Dr Kh Ajit Singh
Football’s World Cup Tournament comes back to Asia at Qatar after the soccer bonanza was first jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea in 2002. Probably, no other World Cup has been as intense as this edition being packed with shocks and surprises after the exciting and entertaining 1986 Mexico World Cup glamourised by legendary Diego Maradona’s skilful performance and dominating personality tinged with a bit of mischief handing out the prestigious FIFA Gold Cup for the second time to Argentina after having won the coveted prize in the 1978 edition of the global competition.
Almost all the first round games (groups A-H) of this edition of World Cup have been hard fought except in Groups B & D dominated respectively by fancy England (1966 Champions) and elegant France (1998 & 2018 Champions).
First round matches in the said groups have not been devoid of elements of drama with USA (Group B) and Australia (Group D) becoming Group-Runners having beaten Iran (1-0) and Denmark (1-0) respectively in their deciding group matches.
People did not talk of a Group of Death before the tournament kicked off but Groups C, E, F & H matches have turned out unusually tough and competitive with Group winners & runners up having had to decide only at the very end of the last matches. And Group E has indeed been the Group of Death with Japan becoming Group winners beating mighty German (4 times World winners) and slick Spain (2010 World Cup winners, 2008 & 2012 Euro winners) with the same (2-1) score line and Spain having to qualify for the second round by the skin of teeth and by virtue of more number of goals scored at the cost of Germany who outplayed Costa Rica (4-2) in their last group match.
The highly charged and intense first round games of this World Cup is the outcome of the exposure of players from the continents of Asia and Africa in the most competitive and lucrative European Leagues and the fall out is that Asian and African Teams have been as strong as any footballing European or Latin American Nation.
Now that, we have seen Japan dominating Germany and Spain; Saudi Arabia snubbing pre tournament favourites Argentina; Morocco outclassing Belgium; Tunisia defeating group leaders France (1-0); South Korea outclassing Portugal (Euro 2012 winners) and so on.
With the knock out round of 16 knocking the door, France the winners of 2018 World Cup look like the only Team to beat to win the World Cup by any of the Strong Contenders; England sound well equipped to be the World Winners; Portugal still look like capable of producing win after wins; Spain are, as yet, impressive with their tiki taka and talented young players under the leadership of Luis Enrique the former Barcelona boss; while Brazil and Argentina look stylish with their amazing brand of football looking capable of proceeding further now that their common nemesis Germany have been shown the way out.
The first round 32 matches have seen 116 goals scored with one red card flashed to a player & average goals scored per game is 2.4. Leonel Messi’s (left leg) shot from the right and top of the box scoring against high spirited Mexico has been a dream goal and Richarlison’s (Brazil) half turn overhead kick from the penalty area scoring against a physical Serbia is right out of the blue.
These goals have mesmerised people watching the games live not really believing what they have just seen. The goalkeeping have been excellent and football lovers have been left feeling dizzy when penalty shots from Lewandowski (Poland) and Messi (Argentina) have been miraculously saved by Mexico and Poland goalies.
There have been moments of hope and despair at the eleventh hours of the last stage of the first round. Looking confident, the Mexicans seem to be heading for the round of 16 having scored 2 second half goals against the giant killers Saudi Arabia who have never given up managing to score one goal to make the score line (2-1) preventing Mexico from entering the next round. And in the same stage of the same group, Argentina went on dismantling Poland scoring two wonderful goals and Poland have been certain of their imminent ouster. At the end of the game, feeling demolished, the crying Poland players managed to smile with tear drops rolling down their cheeks when told that they have qualified as group runners after Argentina at the cost of Mexico.
Countries qualified for the round of 16 are - Netherlands & Senegal (Group A), England & USA (Group B), Argentina & Poland (Group C), France and Australia (Group D), Japan & Spain (Group E), Morocco & Croatia (Group F), Brazil & Switzerland (Group G) and Portugal & South Korea (Group H).
From the quality of the games in the first round matches, it looks as though there would be upsets and heartbreaks with some of the so called favourites becoming push-overs.
But one can remain happy that this beautiful game of football is still very beautiful. In the game of soccer, players play following and respecting the laws and rules of football unlike man does elsewhere elbowing and knee-jerking without a hint of respect for human laws.