The 2018 World Cup, Day Three: An Icelandic Saga

by | Jun 17, 2018

It’s too early to say, still, but it’s a possibility, for sure. Perhaps Iceland might be able to repeat their extraordinary performance from the European Championships two years ago. Their one-all draw with Argentina yesterday afternoon was a demonstration of footballing absorption. They allowed Argentina the vast majority of the pressure, despite the obvious threats of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, and the like. They rode their luck a little, they came back after falling behind, they were the absolute matches of their illustrious opponents.

The third day of the 2018 World Cup started with a match so 2018 that it was enough to make one’s ears bleed. France had been expected to drift comfortably past Australia, but Australia were disciplined, organised, and grew in confidence as the game progressed. Eleven minutes into the second half, though, the true star of this World Cup made its most significant contribution towards it yet. Josh Risdon last-gasp tackle on Antoine Griezmann seemed to be a little six of one and half a dozen of the other. He seemed to get a slight touch on the ball first. He then seemed to clip Griezmann’s ankle, ever so slightly. Griezmann converted the penalty kick.

It did not take Australia long to claw their back into the game, though. Just four minutes had passed from Griezmann’s goal when Samuel Umtiti needlessly handled a cross that seemed to be close to flying over everybody, and Mile Jedinak stepped up to bring them level. It felt as though France were back to square one, with a point feeling like an adequate reward for a stodgy performance, but again modern football found a twist in its tail, when Paul Pogba’s lob bounced down and, according to the goal-line technology, just over the line. It was a little more than France’s performance really deserved, and they certainly will not be able to play like this beyond the group stages and expect to be able to chance wins. The irony is that the technology probably got it right both times, but it still feels irksome, a harbinger of changing times that are being imposed upon us.

It wasn’t difficult to feel a little trepidation on behalf of Iceland going into this tournament. Their achievement two years ago was extraordinary, but in this extraordariness rests the truth of the matter, that performing anything like as well this time around might be a very different and problematic challenge. Yesterday, however, they rose significantly to their challenge. When Sergio Aguero gave Argentina the lead after nineteen minutes, a shiver ran down the spine. If Argentina’s stellar attacking options were firing, even the defensive shortcomings that made themselves apparent during the opening stages of the matches would be only a minor inconvenience.

Things didn’t work out like, though. Not this time. Four minutes after Argentina took the lead, a fumble from the Argentina goalkeeper Willy Caballero allowed Alfred Finnbogason to bring the scores level from close range. From here on, they held out comfortably, only really coming under any pressure when a foul on Aguero gave Argentina a penalty kick. The matter of why Lionel Messi continually keeps getting penalty kicks to take is a fascinating sub-story of this otherwise genial footballer. On the one hand, he is one of the most technically gifted footballers on the planet. On the other, though, he’s terrible at penalty kicks, having missed one in four throughout his career.

This afternoon’s effort was a terrible one. Both the right position and the right height for the goalkeeper, it was a surprise to see such a poor penalty come from such gifted feet, even if we already did know of his previous record. Still, though, the Icelandic goalkeeper Hannes Halldórsson had to guess the right way in the first place, and his save was further evidence of a team built on strength and stubbornness. They will believe that they have as good a chance as anybody of getting out of this group and into the last sixteen. Argentina, meanwhile, have an extraordinary range of attacking options, but there is no other team in this tournament for which there is such a stark difference between the merits of the attack and the defence. Should they not crash and burn – and they’ve done that before – it’s difficult to see them being able to withstand the attacks of the other elite footballing nations.

If Peru’s match against Denmark had been in the World Cup of Kits, then this would have been a semi-final at least, possibly the final. Peru keeping it clean in their plain white kit with a single diagonal red stripe, running across the shirt on both sides to the left shoulder, and Denmark back in the once-familiar chevrons of Hummel, the company who manufactured their iconic kits from the 1984 and 1992 European Championships and the 1986 World Cup finals. This was the hipster fixture of the day, the cool Scandinavian team against the South Americans making their first finals appearance in thirty-six years and with the mild air of the unknown about them.

The first half had passed reasonably quietly until stoppage-time, when the VAR stepped in again, this time allowing the referee to order a penalty kick to be given – correctly – for a trailing leg being enough to fell Edison Flores, but Christian Cueva stepped and offered forth the worst penalty since Diana Ross in the match between the USA and Common Decency in Pasadena in 1994, skying the ball comfortably over the crossbar. It was a miss that Peru would come to regret. Nine minutes into the second half, Yussuf Yurary Poulsen scored from a tight angle after having been put through by the hitherto fairly anonymous Christian Eriksen.

Peru threw everything at getting an equaliser, and it felt at times as though Kasper Schmiechel may have erected someform of electromagnetic forcefield around his goal to prevent the ball from getting into it. It flashed across the face of goal. It landed just too far high or just too far wide. The goal, however, wouldn’t come and Denmark continued to constitute a threat whenever they broke away, which was not particularly infrequently. Somehow, though, the Danes held on to win. It rather feels, however, as though this group hasn’t revealed its true face yet. Peru have to get something from their match against France to have any chance of staying in the competition, whilst Denmark probably only need a win against Australia to get through themselves. They deserved better, and they’re not quite out of the competition yet, of course.

Finally… let’s talk about the phrase “dark horse”, shall we? This is a phrase that has a long association with the World Cup, and it carries a certain degree of connotation from the standard definition of a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence in a sporting event of some sort. The World Cup has only been won by eight nations, so it might be argued that anyone any good that isn’t one of those nations is a “dark horse” to win it, but the implication behind referring to any particular team as such carries baggage that they’re somehow “mysterious”, a ghost-like presence that will come up on the rails because everyone is transfixed by the traditional favourites.

Croatia are Eastern European and Nigeria are African, so this soubriquet has been chucked at both of them before, but last night it only looked as though there was one of these capable of getting to the latter stages of the tournament. Croatia were comfortable and controlled in their two-nil win last night, but they required an own goal and a penalty kick in order to do so – “Own Goal” now sits in second place in the Golden Boot  list, just behind Cristiano Ronaldo – and the earlier draw between Argentina and Iceland in same group means that Nigeria are still a long way from being out of this competition just yet. Croatia’s (stop us if you’ve heard this one before) “golden generation” started with a routine enough win, then, and they lead the group after a round of matches. But can one have a “golden generation” and be a “dark horse” at the same time? Straightforward comprehension has never necessarily been this competition’s strong point, really, has it?