Tag Archives: #Football

World Cup Finalists Eleven

Croatia became only the thirteenth nation EVER to secure a place in a World Cup final, and they faced France in the twenty-first showcase. From the previous twenty tournament finals only twelve nations have participated, and a mere eight of them were victorious. I thought it would be fun to create two all-star WC Finalists XI teams, comprising of a player from each winning country and a player each from three losing nations.  All squad members must have played in a World Cup final to qualify for selection.

Winners

URUGUAY (1930, 1950)-Defender Nasazzi (30); Goalkeeper Maspoli or Midfieder/Forward Ghiggia (50)

ITALY (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)-Forward Meazza (34(/38), Goalkeeper Zoff (82) or Defender Cannavaro (06)

GERMANY (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)-Defenders Posipal (54) Beckenbauer (74) or Midfielders Klinsmann (90), Schweinsteiger (2014)

BRAZIL (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)-Forward Pele (58 & 70) Defender Cafu (94, 02)

ARGENTINA (1978, 1986)-Forward Kempes (78), Defender Ruggeri (86)

FRANCE (1998, 2018)-Midfielder Zidane or Defender Thuram (98); Forward-Griezmann or Defender Umtiti

ENGLAND (1966)-Midfielder R Charlton or Defender Moore

SPAIN (2010)-Midfielder Iniesta (winning goal scorer) or Defender Ramos

Losers

HUNGARY (1938, 1954)-Goalkeeper Szabo (38) or Forward Kocsis (54-Golden Boot0

CZECHOSLOVAKIA ((1934, 1962) Forward Nejedly (34-Golden Boot) Midfielder Masopust 62

SWEDEN (1958) Defender Bergmark or Goalkeeper Svensson

HOLLAND (1974, 1978, 2010)-Midfielder/Forward Cruyff (74) or Defender Krol (74/78 final) or Midfielder Sneijder (2010)

CROATIA (2018)-Midfielder Modric or Defender Vida

Players from the same nation will be in separate teams, and everyone will be used in some capacity. Here is what I came up with for my Ultimate WC All-Stars Final:

Squad 1: Goalkeeper MASPOLI (Urg) or ZOFF (Ita): Defence-MOORE (Eng), CAFU (Bra), ROGGERI (Arg), CANNAVARO (Ita) or NASAZZI (Urg): Midfield-INIESTA (Spa) ZIDANE (Fra) KLINSMANN/SCHWEINSTEIGER (Ger) Midfield/Forward-CRUYFF (Hol) Forward KOCSIS (Hun), NEJEDLY (Czech)

Permissible combinations are either Maspoli & Cannavaro or Zoff & Nasazzi. In midfield Klinsmann and Schweinsteiger could play one half each, as could the combinations above.

GRIEZMANN could replace Zidane and MODRIC or SNEIJDER for Cruyff

Squad 2: Goalkeeper SVENSSON (Swe) or SZABO (Hun): Defence-RAMOS (Spa), THURAM (Fra), BECKENBAUER/POSIPAL (Ger), KROL (Hol) or BERGMARK (Swe): Midfield-CHARLTON (Eng) GHIGGIA (Urg) MASOPUST (Czech) Forwards-PELE (Bra), KEMPES (Arg), MEAZZA (Ita)

Permissible combinations are either Svensson & Krol or Szabo & Bergmark. In defence Beckenbauer and Posipal could play one half each, as could the combinations above.

VIDA could replace Krol or Bergmark and UMTITI for Thuram

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Simply the Best World Cup Final Goals

From twenty one finals of the World Cup there have been seventy-six goals scored from open play and thirteen penalties converted in deciding shootouts. Solitary goal wins are by definition “best goal” deciders, so Germany’s Brehme in 1990, Spain’s Iniesta in 2010 and Germany’s Gotze in 2014 are uncontested. Here are my goal show stoppers:

1930 Uruguay 4 Argentina 2Final goal for Uruguay by Castro who smashed the ball from distance (I think) high into the net in the dying seconds of the game.

1934 Italy 2 Czechoslovakia 1– Italy were behind until 8 minutes before the whistle when Orsi equalised taking the game into extra time. Footage is very grainy but most reports seem to agree that Orsi dummied the ball with his left foot hoodwinking the defenders around him, and shot the ball toward goal with his right. Apparently it glanced off the outstretched glove of the Argentine keeper Planicka before curving into the net! With Italy as host and the spectre of Mussolini in the background, that equaliser had a LOT of meaning.

