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A world cup of surprises

Publishing Date : 10 July, 2018

Author : MOSIMANEGAPE TSHOSWANE

A lot of football fanatics have been treated to surprise and sometimes shock these past couple of weeks. The 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia has had many if not all at the edges of their seats, leaving many questions than answers.


Germany for one has yet to find the many answers lingering in their minds. One of which is how they failed it to make it past the group stages, and break many hearts that day. A few minutes after Germany lost to Mexico in its opening game — not fortuitously, but deservedly— Germany head coach, Joachim Löw was informed that, in three of the previous four World Cups, the team that entered the tournament as the titleholder had fallen in the group stages. The coach seemed to have waved off the notion that Germany might go the same route.


But it came out to be true. France were crowned champions in 1998 overwhelming favorites, Brazil by 3-0, but 4 years later, The Blues  crumbled out of the group stages without registering a win. In 2010, Italy took the same route when they also fell on the same stage after winning the cup in 2006. The World cup champions jinx continued when Spain left the 2014 party earlier than anticipated. They won the 2010 edition.


This, as the last two weeks have amply proved, is not a World Cup where anyone should be offering guarantees. Germany, that great constant of international soccer, the permanent semifinalist, has long gone, to the raucous delight of Brazil and England and the more understated relief of the hosts Russia, France, Belgium and the rest.


Those nations that remain should have seen enough to know the dangers of counting their chicks before they hatch. Spain sacked its manager on the eve of the tournament and literally offered nothing. Together with Argentina, they were sitting on a time ticking bomb more especially that there was always a widening rift between players and coaches.  It surprised a few when Spain left the stage at the hands of tournament hosts Russia.  Argentina as captained by the great Lionel Messi struggled from the qualifying rounds right into the finals. 


It was not surprising when the nation called for the early exit of Coach Jorge Sampaoli. They were never at their best. Many were not astonished when France demolished them in the last 16 round. Even those contenders whose progress has been a little more serene — Brazil, France, Belgium, Croatia and England — can have little doubt that the old rules no longer apply. Brazil has played only in flashes but remains tournament favorites. France has conceded four goals, but also looks threatening.


The most impressive performances have come from nations outside the established elite: Croatia’s ruthless demolition of an admittedly chaotic Argentina; Mexico’s perfectly planned, expertly executed exploitation of all of Germany’s flaws. Colombia’s riotous return to form against Poland and unexpected fall from grace against the ambitious England.


But lo and behold, do not forget Sweden. They were out as the last games were played, but quickly turned around the situation when they frustrated highly rated Mexico to top the group. They are into the last 8 round where England awaits. This tournament, thus far, has belonged not to soccer’s great power- houses, but to its petite supposedly under dogs. Perhaps we should have seen that coming, when Argentina only crept into the tournament by the skin of its teeth, and when both the Dutch and the Italians failed to do even that.


At a time when the gap between the richest clubs and the rest has been allowed — encouraged, in fact — to become a chasm, international soccer has, refreshingly, blessedly, traveled in the opposite direction. It is more democratic than ever. Nations with less glittering histories — but good coaching, a sense of identity and players littered throughout Europe’s great leagues — no longer have quite so much to fear. The giants do not look quite so fearsome when you see them every week.


Of course, it is easy to say that after the group stage of a World Cup. The pattern of the tournament is familiar, and yet somehow forgotten, every four years. The first round of group games is cagey, cautious and offers little. More shocks are anticipated along the way. Uruguay is still a complex solid side. They have together with Brazil conceded a single goal and are likely to meet along the way.


It is tight; it is unpredictable as the last 8 teams battle for the ultimate crown. This time around the world’s two greatest players are nowhere to be seen. No Messi. No Ronaldo. Both players have won 10 Ballond’or titles between them, but it is not a time for history or experience, but a time for wonders.

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