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Monday, Aug 19, 2019

FIFA World Cup 2018: Hunt for a new champion begins after surprising group stage

Germany are out and this maybe Africa’s worst outing since the 1982 FIFA World Cup but the party is set to continue.

football Updated: Jun 29, 2018 18:38 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Defending champions Germany were knocked out of the FIFA World Cup 2018 in the first round.
Defending champions Germany were knocked out of the FIFA World Cup 2018 in the first round.(AFP)

It’s finally curtains for the group stages of the FIFA World Cup with three-fourth of the total matches completed. And while spotlights will immediately shift to the Kazan Arena where heavyweights France kick-off the pre-quarterfinals against Argentina on Saturday, there is still a lingering disbelief over how defending champions Germany were shown the door. In a tournament of surprises, their elimination was the biggest shock.

Joachim Loew’s side came to Russia, hopeful of joining Italy and Brazil as only the third team to defend the World Cup. But Toni Kroos’s inspirational winner against Sweden couldn’t upturn insipid losses to Mexico and South Korea. “They don’t win much here,” said a taxi driver while taking this reporter to the Spartak Stadium for the Brazil-Serbia game, his remark being a sly reference to the second World War and growing memes on how Germany haven’t won in Russia since 1945.

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In the larger context, Germany’s exit is unlikely to mean much. They continue to boast one of the strongest talent pools and should again start as one of the favourites for the 2020 European Championship.

Asian redemption

South Korea’s victory also meant that barring Australia, all other teams representing Asia have won at least one game. Japan may be the only Asian side to advance but others too gave a good account of themselves after Saudi Arabia’s 5-0 humiliation against Russia prompted talk that they might be too soft for the competition.

Most impressive were Iran who came within inches of topping Group B but for a late miss from Mehdi Taremi against Portugal. This wasn’t the time for Africa though, with all five teams crashing out to leave a knockout stage without a nation from the continent for the first time since 1982.

Their early ousters notwithstanding, Senegal, Morocco and Nigeria in particular, did well. Most unfortunate exit however was that of Senegal who lost out to Japan due to fair play. “We would have preferred to be eliminated in another way. It’s a pity for us but this is how it works,” said Senegal coach Aliou Cisse after the loss to Colombia.

On the other hand, not going for an equaliser in their 1-0 defeat to Poland will not put Japan in good light. Japan coach Akira Nishino defended his tactics, saying, “I view that it was slightly regrettable but I suppose at that point that I didn’t have any other plans.”

READ | FIFA World Cup 2018: Late goals, VAR and set-pieces dominate group stage

Among the other big guns, not all teams managed to impress. France lumbered to unimpressive wins over Australia and Peru on way to topping their group, while Brazil showed signs of peaking after a dull 1-1 draw against Switzerland. Belgium will draw strength from their 1-0 win against England as well.

Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo to thank for single-handedly hauling them to an action-packed 3-3 draw against Spain but their struggle since then reiterates how football is not about individuals but a team game. Argentina redeemed themselves by the skin of the teeth courtesy Marcos Rojo’s late winner against Nigeria. On the verge of elimination after the 3-0 whipping to Croatia, they now have a real shot at turning around their campaign.

Controversial VAR

One of the biggest talking points in this World Cup has been the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), which has come under a fair bit of criticism. More often than not however, VAR has allowed officials to take more correct calls. The rise in penalties for fouls inside the box and better off-side calls are testament to its advantage.

South Korea’s first goal against Germany would have been incorrectly deemed off-side had it not been for VAR. One wonders how different some of the results would have been without this support system. Couple of days before the World Cup, Fifa refereeing director Massimo Busacca had warned VAR would not be perfect.

READ | FIFA World Cup 2018: England’s odds improve despite Belgium defeat

“If we say yes to (using VAR in) this World Cup, it’s because we think we are ready. But don’t think that it will be perfect. We are looking to have an incredible uniformity and consistency, but don’t think that technology solves the problem 100 percent,” he had said. “In front of a video, we will always have a human person who is making an interpretation,” he had added. It’s difficult to argue with his rationale.

As the tournament heads to its business end, Russian fans wait anxiously for their last-16 clash against Spain. Irrespective of what happens, Russians will not want this party to get over soon. “This has been our biggest ever festival,” said a Russian flag-draped Sergei, who had come to watch Brazil play Serbia. The flags have been flying high over the last couple of weeks, often accompanied by cries of ‘Russ-e-ya!’. If the hosts pull off the unthinkable against Spain on Sunday, this party will extend for a few more days.

First Published: Jun 29, 2018 16:26 IST

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