Once all the dust has settled, and the disappointment of thirty-one nations has subsided, the history books will mark Russia 2018 down as one of the great modern tournaments. Perhaps not as iconic as an Italia ’90, nor as jaw-dropping as Brazil 2014, but packed full with enough thrills and spills to keep the watching world wanting more after four weeks of football. Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games along the way, and we’re here to cast a needlessly negative eye over the past month. It’s the World Cup 2018 Shitlist.
This, more than any other, was supposed to be Neymar’s year. After a broken back cruelly denied him the opportunity to spearhead Brazil’s attack in their ill-fated semi-final against Germany four years ago, the Selecao’s talisman came into the tournament as The Main Man. It’s a position the 26 year old clearly craves, having left a club steeped in history and the deadliest frontline in the world to test himself against inferior opposition as the shining light of a lesser European giant for a world record transfer fee. Understandably, the pressure on Brazil’s boy wonder to deliver his country’s sixth World Cup title was enormous, but no-one was piling it on more than Neymar himself.
In the opening game against Switzerland, having seen his team pegged back in the second half, the current incumbent of the famous #10 shirt took it upon himself to try and beat the Swiss single-handed, and failed. In fact, his major contribution to the game was the amount of social media content his Wagamama-inspired hairstyle created. Having taken a trip to see one of the two barbers he’d brought along to the tournament, a newly shorn Neymar finally managed to find the net against Costa Rica, but only after a tense and turgid ninety minutes in which the PSG forward had constantly harangued the referee and been booked for diving. His stoppage time rainbow flick was a mere lick of gloss over a performance that garnered much criticism. The routine 2-0 victory over Serbia saw Neymar go viral again, with an exaggerated roly-poly following a late challenge turned into a million memes. Against Mexico, his self-aggrandizing celebration following the assist for Roberto Firmino’s goal was only just pipped by his ludicrous reaction to being stepped on by the touchline as another example of the Brazilian’s conceit.
Rumour has it that Neymar moved from Barcelona to Paris Saint Germain in order to give himself a better chance of winning the Ballon D’or. While clearly an extremely talented footballer, the game’s biggest individual prize does not necessarily reward the best individual player. If he’s unable to channel his self-importance into silverware, or make sacrifices for his team, then it’s unlikely Neymar will ever meet the standards set by the two players currently holding a duopoly over the award. Speaking of which…
The Ronaldo v Messi Debate
The Stones or The Beatles. Oasis or Blur. Daddy or Chips. Since choice became an option to society, it seems everyone has been desperate to reject it. Things aren’t always absolute. Sometimes you’ll want to gear yourself up for a night on the lash by blasting out Street Fighting Man. Sometimes you’ll want to curl up in bed and stick on Norwegian Wood. Sometimes you’ll want to wistfully stare out of the window while singing along to Champagne Supernova. Sometimes you’ll want to cry yourself to sleep to the sound of Tender. And sometimes, you just want to share a bag of chips with your old man. Given that both players are now in the Autumn of their careers, it was always likely that focus would fall on the performances of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi during this World Cup. For a decade they’ve been neck and neck in the race to be crowned the Best in the World, and arguably The Best Ever, but with both coming to the tournament as the standout players in sides best described as outsiders, the chances of either adding a World Cup to their long long list of honours always looked slim.
Probably best for their respective fanboys to start a tedious mudslinging contest online, then. Ronaldo’s hat-trick in Portugal’s opener against Spain was a timely reminder of the man’s remarkable talents, despite his obvious physical decline in recent seasons. That fueled the fire of S-Club CR7, fanned further by Messi’s penalty miss against Iceland the following day. Ironically, Ronaldo himself would miss a penalty the night before Messi scored one of the goals of the tournament to put Argentina on their way to a barely deserved place in the second round. By this time the Barcelona man was essentially managing the national team himself, such was the disarray that Argentina found themselves in. Had either fired their team in the latter stages of the tournament, perhaps there’d be a case for splitting them, but second round exits for both nations meant that, in all likelihood, neither will join Pele or Diego Maradona in the pantheon of Great World Cup Winners, though the fact remains that they’re both the most outstanding footballers of their generation. And at least it gave us some peace from the likes of @TotallyRonaldo and @ClinicalMessi.
South American Teams
The omens never looked good for the South American contingent in Russia. It had been sixty years since a side from the southern hemisphere had won the World Cup in Europe (Brazil, naturally) and, in the tournament’s history, there had never been more than one non-European semi-finalist when the continent hosted. Add to that Brazil being the only side identified as serious challengers for the trophy, it seemed unlikely this page in the history books was about to be rewritten.
Peru, arriving at the expense of the arguably better equipped Chileans, provided a splash of colour and joyous scenes, as well as an exciting brand of attacking football, but were unable to convert their dominance into goals and lasted only a fortnight. Argentina somehow muddled through the group thanks largely to Lionel Messi, but the humiliation of coach Jorge Sampaoli, combined with defensive suicide in the last sixteen, suggests there are deep-seated issues in their international setup. Colombia, who suffered fits and starts throughout their stay, bounced back from having a men sent off the third minute of their opening game to top Group H, with a 3-0 demolition of Poland one of the performances of the group stage. Shorn of star man James Rodriguez through injury, Jose Pekerman’s rough house tactics against England alienated those with Colombian sympathies, and a penalty shootout exit was just deserts. Uruguay, impressive in their march to the quarter finals, also suffered injuries to key players, and Oscar Tabarez’s attempts to shut the game down against France resulted in a breezy progression for the Europeans.
And so then, to Brazil. The team that romped through the most difficult qualification route arrived with a big reputation and a point to prove. After ten minutes of their opening game with Switzerland it looked as though, for the first time since perhaps 1982, Brazil had finally found the formula for a side that can win the Brazilian way. Sadly, o jogo bonito was shortlived, and the necessity of grinding out results came to the fore. Against Belgium, Brazil were made to pay for their arrogance. Torn apart by lighting quick counter attacks, and too heavily reliant on Neymar, the Brazilians, like neighbours Argentina, seem transfixed on the idea of The Hero. Pele and Diego Maradona have set the gold standard for footballers in those respective countries, but the decision makers seem to have forgotten the stellar supporting casts that assisted their achievements.
South America’s failure to provide a winner in 2018 guarantees a twenty year stretch between champions. Based on the evidence in Russia, that wait could go on and on.
Having castigated the performances of the South American sides, it would be just as easy to criticise Africa’s, too. For the first time since 1982 there was no African representation in the knockout stages, a far cry from 2010, when Ghana were a penalty kick away from the semis. It would be harsh, however, to lay into a continent that provided Morocco and Nigeria sides that lit up the tournament in flashes, as well as a Senegal team that were two yellow cards away from the second round. Instead, ire is reserved for a lacklustre Egypt team whose tournament was effectively ended in the first half of the Champions League final. Without a fully fit Mohamed Salah, Hector Cuper’s team were a shadow of that which secured qualification for the first time since 1990. Their lack of strength in attacking depth harshly exposed, they were at least unfortunate to concede a late winner to Uruguay in the opening game, before being torn apart by Russia to confirm their exit. The highlight of their tournament was the appearance of goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary in the final group game, becoming, at 45 years and 161 days, the oldest player to appear at a World Cup. His penalty save against Saudi Arabia was a rare ray of sunshine on a campaign blighted by alleged infighting and political interference. The team plane had barely landed in Cairo before Cuper offered his resignation, and Salah is said to be considering international retirement. Safe to say, things could have gone better.
Bitter Supporters of Absent Nations
Barely seconds after the final whistle of the opening game, in which Russia had put Saudi Arabia to the sword in a remarkable 5-0 win, “football experts” from certain absent nations (okay, okay, Americans) dashed to their computers in order to denounce the inclusion of so-called smaller nations as farcical. ‘wHy wERe tHEY eVeN aLLowEd iN?’ they cried into their high sugar content cereal. And if watching a team taking a howking in the World Cup isn’t enough to boil your piss, then you’ll be pleased to know that playing defensively in order to get a result against a former tournament winner is also off the agenda. ‘wHAtS tHE poInT oF iRAn eVen bEInG thErE iF thEY’Re oNlY goING tO dEfenD?’.