1938 Italy 4 Hungary 2Piola’s first goal making it 2-1. Choice made by seeing some good footage of the excellent ball control and close passing skills in the box by Italy that enabled Piola to score. The team looked unflustered, in charge, and knew exactly where they wanted the ball to be. From written goal descriptions I’d have chosen the Colaussi effort which opened the score, as it appears to have involved a lung busting run along the length of the pitch by Biavati, who displayed nifty over ball footwork before connecting with Meazza who assisted the Colaussi goal.

1950 Uruguay 2 Brazil 1Winning goal by Ghiggia broke the host nations heart.

1954 Germany 3 Hungary 2 First goal from Rahn for Germany making it 2-2 the first time the German’s were on equal terms with Hungary since kickoff. A high corner kick dropped inside the six yard box where Rahn was standing near the by-line. From such an acute angle he managed to steer the ball into the opposite corner of the net. After taking a quick 2-0 lead Hungary had so many chances to increase their score but the post and crossbar aided the tough German defence.

1958 Brazil 5 Sweden 2Pele’s second goal to make the score 5-2 a wonderful high cross from the wing into the box where Pele rose majestically (with a defender on his shoulder) to head the ball into the net.

1962 Brazil 3 Czechoslovakia 1-Czechoslovakia opened the score with a well executed goal, but Brazil responded quickly to make it 1-1 when Amarildo scored from an impossibly acute angle to hit the side netting of the far corner.

1966 England 4 Germany 2Hurst third goal made it 4-2. A tremendous ball was launched up field by England not far from their own 12 yard box. Hurst standing inside the German half in-line with the centre circle periphery used his chest to control the ball, let it drop to his feet and just ran unopposed toward the German goal area. As he got to the 12 yard box with a challenge imminent, Hurst unleashed a left footed volley into the top of the net. This effort put the result beyond any doubt.

1970 Brazil 4 Italy 1Final goal for Brazil by Alberto (4-1) was the culmination of superb on the ball skills and pinpoint accurate passing displayed by the TEAM. As this skills showcase happened on one side, Alberto went unchallenged down the opposite flank and thundered a cannonball shot into the net thanks to a Pele assist.

1974 Germany 2 Holland 1 Winning goal from Muller the only goal scored from open play as the others were both penalties.

1978 Argentina 3 Holland 1 aetKempes second goal for Argentina is outrageous in the extreme, and proves you should just keep trying. Somehow Kempes evaded two Dutch defenders and made an attempt at scoring which Jongbloed smothered.  But the loose ball hit Kempes before bouncing off the keeper again and going high in the air. The Argentine and two Dutch defenders charged after the ball as it came down, and Kempes scored.

1982 Italy 3 West Germany 1Tardelli goal (2-0) he received the ball on his right foot, knocked it slightly high enabling a nimble switch to his favoured left foot for a powerful shot. Terrific build up play ensuring a real team effort goal.

1986 Argentina 3 West Germany 1 Brown opened the score for Argentina (1-0). Maradona heavily man marked by Matthaus was fouled on the right wing. The resulting free kick was a long diagonal ball from Burruchaga that travelled to the far post beyond the German keepers reach. Unmarked was defender Brown who headed the ball into the net. This was a hard game to call as I thought all the goals were good. But an obvious pre-occupation with nullifying Maradona’s influence, a lack of awareness in defensive matters and over reliance on the keeper, all contributed to Argentina winning the game and every aspect was involved in the first goal.

1990 Germany 1 Argentina 0Brehme converted a penalty awarded for a foul made on Voeller by Sensini.

1994 Brazil 0 Italy 0 (Brazil 3-2 pens)-first World Cup decided on a penalty shootout. My choice for best goal is Romario for Brazil. After both nations failed to score their first efforts, Albertini scored for Italy and Romario made it 1-1 hitting the ball very wide causing it to ricochet off the post and swing behind the Italian keeper.

1998 France 3 Brazil 0Zidane first goal for France (1-0) was a lovely header from a corner kick. Positioned on the six yard line facing away from goal, Zidane rose high in the air and with a powerful header put the ball in the opposite corner of the net.

2002 Brazil 2 Germany 0Ronaldo scored both goals but the second one was truly a team effort whilst the first was opportunistic as the keeper spilled the ball.

2006 France 1 Italy 1 (Italy 3-5 pens)-Italy gave a master class in penalty taking. But it is the audacious chipped penalty off the crossbar by Zidane to make it 1-0 that stays in my memory.

2010 Spain 1 Holland 0-the winner from Iniesta came deep into extra time.

2014 Germany 1 Argentina 0-the winner from Gotze came deep into extra time.

2018 France 4 Croatia 2 three of these goals came effectively from mistakes, an own-goal, a penalty and keeper error. The others were all sublime, but my choice is Perisic making it 1-1. A free kick floated the ball toward the edge of the 18 yard box; it was headed around a bit before finding Perisic at the D where he smashed the ball low into the net. Looking at video replays I counted ten French players in and around the box, not to mention the Croats, and I admired the sheer skill displayed in finding the net at all under those conditions.

