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Baffling football fever

The FIFA World Cup has seen the loss of teams with star players, and seen the emergence of ones we didn’t have our eye on

MOSCOW: At the halfway mark with the Round of 16 matches, it won’t be that difficult to summarise the 2018 World Cup. Several big names including Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo (though he produced a spark with a hat-trick against Spain) and Robert Lewandowski failed to guide their teams to the next knock-out rounds. Then the abject failure of Germany and their stunning 2-0 defeat against South Korea in the stoppage time will continue to baffle us.

On the positive side, we saw the emergence of France’s young striker Kylian Mbappe, who’s now heralded as the next big name following his double strike against Argentina in Round of 16. While teams like Russia, Asian challengers Japan and South Korea were a revelation in the tournament.

Bye bye Messi
Messi is a complete misfit in Argentinian jersey at the World Cup. This edition was no less surprising as the Barca man struggled to find his form and excitement on football’s biggest platform.

Argentina exited Round of 16, losing to France in a seven-goal thriller.

The sad exits of Messi and Ronaldo will forever be etched in our memories as two of the world’s best players, perhaps played their last World Cup in Russia.

By the time the next World Cup takes place in Qatar, Messi would be 35 and Ronaldo 37.

The defeat also meant Messi once again failed to shine at the sport’s biggest stage while Ronaldo — Messi’s biggest rival in club football’s modern era — also failed to maintain his form.

The Argentinian may have ignited his countrymen’s hopes in the last group match against Nigeria in Saint Petersburg, but that wasn’t enough. He failed to galvanise a side against France, who will face Uruguay in last eight.

Welcome Mbappe
Who would’ve thought a 19-year-old would take the world by his stride by scoring two goals which took the snuff out of the Argentinians.

Mbappe’s performance is still the talk of the town after he became only the second player after the legendary Pele to score twice in a single match as a teenager.

Besides, the transfer is abuzz with a possible move to Real Madrid from Paris-Saint Germain, where the young striker is on a loan from Monaco.

He’s a precocious youngster. One can expect more magic from his feet, but Mbappe needs to be protected by the coaches. Not just in this tournament when France meet Uruguay, but at the clubs as there’s every possible chance to fizzle out amid huge expectations.

Germany lacked killer punch
The 2014 champions didn’t show the kind of mentality which had helped them win the title in Brazil.

It wasn’t the best German side in recent years as they lost to Mexico 1-0 in their opening match and they never could recover after that defeat.

Germany showed a great commitment in their 2-1 win over Sweden. But that euphoria lasted only for few days when Joachim Loew’s side were beaten by South Korea in two stoppage-time goals in their last group match.

Iniesta swansong
Perhaps, one of the brilliant ball players in modern era, Spain’s Andres Iniesta bade farewell to World Cup. His subtle skills and tiki-taka touches will be missed.

Most of his former team-mates, who won the title in 2010, have retired and Iniesta wanted to make it a last hurrah in Russia. Spain coach Fernando Hierro paid tributes to Iniesta, who played his last international match for his country against Russia in the Round of 16.

“I’m extremely grateful to an outstanding professional. He played as if it was his first international,” said Hierro.

The former Barca midfielder, who joined Japanese club Vissel Kobe last month, scored a goal in the tie-breaker, but Spain lost as Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev used his hand and feet spot-kicks to knockout the 2010 champions.

Korean delight
One of the most successful and consistent Asian sides at the World Cup since 1986, South Korea had a big reason to celebrate when they shocked world champions Germany in a Group F group match.

For Korea, it was one of their biggest victories after their epic performances in 2002, when they hosted the tournament jointly with Japan.

“I am sorry we didn’t live up to our promise of reaching the knockout stage,” Son said. “But I think we all saw some hope from the win over Germany.”

Son assured the fans that they would not allow the result to make them complacent. “The win over Germany doesn’t mean we are satisfied. We will continue to work hard,” said the Tottenham Hotspur forward.

Korea’s next major tournament is the Asian Cup next year in UAE which the East Asians are targeting to win, as the last of their two titles came in 1960.

The win over Germany, said Son, was just the boost Korea needed as they set their sights on the Asian Cup next year.

Goalkeepers’ night out
On a rain-drenched evening at the Luzhinki Stadium, Akinfeev showed excellent athleticism by using the heel of his boots to deny Aspas in the last shot as the hosts overcame the 2010 winners 4-3 on penalties after match ended 1-1 in extra time.

Backed by their vociferous fans, Russia will be looking forward to repeat their performances against a skilful Croatian side. But to achieve that goal, they need to take their game a few notches up.

The 32-year-old Russian captain has been a big influence on his team, who qualified for the quarterfinals after 1966.

The win against a top side could boost the sport’s future in the country as football is still yet to be their favourite game. Lack of international results may have had a deep impact on football not becoming a main sport while basketball, volleyball and ice hockey continue to attract the Russians.