In a World Cup initially mired by talk of Putin-centric international politics and yet another bout of British pessimism, Russia 2018’s group stage has reminded everyone that there’s no greater tonic than the beautiful game. There’s been thrills, surprises, a healthy dose of VAR controversy (my two cents: VAR is brilliant, and it’s up to the referees to swallow their pride and make the right decision) and a (less-than-healthy) dose of genuine ‘It’s coming home’ chants, but for the last two weeks it seems like the whole world and its mum have basked in the soccer-saturated sun.
The hosts actually managed to give a good account of themselves – at least until they ran into decent opposition – dispatching the mighty Saudi Arabia 5-0 and the Egyptians 3-1 to rid any talk of crashing out at the first hurdle. It was a group, though, of little upsets – Uruguay slumbered to three industrial wins (and looking ahead, they may slumber to a few more) and Russia tagged along – perhaps most upsetting was how little Egypt offered, in spite of their half-injured talisman, Salah. No African team managed to qualify for the knockout stages, but at least each other gave it a go: Egypt were the continental slackers.
If Group A followed the script to a tee, at least Group B thought about ditching it and going improv. In the end, Spain and Portugal went through, but in their way were Morocco, a side that proved that exquisite open play is just huff-and-puff if finishing goes amiss, and Iran, their uglier, less talented brother who gets by on effort alone. A close-knit group saw an intense final day in which Iran were two yards away from knocking out the Euro Cup winners – a situation only mustered up by a contentious VAR decision. But for all their best intentions, the group finished as expected. Spain and Portugal didn’t particularly impress, but the Spanish can be blisteringly fluid at times, Portugal have Ronaldo – and of course, their opposition were more tricky than at first glance.
Group C also followed the script, but my is that script forgettable: five dull-ish games and one sacrilegious bore draw between France and Denmark saw the Europeans go through and Peru and Australia head for the showers. Peru may have played some slick football at times, but they carry the burden of being the only South American team to leave before the knockouts.
Which is surprising, considering that Argentina, too, was confronting an early exit. They’re a big name, but recent results and an untidy qualification campaign meant that a draw to Iceland and a damning defeat to Croatia wasn’t exactly unlikely – however shocking those scorelines read. Of course, leave it to Messi to salvage their campaign and Nigeria to once again turn into Argentinian punching-bags: though with France on the horizon, their days are numbered. With Argentina failing to impress, Croatia more than took up that mantle, refusing to let their ‘dark horse’ handle go to waste. Only time will tell whether their World Cup bid is genuine, or a repeat of Euro 2016.
Brazil, early favourites heading into the tournament, haven’t had any 7-1 disaster to derail their ambitions. While a nervy draw to Switzerland and a last-gasp win over Costa Rica may have seen their imperious status wobble, against Serbia they played like a side confident of winning the Cup. Switzerland squeezed through, as they usually do – and they’ve landed themselves a competitive fixture against the Swedes as a reward. Their football is hardly pretty, but it’s effective – effective enough to go toe-to-toe with the Brazilians and see off Serbia.
The shock of the tournament – surely the biggest German-related surprise at a World Cup for at least four years – saw the Bavarians collapse in style, as South Korea turned on the heat. The quickest German exit from Russia since 1945, Joachim Low’s team lacked motivation and ideas; even if a last-minute Kroos goal against Sweden gave them fleeting hope. It’s those Swedes – who have now seen off Italy, the Netherlands and Germany in qualifying for the Round of 16 – who top Group F, while Mexico join them (though their early optimism looks to be fading following a disastrous 3-0 final round loss).
England and Belgium battled it out for 1st and 2nd, as we all expected they would, but the twist is that 2nd looks like much the juicier of the two options (due to the whim of the knockout round brackets). Which may explain why their head-to-head fixture wasn’t high on intensity – or watchability. In truth, England’s World Cup worries go beyond a losing 1-0 B-team final day friendly though: they laboured to 3 points against a weak Tunisia, and looked hopeless from open play against Panama, in spite of some excellent set pieces. They’ll need to improve drastically to fell Colombia, but a quarter-final fixture against either Sweden or Switzerland is incentive enough.
There’s always a ‘group of death’, and Group H was certainly that candidate: four evenly-matched teams on paper battling it out for two spots. Colombia topped the group, carrying momentum with them following a 2-1 opening loss, while Japan followed suit – though they needed a Senegalese collapse in order to do so. The only AFC team remaining in the competition, Japan have achieved what no African team has managed – but their hopes may end with Belgium.
This World Cup group stage has been notable for many things: the lack of goalless draws (THANKS France vs Denmark), the momentous use of VAR (which works fine – its only flaw is the room for human error), and once again, let’s all laugh at the Germans. With few big teams particularly impressing (and the two star-studded teams that are, Belgium and Brazil, may meet in the quarter-finals), this may be the World Cup of the underdog. So here’s to Sweden, Croatia, Uruguay, and – my God – maybe even England. They’ll have to sort out their defensive problems and attacking unity, but with an easy-ish road to the semis, and as long as Kane keeps bonking the ball into the net, anything’s possible.
Well, not anything. Germany can’t win it anymore, for one.