Statesmanship at the Russian World Cup

Online definitions of the word statesmanship generally refer to respected people versed in the practices of managing public affairs, usually but not always with government associations. I’ve spotted several dignitaries giving official national representation at matches: President Vladimir Putin & Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for Russia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, King Felipe of Spain, President Emmanuel Macron of France and King Philippe of Belgium. FIFA President Gianni Infantino is always around somewhere, but of course the guys don’t get all their own way, as President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic bedecked in her national colours cheered on Croatia, whilst Princess Hisako the honorary patron of the Japan FA, became the first member of the Imperial family to visit Russia since 1916. As the Imperial family have no political function, Princess Hisako effectively made a goodwill gesture. English representation is conspicuous by its absence, although the team are doing fine without it, having got to a semi-final against Croatia.

UK/Russia diplomatic relations can be described as frosty at best since the Novichok incident in the spring involving the Skripals. In recent days this has made headline news again, with a British woman dying from the same type of “nerve agent” contamination. A direct result of the spring poisoning was a UK decreed boycott of the World Cup ensuring NO senior politician or Royal would be in attendance. After this week it is hard to imagine that stance being overturned, and yet England has a 50/50 chance of getting to a World Cup final, the first since 1966. Surely SOMEONE should be there in an official capacity?

The Queen’s age and the fact she has to entertain President Trump rules her out, and other senior Royals I think would be excluded as well, because it may seem they condone Russian policies. Prince William is President of the FA but he has just returned from a visit to the Middle East.  Princess Anne is a wonderful ambassador for British sport, but I still think she is too high up the rankings for it to sit well with Theresa May. Of course the Prime Minister has the US Presidential visit to contend with as well, along with a disintegrating government thanks to the shambolic Brexit negotiations with her own party!!! Considering the unpopularity of politicians in general in the UK, I don’t think England fans would welcome seeing ANY of them in the VIP box.

So who could possibly step up and attend a last minute goodwill gig fulfilling the role of dignitary? I think Prince Michael of Kent would be perfect. He’s not a politician but he is the Queen’s cousin, so a minor member of the Royal family. If I recall he has a fine grasp of Russian history and speaks Russian very well, perfect to help smooth out any awkwardness. Admittedly he does have an uncanny resemblance to the late Tsar Nicholas but all things considered, I think that’s a minor inconvenience.

Technology in Football

World Cup football began in 1930 and the contrast between the game of yesteryear and today’s tournament in Russia, is like comparing an ordinary bicycle to a Ferrari! Developments in the game, particularly through technology innovations, mean the sport and its players function on an entirely different level these days. VAR (Video Assistant Referees) is the “high tech” acronym in Russia2018, but long before VAR was implemented, football had already irrevocably changed from the game played at the inaugural World Cup.

A visit to the National Football Museum in Manchester in early June revealed some delightful treasures; World Cup Willie (1966 mascot), a 1930 World Cup final ball (probably a replica), first England World Cup shirt (1950), England World Cup Winners shirt (1966). Looking around I continually marvelled at how much had changed, from the fundamentals of clothing, to the enhancement of equipment and stadia, and advances in medical knowledge. All aspects within football had been transformed and it was all due to scientific and technology innovations. So I thought I’d mix my love of science, football and history and give an overview of the beautiful game technology.

Football Kit Changes

Shirts: The 1950 England shirt looked no different from those worn by the early players of football; it was effectively a KNITTED WOOLLEN JUMPER. Add to that a pair of long baggy shorts (like cut off work trousers), knitted socks and hard looking leather hob nailed boots, that would not have been out of place worn down a coal pit. This appeared to be the standard kit in the early decades of World Cup football. By 1966 England triumphed wearing clothing seemingly made specifically with sporting activity in mind, tailored cotton shorts, cotton socks and a heavy cotton sweatshirt styled top, with boots that seemed structured for better foot control of the ball.   Today, materials innovations allow shirts to be constructed from polyester/polymer technology. They are light weight and strong, usually have some kind of wicking and climacontrol properties, and may offer areas of compression to protect weak spots from injury. Materials scientist Dr Suze Kundu has written a superb in-depth article regarding the science behind football kit technology, and you can find it here.

Socks can also offer compression areas woven into the fabric to protect the calf for example. The sock can be made thicker in places where the foot causes more pressure, offering a bit of shock absorbance and cushioning, whilst pressure sores can be alleviated by a seamless construction. Climacontrol properties help maintain optimal conditions for foot temperature and dryness. The materials used are most likely to be a mix of polyester, nylon and elastane offering a snug yet flexible fit.

