02 September 2018
It’s been seven weeks since the final of Russia 2018, where France beat Croatia 4-2, and with that came the confirmation that the world just witnessed the best World Cup ever. In my lifetime, it certainly was. The closest competition was USA 94, which unfortunately fell down with dull semi finals and a really dull 0-0 final. Brazil 2014 was on track to be a great one until the knockout stages mostly disappointed. The rest going back to Mexico 86 were all good, while Germany 2006 will always be memorable due to Australia’s return and three dramatic matches. So Russia 2018 is it.
It wasn’t so much that Russia 2018 was full of goals (at 2.64 per match), or even full of great goals. The dead rubber of France vs Denmark was the only 0-0 too. It was mostly that it was full of drama. That drama was epitomised with the final itself, where own-goals, video assistant referees, penalties, a smaller nation excelling, and touches of class, all made it a microcosm for the tournament itself. With many Russian cities quite easterly, it meant a reasonably friendly timezone, so more of a football feast for us in Australia.
The six goals in the final of Russia 2018 was the same total as all the goals in normal time of the last four World Cup finals, and one less than the seven goals of the 1958 final. Croatia, though benefitting from one of the softest draws imaginable and requiring penalty shootouts and England to choke to progress, were unlucky to be 2-1 behind to France at half time. France had only one shot on goal for the half compared to 7 for Croatia. Classy goals on 59 and 65 minutes effectively sealed it for France, before a crazy goalkeeping error on 69 minutes gifted Croatia one back. It proved insufficient as France comfortably held on to win.
France were the best team all tournament and deserved 4-2 winners. In contrast to Croatia’s opponents along the way of Denmark, Russia and England, France had to contend with Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium – with the latter two arguably the third and second best teams in the tournament. Both likely would have breezed to the final on Croatia’s side of the draw. In fact, Belgium’s most important match was their final group game against England. Had they surrendered the game with a draw or a loss, they’d have been on the weaker side. Instead they won 1-0 – and then beat England again in the third placed game, 2-0.
Russia 2018 will also be remembered for the dominance of the European teams, and the poor performance outside of Europe and South America. All semi-finalists were European, while only Mexico and Japan could make the knockout phase, with both only scraping in. Despite two wins in their first two games, the 3-0 loss to Sweden in their final game meant Mexico required Korea to beat Germany. That happened only in the dying minutes, reversing the heartbreak Mexico had at the final whistle when it seemed that match would be a draw.
Japan only progressed through “fair play” rules after being in a deadlock with Senegal on all other tiebreak methods. From there, at least they put on a good show and seemed on course for a shock win over Belgium in their last 16 match when scoring two early second half goals, only to be run over and lose 3-2, with Belgium’s third goal coming with the last play of the game. Mexico looked good when beating Germany in the opening group game before later matches revealed Germany were a team on the slide. Only just scraping past Sweden and then losing to Korea to be sent home early. In fact, that win by Korea made it quite a successful tournament in the group phase for Asians teams. Four of the 5 won a match, with only Australia missing out.
It’s a mixed bag. Struggling through the qualifying campaign, expectations were low for Australia’s chances in Russia, with a feeling they would be on the path to humiliation. That short-term coach Bert van Marjwilk was able to mould a competitive and resilient unit was of great credit to him. Unfortunately, defence, something that has plagued Australia since they returned to the World Cup in 2006, was again weakness, with Australia 0-0 against Chile in 1974 remaining their only clean sheet. Quite simply, you won’t win many games at a World Cup while consistently conceding goals.
At Russia 2018, with the lack of firepower upfront, goals conceded, notably France’s second goal and Denmark’s goal, proved fatal. Both should have been prevented, and if so, a loss and a draw becomes a draw and a win, and progress to the knockout phase. By the time of the final match against Peru, there was little to play for, and for a Peruvian team unlucky in their first two matches, they were too good for Australia. So bottom of the group with 1 draw and two goals by penalty, it’s not good reading, and not the progress expected after 3 losses in 2014. One positive is, that after Belgium, Australia probably gave the eventual world champions their greatest test.
