The 2018 World Cup: Iberian Husky
Seldom in the recent history of professional football has there been such fuss over something of so little consequence. For all the fuss made last night about the VAR-inflected decisions that altered the course of both of the concluding matches in Group B of this summer’s World Cup, the results remained the same. Portugal and Spain qualify for the next round, whilst Iran and Morocco go home. And you can bet a pound to a penny that FIFA will have been watching all of this unfolding chaos with dollar signs in their eyes. This sort of drama is what keeps television audiences hooked, and in the first round of the competition, with one team already eliminated and another requiring an unlikely win to stay in contention, as well.
Khalid Boutaib’s early goal for Morocco – a chase through the middle with Iniesta and Sergio Ramos acting as though they’d heard the starting pistol for an egg and spoon race five seconds after everybody else – was cancelled out by an Isco inferno for Spain five minutes later, and all seemed to be following the script, especially when Ricardo Quaresma scored a wonderful curling shot right at the end of the first half to give Portugal the lead against Iran. By half-time last night, it felt as though this group was decided, as though anything that came to pass during the second half could safely be considered “academic” in terms of the broader picture of the tournament itself. But was reckoning without our brave new world, in which gluing eyeballs to screen is easily as important as sporting integrity or consistency.
Early in the second half, though, came the first sign of what was to come when Cristiano Ronaldo was clipped on the edge of the penalty area and a trip which might otherwise have been let go was called back to award a penalty kick to Portugal. The Iranian goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, started a foot or two behind his line before bouncing forward and making an excellent save from Ronaldo’s kick. Tempers began to fray. Tackling became increasingly reckless. The regularity with which players surrounded the referee pleading for something, anything, increased at a dramatic rate. And then, with nine minutes left to play, Youssef El-Nesyri scored for Morocco to give them the lead again in their match against Spain.
As television viewers tried to bounce from stadium to stadium whilst those actually at the matches came close to drowning in what was happening, the Iran vs Portgual match took another twist, as Cristiano Ronaldo had an elbow across the face of Morteza Pouraliganji checked by the referee for an eternity before being given a yellow card rather than a red card. In a demonstration of Occam’s Razor at play, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the referee had bottled the decision. As the clock ticked over ninety minutes, Iago Aspa bundled the ball over the line for Spain. Again, however, our new robot overlords stepped in and confirmed that a review was in order. This time, the flag was reversed and the goal given. Meanwhile, back at the Portugal vs Iran match, deep into stoppage-time, a harsh handball was awarded against Cédric Soares and Ansarifard brought Iran level. With this coming three minutes into stoppage-time, however, it was still too late for Iran to complete the most dramatic of comebacks. Spain and Portugal both progress. You win this time, Iberia.
What is more striking about this than just about anything else is what a mess it all is. There remains little consistency in terms of when the cameras are invoked, and the decisions made by referees remain as occasionally eccentric as they ever have. There were points last night at which three of the four teams playing had cause to feel aggrieved – whether rightly or wrongly – over decisions that hadn’t gone their way and it would have been a full house had Spain’s late equalising goal not had its erroneous offside flag overruled. And it is a mess, regardless of the specifics of whether each individual decision is being called correctly or not. The decision to award Spain their equalising goal took up three of the four minutes of stoppage-time at the end of their match. The decision to award Ronaldo a yellow card rather than a red one took a similar amount of time.
Furthermore, for all the hullabaloo the surrounded last night’s events, they did all rather feel inconsequential. The order in which they came ensured that there was never any great danger of either Spain or Portugal being ejected from the competition. And on top of all of this, all of this controversy and drama came at the end of a group which should have been one of the more straightforward to call. We can only imagine what might happen were, say, one of the semi-finals to follow the pattern of one of these matches. It’s also worth pointing out, in the interests of balance, that VAR isn’t sentient. Where mistakes are being made, those mistakes are being made by actual living, breathing human beings with all their actual living, breathing human fallibility. All that has really changed to that extent is that the mistakes that they’re making are different. Perhaps this is just a transitional period during which referees, players and managers all have to get used to a new reality. Knowing whether FIFA themselves will be hoping this to be the case, by the way, would be the most instructive information that we could receive over their motivation for introducing it in the first place.
Both Spain and Portugal have seen their performances deteriorate over the course of their three matches. Both sparkled against each other, but have laboured increasingly ever since. Spain will be happy enough with playing the hosts in Moscow, though, one would imagine. We had all been wondering whether Russia’s eight goals in their first two matches had been a reflection on their opponents rather than themselves, and their meek capitulation to Uruguay in their final group match yesterday afternoon seemed to indicate that this may have been the case. Luis Suarez – with a free-kick assisted by the peculiar decision of a defender in the Russian wall to shove two Uruguayan players out of the way, creating a clear line of vision for Suarez to drive a low shot past the Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who took one of those odd little jumps as Suarez struck the ball, effectively killing any chances that he had of getting down in time to stop the ball from sailing past him.
An own goal from Denis Cherysev and a late, late goal from Edinson Cavani sealed Russia’s fate, which if anything only seemed to confirm the belief that the hosts will not be able to live with the stronger teams in this tournament after all. Uruguay, meanwhile, are continuing to shift ominously up through the gears. Three wins out of three in the group stages of the competition – the first time that the twice-winners have ever managed this – with no goals conceded is about as good as they could have dreamt of from an opening World Cup group with a host nation, though they were definitely assisted by the paucity of the opposition that they faced over their three matches. Their second round match against Portugal now looks like a decent bet for the first goalless draw of the tournament, as thongs stand.
Earlier results had meant, of course, that the match between Saudi Arabia and Egypt was little more than an exhibition match, though middle-aged men the world over were delighted to see Essam El-Hadary, the 45 year old Egyptian goalkeeper, get a run-out for his team in this match, and that delight turned to rapture when he saved a penalty kick shortly before half-time. We’ve been gripped by the cognitive dissonance of the base urge of the football supporter to hurl abuse at any player over the age of thirty mixing with a middle-aged man keeping goal in the world’s greatest football competition for some time, now. It’s difficult to shout, “Oi, Grandad!” at a television screen when the player you’re shouting at is four months younger than you, but when have football supporters ever been consistent (or even, some may contend, logical)?
El-Hadary’s save was perhaps the only bright spot to emerge from a dismal campaign from Egypt. Perhaps a lack of experience from not having been here in almost three decades affected them. Perhaps – well, let’s say almost certainly – they were over-reliant on Mo Salah, and the overreaction to his injury in the Champions League final was likely considerably more disruptive than an injury to any player should ever be. Certainly speculation that Salah is considering retirement from international football in response to his unhappiness at being used for political ends – it’s difficult to see what he got from being photographed with the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who had already made him an “honorary member” of the Russian republic – Saudi Arabia won the match with a goal from Salem al-Dawsari four minutes into stoppage-time at the end, which seemed to pile more misery on Egypt than it delivered joy to the winners, even though it was their first World Cup finals win in almost a quarter of a century. Such is the nature of tournament football, of course. Sooner or later we all become losers, at some point or other.