Shin pads displayed at the football museum from the early years of the game were single length rigid leather pads, with minimal curved edges that looked uncomfortable to wear.  Nowadays anatomical moulded shin pads are constructed from super light weight materials that have high tensile strength and cushioning to absorb impact. Dual density foam technology can provide enhanced protection alongside breathability offering maximum comfort.

Ankle Guards can be included within a sock fitting used to secure shin pads or bought separately. I’ve seen guards advertised with a 70% polyester/30% rubber mix construction, offering light weight flexible materials with a heavier emphasis on impact absorption.

Goal Keeper Gloves: Rather like the old style shin pads the antique keeper gloves were heavy styled leather ones that looked very inflexible and rigid, and made me think of a baseball/cricket catcher mitt. Today’s goalie can enjoy gloves that offer better manoeuvrability, high stress area padding for stopping and good grip, with climacontrol technology that keep hands warm and dry.

Boots: Boots made from mixed polymers provide a light, strong breathable mesh construction, which can be malleable to sport specific movement. Boot/ball contact areas can be made stronger to withstand high impact pressures, whilst the boot has enough “give” to allow players feet to move and react in a more natural way.

Ball: The early football game was played using a leather ball containing an inflated pig’s bladder. Viewing the inaugural 1930 World Cup football you can see the distinct leather lace stitching as well. Such a construction meant the ball inevitably absorbed water in wet weather, becoming two to three times heavier during a game. It would be like kicking or heading a dead weight, and issues have arisen concerning former players, especially prolific headers of the ball (Jeff Astle) suffering acute brain damage. Old style stitching on the ball resulted in deep gash injuries to the head and face too. The Russia2018 ball has an 83% TPU 17% polyester construction with a latex bladder and is thermally bonded to be seamless. This polyester/polymer ball is light weight, repels water and has undoubtedly been tested in wind tunnels to study its aerodynamic properties. After all the ball design (panels), polymer used, and the optimal pressure within the ball could all affect its performance.

Goal Technology/VAR

Goal Line Technology (GLT): I’ve seen two variations for this technology written about in recent years, GoalRef which uses electromagnetic induction principles and Hawkeye, which relies on high speed cameras and computer software to determine the ball position. Alas it seems FIFA prefer Hawkeye the most expensive option, thus excluding the majority of football practitioners’ from being able to use it. GLT was used for the first time in the World Cup four years ago and was called the GoalControl-4D system. With multiple cameras focused on the goalmouth, the ball can be isolated from other images and its position calculated by triangulation, and with speed considered as well, a 4D interpretation of the ball position is made. If the ball is deemed to have fully crossed the goal line, the referee receives an encrypted radio signal to his watch within one second, getting confirmation both visually and through vibration technology.

VAR: Referees in Russia have four extra assistants watching multi-angle views of potential incidents in a game. Birdseye views can be got through a plethora of cameras, offering multi-zoom, high definition images. Instant replays of any action can be shown repeatedly to the VAR assistants, the referee, and on TV for the stay at home fans to become referees too.  Fans in the stadium can enjoy seeing goals replayed on huge video screens, whilst World Cup referees have high tech watches and ear pieces to keep them updated with information, and VAR screens pitch side. However, VAR technology although technically accurate still requires human interpretation of it, so decisions will remain controversial.

Footage of the inaugural World Cup of 1930 shows grainy black & white wide angle coverage. Back then there was probably minimal use of TV cameras (perhaps on every corner area). You have to remember though that film technology was only a few decades old, and talking movies only began in 1927! The 1930s referee probably had only a standard pocket or wrist watch to rely on, his two linesmen and the crowd reactions to go by.

The Stadium

The Pitch: Some grounds today have an entirely synthetically made Astroturf surface, which is resistant to the vagaries of the weather, and perhaps offers a less expensive pitch to maintain. Grass pitches remain the normal playing surface in the UK, and the old style pitchfork/brush/sand combination is still used to maintain pitch integrity through torrential rain and overuse in play. Fast growing grass seed may be used to make the pitch surface more robust. And lights similar to greenhouse ones are used to help grass grow evenly in heavy shaded stadiums. An Old Trafford tour revealed news of a high tech drainage system under the pitch, where water was collected and then recycled to maintain its condition!

Infrastructure: Thankfully modern safety concerns have made wooden stands and open terraces largely a thing of the past. Retractable roofs can help keep out the worst/most excessive elements of rain and heat, and roof design in general can partly influence playing conditions. The Qatar World Cup in 2022 offers a fascinating prospect where air conditioning, solar radiation reduction and stadia recycling strategies, have all been implemented in the building design process. It is hoped that a constant temperature can be maintained for both playing and viewing conditions, and that the modular structure of stadiums will make them easier to dismantle, transport and reassemble again, for use in third world countries. If those ideals could be met that would be seriously impressive.

