Op-Ed: There Are No Favourites In This Goal-rich World Cup

Thank God the World Cup matches tend to be played late at night – for us Indians, that is – no matter where it is held! Not that it would have made a difference to diehard fans – or even to those like this author who wake up to football only once every four years. But it is a huge relief for the night birds that key matches are played late at night IST. That’s because there is no way one can be brave, bold and crazy enough to take a complete break from work for the entire month-long duration of the World Cup!

The best thing about this World Cup so far has been the number of goals scored. It is a measure of the goal-scoring spree this World Cup has seen that even after 36 matches spread over 11 days since the kick-off on June 14, the tournament has still managed to keep at bay the one thing that every true football fan dreads: a goalless draw! To put things in perspective, the previous longest stretch without a goalless draw was just 26 matches and that too 64 years ago in Switzerland. This one will certainly take some beating!

Goals, after all, are the oxygen that keep the adrenalin pumping and the fans going into raptures; shouting themselves hoarse; waving their hands like they were wind mills; jumping about in the stands like ecstatic kids. There is nothing more exciting for the fan than a player leaping into the air and heading the ball to the corner of the net or beating the defence cordon – and the goalkeeper – with a wonderfully timed curling free kick to the far corner. This is what the fans from across the world come to see. And this is what the millions of fans, who can’t make it to the stadium, spend sleepless nights glued to their television sets for. That’s why it has been a virtual feast for the eyes of the fans, whether in the stands or in front of TV sets thousands of miles away.

The next best thing about the Cup in Russia is it has been a remarkably even contest so far. The mighty have struggled while the minnows have punched above their weight. The two late night games on Monday epitomized what has been the stand out feature of this World Cup. Who would have thought that Iran, of all teams, would hold Portugal, with a born-again Christiano Ronaldo firing on all cylinders, to a 1-1 draw? Or, for that matter, that Morocco would give Spain, the 2010 champions, the scare of their lives before a controversial offside ruling in injury time leveled the scores 2-2? Anyone who has seen the spirited Croatia stun giants Argentina, the finalists in the last World Cup in Brazil, 3-0 on Thursday or Germany, the perennial favourites, escape through the skin of their teeth with that last gasp goal by the unfading Kroos against Sweden on Saturday would know that there are no favourites in this World Cup. Put differently, it has at least 5/6 favourites. And that, in my view, is what makes this World Cup such an exciting prospect.

The other remarkable thing about this World Cup is the number of matches that have been decided in injury time. Though I haven’t watched all the matches, I can count quite a few among the matches I have managed to watch where the decider has been scored after the scheduled 90 minutes ran out. Bouhaddouz’s own goal that sunk Iran 0-1 against Morocco; Tony Kroos’ 95th minute winner against Sweden and the latest; Iago Aspas’ header that saved Spain the blushes against Morocco, who bowed out of the tournament in a blaze of glory on Monday. Brazil, in fact, managed to do the unthinkable by scoring a double in injury time in their game against Coast Rica – by Coutinho in the 91st minute and Neymar in the 97th. Going by the evidence so far, injury time appears to be the most likely period for a goal to be scored!

Amid all the excitement, however, there have been some heart-rending scenes as well. It was painful to see a clueless Lionel Messi, certainly among the greatest the game has seen, meandering along wearing the forlorn look of a loser, as his team went down 0-3 to Croatia the other day. In sharp contrast, Christiano Ronaldo, another player who has often been accused of playing better for his club than his country, redeemed himself in stunning fashion in this World Cup with a splendid hat-trick in his team’s opening game against Spain on June 15.

This author got a real scare when the vuvuzela made a reappearance in this World Cup. One thought vuvuzela had been put behind in South Africa. But fans played the monster (it would be a travesty to call it a ‘musical instrument’!) non-stop in the game between Morocco and Iran. Its raucous blaring was heard even in the game between Spain and Iran. But mercifully, it has been a muted affair so far, unlike the ear drum-splitting, mind-numbing and irritating cacophony that marked the World Cup in South Africa eight years ago.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)