The World Cup is off to a commanding start. Russia set the stage with a five goal thumping, and, from then on, a few dour games have been followed by some true classics. The real highlights though have been the fans, who have turned out in large numbers and really given the event its shine. It’s appropriate then that our highlights also start with them.
It is impossible to miss the colour in the stadiums any time one of the CONMEBOL nations are on the pitch. In Brazil, four years ago, this was unavoidable and absolutely expected. But, in Russia, this dedication has to be appreciated. Of the South American lot, the Peruvians have to be applauded for the way they have turned out in numbers for their team’s first appearance at the World Cup in 36 years. Some, like this one, have taken the fanaticism to dangerously unhealthy levels. Literally. The Mordovia Arena, the centre of Peru’s opening game against Denmark, seemed like it was more in Lima and less in Saransk. Against Japan, Colombian fans similarly took over the arena. This is in sharp contrast to the number of European fans who have turned up to watch their nations compete in Russia. It is clear that the passion for the game is in the heartland yet—South America, for now, are winning the Fans World Cup. But it must be pointed out that, despite the overwhelming majority of their supporters, both teams lost their respective games.
For those who were counting: the 2014 World Cup in Brazil saw 13 penalties awarded through the course of the tournament. At the time of writing—with one round of games gone, the count in Russia is 10. Not just that. 22 of the 38 goals (over 50%) scored in Russia have come courtesy of set pieces. In fact, the game between Colombia and Japan provided the perfect triumvirate of penalty, corner and free kick. The obvious thing to do is point this towards the introduction of VAR and one wouldn’t be wrong. With referees being offered a second opinion for infringements and fouls in the box, the propensity for all-out wrestling during corners and free kicks has diminished. Subconsciously, perhaps, players are more careful of what they are doing and preventing fouls inside the box, which could cost their team.
It is hard to remember a time when no single player complained about the ball during the World Cup. The most notorious of Adidas’ offerings has been the Jabulani, a ball that irked attackers and goalkeepers alike in the 2010 edition. Its major criticism was of course the fact that the ball wobbled in the air without deliberate intent. So far, with the Telstar 18, so good. That Adidas offered up their design for every team to use and get used to from November onwards could have helped. The fact that the ball stays true in flight can also be used by seeing the way players such as Aleksandr Golovin, Cristiano Ronaldo and Aleksandar Kolarov have scored with free-kicks—using their technique rather than power to hit the net. Everyone hasn’t been so pleased though. Egypt’s goalkeeper Essam El Hadary complained about the ball before their match against Russia, saying “We are the victims of FIFA and the ever-developing football.” The truth then reflects the modern game. Attackers love the ball. Goalkeepers don’t. As it should be.
The Asian confederation has often been accused of serving up weaker spots at the World Cup, and sometimes the blame has come with some justification. Despite a tough start—Russia handing Saudi Arabia a 5-0 hammering—the performance has picked up. Australia gave a good account of themselves against France. Iran, despite a dour performance, managed three points against Morocco, and South Korea toughed it out against Sweden. The coup de grace though was Japan, who scored big for Asia in more ways than one. By beating Colombia they became the first Asian team to a) beat a South American nation, b) score more than a goal against a South American nation and c) record a win in Europe. It also puts Japan in an interesting spot in their group, one where they were never fancied to go through. Their win, coupled with Senegal’s win against Poland, puts the two favored teams under huge pressure heading into the next round of matches. If Japan can manage a couple of points in their next two games, an Asian team will be guaranteed a spot in the next round.
Footballers score all kinds of goals. Dead ball goals require extreme concentration and impeccable skill at putting a ball on a stamp. Headers are about reach, strength and timing. Short range finishes are all about being at the right place at the right time, having patience and an uncanny telepathy with the passer. Solo dribbles are a treat to watch and obviously always end up in the pantheon of great goals. They are the pinnacle of what football is about -- beauty, grace and the often underestimated ability to run with a spherical object at your feet. A sumptuous volley though is a different beast altogether. It is the most difficult skill to master. Any competent footballer will tell you this. That’s because it requires the timing of a header, the concentration of a dead ball specialist, the patience of a finisher and the ball skills of a dribbler. A volley is the pinnacle of footballing technique. And Nacho’s against Portugal was -- forgive the pun -- crisply taken.