While debate turned to van Marwijk’s lack of use of Tim Cahill until the second half against Peru, the reality is the coach was left little time to prepare the team so stuck to a fixed plan. It was based on a settled team and improving them as a unit. With Cahill barely playing any minutes for the latter half of the season at Millwall, and already being phased out under Ange Postecoglou, it was always questionable to promote him ahead of players with solid time and form with their clubs. The second half against Denmark, when the game was there for the taking and Cahill remaining on the bench, that was probably the only questionable decision. While, in retrospect, Cahill should have got a run, too much focus there detracts from the overall good job done. As van Marwijk said, he’s not a magician. Australia’s issue all along was lack of quality players, especially gamebreakers and scorers in the final third.
Also questionable was former coach, Ange Postecoglou’s article on the Player’s Voice website, suggesting Australia still likes being an underdog, and his quest to change that attitude was actually a personal crusade, not a tidal wave of change he was about to ride. While that underdog sentiment still lingers (“brave” was a common word heard after the close loss to France), Postecoglou’s proposition to play aggressive, attacking football, to show the world Australia are not battlers, is very much another way to dodge accountability for poor results. As much as saying “we were underdogs” tries to justify a loss, so is saying “at least we had a go”. Neither are great mentalities, as the key measure of success at a World Cup is always results. If you look at a comparable team like Sweden, the question of whether you’d prefer their grafting style that sees consistently reach the quarter finals when they qualify or a “have a go” strategy that really only achieves praise from armchair neutrals, I know which way I’d go.
This World Cup was a counter-attacking World Cup, where the possession game was demolished, so to think Australia could bustle in and take on these crack international teams with such a strategy would have been a guaranteed mission of suicide. The “competitiveness and defensive stability” that van Marwijk brought was actually a positive because Australia lost it under Postecoglou. Being aggressive and attacking is all well and good as long as you don’t sacrifice other key aspects of the game. It’s quite galling for Postecoglou to be so critical of the playing style at this World Cup when he had abandoned the team with mission incomplete. For someone so full of the “have a go” mentality, he showed incredible weakness when crunch time came. Not just on the field either. Off the field and facing accountability, that was not something palatable for him. It seems as though Postecoglou felt he had carte blanche to do anything he pleased with the team, even if it jeopardised World Cup qualification itself. Apparently we were meant to look at the big picture. No, the big picture is the World Cup, and that’s where success and failure is defined.
It’s hard not feel some sort of sympathy for Ange Postecoglou’s ethos anyway, as much of the media and fans are obsessed with “performance” over results – a phenomena normally most appreciated only in the bedroom. Chief choir boy was again, Craig Foster on SBS, who typically within 5 seconds of being asked a question he’d begin prattling on about the same old stuff, while Lucy Zelic would look gushingly on. It became unlistenable that I would mute the telecast. Zelic had her faults too, notably her obsession with correct pronunciation of foreign names while doing nothing about her appalling English diction. It’s one of the worst Australian accents on TV. If she can sort that out, she’s a winner.
This was the first SBS football telecast since the death of Les Murray and it had a sense of watching kids on work experience kids. Really amateurish at times, with the two main hosts lacking direction. Guest panelists would lift it, as did the increased use of David Zdrilic. In retrospect, SBS might have been caught short as they were meant to only show one match per day after selling off most of the rights to Optus Sport. The debacle with their streaming service meant SBS would simulcast the games anyway. It’s a shame, because Optus had the far superior presentation, with the likes of John Aloisi and Mark Schwarzer providing great insight into the actual games, while their use of default English language commentators meant we were liberated from the tiresome Martin Tyler.
Video Assistant Referee (VAR)
This tournament was full of so many penalties, which be attributed to VAR. It was great in finding penalties that would often happen happen too fast, or not 100% certain, for the referee to see. It also created confusion about when it should be used, that whether it’s for overturning a “clear and obvious error”. First thing to realise, denying a rightful penalty would be a clear and obvious error. It’s not so much blatancy of a foul, it’s the impact, and obviously not awarding a penalty is a great impact on the match.
The final itself had a great example (along with Antoine Greizmann in France vs Australia) when Ivan Perisic was adjudged to have fouled. Whether deliberate or not is now irrelevant, and that’s been the trend for many years now, way before VAR. Bottom line is Perisic moved his hand downward to the ball, and palmed it onto his leg to knock it out of play. Intentional or not, the use of the hand clearly blocked the corner from entering the goal area. The only issue is that the referee took so long to confirm it.