Medical Innovations

Injuries: Surgical advances mean that career ending injuries from twenty years ago can now be treated, and a player may well be able to take up the game again after complex surgery and a long rehabilitation. Considering substitutions were not always allowed, players of yesteryear had to continue playing whilst hurt (or leave the team undermanned), which could only have exacerbated the degree of injury sustained. Medical treatment was perfunctory and rather basic, so even a bad leg break could be the end of football playing.

Physiology/Psychology: Professional players today are full time athletes with the help of club doctors, physiotherapists, nutritionists and sports psychologists to help deal with injury concerns and the pressures of celebrity. But until at least the late 60s/ early 70s players could have a day job, whilst trying to maintain a fledgling football career (Joe Jordan, Sir Alex Ferguson, and David Moyes). And before clubs became professional most men put in a full week’s work, many down pits, in steelworks or factories. So a player back in the 1930s was more reliant on their own natural athleticism, and body conditioning came from the day job and exercise around the playing field. Little wonder many enjoyed a smoke and a pint down the pub as a means of relaxing and coping with what life threw at them. My heart goes out to World Cup Northern Ireland keeper Harry Gregg who played in 58, and England midfielder Bobby Charlton (squad member) who both went to the biggest football tournament in the world, only months after surviving the Munich disaster. I don’t suppose sports psychologists were on hand to help them deal with the trauma they endured. They just got on with their game, now THAT is mental strength.

Bicycle to Ferrari

So the solid reliable bicycle propelled by pedal power can be likened to the World Cup game of 1930. Teams endured a somewhat laboured travel schedule over several weeks to reach Uruguay. They wore heavy everyday styled clothing and cumbersome boots, to kick leather balls around pitches of dubious quality. Players usually had day jobs, football was part-time for them, and training fitted around shift patterns. Referees were virtually self reliant, empowered only by their wits, the two linesmen, and rudimentary equipment. Huge throngs watched games in antiquated stadiums with few if any facilities and publicity of events occurred through newspapers, telegrams and cinema news reels, created using the infant TV/film technology. Watching those reels the game may seem slow with less finesse but is it any wonder? The 2018 World Cup by comparison is a well oiled Ferrari, where teams zipped around the globe taking only a matter of days to arrive in Russia. Participating nations are kitted out in light weight, highly durable sport specific clothing and footwear incorporating the latest technology innovations. Pitch surfaces are primed to perfection, balls no longer get heavier during inclement weather, and huge crowds of football fans enjoy the game in multi facility stadia. Players are full time professionals, their training developed to incorporate the latest medical advances, to ensure their bodies and minds are honed to a level of fitness akin to a finely tuned sporty little engine. Referees are supported by their linesmen AND off pitch assistants, and receive information assimilated by computer technology. And news of events is literally instantaneous thanks to 24 hour running news programs, social media, the internet and high definition TV broadcasts, that show the fast paced, highly commercial and somewhat cynical game of today in all it’s fascinating glory.

From Hero to Zero

Germany’s elimination from the 2018 World Cup in Russia is not the first time the current reigning champions have failed to progress to the next round. The German’s are in good company and follow recent trends.

The inaugural winners of the 1930 World Cup Uruguay did not, for various reasons, participate in the 1934. So they didn’t defend their title in open competition, and cannot be considered in the same way as other teams mentioned. Italy won the tournament in 1934 & 1938, but it was not held again until 1950 due to the outbreak of World War 2.

World Cup winners from 1950 to 1958, 1966 to 1994 and 2002 all managed to reach the second phase of the following tournament AT LEAST.

After consecutive World Cup victories in 1958 and 1962 BRAZIL were the first reigning champions to be eliminated in the group stages at the 1966 finals.  Heavy 3-1 defeats by Hungary and Portugal and a solitary 2-0 win over Bulgaria meant Brazil finished third in their group.

FRANCE winners in 1998 were dumped out of the 2002 tournament coming bottom of their group. Between defeats from Senegal 1-0 and Denmark 2-0, the French only managed a scant goal less draw with Uruguay.

ITALY winners in 2006 achieved the same accolade as France in 2002, coming bottom of their group in South African 2010. Consecutive 1-1 draws with Paraguay and New Zealand, meant the Italians needed a positive result against Slovakia. From 25 minutes the score read Slovakia 1 Italy 0, until 73 minutes when an onslaught of goals occurred, resulting in a 3-2 humiliating defeat for the Italians.

