ONDRIVE With SHAM SAMAROO
Argentina, the two-time World Cup Champions (1978 and 1986), and runners-up at three World Cups (1930, 1990, and 2014), faced the embarrassing prospect of not qualifying for WC 2018.
The mere thought that Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, and indisputably the greatest player of his generation, could miss out on WC 2018 sent shock waves throughout the soccer world. To everyone’s surprise, it came down to the last game, and a must win for Argentina. To make matters worse, the game was scheduled in the high altitude city of Quito, Ecuador, where Argentina has not won in 16 years. But as they say: Cometh the moment, cometh the Savior. Messi scored twice in 20 minutes after Ecuador took the lead with a goal in the first minute of the game. Majestic Messi then completed a stunning hat-trick – the 44th of his illustrious career – to book Argentina’s spot to Russia, and WC 2018.
The five-time World Player of the year, Messi, has won just about every accolade in a brilliant career, but a World Cup ring continues to elude him. The closest he came was in 2014 losing to Germany 1-0 in the finals at the Maracana. At age 31, Messi knows that time is not on his side, and Russia 2018 might well be his last realistic chance of capturing the title that has so far eluded him. Argentina joins three other South American teams, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay that have all qualified for Russia 2018. Brazil, the only team to have lifted the Cup five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002), was the first to qualify. After the 7-1 drubbing they received at home by Germany in the semifinals in 2014, Brazilian soccer was at a crossroad. The age old question raised its ugly head again: Can Brazil win in today’s world with their attacking, entertaining style of play, or should they settle for a more defensive game like the Europeans?
Unfortunately for Brazil, the powers that be settled for the defensive option, and reappointed Dunga the coach of the national team. Dunga, the former Brazilian captain and WC winner (1994) had his first stint as coach of the national team at the 2010 WC in South Africa. It was a monumental disaster. Throughout his career, Dunga played as a defensive midfielder, and he was one of the best at that position. But his very strength, defense, is also his weakness. Dunga has a defensive mind set which is a recipe for disaster for a team like Brazil that plays an attacking, free flowing brand of soccer. Prior to the 2010 WC, the legendary Pele predicted that Brazil would be eliminated the moment they faced a good team. Sure enough, Brazil lost 2-1 in the quarters to Holland, and Dunga immediately resigned – a polite way of saying he was fired. So why recall him for 2018? Starboy, too, was vociferous in condemning that decision. As widely expected, after the third round of qualification, Brazil found itself in sixth place. Dunga was booted and replaced by the aggressive-minded Tito, and the team went on to qualify as the top team in South America. But Starboy is still not convinced that this Brazil team is ready. The team is very weak in the back, an area in which Brazil has often struggled. Starboy is predicting a semifinal finish at WC 2018.
In Europe, the group winners have all qualified starting with defending champions, Germany. The Germans are joined by Belgium, England, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Iceland, Serbia and host, Russia. There are four more spots up for grabs between the top eight second-placed teams. At the draw last Wednesday, those match ups are: Italy versus Sweden, Northern Ireland versus Switzerland, The Republic of Ireland versus Denmark, and Croatia versus Greece. Italy, drawn against Sweden, faces the biggest hurdle, and that game will be played in early November (exact date still to be determined). Shockingly, the Dutch were eliminated in the qualifying round. Germany, the number one ranked team in the world, are the favourites by a country mile to take it all.
Like the Dutch, the USA will also be spectators at Russia 2018. A week ago, the USA suffered a shock defeat to Trinidad and Tobago in the final round of qualification. So far, the teams from Concacaf (North and Central America, and the Caribbean) that qualified for Russia 2018 are Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama. Honduras has a home and away series against New Zealand, and a chance to make it four teams. The World Cup draw is scheduled for December 1, in Moscow. Go Russia!