goals by the Asian powerhouse meant it was end of the road for the defending champions. Kroos’ admission after Germany’s exit summed it all. “In the end we did not do enough. To be honest, if we couldn’t score a goal in 90 minutes against South Korea then we don’t deserve to go through. We got what we deserved. We were not unlucky. It is not down to bad luck,” lamented the midfielder.

SPAIN PASS OUT

Hosts Russia shockingly knocked out Spain from the World Cup in the round of 16 after surviving two hours of dominance by the 2010 champions in a 1-1 draw and then winning a dramatic penalty shootout. Spain’s Koke and Iago Aspas saw their spot-kicks saved by Igor Akinfeev as Russia prevailed 4-3 in the tie-breaker. The European giants failed to create clear-cut chances against a resolute Russian defence despite enjoying almost total domination in possession. They set a new World Cup record with an unbelievable passing rate in the regulation time. The 2008 and 2012 Euro champions completed as many as 770 passes before extra time, the most ever in a World Cup match, bettering Argentina’s record of 703 passes against Greece in 2010. Including extra time, Spain crossed the 1000-pass milestone, the first team ever to do so. However, all their efforts failed to bear fruit as Spain failed to break the deadlock after Russia restored parity from the spot following a deflected Sergio Ramos goal early into the match. “Now we need to share this difficult moment. We all wanted to do great things at this tournament. We're talking about a generation of extraordinary players and we haven't been performing at the level expected in the World Cup,” Spain coach Fernando Hierro said after the shock exit.

MESSED UP

Teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe struck twice as France ousted Lionel Messi’s Argentina 4-3 and moved into the quarterfinal. Sergio Aguero gave Argentina late hope but they ran out of time and headed home after a rollercoaster ride in Russia that ultimately ended in bitter disappointment for the two-time former champions. Defeated in the final four years ago, Argentina only reached the last 16 by the skin of their teeth after a chaotic group phase. And despite a spirited show against France, Argentina’s ageing squad and lack of killer instinct ultimately spelt their doom. The team’s hopes rested heavily on the performance of Lionel Messi, who is still searching for a major title with the Argentina senior squad. However, apart from a sublime goal in the must-win group tie against Nigeria, the Barcelona stalwart was a pale shadow of his usual self. At the age of 31, Messi may have played his last World Cup game in a career unfulfilled at international level despite his great achievements with Barcelona and his multiple individual awards.

OH PORTUGAL!

Having just steered Real Madrid to an unprecedented third straight Champions League success, Cristiano Ronaldo just needed one trophy to round off his well-decorated trophy cabinet -- the World Cup. Playing in his fourth WC at 33, the Portugal superstar knew that Russia will probably be his last chance to win the most elusive cup in the world of football. Alas, that didn’t happen, as riding on a brace by Edinson Cavani, Uruguay knocked Portugal out 2-1 in the pre-quarterfinal. Two weeks back at the same stadium, the reigning Euro champions were buoyed by a Ronaldo hat-trick to hold Spain 3-3. But the prolific striker failed to find the net when it mattered the most against Uruguay. “We had our chances, but this is football. We have to keep our heads high. We gave our best. The team played well. As the team captain I am proud of this group. Everyone worked hard to make sure things went well,” Ronaldo said after the match.

Columnist: 
Aritra Mukhopadhyay