Cope: Lots of surprise successes, including the video assistant referees, so far at World Cup (column)
Special to the Daily
Heading into the second weekend of games, this World Cup has revealed itself to be an entertaining and thrilling spectacle.
We’ve now seen everyone play at least one game, and most teams have played twice. This weekend features some great matchups — Mexico will try to follow up their historic win over Germany with a game against South Korea on Saturday, June 23, while Germany will fight to stave off elimination against Sweden. On Sunday morning, England faces World Cup debutants Panama as they try to assure passage to the knockout rounds before a tough match to close out the group against Belgium next week. They will try to improve on a performance that had my Dad complaining during the second half, “Same old bloody England.”
How wonderful it has been for the host country, Russia, to see a group of athletes raise their performance and energy to peak levels in time for a major competition that they are hosting. Spurred on solely, one hopes, by the cheering of their crowd and the adrenalin in the stadium felt by a host nation, Russia has won each of their first two matches. They have also run further than any team at the World Cup as a group, with three of their players topping the list of kilometers covered per ninety minutes leading to a few raised eyebrows. Russia has already clinched its passage to the knockout phase of the competition.
‘MEXICANS ON MARS’
Mexico’s upset of Germany was one of the best matches of the tournament thus far. Rather than sit back and try to limit Deutschland’s chances, Mexico signaled their intent to attack and came right out of the blocks to almost score an early goal. Mexico’s “Chucky” Lozano scored a fantastic goal on the counter attack which stood up as the only goal of the match. Mexico was roared on by a huge traveling contingent of fans. Mexican forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez had — according to Sports Illustrated reporter Grant Wahl’s podcast — remarked earlier that “There are Mexicans on Mars!” The Mexican diaspora around the world has often been the most vocal supporters of the team. At home in the Azteca stadium, fans had chanted “Osorio fuera,” for their coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, to be fired in the buildup to the World Cup.
If Osorio can lead Mexico out of the group in first place, now a distinct possibility, then they should avoid Brazil in the next round and might achieve that elusive fifth game that they have been pursuing with futility in the previous six World Cups. Victory over South Korea on Saturday will seal passage for Mexico with one game to spare in the group phase.
Contrasting the performance of the top two players in the world has been interesting. While Lionel Messi’s Argentina hasn’t been eliminated, they have struggled mightily. Messi missed a penalty in their draw against Iceland and was ineffective in the 3-0 loss to Croatia, prompting a friend of mine to comment that he had “gone Messing.”
Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, leads the competition with 4 goals in his first two matches, including a hat trick against the Spanish squad. Ronaldo’s Portugal tied Spain 3-3 in a match for the ages that saw him equalize with a free kick in final minutes. Both teams struggled to 1-0 wins in their subsequent games and look safe to advance. Ronaldo’s performance in big games continues to amaze, leading Real Madrid to three consecutive Champions League titles and Portugal to become Champions of Europe in 2016. Is a World Cup a bridge too far? Doubt him at your peril.
Brazil and France have made tough work of it, but also both look to advance to the knockout phase. African teams struggled early on in the competition until Senegal and Nigeria both picked up wins. Nigeria, with one win, will close out the group phase against Argentina, likely needing a draw to advance and eliminate Argentina and Messi. Senegal will look to consolidate its opening win on Sunday against Asia’s top team, thus far, Japan.
Perhaps the top player, outside of Cristiano Ronaldo, has been Croatia’s Luka Modric. The Real Madrid midfielder, and club teammate of Ronaldo, was magnificent in their 3-0 demolition of Argentina. His impervious touches to keep possession all over the field and support teammates were capped off by a blast from outside the box.
Lastly, Video Assistant Referees, VAR, which was predicted by this writer to be a fiasco and to delay games, has been a success. Referees have been alerted to check the video when the group watching upstairs thinks they have missed something or made a mistake. He then jogs over to the monitor, checks the footage to make a ruling. It hasn’t taken long and has managed to prevent cheating, such as a dive and penalty appeal by Neymar of Brazil, and spot penalty kick infractions that might previously have gone unnoticed.
Enjoy the games this weekend.
David Cope teaches social studies and coaches the boys and girls soccer teams at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards.