NZME's award winning* football blog Goalmouth Scramble is back. Our rotating stable of football writers will offer daily hot takes on all the action from the World Cup in Russia. Today, Steven Holloway addresses why Neymar is so unlikeable and why the World Cup is driving him insane...
Careful what you wish for
This is likely an unpopular opinion, but we have now lost one too many of the 'heavyweight' sides for an optimum World Cup. When Germany and Portugal bowed out, I toasted their death. When Argentina were sent home by France in the game of the tournament, I cheered. But when Spain stuttered to their bizarre demise this morning against Russia, the camel's back broke. Yes, all those teams deserved to go home, but they were also all capable of producing brilliance; a mark I'm not convinced all the leftover nations can. The Cup has lost too much star power. Spain were mind-numbingly boring in their loss to Russia - but were also capable of producing some of the best football we saw in the tournament, when their opponent's expressed desire to leave their goal box. It leaves us with at least one quarterfinal which may not pass my 2am test. I would get up in the middle of the night to watch Spain play anyone in a World Cup quarterfinal, I can't say the same for Russia v Croatia.
Sound the alarm
Speaking of the 2am test, these Russian kick-off times are driving me insane. I'm now in what appears to be a month-long argument with my wife.
Me: Sorry hun, I'm just tired.
Her: Well maybe don't stay up all night watching football, every night.
Her: You're insane.
The problem is, if you wake up at 2am for the first match - and it goes to penalties - there's no time for a meaningful snooze before the second match at 6am. So effectively, my day starts at 2am. I'm over here fighting for survival in my own personal World Cup of heavy eye-lids. Woe is me!
Which brings us to Spain, and their 1000-pass loss. What a weird game. Spain went up 1-0 early, then stopped trying to score. Even as normal time dissolved into extra time, the lack of intensity, of vigour, of haste and intent, was genuinely startling. The game demanded quickness, sharpness, speed and movement, Spain simply tried to knit the ball gently around them. It was excruciating to watch. Spain's past 'tiki-taka' success was based around the brilliance of Xavi and Iniesta, but their heir-apparent, Isco, fell short of the mark. The Real Madrid playmaker took a scarcely credible 197 touches in the game, almost half as many as the entire Russian side put together. But just 12 of his 132 completed passes went forwards. Spain quickly ran out of ideas to penetrate Russia's iron curtain defence and that was it. It makes you wonder what tactical changes would've been made if their coach wasn't sacked on the eve of the tournament.
Nothing beats penalty shootouts for drama. And how great was the camera pivot to capture Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel's reactions every time his son Kasper saved a penalty for Denmark? Truly gripping theatre. And what relief from Luka Modric, who now has a decent shot at winning the golden ball for the tournament's standout player, after missing arguably the most important kick of his life from the spot in regulation time. The pressure and intensity of World Cup penalties always makes me think of Zinedine Zidane in the seventh minute of the 2006 World Cup final. In an unimaginable cauldron of high stakes pressure, he went for the dinky 'panenka' shot, deftly chipping it down the middle of the goal after fooling the keeper into diving. Balls of steel.
England making all the right moves
England gaffer Gareth Southgate got a lot of stick from some quarters of the UK press for not 'trying' to win their final group game against Belgium. Citing 'momentum' the critics suggested it was more important to continue developing a winning culture over pre-planning a favourable future path to the trophy. What a load of rubbish. Southgate made exactly the right play, resting all his first choice players, losing the match and ending up on the weaker side of the bracket. Instead of a likely Japan, Brazil, France/Uruguay path to the final it could be Colombia, Sweden/ Switzerland, Croatia. What a dream. And as for 'momentum', it didn't seem to affect French 19-year old superstar Kylian Mbappe, who was rested for France's final group game before producing the performance of the tournament to score two and win a penalty in France's 4-3 epic over Argentina.
The next superstar
Speaking of Mbappe, he is destined to be the game's next global superstar. This was perfect from Jonathan Liew of the Independent:
"Introductions will no longer be necessary. From this point on, he will simply be Kylian: a word synonymous with unimaginable speed and thrilling skill, with sprints that raise the pulse and goals that make the world sit up and take notice. It was the day a promising talent became indisputably one of the greatest footballers currently walking the earth. "That may sound like hyperbole, but if we're not going to measure footballing greatness in this way, then frankly: how on earth are we going to measure it? Two goals in his first ever World Cup knockout game, in perhaps the most heavyweight clash to take place at this stage of the competition for a generation, in sweltering heat, under the highest pressure. If he achieves nothing else in his career - if he retires at the age of 20 and goes into falconry - he'll always have Kazan. We'll always have Kazan."
Neymar is incredibly annoying
But as Mbappe's stock continues to rise, Neymar's is going down. In my eyes anyway. His narcissism annoys me, but he hasn't been great on the field either. He tends to slow the game down these days, bringing the game to a standstill so he can do a party trick, instead of producing the free-flowing team themed performances that made him the world's most expensive player at Barcelona. But it's probably his diving and theatrics that frustrate me the most, though I have enjoyed the many memes made of his hysterics..
Enjoy it while you can
This could be the last great World Cup. The 2022 edition will be played in Qatar in November, which faces all sorts of logistical problems, and after that it's going to be a 48 team competition, which will serve us up a smorgasbord of more Saudi Arabias and Panamas. If it's not broke...
Possession does not rule in tournament football
France held 39% possession in their win over Argentina, Russia held 21% in their win over Spain and Uruguay held 32% in their win over Portugal. You seeing a trend here? Leicester City set the blueprint and the world has taken notice. The most successful teams at this tournament are comfortable conceding possession and stinging their opponents on the counter attack.
The best writing
There has been some fantastic writing at this World Cup with the UK elite at the top of their games. The Independent's Jonathan Liew has lead the way, with this on Mbappe and Messi, perhaps the best piece of the tournament. His depiction of Spain's demise was excellent too. Rory Smith from the New York Times on Messi was good, as was Jorge Valdano's column on 'what's wrong with Argentina'.
Perhaps the best line though belongs to the Guardian's Barney Ronay, who said Luka Modric resembles a "small boy dressed up as a witch".
*Goalmouth Scramble's 'award' was more of an inter-company acknowledgement in an email from 2012.
Previously, on Goalmouth Scramble:
Damien Venuto: The villains of the World Cup
Joel Kulasingham: The 11 All Blacks who would dominate* the FIFA World Cup
Chris Rattue: Bring on the penalty shootouts
Niall Anderson: So, uh, which of these World Cup teams are actually good?
Steven Holloway: Funbag: Messi and World Cup conspiracy theories
Michael Burgess: Why I'm missing Sepp Blatter
Cam McMillan: The far too early second round projections
David Leggat: A few things you need to know about the World Cup
Damien Venuto: Messi - The Argentinean Andrew Mehrtens?
Cam McMillan: Why Brazil will (and won't) win the World Cup
Niall Anderson: The best (and worst) games to watch
Chris Rattue: Funny footballs and goalkeepers
Chris Rattue: The big World Cup questions
Steven Holloway: Fancy a punt? The World Cup's best bets