The Round of 16 is over, and with just 8 teams left in contention, there has been no shortage of drama. Diving, VAR controversies and shock exits aplenty. If the group stages and Round of 16 are anything to go by, we can probably expect more of the same as the tournament progresses. Arguably, the tournament was shocking before a ball had even been kicked – massive teams like Italy and Holland failed to qualify. Let’s look at some of the biggest surprises so far!
THE BIG TEAMS GO HOME
In probably the most shocking turn events of the group stages, Germany failed to qualify from Group F, finishing last. Having lost to Mexico 1-0 and narrowly beating the eventual Group F winners Sweden 2-1, they found themselves suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of South Korea, losing 2-0. The four-time World Cup winners were, initially, seen as the team to beat, with a great chance of at least reaching the Final. But it wasn’t to be.
Argentina are out too. After finishing second in Group D, which many people believed they’d win, they staggered into the Round of 16 by the skin of their teeth. They gave it their best shot, but ultimately France out-classed them, and they were defeated 4-3. Even the presence of their talisman, Lionel Messi, wasn’t enough to see them through. Questions are being asked as to what went wrong for them.
Was it because they have one of the oldest squads in the tournament? Stories of a player uprising against Jorge Sampaoli, with the players even being told by the Argentinian FA that they could bypass his leadership and pick the team themselves, it seems the turbulent atmosphere in the Argentina camp was at least in part to blame for their woes.
Tournament hosts Russia knocked Spain out in a nervy penalty shoot-out, winning 4-3. De Gea did manage to get a touch on 3 of the 4 penalties but couldn’t keep any out. Sadly, for Andres Iniesta, it was his last game in a Spain shirt, and according to him “the saddest day of my career”. Having sacked their manager just before the tournament started, despite being favourites, perhaps there was instability from the start.
As it stands, one of Sweden, England, Russia or Croatia will reach the World Cup final, against either Uruguay, France, Brazil or Belgium. By most people’s standards, Russia have exceeded expectations. Not just because they’re into the Quarter-finals, but the fashion in which they’ve got that far. Given that Russia went into the tournament as the lowest-ranked team, the fact they’ve managed to beat Spain, champions 8 years ago, makes them giant-killers. With a Quarter-final tie against Croatia, it remains to be seen if Russia can take the momentum and home advantage and go all the way.
It wouldn’t be fair to talk about surprising performances, without mentioning England’s 6-1 result against Panama. Despite being battered and grappled with, after some juvenile behaviour by their opposition, England came out on top and smashed their record for the most goals scored in a World Cup match. 2 goals from John Stones, 1 from Jesse Lingard and 3 from Harry Kane made a real statement about England’s intentions.
VAR AND CONTROVERSY
So far, there has been a great deal of controversy in this year’s tournament. If it’s not Diego Maradona’s profanity and hand gesture filled outburst, it’s the disgusting lack of sportsmanship shown by teams like Colombia and Tunisia. During their victory over Germany, Mexico fans brought their nation into disrepute, when they sang a homophobic chant at Neuer. The chant includes a homophobic slang term for a male sex worker, and as a result, FIFA has opened a disciplinary procedure against them. Mexico were the subject of 11 more punishments from FIFA over the 2018 World Cup qualifiers for the same offence.
Probably the most controversial introduction to this tournament is VAR. Although it is a welcome addition, it has also been the subject of some fierce criticism, largely to do with the fact it isn’t being used consistently. An incident in the England match against Colombia is just one example where the technology was not properly utilised. Wilmar Barrios headbutted Jordan Henderson’s chest and chin, and despite the VAR being used, Barrios only received a yellow. He should have had another yellow and been sent off for violent conduct when he went for Jordan’s chin. VAR awarded Tunisia a soft penalty in the match against England, yet Kane was denied 2 clear penalty shouts for grappling in the box. Croatia were awarded a penalty against Nigeria, for the very same infraction.
Of course, there will be teething problems as it is a fairly new addition. But England aren’t the only team who feel aggrieved. Extra time in the Russia – Spain match was marred with controversy too. Spain played a free kick into the box, yet Ramos and Pique were being aggressively held by Russian defenders. VAR officials were reviewing the incident, after the ref didn’t see it. The penalty wasn’t given, and Spain then went out after a shoot-out. What’s the point in VAR if it’s not used consistently?
I have to say, I’m appalled by the total lack of class displayed in terms of sportsmanship. Cheap fouls, dishonesty and quite frankly, orchestrated aggression has been commonplace in this World Cup. England seem to have bared the brunt of it all so far. Having said that, even the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, seemed to have been drawn into the shenanigans, with an off-the-ball elbowing of Iranian, Morteza Pouraliganji. It wasn’t confined to players either – a Colombian coach appeared to shoulder barge Raheem Sterling whilst coming off the pitch.
Diving has been rife too. Neymar’s Oscar-winning dive against Switzerland has been made the subject of a KFC advert. Even Maradona has come out and pleaded with Neymar to clean up his act, so as not to get a dodgy reputation. Portugal’s Pepe and Ronaldo have also been criticised for their amateur-dramatics prowess. There’s just no need for it. It brings the sport into disrepute.
BUT IT’S NOT ALL BAD
In contrast, Nigeria and Japan fans decided to clean up their act – literally. Footage emerged of them tidying their sections of each stadium their team played in. Very refreshing to see, at a time when football fans are branded feckless thugs! Senegal also injected some positivity and joy into the tournament, with their light-hearted dancing during training.
Belgium’s Michy Batshuayi also provided some comic relief, when his celebration after team mate Januzaj’s goal against England resulted in the ball accidentally smacking him in the face. He took to twitter to cringe at himself.
It wouldn’t be the World Cup without drama, upsets and South American players rolling around on the floor after a light shoulder barge. I’m excited to see what the remainder brings!