The 200% World Cup Stars: The Group Stages
Sixteen down, sixteen to go, then. The end of the group stages of the 2018 World Cup is upon us, and half of the teams who packed their hopes and dreams into a little bindle and transported them to Mother Russia for this summer’s World Cup finals are now travelling home, their tails between their legs and, in the case of Germany at least, a rocket up their backsides. And we know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “What we need right now, Ian (if that is your real name), is a listicle of the star performers so far at this summer’s World Cup finals.”
And you’re right. You do. The small problem with this is that everybody else in the whole world is currently writing exactly the same article, right now this minute and, while we can only applaud the optimism of any writer who feels the need to tell their audience that, yes, Cristiano Ronaldo has been very impressive so far, or that yes, Brazil have improved a bit over the course of their three matches so far, we also feel that you’re probably going to get more details analysis of the intricacies of the players’ performances from writers who don’t spend half of every match shouting, “Who is gobshite and why is he on my television?” at footballers who are several thousand miles away and definitely can’t hear them.
Not all heroes wear capes, though. The players and coaches are the centre of most attention during the World Cup finals, and sure enough there are one or two in our top ten list, but this list is about celebrating those who won’t be getting to lift up an upturned arm holding a melon that has been dipped in custard in a couple of weeks’ time. The writers. The artists. The fans. Those who simultaneously matter more than anybody else and not in the slightest. They don’t have to be famous. They don’t have to be revered or celebrated. Hell, they don’t even have to be sentient to be considered for these awards. So, with no further ado, here are the ten people/organisations/animals/inanimate carbon rods that have lit up this World Cup in ways that its Category A celebrities could never even hope to achieve (and, in the interests of clarity, they’re in no particular order.)
- The entire Panamanian defence, versus England: It takes a special dedication to the dark arts of shithousery to achieve what Panama managed during their first half performance against England last Sunday. Despite the knowledge that VAR had been introduced and that this would give officials the right to review incidents that could lead to penalty kicks, despite presumably having seen penalty kicks being given for holding at set pieces in previous matches, despite everything, they still defended every corner during the first half of this match as though trying to stop a car with no handbrake from rolling down a hill into a fish pond, and even continued doing the same thing after a first penalty kick had been awarded. The two spot kicks that they conceded helped to plump England’s lead to a possibly slightly flattering five goals by half-time in their match.
- Jon Champion & Ally McCoist: The breakout commentary box stars of this World Cup have come on ITV, where veterans Champion and McCoist have been imperious, filling us with little snatches of Russian culture and history whilst – and this is critical, for those of us watching at home – actually seeming as though they’re enjoying being at the tournament, no matter how much hard work it is. They’re already being talked about in exalted terms, and it wouldn’t be surprising – for all we know, one may already exist – to see a government petition demanding that they cover the final for ITV emerge in the next few days. We’ve already pledged to watch the final on ITV, should they make this switch.
- Football365: We’ve been producing 200% for more than twelve years now, but we’re spring chickens compared to the venerable Football365, which celebrates its twenty-first birthday this year. In particular, we should flag up the work of Daniel Storey and John Nicholson, who somehow manage to combine the highest of standards in their writing with meeting the punishing demands that doing this sort of work requires during a tournament of this nature. They’ll have earned a break by the time of the morning after the final, but they’ll probably spend it writing more “10 Things We Learned From…” pieces instead. If you’re tired of newspaper, TV and radio coverage of the World Cup, F365 should really be your first stop (after here, of course.)
- Alex Scott/Eni Aluko: As viewers. of course, we complain when broadcasters don’t innovate and we complain when they do, only not quite in the way that we wanted. It’s a no-win situation, but both the BBC and ITV have taken a chance on an increased women’s presence in front of the cameras at this tournament and, despite the predictable torrent of misogynistic abuse on social media – remember: social media is a cesspit and human beings are terrible – their perspectives on the tournament have been insightful and refreshing. And with two hundred and forty-two England caps between them (and more appearances at the latter stages of international teams than anybody in the squad playing in Russia this summer), why on earth shouldn’t they?
