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, Damien Venuto looks at the World Cup's biggest villains.
The FIFA World Cup is as much a sport as it is a theatrical spectacle. And no theatre would be complete without the presence of a few villains to spice up the action and inspire the audience to throw a few tomatoes. This year's edition of the tournament has not disappointed, serving up a delicious array of shadowy figures engaging in some dark arts.
Here's a rundown of a few of our favourite villains:
The German national team
Germany enters every tournament as something of hated incumbent, a brutally efficient machine focused on wiping out opposition rather than playing the beautiful game. This year was no different to previous editions, but one event certainly upped the ante. Scenes of members of the German outfit celebrating crassly in front of the Swedish bench after the late game-winning goal quickly turned neutral viewers against the team. It was bad enough for the Sweden coach Janne Andersson to call the German behaviour "scornful" – and it was an act that would later come back to haunt them. As Germany bowed out to South Korea, celebrations and widespread mockery broke out throughout the world.
There's a strong argument to be made for the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo might be the devil. Heck, he isn't even trying to hide it. He openly flaunts his superhuman abilities. He's seemingly impervious to the effects of ageing. And during this tournament, he appears to have grown a goatee for the sole purpose of goading Lionel Messi (who with his beard and stoic commitment to his cause is closest thing football has to a biblical figure). Add to this Ronaldo's massive ego, his bouts of petulance and that cheeky wink, and you have the perfect World Cup villain.
As Brazil lined up against Serbia, the question on the average observer's mind wasn't how many goals Neymar would score or how many assists he would make, but rather how many useless stepovers he'd complete and how many times he'd roll after being lightly touched by an opposing player. Neymar's penchant for the thespian approach to football has become so prominent that analysts have even come to question his actions after the final whistle, casting doubt over the legitimacy of his tears at the end of Brazil's game against Costa Rica. Heavens forbid the player suffers an actual tackle in this tournament.
Argentina's diabolical start to the 2018 World Cup has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the Albiceleste manager Jorge Sampaoli. He's been cast as some type of footballing succubus that sucks the ability and drive out of the most talented individuals on the park. He's managed to make players such as Sergio Agüero, Lionel Messi and Nicolás Otamendi look downright average despite arriving in Russia off the back of strong seasons with their respective clubs. It comes as little surprise that the Argentinean players eventually decided to exorcise Sampaoli and have the more senior players choose the team for the final game. If not for this intervention, Argentina may well have been on their way out after the Nigeria game.
Surez hasn't yet done anything controversial in this tournament yet, but there's still time for him to again become the villain. Treat this as a placeholder on the basis of his sublime track record in this tournament. In 2014, he bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini and in 2010 he committed a handball that would condemn the Ghanaian team to a quarterfinal exit. This is a guy who's willing to bite, cheat and whine his way to victory. And he definitely doesn't care what you think of him.
The only 0-0 draw of the tournament so far has been attributed to Denmark's unwillingness to play. Watching the team square off against France (they're certainly not innocent in this disgrace) felt a bit like being submerged into a sensory deprivation tank. All the emotion, feeling and beauty that so often typifies the game was simply cut out. Denmark's strategy offers an unforgiving version of anti-football that provides little beyond an answer to insomnia.
The yellow card rule
It's understandable that group ties have to be resolved somehow, but the nature of Senegal's exit from the World Cup definitely flung an arrow into the football romantic's heart. This team was a favourite among neutral fans – and for good reason. The smart attacking football, the jubilant fans and the unforgettable goal celebrations gave us a modern iteration of what the Brazilians call jogo bonito. They will be sorely missed.
While many of the inclusions on this list are tongue-in-cheek, the continued prevalence of sexism at the World Cup is no joke. Reporters being groped, female hate blogs and video recorded mockery of female fans are just some of the issues that have blighted the game this year. It's a reminder that the game isn't always as beautiful as we'd like it to be.
*Goalmouth Scramble's 'award' was more of an inter-company acknowledgement in an email from 2012.
Previously, on Goalmouth Scramble:
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