ONDRIVE with Sham Samaroo
Russia is into the quarterfinals. What a pleasure it is to see the smiles and unbridled happiness on the faces of our host: a far cry from when I was in Russia in the early 80s during the so-called socialist paradise. Back then, one could easily have been excused for thinking that socialism meant taking a vow of suffering, sadness, and blind obedience. You see, the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money: Something their socialist leaders likely knew, but the powerless and obedient Russian citizens found out the hard way. Perhaps, the thousands of fans, in Russia to enjoy the sights and sounds of the world’s most exciting sporting event, might avail themselves the opportunity to speak with our Russian friends about the realities of socialism.
And speaking of the World Cup, we are already into the quarterfinals. 56 games have been played in 12 cities across 11 time zones from the quietude of Yekaterinburg, steeped in the Buddhist traditions of the east, to the bustling Kaliningrad in the west. And from the romantically breathtaking St. Petersburg, renowned for its northern “White Nights” in June, to the popular Black Sea resort of Sochi overlooking the Mediterranean in the south. What an unforgettably delightful experience it must have been for teams and their fans. But, as they say, all good things must end sometime, and 24 of the 32 teams have left for home. Among them, defending champions, Germany; 2010 champions, Spain; European champions, Portugal; and African Nations champions, Morocco.
The round of 16 gave us a clear picture of the two contrasting styles of soccer – attacking and defensive. Coincidentally (or for the spiritually inclined, perhaps by divine intervention), teams playing the attacking style, found themselves on the same side of the draw. Not surprisingly, 17 goals were scored by those teams compared to a disappointing 7 from the other four games in the other half of the draw. Three of them ended in a dull draw, and had to be decided by penalty shoot-out. Except for the feisty Colombians, those games were a complete bore. It certainly did not help Colombia that FIFA appointed an American referee, Mark Geiger, to officiate such an important tie. One would not go so far as to say that Geiger favored England, but he was woefully in over his head. Within the first 10 minutes, Geiger had already lost control of the game. The match became a free for all, ending with eight yellow cards and 36 fouls.
The most exciting round of 16 matchup was undoubtedly the France – Argentina tie. Seven goals were scored (same as in all four games in the bottom draw!). But it was more than just goals: it was a pulsating, end to end, attacking game that had fans on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes. And even in defeat, we saw why Messi is indisputably the greatest player of his generation. The two goals he set up were a thing of beauty, particularly Argentina’s third. That pass to Aguero was timed to perfection, right onto Aguero’s head as he screamed into the box. The hapless French goalkeeper didn’t have a chance. If you missed the game, allow me to recommend it.
Now to the Brazil – Mexico tie. Except for their 3-0 loss to Sweden, Mexico were having a great tournament, and it was disappointing to see them choose such a physical, confrontational style against Brazil. After the game, there has been much bellyaching from the Mexican coach, and their fans, about the foul on Neymar. With 20 minutes remaining, and a seventh consecutive, round of 16, World Cup elimination staring Mexico in the face, desperation stepped in. Here is what happened. The ball went out after a strong challenge on Neymar. Play was stopped. Neymar was on the ground just beyond the side line. Mexico’s Miguel Layun retrieved the ball and deliberately stepped on Neymar’s ankle while he was still lying on the floor. That is a straight red card, make no mistake about it. But Layun was not even punished. This is outrageous, and the referee should be ashamed of himself. Anyone who has a clue about the rules knows that that was a straight red. And if you don’t, I respectfully suggest that you retire to the library and gain some much needed enlightenment of the rules. Frankly, I do not believe that the referee was favoring Mexico. It appears to be more a case of cold feet. He was afraid to call the foul because it meant a red card and the player would have to be ejected. Did Neymar engage in some theatrics? Perhaps, but it was only after the foul, and possibly to gain the attention of the ref.
The quarterfinals get underway on Friday with two mouthwatering matchups. Two-time champions Uruguay take on the highly-favoured France, while Brazil plays Belgium. A close friend, and a long time soccer connoisseur, Anthony, said to me that it was unfortunate that Brazil and Belgium have to meet in the quarters. They are the two best teams in the tournament, he told me, and should have met in the finals instead. If Anthony is right, Friday’s game should be one for the ages. We shall see.