We’re hurtling through the FIFA World Cup at a rate of knots – before long, we’ll be halfway through the group stages, and we’re already at the point where teams are being eliminated, their dreams turned to dust in just 180 minutes of football.
As things progress so quickly, it has had another effect, in that a lot of the things that are happening seem somewhat familiar, as if this edition of the World Cup is a re-hashing of those that have come before, with different players and teams ensuring that certain regular tropes of World Cups do not go ignored this time around even if their traditional exponents aren’t there to do it.
New faces, same story
We’ve got used to the USA being the English-speaking team who arrive at a World Cup with no real expectation but with a good number of fans, some familiar players, and a great deal of innocent enthusiasm.
Luckily, Australia have been able to pick up their slack and even look as though they might suffer a heart-breaking early elimination to really hammer the point home; they are 5/1 to qualify.
At most tournaments there is a highly regarded European side with a much-vaunted midfield. They often struggle to get into the tournament and fail to impress during the group phase, though when they make it through, it often involves quite a long run. While Italy are unable to take their usual spot this time around, France have stepped into the breach.
South America invariably provide a surprise, and it frequently comes in the shape of a side who are able to play flowing attacking football to a high level, but not a level that is high enough to take them as far as it is suggested they could go. Recently, that has been the Chileans, but Peru are claiming that mantle with their displays against France and Denmark, despite their not earning any points from either game.
Fitting the mould
Lionel Messi has handily stepped up this World Cup as well, ensuring that those who were waiting for the ‘possible best player on the planet has a bad tournament’ did not have to wait too long. They have been able to feast on Cristiano Ronaldo as recently as 2014, so it is perhaps apt that Messi has the vultures circling this time around.
Ronaldo’s team-mate Luka Modric has taken over the role of a former Real Madrid midfielder in that ‘most impressive player in a team that were supposed to be good’ slot. Last time out, it was James Rodriguez who was the shining light in the Colombian midfield, but 2018 has highlighted the majesty of Modric.
James scored the goal of 2014, of course; the one that had all the kids trying to replicate it when they got back to school. It is possible that Dries Mertens has already sewn up that accolade this time around, though it will be fun seeing those that might try and better it.
Mertens represents a Belgian side that are, almost ironically, taking the role of the Dutch side who are missing from this edition. Everybody knows all about them, and their players are famous the world over. They have everything in place in terms of personnel to win the tournament but it is inevitable that something will go wrong for them en route; the Red Devils are 8/1 if you disagree, and think they will go on and lift the trophy.
There are other tropes that are becoming abundantly clear, too. There is always a side that are used as a stick to beat the non-European sides who qualify. This time around, people can’t believe that Italy didn’t reach Russia, but Saudi Arabia did. Last time out, Honduras kept Sweden out of the competition, while in 2010, North Korea unthinkably kept Croatia away from South Africa.
If you think back to the great World Cups of the past – 1998, 2006, 2010 – there are usually debutant nations, often from Europe, who bring a completely different feel to the World Cup. This difference is in itself a trope of World Cup football, be it Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz, Iceland’s Vikings, or 2006’s troupe of African sides; Angola, Ghana, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire all taking their bow that year, as well as Trinidad and Tobago and Ukraine.
An early favourite for the villain role
However, where we are still early in the competition, we are yet to discover who the real villain will be. One player or coach always commits a particularly anti-football act and become hated the world over. Consistently that player is Luis Suarez, who mixes supernatural talent and unimaginable workrate with utter and downright prannockery in a way that is seldom seen in life, never mind World Cups. Back in 2010, he may remember him denying Ghana a certain goal by handling the ball on the goal-line, before his more dental encounter with Giorgio Chiellini four years later. Suarez has yet to light the blue touch paper this time around, but he has to be an early favourite to do so again.
We have also yet to discover which coach will become the vaunted tactical genius of this competition, so that they are able to be hired by one of Europe’s biggest clubs, only to be sacked within a year for perceived failure.
Shakespeare’s Jaques insisted that all the world was a stage, and the World Cup is the biggest stage in global football. We are beginning to see which of the familiar roles each player is taking up, but there is still time for a few others to be case in those slots that remain. Nobody can guess who will be the impressive qualifier who go out with a bump in the first knockout game, and equally no-one yet knows what the iconic, Roger Milla, Marco Tardelli, goal celebration will be.
Casting continues over the next couple of weeks, and it promises to be fun finding out who gets the parts.