Look, lads (and it is just lads), it’s very simple. It’s a World Cup. I appreciate that over the pond you do things a little differently. The World Series, for example, is solely for American baseball teams which, if you ask me, makes its name a little aggrandizing. Now, the thing about the World Cup, the absolute fucking crux of the whole caper, is that it involves teams from around the world. It’s a well known fact that Asian teams aren’t as strong as European teams in the main, but you know what? If we just wanted to watch European teams then we’d boycott the World Cup and stick to the European Championships (the last of which was dreadful). The US, and Chile, and Italy, and the Netherlands weren’t at the World Cup because they didn’t qualify. And they didn’t qualify because they weren’t among the best teams in their confederation. And given that Panama finished as the worst team of the tournament and yet still pipped the US to qualification, who are the real losers here?
While Manchester United’s manager may have put the kibosh on Luke Shaw’s international prospects, there were still eleven of his squad present in Russia, many of whom arrived off the back of disappointing seasons. Head boy Nemanja Matic made little impact on Serbia’s campaign, while Phil Jones’ tournament was limited to an outing against Belgium’s reserves and a rick in the Third Place play-off. Of the remaining nine, only Romelu Lukaku, David De Gea, Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard escaped major criticism from their club manager this year. What a joy it must have been then, for Mr Mourinho to see Marcos Rojo produce a remarkable volley to send Argentina through to the second round, or witness Victor Lindelof’s solid perfomances in a Sweden backline that kept three clean sheets on their way to the quarters. Similarly, the maturity and focus shown by Marcus Rashford as he hammered home a penalty against Colombia would have pleased The Special One, particularly given his keenness to offload the Academy graduate this summer. Marouane Fellaini, who has a fan in Mourinho, but is used solely as a last throw of the dice at Old Trafford, earned himself a promotion from Plan B to Plan A in Roberto Martinez’s Belgium side, producing a standout performance against Brazil to help his country to the semi-finals. The most pleasing of all though, surely, is the form of Paul Pogba. Finally stepping up to the stage his talents so clearly demand, the Premier League’s most expensive player hit blistering form in Russia, providing the engine to France’s Ferrari, despite a season in which he was offered to his team’s fiercest rivals. It begs the question: what on Earth is his club manager doing wrong?
The British Press
The bastions of rectitude; our holy guardians of integrity; fulcrums of a decent society. Sorry, I meant bastards, arseholes and fuckwits. The England team and its media have endured a fractious relationship since the 1980s, when the Fleet Street rats discovered that bashing the national team sold papers. After thirty years of deceit, jingoism and phonehacking, the printed press have begun to lose their influence on the British public, but haven’t yet changed tack. Leading up to the tournament, there was another unprovoked attack on a player previously dubbed ‘Footie Idiot’ by The S*n, Raheem Sterling. The reason? A tattoo of an assault rifle on the Manchester City forward’s leg, a tribute to his murdered father. The furore eventually died down once level-headed Gareth Southgate had faced the papers down on the issue, but even the England manager working overtime in a bid to mend fences between the national football team and the national press wasn’t enough to prevent them from exploiting his trust.
Ahead of England’s game against Panama, a telescopic lens managed to snap a photo of the team’s proposed lineup for the game in coach Steve Holland’s hand. Having printed it, the press faced backlash from supporters, who accused them of sabotage. In the days that followed, those shrinking violets of the British media acted the victim, claiming they’d done nothing wrong, whilst simultaneously ignoring the three decades of ill will built up by their vilification of England’s managers, players and supporters. Even when they poked a bit of fun at the situation by releasing England’s pre-match line-up with the word ‘Redacted’ plastered across it, it still missed the mark. Trust in the press is at an all-time low and, like an unfaithful father making light of his misdemeanors, no-one wants to laugh along with them.
Given the schism in the nation that has opened over the past few years thanks, largely, to David Cameron and his band of parasites, the chances of an unheralded England national team restoring pride and unity to the country seemed a little far-fetched as the World Cup approached. But scenes of large swathes of the population coming together, enjoying the sunshine, singing songs and uniting for a common purpose were genuinely heartwarming (unless you happen to hail from any other member of the United Kingdom).
