The 2018 World Cup: A European Adventure
Greatness, in a football sense, can be difficult to quantify. The great teams are often flawed, and even more frequently fail to win silverware. They are capable of moments of coruscating brilliance and occasional lapses that make us curse the random nature of the universe. Belgium, it is starting to feel, might just be the one truly great team of the 2018 World Cup finals. For forty-five minutes against Brazil in their quarter-finals match last night, they put on one of the great finals performances of recent years, to such a point that, with a little over half an hour played and Belgium leading by two goals to nil, our thoughts turned to their opponent’s match against Germany in Belo Horizonte four years earlier. They couldn’t again, could they…?
Well, in this case they couldn’t, and it’s a credit to Brazil that they came out after the interval and actually made a game of it. Indeed, by the end of the ninety minutes the pre-tournament favourites might even have clawed their way back into the game completely. It certainly wasn’t as though they didn’t create the chances. But that first half performance turned out to be too irresistable, too much to overcome. Thiago Silva bundled the ball against the post for Brazil in the first clear chance of the match, and it took a slice of luck for Belgium to take the lead, a corner from the left hand side flicked past his own goalkeeper by Fernandinho.
It was difficult not to take a step back this early in the game and conclude that, not matter what else may or may not happen, gifting a goal to Belgium is usually a very, very bad idea ineed. Just after the half hour mark, we saw why. Romelu Lukaku fed Kevin de Bruyne and de Bruyne, who’d been playing in a deeper position than in previous matches, drove a crisp, low shot across Allison and into the bottom corner of the goal. There was nothing that the Brazilian goalkeeper could have done to keep the ball out, of course, but the advantage handed to them by Brazil’s own defence had now been converted into something altogether more impregnable. In the fourteen minute period between this and half-time, we had cause to wonder about Belo Horizonte and Brazil’s susceptibility to quick counter attacks on that night. This time around, at least they got round to half-time with the damage limited.
Brazil’s second half performance was altogether more coherent, while Belgium opted to sit a little more firmly on the lead that they’d built up during the first half. With fourteen minutes to play Augusto pulled a goal back with a tidy header from Philippe Countinho’s supply line, and with the match in stoppage-time Neymar’s curling chip brought a wonderful one-handed save from Thibau Courtois. With the full-time whistle came the end of a dream. Lavishly talented in so many positions, Brazil arrived at this tournament as favourites to win it. Somehow, though, they never quite got out of third gear, winning with splashes of both form and function when it felt as though they were definitely capable of much better. It felt as though they’d been moving incrementally through tiny gears to get this far, but last night they were outplayed by a better team. Belgium thoroughly deserve their place in the semi-finals.
With two quarter-finals still left to play, the 2018 World Cup is now an all-European affair following Brazil’s elimination and that of Uruguay at the hands of France earlier in the day. France’s two-nil win in Nizhny Novgorod earlier in the day was considerably less tight than we might have expected. It took until five minutes from half-time before Raphael Varane, who’s becoming one of the players of the tournament in his own, understated way, gave them the lead, but the game truly pivoted in the sixty-first minute when a speculative long-rang shot from Antoine Griezmann was hopelessly spilled by Fernando Muslera, dropping over the line to sew the game up for France.
There were, at the time of this goal, still twenty-nine minutes of the match left to play plus stoppage-time, but with Muslera’s spillage came the end of Uruguay’s chances of staying in the competition. Heads dropped and the remainder of the game was played out as though their players didn’t very much even want to be on the pitch any more. France will have been somewhat grateful for the opportunity to run down the clock with so little fuss and it was somewhat disappointing to see Uruguay without the fight that we might have expected from them. In truth, though, they missed the injured Edinson Cavani terribly and it’s difficult to imagine, with the benefit of hindsight, how Uruguay would have clawed their way back into things, even had heads not dropped to the extent to which they did with the second goal. Luis Suarez looked isolated and peripheral in attack. When push came to shove, Uuruguay didn’t have an extra gear into which they could move, this time around.
By the time that the next finals – *sigh* – come around, it will have been two decades since a South American team last won the World Cup, the longest gap by a comfortable distance between South American teams lifting the trophy. South Amercia provided two semi-finalists four years ago, but this time around they won’t provide any, and furthermore the likelihood of an Central or North American, African or Asian team breaking the current European hegemony can feel further away than ever at times. Perhaps this is a result of the vast amounts of money pouring into European club football from national and global television deals from which South American clubs see little benefit bar ever-inflated transfer fees. Perhaps it’s a reflection upon changes to academies and the way that they work. It certainly needs to be addressed, because the World Cup turning into a European monopoly is certainly not healthy for the global game.
There is mitigation in the case of Uruguay, of course. A country with a population of less than three and a half million people making the World Cup finals with any degree of regularity from a qualifying group as competitive as CONMEBOL is an exceptional achievement no matter what, and to take that team to the semi-finals and quarter-finals with any degree of regularity is a huge achievement. In the case of Brazil, though, the situation is somewhat different. There will be obituary upon obituary written about yesterday’s match against Belgium, and the Brazilian public will want answers as to how such a talented team can still end up faling out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage. There may be long-term plans to address this question. There will undoubtedly be further brilliantly talented players to come off their production line. In 2018, however, none of this is particularly significant. In 2018, they met Belgium, arguably the great team of this tournament.