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FIFA World Cup: 4 Mouth-Watering QFs, 1 Free-Falling Neymar Coming Up

While a reinvigorated Brazil look favourites against Belgium, France will need a dash of Mbappe magic to breach the Uruguayan defence in the FIFA World Cup quarter-finals
Neymar of Brazil football team at FIFA World Cup.

Neymar's play acting and histrionics at FIFA World Cup have cast a cloud on his own image and, by extension, that of Brazil football team (Pic: IANS).

The FIFA World Cup is slowly being whittled down to the cream of the crop. Contenders, pretenders and favourites, all have been put through the mixer and the resultant mixture has thrown up these eight, deemed fit enough to make a charge to the title. Each of them know they just have to win three matches to take home the biggest prize in world football.

Of the eight, Brazil seem to be the overwhelming favourites to get the job done. Their historical psychological advantage aside, this Brazilian team is greater than the sum of its parts. They were underwhelming in the group stages, and yet topped the pack. Against Mexico, they were expected to be put to a stern test, and they came through comfortably, without any real weaknesses exposed. Credit is due.

Despite losing Marcelo to injury, their replacement Filipe Luis has fit in without a hitch. The Atletico Madrid wingback is an exceptional player, and only in Brazil would he be deemed a replacement. Where other teams may have worried about losing a key part of the puzzle, Brazil have a replacement who is almost better than the real thing.

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In much the same way, losing Casemiro through suspension is not expected to tell too much. Fernandinho, his replacement, is, after all, no pushover. He is a regular starter at Manchester City and was instrumental in setting up their second goal against Mexico.

In addition, Fernandinho will provide even more security to a Brazilian team that relies and thrives on being a hard nut to crack. Uruguay may be vaunted as being the defensive stalwarts of the World Cup, but it cannot be overlooked that Brazil have conceded exactly the same number of goals as them in the tournament – just one.

Their big test now obviously comes against Belgium – a team that is again a great collective. Much is expected from the Belgium golden generation, and, despite coming close to almost losing it against Japan, they showed their strength in depth by summoning the two unlikeliest match-winners to win them the game. This match will be a cracker and is arguably the gem of the quarterfinals.

READ MORE | World Cup: Lukaku, Mbappe and the Colonial Ghosts Within Belgium and France

I have focussed on emphasising the team collective rather than point individuals in this encounter for the simple reason that Neymar’s performance at the World Cup has left a bad taste in the mouth. His quality as a player cannot be understated. He is a genuinely good player and a joy to watch – his backheel to open up space for Willian to exploit against Mexico is a prime example. His play acting and histrionics, though, have cast a cloud on his own image and, by extension, that of his team.

The World Cup is a tournament watched by millions and millions of children who will grow up idolising, being inspired and looking up to players like him. By rolling around on the floor and falling at the faintest of touches, he sets a bad example for everyone who watches the game.

Football is a beautiful game, and it is so because of the way it is played. The best in the game never resort to unfair means to gain an advantage. Lionel Messi is renowned for never diving over or taking contact to earn a foul. More often, despite being very obviously fouled, Messi chooses to play the ball. His focus remains on playing the game. Neymar, a former teammate of his, would learn a lot by paying heed to this.

READ MORE | In Japan’s Spirited World Cup Show, a Lesson for Other Asian Teams

He needn’t look further than his opponents’ striker, Romelu Lukaku for example. Against Tunisia, through on goal, Lukaku took contact from the opposition defender and fell to the floor. Where other players may have protested asking for a penalty, Lukaku stood up and quickly waved off the challenge, clearly telling the referee that the challenge was fair. Those are the sights that make football memorable.

Which brings us to the other quarterfinal – France against Uruguay. France, and Kylian Mbappe in particular, have been lauded for the way they destroyed Argentina in the last-16 clash. The real test for them, though, is against the Uruguayans, a team known for resolute defending and collective hard work.

Mbappe will find the kind of space he found against Argentina hard to come by. Despite the fact that their leader, Diego Godin, is ageing, the team has moulded themselves in his character. They do not press up high, leaving themselves stretched. While Mbappe has definitely captured the imagination with a great display against Argentina, this match will really be a coming-of-age for him. If he can find his edge, then the battle will be a mouthwatering watch.

[The author represented India through 1998-2011. He is an AFC A-licenced coach and heads the Football Players’ Association of India]

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