In the absence of big name super stars, goals galore and a great football spectacle, Russia 2017 will be remembered as the tournament that split football fans opinion right down the middle.
The ‘milestone tournament’ as Fifa president Gianni Infantino has described it would not have been, but for the video assistant referees. Portugal defender Pepe and Chile forward Eduardo Vargas had ‘goals’ correctly ruled out for offside while Tomi Juric’s goal for Australia against Germany was allowed to stand despite a suspected handball. The stop, start routine has become a regular sight in normal time, sparking off a debate amongst fans as to whether football has not been robbed of it’s natural entertainment which foundation is built on instinctive reactions. Those raw emotions that are triggered on and off the pitch as soon as a ‘goal’ is scored, or an incident has been missed.
While television fans seem the most riled and irritated by this technological innovation, it’s unclear whether live fans in the stadium share the sentiments. What has been evident so far, is that players on the field affected by a net decision after VARs intervention quickly accept the verdict and get on with play, which wasn’t the case before when the center referee made all the decisions. Clearly, humans know they don’t stand a chance arguing with the exact science of technology. The positive from this change in player behavior is that they will stop deliberate cheating, simulation, or even ugly ‘off-the-ball’ incidents. More importantly, teams will celebrate deserved victories and use of such words as ‘lucky’ will be substantially reduced.
On the field itself, African representatives Cameroon had a nightmarish start, giving African football the kind of advertisement the continent doesn’t need right now when it’s pushing for more respect around the world. To say they were shambolic against South American champions Chile in their opening game would be an understatement. They looked intimidated and as though they were punching above their weight. Chile – only recently usurping the powers that we associated with traditional South American power houses Brazil and Argentina – bossed the African champions with impudence. The final 2-0 result in favour of Chile flattered the Cameroonians.
Stand out performers at Copa America 2016 namely; Arsenal’s Alex Sanchez, Bayern Munich’s Arturo Vidal and Eduardo Vargas, were Cameroon’s tormentors in chief. The Africans performance in their second game against Australia in a 1-1 draw was much improved but this is the sort of opposition they needed. With Cameroon’s final group game coming up against the world champions Germany, Africa is left to wonder whether it’s not about time the continent accepted that the standards are still below the required grade. After all, each of Nigeria, Ivory Coast and South Africa have had a chance to prove otherwise before in this tournament but the results have always been the same.
Gone are the days when an African team had a standout player worthy of mention in the world class category. Which is why Frank Zambo Anguissa, the central midfielder who won the man-of-the match award against Australia must be proud. At least he will join Russian midfielder Golovin, New Zealand forward Smeltz, flying Mexican play maker Javier Aquino among the new kids on the block.
Cameroon’s disappointment has followed each of Australia and New Zealand who have struggled just to get a point. Clearly, the undoing of the continents they represent is a lack of talent and experience which is the glaring difference with Europe and South America. Mexico; a former winner of this tournament and perennial representative in big tournaments have been one of the eye catching teams in the group stage. Aquino, Raul Jimenez, Carlos Vela, Javier Hernandez and veteran Rafael Marquez have world class reputations. Their experience and quality have been key to giving the group stage some of the highlights of this year’s tournament.
Portugal, Germany, Chile and Russia come out as the front runners in the race for the trophy owing to their experience and hunger for more glory at the big stage. It’s why Christiano Ronaldo is again the headline grabber for the European champions. Man-of-the match against Mexico, match winner against Russia. New Zealand will be wary to face the man in their last group game, who clearly is thinking about a fifth Fifa Ballon d’Or.