- Aliou Cisse: His team may have been knocked out the tournament by the thinnest of possible margins (short of the actual drawing of lots), but Senegal can perhaps take heart from their early elimination at the fact that their manager, Aliou Cisse, was without doubt the most stylish seen in the group stages of this year’s tournament. Sorry, Gareth Southgate. You tried, and the waistcoat, to give you credit, does suit you. But Cisse, the only black manager at this tournament and, apparently, the lowest-paid on £174,000 per year, just rocks the “cool twenty-first century football manager” look better than anybody else on the planet at the moment. And on top of all of that, he was the captain of the Senegal team that beat France – then the holders of the trophy – in their first ever World Cup finals match in 2002.
- The VAR: Look, we have reservations, okay? After the tournament is over, there’ll be a deluge of articles on Video Assistant Referees/ Did they get things right? Did they get things wrong? Where’s the consistency? But: a confession. We were expecting it to be a lot worse than it has been. Seasoned watchers of leagues where it’s already in place have already confirmed that it seems to be being used more effectively and efficiently at this tournament than it had been beforehand, and complaining about it is likely futile anyway, since there’s no way that FIFA are going to abandon it now. There remains a serious conversation to be held over the truly fundamental nature of the changes that it is making to the game, but if we have to have it, well… at least they’re getting it right most of the time at the moment. And in any case, they’ll all look back on this in thirty years’ time and laugh, once we have developed Refereebots which can accurately recreate the decision-making skills of Pierluigu Collina, Byron Moreno or, umm, Clive Thomas.
- Michy Batshuayi: It takes something special for a player to outshine a goal with the force of his post-goal celebration, but step forward Michy Batshuayi, who topped Adnan Janusaz’s superb goal for Belgium in the final match of the group stage by smacking the ball at the goal in celebration, only to see it – if he did indeed see it – smack back off the inside of the goalpost and into his face at a velocity that may be reasonably surprised as “terminal.” Batshuayi, to his huge credit, has been quick to joke about it himself on social media, even if he likely did wake up this morning with a bit of a sore head and the imprint of the match ball plastered halfway across his face. He is, of course, now guaranteed immortality in future World Cup bloopers highlight compilations.
- Bakary Papa Gassama: Some people, you just get the feeling, were born to referee. Gambian referee Bakary Papa Gassama falls squarely into this category. He’s been well-established in African football for some time now and was the first African to referee in the Qatari League, but his excellent performances at this World Cup – there was some degree of controversy over a missed penalty call during the France vs Denmark match, but it was picked up by the VAR and we like our referees imperfect anyway – were only further accentuated by footage of him dealing with a pack of complaining players from an earlier competition which found its way onto social media at the start of the tournament. Hard. As. Nails.
- Flaxini: Many of you will already be aware of Panini Cheapskates, who recreate (by their own admission badly) stickers of players by drawing them into the spaces on empty albums. Flaxini is similar, but with something of a twist. The children of the Flax Bourton Primary school in Somerset are drawing 576 World Cup players for the tournament in support of the Bobby Moore Fund and the Above & Beyond charity for hospitals in Bristol. Their pictures are surrealist masterpieces, and you can find them on Twitter right here.
- Belgium’s kit: The Adidas Argyle design was introduced in 1984, primarily to kit out Ivan Lendl, one of the tennis heroes of the time. It was, however, also amended and converted into a design for the Belgium national football team’s kit for that summer’s European Championships, and despite the fact that this particular tournament wasn’t very successful for Belgium (they won one and lost two of their group matches and were eliminated behind France and Belgium) the Argyle design has been reintroduced for the Belgium team at this summer’s World Cup and, like the weather in so much of Russia at the moment, it’s an absolute scorcher. (Note: the Belgium team that got to the semi-final of the 1986 World Cup before losing to Argentina was not wearing this design of shirt.)
There are so many others could have been listed here that we had to leave out a few that thoroughly merited mentions. We’ll have another list of these after the tournament finishes in a couple of weeks time.