The 2018 World Cup: Buenos Noches
They’ve been here before, of course. In 1982, when they were blown away by the power of Italy and the elegance of Brazil in the second group stage. In 1994, when they scrambled through the group stage despite Diego Maradona being sent home before losing to Romania. And in 2002, when two goals in three matches and a defeat against England saw them eliminated at the first hurdle. Argentina can be a combustible team at times, and this evening in Nizhny Novgorod the loose rocks that started to fall from this apparently crumbling edifice last weekend against Iceland turned into an avalanche.
The clues were there before a ball was kicked. Panning along the team during the national anthem, Lionel Messi carried the air of a man with the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders, quite possibly feeling that he had already been set up as a sacrificial lamb for the shortcomings of others on his team. They chuntered through the first half of their group match against Croatia with the realisation slowly dawning upon their opponents that their opposition, even an opposition including perhaps one of the greatest players in the history of the game, possibly wasn’t up to that match.
Obviously we don’t know what Zlatko Dalic’s half-time team talk to his Croatia team consisted of, but it would be surprising if they didn’t include the words “get”, “into”, and “them.” No matter what he said, though, few would have reckoned with the good luck which gifted them their first goal. Eight minutes had been played after the restart when the Argentine goalkeeper Willy Caballero attempted an absurdly ill thought out chipped pass to Mercado which only served as an underarm serve for Ante Rebic, showing breathtaking technique and presence of mind, to volley into an unguarded goal. It was a goal that would have looked laughable on a park pitch on a Sunday morning. In the finals of the World Cup, it was almost beyond belief.
Shoulders immediately dropped. The pretence that they could live with Croatia – performed successfully enough for the first forty-five minutes – vanished into the summer evening. With ten minutes left to play and Argentina a curious mixture a combination of apparent lethargy and desperation, Luka Modric curled an absolute peach of a shot beyond Caballero to put the result of this match beyond any reasonable doubt, while after a minute of stoppage-time and with just about everybody committed forward for no discernable reason – this match was already long lost – Croatia broke again with Ivan Ratikic more or less walking the ball over the line.
Argentina can still qualify. They are currently tied on points with Iceland, and should Iceland lose tomorrow and Argentina win by enough against Nigeria in their last match, they still can. This evening’s performance, however, had something of an air of finality about it. There is always at least one “big” name which falls early on in the competition. Eight years ago in South Africa it was France. Four years ago it was Italy. This time, it looks likely to be Argentina. But it’s not over yet. Not quite.
In the blizzard of articles on the subject of the decline and fall of Patagonian civilisation that we can expect over the next twenty-four hours, little attention will be played to Croatia, and one rather feels that they benefit from being a little out of the spotlight. The pressure certainly seems to have been getting to some of the big names over the last week or so. This evening, though, they purred, slick and efficient, attractive, intelligent and full of poise. Luka Modric remains a joy of a footballer to watch, flicking almost invisibly around the middle of the pitch, a perfect combination of art and graft, but Ivan Perisic, who almost gave Croatia the lead inside five minutes, was similarly impressive and even Mario Mandzukic, who put a header wide with the score still goalless which might have been easier to score, was in the right place at the right time, which is more than can be said for most of his opponents. Croatia are safely through to the second round with a game to spare, and few will want to encounter them on this sort of irresistable form.
Croatia’s free-flowing second half football was a blessed relief after the stodgy performances made by so many of the pre-tournament favourites so far this summer, and this was a trend which continued into this afternoon’s match between France and Peru. France won that game by a goal to nil thanks to a goal from Kylian Mbappé, but they don’t seem to have quite organised themselves into a team just yet, despite two wins out of two and a place in the next round of the competition already assured. Whether this is a matter of Didier Deschamps not knowing his best team or his best formation is open to question and we’ll find out more as they progress, but we already know that a team packed with the calibre of players that France can lay claim to has another gear to step up into. This evening, though, they were a disappointment, time-wasting with twenty minutes to go, coming off in an extremely unappealing light. Peru, meanwhile, demonstrated why the hadn’t hitherto qualified for the finals of this tournament since 1982. No points and no goals from two match, their final game against Australia is for pride only.
In the first match of the afternoon, Australia demonstrated that you don’t necessarily have to have a vast pool of playing talent to be able to give a team a game. Against Denmark, they worked extremely hard despite falling behind to a magnificent goal from Cristian Eriksen, with a VAR-assisted penalty kick from Mile Jedinak keeping Australia in the tournament by the skin of their teeth. Yet again, the watching television cameras ended up as the centre of attention. The penalty kick was awarded for handball against Yussuf Poulsen, but was it deliberate, and how on earth could VAR be expected to help a referee decide whether it was or not?
It feels as though there is going to be a need for a change to the laws of the game, here, because the introduction of VAR shows up the fuzziness of the laws of the game over handball. We all know that it has to be “deliberate” and the contortions that the game pulls itself into in order to accommodate, whether through feintly ludicrous ideas such “hand to ball” or “unnatural positions.” But the key selling point of VAR is immediate and definitive decision. Now, the IFAB are never going to change the rule so that intention is removed – players would just spend entire matches kicking the ball at their opponents’ arms if that were ever the case – but perhaps they might have to introduce a law limiting handball to the hand only (with exceptions for attempting to use the arms to carry the ball and other attempted loopholes), even if only in the penalty area. The game is going to evolve, and it wouldn’t be surprising, at some indeterminate point in future, to see amendments to some of the laws of the game in matches where VAR is being used.
Still, Australia benefited from it and their point keeps them in the competition. With Peru already eliminated, they have something of an opportunity to get through to the next round, though they are dependent upon France beating Denmark in their final match at the same time. Advance Australia fair? We shall see, but with Denmark – the wonderful Erikson excepted – hardly having set the tournament alight themselves so far, the opportunity to at least have matters in their own hands doesn’t sound particularly far-fetched. Certainly not as much as hopes of survival do for Argentina, at least.