SPAIN 2010 winners only managed third place in their 2014 group stage. Spain suffered a heavy 1-5 defeat by the Netherlands who went on the rampage, and gave themselves and the football family, the final that should have happened in 2010. Chile beat the reigning champions 2-0 and Spain’s only consolation was a 3-0 win over Australia.

And now GERMANY 2014 winners eliminated after coming third in the group. After defeat by Mexico 1-0 the German’s pulled off a last gasp 2-1 win against Sweden. But plucky South Korea stunned the Europeans with a two goal stoppage time victory.

The three most recent World Cup winners have suffered early exits, and I wonder if it has anything to do with the WAY these teams won their titles. In 2006 Italy drew 1-1 with France and won on penalties, and both Spain in 2010 and Germany in 2014 won by a solitary goal scored deep into extra time.  None of them won particularly convincingly. All used aging players who had been together a long time before getting victory, but by the next tournament new players and methods may have been implemented, but were obviously not yet fully harnessed. It’s an interesting conundrum!

World Cup Surprise Results

South Korea’s 2-0 victory in added time over Germany broke the reigning World champion’s heart, as they were knocked out at the group stage of Russia2018. But Germany had also been defeated by one goal in their first match against Mexico, which proved equally pivotal.  Looking back over the history of the football World Cup, there have been several big teams surprised by “lesser” opponents pulling off unexpected results. Here are some of them:

1950: USA 1 England 0-A dispute between the home nations governing football bodies and FIFA, meant that no British nation took part in the previous three World Cups (1930, 1934 & 1938). England defeated Chile 2-0 in their first match, but appeared somewhat complacent toward their American opposition, almost treating the fixture like a practice game. England could not break down a doughty defensive line, or beat Borghi who was excellent in goal for the US. England went home early but at least they had taken part, Scotland had forfeited their World Cup participation through misplaced national pride. FIFA had given the British Championship two qualifying places, but Scotland said they would only take part in the World Cup as British Champions, but they came second.

1950 Final: URUGUAY 2 Brazil 1-With Brazil hosting the tournament how could they lose? Before a ball was kicked, the Rio state Governor had waxed lyrical about the Brazil team being football gods, and effectively claimed them as World champions. Another stubborn defence & brave keeper combined with productive counter attacks by Uruguay stunned the host nation.

1958: For the first and only time ALL FOUR HOME NATIONS participated and it was Wales and Northern Ireland who reached the knockout stages.

Germany 2 NORTHERN IRELAND 2-With a win and loss already under their belt, a draw against the reigning World champions guaranteed the Irish a play-off chance to reach the knockout stages. After defeating Czechoslovakia, the Irish met France in the quarter-finals, but weary and ravaged by injury they suffered a 4-0 loss.

Playoff WALES 2 Hungary 1-By defeating the 1954 World Cup finalists, Wales went into the knockout stages where they faced Brazil in their quarterfinal. Brazil 1 WALES 0-the Welsh proved stubborn against Brazilian attacks, and it was only a deflected effort from Pele that beat their keeper. Pele has attributed that goal as THE MOST IMPORTANT he has ever scored. Brazil went on to win the final and be crowned World Champions for the first time.

1966: NORTH KOREA 1 Italy 0-This win eliminated Italy at the group stage and North Korea progressed to the quarter-finals. Portugal 5 NORTH KOREA 3-the Koreans put up a spirited fight and scored three goals within 25 minutes, before Portugal rallied to make it 2-3 by half time. Fire power from Eusebio (4 goals/2 from penalties) & Augusto proved too much to overcome. North Korea was the first Asian team ever to progress from the group stages. Only Saudi Arabia 1994, South Korea in 2002 & 2010 and Japan in 2010 & 2018 have managed the same achievement.

1978: PERU 3 Scotland 1-Ally McLeod had already decided his tartan army were World Champions before they left British shores!!! Poor preparation and complacency were Scotland’s undoing, as well as two superb goals for Peru by Cubillas. Scotland’s lessons in humility continued in their next match Scotland 1 IRAN 1, when a farcical Iranian own goal gifted the Scots a valuable point. But just when Scotland had sunk to their lowest point BOOM they pulled off a fantastic win. SCOTLAND 3 Holland 2 when Archie Gemmill bemused three Dutch defenders to weave his diminutive frame into a striking position. With a nonchalant air he then bent the ball around helpless keeper Jongbloed for Scotland’s third (and winning) goal. Holland only suffered two defeats in Argentina 78, conceding three goals each time, and one was in the final the other to Gemmill’s right boot!

1982: Host nation Spain suffered two embarrassing results during the group stage; Spain 1 HONDURAS 1 and Spain 0 NORTHERN IRELAND 1. Although Spain squeaked into the next round they went no further.