Suggestions by ESPN commentators that the referee initially decided no when checking the replay, and then returned to look again, possibly prompted by VAR, is likely nonsense. He could have already confirmed a penalty and decided to double check. Remember also that with VAR about, referees are now less inclined to make tight calls, so rather than VAR there to intervene on clear and obvious errors, it’s really to intervene on clear and obvious incidents, especially relating to penalty kick decisions, and also if the referee never saw the incident in the first place.
Also the rule about “deliberate” means subjectivity is always involved. While the referees have been moving towards zero tolerance over the years, VAR almost makes it zero tolerance. With that knowledge, then “deliberate” needs to be removed from the equation, and any handball in the box that affects the offensive team’s chance of scoring should be a penalty. Note, such incidents outside the box are nearly always a foul, so just because the repercussions might be harsher on the offending team, it shouldn’t mean the enforcement of the rule is less strict. In fact, when the stakes are higher, so should be the enforcement. Remember that players are so adept these days at making anything intentional look like an accident, and while Perisic may have known nothing about the penalty, there’s every possibility he did know about it, and in the natural action of dropping his arms after jump, he deliberately made sure to contact the ball.
Another curiosity of this World Cup was the plethora of own goals. A new interpretation seemed in effect whereby any deflection was classed as an own goal. Previously the shooter would get the goal as long as the shot looked like it was heading towards goal, so typically meant glancing deflections were always goals and huge ones less likely so. I’ve never liked that interpretation and always believed it should be about intent. Any deliberate shot towards should be a goal regardless of deflection because the shot caused the deflection, whereas an own goal is a deflection from a non-attempt on goal, like a cross. Obviously goals directly from the defending team are always own goals.
QF Brazil vs Belgium 1-2
A quality display by Belgium to snuff out Brazil’s chance for immediate World Cup redemption after the semi-final 7-1 debacle against Germany in 2014.
R16 Belgium vs Japan 3-2
A stunning second half where Japan scored a double early before Belgium over-ran them, scoring the third goal only the last play of the match via a classic counter attack.
R16 France vs Argentina 4-3
France showed their potential to put Argentina away. A flattering result for Argentina, while Lionel Messi leaves another World Cup with both he and his country unfulfilled.
R16 Uruguay vs Portugal 2-1
Uruguay provided a classy display to sweep past the pretentious Portugal and Ronaldo, especially notable for two superb goals by Edinson Cavani.
QF Russia vs Croatia 2-2 (3-4)
The most dramatic match of the tournament with Croatia coming from 1-0 down to go 2-1 up in extra time, only for Russia to equalise late to sent it to penalties. A shame the Russians had to go, especially after knocking out Spain in the previous round.
With a winter World Cup confirmed, set for 21 November to 18 December, talk now is about the other big possible change: increasing teams to 48. In terms of games played, there’s only 16 more, so the real issue is whether a small country like Qatar can accommodate 48 teams plus all the supporters. Typically these sorts of suggestions that would be well embraced by national associations are implemented quickly, so it’s likely a 48 team World Cup will arrive 4 years earlier than planned. The smaller confederations benefit the most with Asia getting 8 places (currently 4.5), Africa 9 places (5), CONCACAF 6 places (3.5) and Oceania 1 place (0.5). Europe get 16 places (13) and South America 6 (4.5). There’ll be 16 groups of 3, with the top 2 progressing to the knockout stage, meaning 32 teams will play 3 matches like now. It sounds ideal, so get it done.
One foible will be that with 3 teams to a group there’s no simultaneous final match like presently. Personally, these simultaneously matches have always been an overreaction to a controversy in 1982 when Austria and Germany seemed to conspire in their final group match to ensure they both progressed instead of Algeria, who played the day before. Such a situation can be avoided by a floating schedule for the final round whereby, in the 1982 case, Austria and Germany would have played first. Facts are, these days the final round equations are obvious anyway (eg: this year France and Denmark knew a draw would be enough to progress ahead of Australia), while a small thing called the telephone and internet keep teams updated about the concurrent match anyway (note when Japan learnt Senegal went behind to Colombia they suddenly settled for their 0-1 score against Poland and simply kept possession for the last 10 minutes). Also, in a 3 group team, a conspiracy situation is less likely to arise.
That was Russia 2018 – The 21st World Championship of Football