The best thing is that it’s not even over yet, so the gift that has already given may keep on giving.
It rolls around every four years, and millions of hearts are won and broken each time, and the same millions willingly signing up for more of the same come the next four- no wonder the FIFA World Cup is often called “The Greatest Show On Earth”, and the 2018 edition hosted by Russia is mostly likely to go down in the ages as one of the most entertaining and memorable tournaments, both on the pitch and off it.
Never mind the odds, anything can happen- For the neutrals out there who don’t have a team to root for (Italy, Netherlands are the biggest absences) or already seen theirs knocked out of the group stage, there were plenty of shock wins and some incredible near-there performances, and already eliminated teams strutting about as unlikely kingmakers- South Korea somehow found the courage to convincingly defeat Germany 2-0, ensuring Mexico’s passage to the round of 16 (sadly Brazil was too strong for them) and Poland’s goal against Japan had so much impact in their group that Japan only got through by the virtue of having less yellow cards than Japan.
The duel between Spain and Russia was one of the most nail-biting, heart-racing finishes, and one could only imagine the euphoria when Akinfeev (RUS) bounced Iago Aspas’ (ESP) shot during the penalty shootout. The streets and pubs of England (and other places with high concentrations of Englanders) lost their minds when Eric Dier coolly slots the winning penalty, breaking England’s long running curse on the penalty shootout roulette.
The general takeaway- the gulf in quality between some of the top teams, and the ones that are just a touch out of reach has been reduced greatly to a point where anyone can beat one another.
Australia’s place in all of this- The Socceroos were to be honest, mediocre, and blunt up-front. However there was plenty of great points- the Australian midfield and defensive lines are the best parts of our team- and the combination of Mile Jedinak (our sole goalscorer in this WC), Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic, with Irvine on the bench, is rock solid and will be the core of the team in years to come, whilst Super Tim leaves, having competed in four World Cups, a feat shared by only 5 others. Mathew Ryan has already cemented himself as the natural successor to the legend that was Mark Schwarzer.
However, the lack of a predatory goalscorer that takes names and makes the back pages day after day continues to haunt our nation. If the best forward up front we can name is Andrew Nabbout, who is hardly lighting up the A-League- then that’s a problem that may take a long time to fix- Daniel Arzani represents the next generation’s best hope, along with the likes of Awer Mabil, Chris Oikonomidis and Panos Armenakas. As for youth development- the closing of the FFA Centre of Excellence and relying on clubs to do the dirty work of developing the stars of the future, at a stage when at best only Central Coast Mariners and Melbourne City have a fully fledged and productive youth programme is mind-numbingly insane. That said we’ll probably continue to qualify for the World Cup for years to come.
Hi VAR, it’s very nice to meet you- The biggest talking point is a guy named VAR, full name Video Assist Referee. He’s pretty shy, and likes to sit in a room all day, looking at so many screens that would make Fortnite addicts look normal. On the record, VAR has been doing a lot of work, handing out penalties like candy that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, and calling out superstar/prima donna major Neymar’s bluff. Not convinced- the statistics may- Human referees without assistance make 95% correct decisions. With VAR- make that 99.3%.
The impeccable niceness of the 12th man- Football wouldn’t be like it is now, if it wasn’t for the fans- often called the 12th man of a team- and the fans have made moments of their own. Consider the surreal image of Mexican supporters on the stands… tuning into the South Korea v Germany game- then proceeding to bear hug and carry aloft every random Korean within vicinity- and then top it off by having such a huge impromptu party at the South Korean embassy in Mexico (where reportedly its ambassador knocked back a few Coronas’). Japan’s supporters have also captured hearts, by leaving stadiums more spotless than before the day’s proceedings- and Senegal, especially that tiny band who paint themselves white and leading the crowd with dancing. Notably also, the lack of violence and hooliganism that had painted the sport (your move, basketball) with a very black tar brush in recent years- despite the fearsome reputation of Russia’s own firms who have been recently subject to harsh violent crackdowns.
And the modern game’s evolution- All it takes is four years of innovation and invention to bear fruition- the games from the 2014 World Cup feels like a relic of a bygone era (the tournament itself was largely forgettable, aside from that 7-1 travesty), and the way the best teams play now- it’s extremely breathtaking. Building teams around superstars is out, and coming in are teams that defend, attack, move and create space as one.
The fluidity of the Belgians, the English and the French in their respective 3-4-3, 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 setups is efficient as it is sublime. Three / two at the back to create a core defensive spine, two / three central midfielders that cover the large middle of the park on both defense and offense, two on each flank (France's wingers starts from the back, rathern further up the field) that run up and down the length to either provide an attacking outlet like a traditional winger or pursue opposition wingers when not having possession. Three forwards up-front that work together to unlock defences but also drop back into the midfield role to function as a passing outlet whilst on the build-up (in England's case, Dele Alli moving forward to assist Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in the offensive movement)
This kind of system places immense demands on footballers- physically and mentally.
The modern footballer has to be tactically intelligent, inevitably with a level of education (gone are the days of stupid people only good with kicking a ball) that would surpass even university graduates, with an awareness of everyone’s approximate position every second, but also physically at their peak, capable of lasting 90 minutes running up and down the park. This goes for every one from the defence to the forwards- moving forward, the possibility of one day that fixed positions may disappear altogether- and old man Johan Cruyff’s dream of a ‘Total Football’ where each outfield player is capable of playing every role at any given time, will be a (beautiful) reality.
It’s not over yet though- The quarters, semis and then the final are yet to be decided. Years from now, the question will be asked- where were you when the 2018 FIFA World Cup was on?
Clay’s predictions for the quarter finals:
France – Uruguay
Russia – Croatia
Brazil – Belgium
Sweden – England