World Cup 2018 is delivering, from VAR to Ronaldo, Messi and Germany drama
MOSCOW -- The group stage is over. Those dreaming the dream -- for some an exercise in positive visualization, for others the most enjoyable fantasy a footballer can have -- have been cut down by half. Some leave with regret, some with acceptance, others with shame and embarrassment. Those left behind know that a new tournament has begun. We've had our hard reset and our memory wiped (though not bookings), the screen has turned grey and it's about to flicker into life.
If you're worried about how history will judge your tournament, then take a page from Sir Winston Curchill: write it yourself.
To love this edition of the World Cup, you need to shed some beliefs that were once long-held. This is not the pinnacle of football, and really hasn't been for several decades. You see a higher standard in much of the Champions League and when the top teams in the top leagues play. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why that's the case. Move past that premise, learning to appreciate the flaws and missteps, and you can have a rip-roaring good time.
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If the Champions League knockout rounds are the Olympic figure skating competition, then this is Disney on Ice: no hard-core technical program for the judges to pore over but a big festival of fun and color, sights and sounds... and still with plenty of excellent ice skating on display.
Footage of supporters may be corny -- so many love to accentuate every possible national stereotype in dress and demeanor as if it's hard to believe they go to games clad the way they are in Russia -- but it's fun. Social media and smartphones ensure that little goes unrecorded or unshared.
We've been mostly spared violence (those Russian hooligans are mercifully still deep in the forest) and the idiocy of racism/sexism/homophobia, though the Danish FA were fined after displaying a banner that read "store bryster," which means "big breasts." Russian cities have been welcoming and for those of us fortunate enough to be here, mostly immaculately clean.
That VAR apocalypse hasn't quite materialized yet either. Some like it, some aren't convinced and some never will be, but the 17 reviews led to seven penalties and two goals that would otherwise not have been awarded, while wiping out two penalties that were incorrectly given as well as one case of mistaken identity. That's 12 major incidents that would have been endless talking points without it.
Overall, the officiating has been good, with some exceptions, even if you don't buy FIFA's official numbers: 335 incidents checked, of which 95 percent were correct on the pitch and 99.3 percent were correct with the help of VAR. Oh, and all that fretting over VAR stopping the flow of the game and turning matches into interminable slogs? The average review has taken 86 seconds and on average, there is one every three games. Maybe the message is simple: when you have good referees who do their job well, VAR is less of an intrusion.
On the pitch, the group stages were broadly bookended by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi scoring stunning goals that also proved to be important in propelling their countries to the next stage. (Both also happened to miss penalties, proving that genius is, occasionally, fallible.) In that sense the group stages delivered, as all the big guns progressed albeit with one notable exception (which I'll get to in a moment).
Belgium's Golden Generation showed that yes, maybe the issue really was Marc Wilmots, while Gareth Southgate's England continues to milk the positive vibe of managed expectations (and some good work on set pieces too). Brazil are growing into the tournament, getting stronger game by game, an ascent which goes hand in hand with a more disciplined, less wound-up Neymar (the two things coincide without being coincidental).
Spain are there too, having overcome their Julen Lopetegui-sized stutter, as are Argentina, whose tournament was born under a bad moon and if reports are to be believed, was only rescued by a sudden gust of player power and El Jefecito (the "little boss") Javier Mascherano living up to his nickname: he and the even littler boss, Messi, appear to be in charge now, with coach Jorge Sampaoli little more than a gofer.
France are also through, having sleepwalked through the group without breaking much of a sweat or answering too many questions: it's the sort of luxury afforded to those whose squads are teeming with talent.
Beyond Belgium, the only two sides to run the table were Uruguay, where the traditional garra intensity is boosted by fresh legs in midfield, and Croatia, who set aside past bad blood to bag one of the biggest wins around, thrashing Argentina. Hosts Russia surprised some by making it through with some impressive early blue-collar showings, as did Colombia, bouncing back from an inaugural defeat and finding an unlikely scoring hero in the never-ending Yerry Mina. Denmark's advance was smooth in France's wake, while Switzerland's was bumpy but no less satisfying thanks to a late comeback against Serbia and a vicious grind against Brazil.
Portugal, willed on by Ronaldo, also found a way into the last-16. So too did Japan, who benefited from a tiebreaker (the "Fair Play Points League") that didn't exist four years ago.
Mexico and Sweden advanced in the most improbable circumstances. Juan Carlos Osorio's crew advanced thanks to two early victories and a meltdown against the Swedes, who themselves were on the receiving end of one of the most dramatic buzzer-beating smackdowns in World Cup history (Toni Kroos' improbable free kick winner for Germany) and then bounced back by trouncing El Tri to win the group. When it comes to roller-coaster emotions, you marvel at the fact that the Mexicans and Swedes have anything left.
It's indicative, perhaps, that only two teams go home with zero points. Panama, who nevertheless celebrated their two goals as if they had won the whole competition, and Egypt, who gave us the mic drop moment of goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary becoming, at 45, the oldest player in World Cup history and saving a penalty. (In a perfect world, he would have walked off the pitch right then and there.)
Who leaves with righteous rage?
Certainly Morocco, a team unlucky with both officiating decisions and own goals, as well as Serbia, denied a stonewall penalty before their late-game meltdown against Switzerland. We're talking fine margins, like those that cost Senegal, ousted because of the fair play table: a World Cup first.
Tunisia were tough but not enough in a tough group, while Costa Rica, despite a heroic 90 minutes against Brazil, went down in injury time. Peru, marshaled by the gladiator that is Paolo Guerrero, gave us plenty of emotion but ultimately paid a price for imprecision, as did Iran, who were stuck in a difficult group but nevertheless came within minutes of advancing.
Saudi Arabia pulled off their Lazarus act, winning the third game after appearing 12 feet under in the opener, while Iceland showed Euro 2016 wasn't a fluke by not melting in the Russian summer. Poland were poor but marshaled some pride in their final (irrelevant) group game, beating Japan. So too did South Korea, gifting their fans their greatest moment since 2002 with that win over Germany. As for Nigeria, they were felled by Messi but only after proving skeptics wrong and showing that this young side has a sterling future.
And then there are the world champions. We'll leave it to the analytics nerds to tell us whether it's statistically relevant or a coincidence, but for the fourth time in five World Cups the team coming in with the crown bowed out at the group stage. Germany's demise was perhaps the most unexpected of all as the epitome of discipline and reliability descended into chaos. One point in three games -- and that point only thanks to an officiating blunder, missing Jerome Boateng's tackle on Marcus Berg, and Kroos' last-minute heroics -- isn't a black eye. It's a full body cast.
Most of all, what strikes you is that even the eliminated sides had something to cheer at some point, something to generate goose bumps, quicken pulse rates and provide the unadulterated scream that only a World Cup moment could offer. It's not just Kroos or El Hadary or Felipe Baloyi or Morocco coming within a whisker of knocking off Spain or Keylor Navas saving (almost) everything -- it's the way the World Cup transported even the neutral into a rare state of escape and anticipation and the sort of emotional high most of us live without in our quotidian drudgery.
Sure, there were low points (France vs. Denmark was a particular ordeal, punctuated by the boos echoing across the Luzhniki) but this tournament has had fewer than most... so far. Now comes the sink-or-swim bit, and we'll see whether fear and conservatism rule.
Here's hoping they don't. Here's hoping the carnival continues; the rush lasts until July 15.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.