ALGERIA 2 West Germany 1-Algeria finished the group stage with two wins and a defeat, but still had no guarantee of progression to the second round. The final decider West Germany 1 Austria 0 was effectively a contrived result between the two countries, to ensure THEY went through and Algeria went home. The resulting disgust of fans worldwide who had witnessed this “staged passive” game, eventually forced the FIFA authorities to act. As a consequence, since 1986 the final two matches in each group have been played at the same time, in an attempt to prevent a fixed result occurring again.

1990: Costa Rica appeared in their inaugural World Cup and surprised many with their group results; COSTA RICA 1 Scotland 0, Brazil 1 COSTA RICA 0 and COSTA RICA 2 Sweden 1. They progressed to the next round and a 4-1 Czechoslovakia defeat. Further participation in the 2002, 2006, 2014 and 2018 World Cup’s has given Costa Rica more exposure. By far the country’s most successful tournament was in 2014 when they reached the quarter finals.

2014: A tough group stage held no fears for the Central American team who once again triumphed; Uruguay 1 COSTA RICA 3, Italy 0 COSTA RICA 1 and COSTA RICA 0 England 0. In the last 16 Costa Rica faced Greece and went through on penalties. Eventually after a 0-0 result after extra time, the Netherlands dispatched Costa Rica 4-3 on penalties.

1994: Belgium 0 SAUDI ARABIA 1-with this win Saudi Arabia relegated Belgium to third place in the group and an early exit. All three teams had secured 6 points, but Holland and Saudi Arabia had identical statistics and a better goal difference than the Belgians.

Quarter-final BULGARIA 2 Germany 1: Matthaus gave the German’s the lead from the penalty spot at the start of the second half (47). But tournament Golden Boot winner Stoichkov scored a sublime free kick to equalise on 75 minutes before Letchkov redeemed himself for giving away the penalty, by scoring the winner with a powerful header on 78 minutes.

1998 Quarter-final: Germany 0 CROATIA 3-Having gained independence in 1991 this was the first time Croatia participated in the World Cup (previously they were part of Yugoslavia 1930-1990). And they reached the semi-finals before winning the third place match. Davor Suker was in sublime form with six goals, which deservedly won the Golden Boot award. Only one team before had placed so highly in the World Cup on their debut, and that was Portugal back in 1966. Not bad company at all.

2002: SOUTH KOREA 1 Portugal 0-South Korea were joint hosts with Japan that year and by far enjoyed their best World Cup. Before this result at the end of the group stages, the Koreans had beaten Poland 2-0 and drawn with the USA 1-1. In the second phase they dispatched Italy by a golden goal, beat Spain on penalties in the quarters, and narrowly lost to Germany in the semi-final. A thrilling encounter with Turkey in the third-place match ended with a 3-2 defeat for the South Koreans. But they had gained hard won respect.

USA 3 Portugal 2-This win (along with the one above) effectively ensured the Americans secured their place in the second phase at the expense of Portugal.

Reigning champions France came bottom of their group and failed to progress, having begun their campaign France 0 SENEGAL 1.

2006: Czech Republic 0 GHANA 2-Gyan scored in the second minute and hit the post from a penalty on 65 minutes. The Czech team now down to ten men kept themselves in the game, until Muntari scored on 82 minutes. When the group stage ended, this win ensured Ghana’s second place and progression to the next round.

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO 0 Sweden 0: Veteran keeper Shaka Hislop went in goal for Trinidad & Tobago after Kelvin Jack was injured in the warm up. His experience matched that of Sweden’s strike force Zlatko Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson, who threw everything at Hislop, but to no avail.

2010: Italy 1 NEW ZEALAND 1 contributed to Italy’s failure to reach the second phase. The French didn’t get out of the group stage either tasting defeat to the hosts France 1 SOUTH AFRICA 2.

2018: IRAN 1 Portugal 1 this meant Portugal were second after a last minute equaliser for Spain in the other final group match. However, had Iran scored from a vicious shot which hit the side netting, Iran would have been group WINNERS and Spain second, with Portugal eliminated! No commentator I heard even mentioned THAT scenario.

But no matter how badly a team starts a World Cup campaign they CAN go on to great success. Just look at 2014: Spain 0 SWITZERLAND 1 as a prime example, as the Spanish reached and won their first ever World Cup final.

Midpoint of World Cup 2018

After 32 games of World Cup football in Russia we are at the half way stage of the tournament, with every team having played two of their three qualifying matches.  Already guaranteed through to the next round are Russia, Uruguay, Croatia, England, Belgium, France and possibly Mexico. Definitely going home are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Peru, Costa Rica, South Korea, Tunisia, Panama and Poland. That’s half of the participating teams, so the other 16 have a battle to secure a top two finish in their qualifying tables.

