The 2018 World Cup: The End of the Icelandic Saga?
The three games played yesterday in Russia rose to a curious crescendo, ending with a last minute winning goal which left Serbia heartbroken and Switzerland celebrating an unlikely win. The day had started, however, with something a little more torpid from Brazil, who laboured to a two-nil win against Costa Rica with two goals in stoppage-time at the end of the match. It had looked as though the big talking point from this match would be, yet again, the Video Assistant Referee. With thirteen minutes left to play and the score still goalless, Giancarlo González brushed against Neymar, who collapsed to the ground in a heap, causing the referee to award Brazil a penalty kick.
On this occasion, though, the VAR stepped in and the referee rescinded his decision, though he didn’t caution Neymar for simulation, which we can only assume means that he gave the benefit of the doubt to the Brazilian forward and concluded that he must have lost his footing. Brazil continued to work a spirited but clearly limited Costa Rica side down, with Philipe Coutinho and Neymar himself finally scoring the goals which won the match, but again this was an uninspired Brazilian performance and it still feels as though they could run into difficulties against more attackingly ambitious teams.
As for Neymar himself, well, this was another anonymous performance on the whole, and the player’s reaction to the full-time whistle, which was somewhat overblown for what should have been a routine win, felt more similar in tone to that of Lionel Messi the night before than anything that Cristiano Ronaldo has managed during his two somewhat more sparkling performances so far for Portugal. Perhaps he’s suffering from a lack of competitive football after having spent a season parachuted into the crapshoot that Ligue Un has become. The history of the game is littered with memories of lavishly talented players who were “badly advised” – it is to be hoped that this is not the case for Neymar.
From pressure to pure, unadulterated joy. Nigeria’s second half performance against Iceland yesterday afternoone was one of the best team performances of the tournament, so far. Nigeria had looked well-disciplined but blunt in their opening match against Serbia, but after a tepid first forty-five minutes yesterday they put in a superb second half performance to wrap up a comfortable win, sealed by two absolutely magnificent goals from Ahmed Musa. The first was a half-volley after quite extraordinarily bringing the ball under control with the outside of his right foot. Such coolness and composure under pressure is highly notable, and there was a repeat of this with the second goal when, having rounded the Icelandic goalkeeper but with a defender still on the line, he composed himself before passing the ball tidily into the goal. It was only upon second viewing that it became clear that the extra touch had come about because of a tiny bobble that the ball had taken off the pitch. Such presence of mind deserves the plaudits that it has has received.
It’s difficult to argue that Iceland have hit the Peter Principle, reaching the level at which one that is the level of one’s own incompetence. No-one is going to argue that an island with a population of 330,000 people in the North Sea getting to the finals of the two major tournaments in succession isn’t an extraordinary achievement in itself, but matching what they managed in France two years ago was always going to be an extremely tall order indeed. They’re not quite out of the competition yet, though it would take an unlikely pair of results for them to manage this. Still, they’ll always have that draw against Argentina regardless of what happens next week. It’s not a bad consolation for a team playing in their first World Cup finals to take from the tournament. And they’re not out yet.
The politics of the Balkans are extremely complex and in some repsects are fragile, so it was inevitable that there would be some blowback from the decisions of Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri to make hand signals which have been described as “Albanian nationalist” following Switzerland’s win against Serbia last night. The “eagle” sign has become a way of expressing identity across the Albianian diaspora. Xhaka is of Kosovan descent – his father was imprisoned and beaten in the former Yugoslavia for campaigning in favour of Kosovan independence – whilst Shaqiri was a refugee of the war in the region.
The gestures will likely be considered inflammatory by Serbs, who have found themselves under the microscope in terms of the behaviour of a section of their support for some time, now. Albanians will likely claim the gesture as cultural rather than political, but both players had previously been booed and jeered by Serbian supporters who also “Serbia Russia! Serbia Russia”, whilst a banner hanging from one of the stands declared the two countries “brothers”, so the politics can hardly be said to have been a one-way street. Post-match comments from the Swiss coach Vladimir Petkovic that “you should never mix politics and football” are unlikely to resonate with too many people. Is it too much to suggest that all sides drop their emnity? Probably, but we shall see.
If anything, there’s an element of disappointment to the fact that the inevitable fallout from all of this will overshadow what was, somewhat surprisingly, one of the most exciting and absorbing matches of the tournament so far. Serbia were outstanding in the first half, taking the lead thanks to a fifth minute header from Aleksandar Mitrovic, but Xhaka’s goal seven minutes into the second half completely altered the rhythm of the game and Switzerland pressed hard for fully the last half hour and, with chances at either end of the pitch before Shaqiri broke away to score the winning goal. Serbia, therefore, now need a result from their last match against Brazil, and what we’ve seen from them already hints that they’re capable of this, despite last night’s defeat. Should they manage this with Switzerland beating Costa Rica, Brazil could be eliminated from the tournament at the group stage. Cue the sound of betting slips being torn up echoing across the world.