It was a shame, then, to see a noisy minority let everyone else down, offering fuel to the fire that English football supporters are still more trouble then they’re worth. The quarter-final victory over Sweden in particular gave us an untimely reminder that it’s never a good idea to go out drinking on an empty head. Fans jumping on ambulances and storming an IKEA (which, given they’re not exactly designed as a convenient destination, gives you an idea of the kind of knuckle-draggers we’re dealing with), had Rugby Union fans rubbing their hands in delight, and left fellow England supporters with a bitter taste on what should have been a day of celebration. Even in Russia, where England’s support had been buoyant but good-natured, the atmosphere was marred by the Johnny-Come-Lately arsehole brigade, as The Undesirables arrived in time for the semi-final, fully clad in Crusaders outfits (picture the scene of these tossers packing for the trip. Pathetic), and singing songs about German Bombers. Any goodwill built up over the previous three weeks had quickly evaporated. It’s an inescapable truth that every football team has an element of unwelcome support but, given the largely genial atmosphere for the most part, it’s a shame these particular turds had to emerge in the fishbowl.
Honorable mentions too, to Alan Sugar, John Terry and Jason Cundy, who all managed to show themselves up one way or another throughout the tournament. For unelected Peer Lord Sugar, a frankly abominable tweet about the Senegalese national team resembling street sellers was enough to attract the ire of Twitter. Meanwhile John Terry was busy making a snide point about Vicki Sparks’ commentary on the BBC, something which enraged Jason Cundy enough to go on national television and present the case against female commentators. Oddly enough it took less than twelve hours (or the time it took for Cundy to arrive at work for his show on TalkSport) for the former Chelsea squad player to issue an apology.
The ‘That’s Liquid Football Dot Com’ World Cup Preview
Okay, first thing’s first – that was quite an unpredictable World Cup wasn’t it?! So none of our top four for the tournament made it past the quarter finals. If you’re being generous, that’s an unfortunate bit of predicting. And we said one of the finalists would go out in the group stage. Which is a remarkably bad bit of insight. In fact, there wasn’t a great deal we got right in our predictions. We suggested Russia might go down as one of the worst host nations in history, whereas in actual fact they confounded expectations, and were a couple of errant penalty kicks away from the semi-final. Egypt, we said, should have enough to get out of the group. They didn’t have enough to earn a single point. We thought Morocco might push Portugal and Spain in Group B, but that Iran would be happy just to score a goal. Iran, in fact, were a goal away from reaching the second round. In Group C, we said France would get found out in the quarter finals, that Denmark didn’t possess the quality to reach the knockouts, that Peru would go through, and that Australia would struggle to get a point. Basically all wrong. Nigeria, Germany, Serbia, and Senegal would all be featuring in the last sixteen according to us. Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wronger. We wrote off Croatia. We wrote off Sweden. We wrote off Switzerland. And we really wrote off Japan. Even the prediction of England reaching the quarter-finals was made with a sense of baseless optimism.
But you know what? We regret nothing. Football is unpredictable. No-one foresaw the holders finishing bottom of their group, no-one thought Russia would progress as far as they did, and we defy anyone to have picked out all four semi-finalists. That’s what makes this game so wonderful, and what makes the World Cup the absolute pinnacle of the sport. Though perhaps in four years time we’ll try thinking outside the box a little more.
If there were misgivings going into the tournament in Russia, then FIFA’s friends in the Middle East ain’t seen nothing yet. An intolerant, hostile, belligerent dictatorship the current incarnation of Russia may be, they still managed to fit the mask of a welcoming, inclusive host for four weeks, at a tournament held with a backdrop of history and footballing pedigree. Eventually, the occasion won out.
Qatar, however, is a whole new ball game. Not only blighted by an increased level of intolerance to Russia, with a culture that has outlawed homosexuality, knows nothing of equality, and seems ill-prepared to cater for a Western carnival-like atmosphere, the scrutiny on human rights abuses, slave labour, and the deaths of construction workers have already cast a midnight shadow over a tournament that is four years away. Well, four and a half, because the climate in Qatar means that, for the first time, a competition that is nearing its centenary will have to be held during the winter, disrupting domestic football pretty much everywhere. Add in the proof that Qatar’s winning bid was largely down to illegal payments, as well as the fact that the host nation has no footballing pedigree whatsoever, and you’ve got the recipe for the worst World Cup ever.
Qatar 2022 is already being wiped from the history books by influential voices in football, with many unable to reconcile their love of the game and particularly the tournament with the unsuitability of its next hosts. The time for FIFA to act is now, and unless Qatar can pull something miraculous out of the bag, their flagship product may be left with an very unsightly stain. The clock is ticking.