So far there has been no goal-less draws, but almost a third of matches have ended with a solitary goal victory, many of them scored very late in the game. The 32 games produced 85 goals, 13 of them coming from 16 penalties awarded, with VAR responsible for six penalty decisions. Undoubtedly this tournament will see the most penalties ever awarded, and probably as a consequence will directly influence the number of goals scored by the Golden Boot winner.

The host nation Russia got off to a blistering start in Group A with a 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia, opponents who were deemed alongside Russia as the WORST teams in the tournament. Russia followed with a 3-1 win against Egypt securing their place in the next round. ITV pundit Roy Keane was scathing about Russia progressing, although he begrudgingly admitted it was good for the host nation to do well. His attitude disgusted me, considering many of the BIG teams have still yet to really impress.

Group B produced a thrilling 3-3 draw between Portugal & Spain and a surprise 1-0 win for Iran, courtesy of a Morocco own goal. I was pleased for Iran who had doggedly fought to get a point in the game. As a team Iran have not had it easy with political sanctions causing problems with boot supplies, and a ban on replica merchandise sales makes revenue difficult to generate.

Group C with France, Australia, Denmark and Peru have scored the least number of goals with only 7 between them so far. The stand out performance for me has been Jedinak’s two penalties for Australia.

In Group D I felt sorry for Iceland failing to secure victory over Argentina, missing numerous chances to enhance a 1-0 lead before the South Americans equalised. Argentina was well and truly hammered by Croatia 3-0, and must secure a win against Nigeria to have any chance of progressing. The South Americans looked mediocre at best.

Brazil in Group E was held to a 1-1 draw by Switzerland before winning 2-0 against Costa Rica. They were lucky, because until 90 minutes it was 0-0 and I so wanted little Costa Rica to secure a point. But then 7 extra minutes were played and the Brazilians finally turned on the style, although Neymar should have been off the pitch. Throughout the game he repeatedly told the referee what he thought about everything, I’d have slapped a yellow on him to shut his mouth. Then he spectacularly went down in the box, the referee awarded a penalty then bravely reversed his decision having consulted VAR. By rights Neymar should have had a booking for simulation, but eventually he did get yellow carded for dissent. So I feel his petulant attitude could have seen him red carded, therefore he wouldn’t have been on the field to score Brazil’s second goal. Far more convincing a victory was Switzerland’s 2-1 result over Serbia.

Mexico beat Germany 1-0 to get Group F off to an interesting start and then secured a 2-1 win over South Korea. With six points Mexico should progress, but it is not a mathematical guarantee yet. Germany v Sweden was an intriguing match with both teams having a sublime and awful half each. In the second half Germany equalised immediately, and for the remainder of the game Sweden had eleven men behind the ball! Giving away a needless free kick in extra time allowed Tony Kroos to score and snatch victory for Germany. The reigning champions until that moment were almost out of the tournament. Heart in mouth stuff!!!

The first game for England against Tunisia in Group G proved that VAR suffers from human error. At least twice England players were literally wrestled to the ground in the box, and nothing was “seen” by VAR or the referee? Thankfully Harry Kane’s header in the dying seconds of the match secured a 2-1 victory. When England faced Panama the wrestling demonstrations in the box were punished by VAR twice, and another four goals were added to the tally from set pieces. A late goal from Panama saw England on exactly the same statistics as Belgium, 8 goals for 2 against with six points each. Both European teams meet in their final group match and a win result would separate the two, otherwise it may go down to “fair play” (least bookings) or a draw out of a pot to place first and second teams. But after two games Group G has the highest goals tally of 20.

A lacklustre Poland in Group H tasted defeat against Senegal and a scintillating Columbia, ensuring an early exit for the group’s only European representative. Columbia in their first match had a man sent off in the third minute for a deliberate handball in the box, so basically played with ten men for over ninety minutes with added time. They did well to equalise before half time, but couldn’t come back a second time after Japan’s Osako scored with a lovely header. So Japan secured an unexpected 2-1 victory and then battled for a hard won 2-2 draw with Senegal, meaning both teams are on four points with identical statistics. Columbia face Senegal and Japan face Poland in the final group matches and all is still to play for, it’s still wide open.

So many times the big teams prove their ability to slug out a match, waiting to pounce on a fleeting opportunity to showcase a bit of genius. Many of them do just enough to get by and no more, and this does not usually make for attractive or thrilling football in my opinion. I’d much rather see teams with perceived less ability, but who show more heart, progress instead. Initially that happens but inevitably the “big guns” grind down the young pretenders. But one day I’d love to see two World Cup finalists who have never reached that stage before. I can but dream.