ONDRIVE with Sham Samaroo
The 2018 World Cup is fast earning the notorious reputation as, perhaps, the ugliest in over 50 years dating back to 1966. We are only into the second round, and almost 900 fouls (880 to be exact) have been committed, but only 94 warnings issued. And make no mistake about it; the culprit is FIFA for refusing to enforce the rules. Wasn’t that the whole purpose of VAR (video replays)?
In its opening game against the defense-minded Swiss, Brazil suffered 17 fouls, 10 against Neymar alone (the most for a player in the last 20 years), while the Mexican referee stood idly by. Returning to action after a six-month injury, Neymar was repeatedly kicked, grabbed, and mugged. But rather than hand out yellow cards and fouls, this referee-cum-preacher chose, instead, to deliver sermons to the Swiss players.
Did this ref seriously think that these soccer thugs would pay heed to his “talk”? They were on a mission to take Neymar out of the game, and at all cost. The last time a player suffered such faith was 1966 when fellow countryman, Pele, had his legs repeatedly sawed off, first by the Bulgarians, and later the Portuguese defender, Morais. The doctors later confirmed that Pele was lucky to walk again. It was the third time in three consecutive World Cups – 1958, 1962, and 1966 – that Pele was kicked, mauled, and manhandled with impunity. In his autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game, Pele vowed that after 1966, he would never play in the World Cup again. “I have heard it said since, and I firmly believe it that the president of FIFA at the time had instructed those referees to go easy on the ‘virile’ game played by the European teams against the South Americans”, wrote Pele. He did return for the 1970 World Cup, but only after FIFA agreed to institute the yellow card system to penalize the thugs. Not surprisingly, Brazil won the Cup for a third time. Now here we are in 2018, and it seems the beautiful game is being allowed to return to its ugly ways.
Don’t get me wrong. No one is asking for Neymar (or any other player for that matter) to be protected. But the ref must apply the rules when the most exciting players at the World Cup, the ones capable of bringing beauty and light to what has so far been a boring, unimaginative, defense-dominated World Cup, are being mercilessly mauled. To take a page from the game of cricket, the legendary Guyana and West Indian batsman, Rohan Kanhai, once remarked that the purpose of sport is to entertain. He is spot on. Fans did not lay out thousands of hard-earned Yankee dollars to go Russia to see this disappointingly boring, dour, and defensive aberration. They are there to be entertained, as are millions on TV. But the reality is that several teams have made defense their game plan. The reasoning goes something like this: if we do not give up a goal, then we cannot lose the game. With such a game plan, they throw nine players in their defensive third, and proceed to defend for 90 minutes. Who wants to watch such an ugly, unexciting, and uninspiring display? Surely there must be more to this game that has captured the imagination of the entire world? And there is, with teams that employ an attacking strategy that says to their opponents: if you score one goal, we can score two. It is a style of play that allows the creative juices to flow; one that encourages individual flair, and produces what Pele calls jugo bonito – the beautiful game.
We have had glimpses of the beautiful game in Russia (exhibit A: Cristiano Ronaldo, Chicharito, Modric, Coutinho), but they have been too few and far between. This World Cup has also been like no other, turning just about every reasonable prediction on its head. In early round play, Germany, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, France, Poland, Nigeria have all failed to impress. Most disappointing were favourites, Germany. After the mouth-watering thrashing from Mexico, the defending champions faced possible elimination against Sweden, and only a last gasp goal in the dying minutes of extra time saved them the blushes. Star-studded Argentina (Messi, Aguero, Mascherano, Di Maria, Dybala, Higuain) are in total disarray. Spare a thought for Messi: ONDRIVE has learned that the team is split in two following a player revolt against the coach. It is understood that the coach may be allowed to sit on the bench, but will take no part in the final game against Nigeria: a do or die affair. Meanwhile, both Spain and France are yet to find their dancing shoes. Will things get any better in the knockout round? That depends solely on FIFA. But hope springs eternal, though history says no. Tell me what you think.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.