The beautiful game

EVERY four years, the world takes a pause for a month to celebrate the beautiful game. The football World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world watched by 3.4 billion people, nearly half of the 7.6 billion global population. A far second is Rugby World Cup with a 2.4-billion audience and Cricket World Cup is third drawing 2.2 billion viewers. The Summer Olympics, on the other hand, attracted 2 billion worldwide audience while the NBA finals most Filipinos are crazy about generated a measly 20.4 million (most watched 2017 NBA Finals between GSW and CLE).

This year’s World Cup is hosted by Russia, a politically loaded choice riddled with scandals. Controversies, however, failed to dampen the party in Russia and this edition of World Cup is living up to the reputation of the game. Despite numerous attempts to predict the event’s outcomes (by octopus, cat, otter, parrot and other bizarre mediums) football is beautiful because it is unpredictable.

It’s been a week since the biggest sporting event began in Russia and upsets, surprises and history are already made. In the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia, the underrated and derided host team surprised the world, even the home fans with the 5-0 drubbing of the Asian team. It was the biggest winning goals of an opening match since 1934 (also 5 goals).

In their second match, the Russians sustained their momentum by dispatching Egypt, 3-1 despite the electric presence of Egyptian superstar Mo Salah. Russia is the first team in the tournament to enter the knock out stage of the round of sixteen.

The clash of the titans between Iberian neighbors Portugal and Spain proved to be a thrilling match. Cristiano Ronaldo scored early in the game only to be cancelled out by Diego Costa. Ronaldo made a goal again to put Portugal on the lead once more but Costa equalized for the second time. Nacho, Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate, placed Spain on the driver’s seat but a marvelously converted late free kick by Ronaldo made it even. Ronaldo’s hat-trick in that match, which ended in a draw, will be talked about for years.

Another much-awaited game was the debut of Iceland in the global stage against powerhouse Argentina. Iceland, with a population of 337,000, is the smallest country in the world to qualify in the World Cup. The Icelanders earned global attention and adulation when they eliminated England in EUFA 2016 and their Cinderella run in this edition of the World Cup made them one of the favorites.

With nothing to lose but everything to gain in their battle against the fancied Argentina, Iceland proved their success is no fluke. To the amazement of the world, Argentina had a hard-time cracking Iceland and the match ended in a 1-1 draw. Iceland keeper Hannes Halldorsson became an instant celebrity when he denied global football icon Lionel Messi his penalty kick, which could have handed Argentina the victory.

The eagerly anticipated battle between reigning world champion Germany and Mexico was the real shocker. Germany came into the game as the favorite as the team’s performance in their previous matches has impressed the world. From the start, the skirmish between the two teams was intense. The organized and calculated German attacks were repulsed by Mexico, which immediately launched a quick and fast-paced counter attacks.

Bursting with energy and aggressiveness, El Tri’s strong defense and rapid counter-offensives overwhelmed and scuttled the Die Mannschaft’s game plan. In the 35th minute, the German defense was breached and Hirving Lozano assisted by Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez scored a goal. Germany’s slow midfield was no match to Mexico’s fluid quartet mid-fielders backing two attackers and their rhyme and rhythm overpowered the bewildered reigning world champions. Game ended in Germany’s defeat, 1-0.

Germany’s loss stunned the world and massive ecstatic celebrations erupted across Mexico. Seismic authorities reported a mini-quake in Mexico City caused by collective jumping when Lozano scored. No sport can generate such frenzied and hyper-collective reaction other than football.

Talk of a champion’s curse was revived and traveled across the globe. In the past, reigning champions lost their opening match – France (2002), Italy (2010), and Spain (2014). Germany continued the trend but dismissed such talks and vowed to bounce back in their coming matches against Sweden and South Korea.

Among the Asian teams, Japan’s performance stood out. The Blue Samurais’ first game against the Los Cafeteros of Colombia rewrote football history in the region. Three minutes into the match, the first red card (and the fastest in World Cup history) in the tournament was handed out to a Colombian player for a handball inside the box. Shinji Kagawa coolly converted the awarded penalty kick.

The ten-man Colombian team fought back and equalized in the 38th minute on a free-kick goal by Juan Quintero. But that was the best Colombia can come up with despite the presence of star players Radamal Falcao and James Rodriguez (who was forced to enter the game in the second half). Yuya Osako’s goal in the 73rd minute sealed Colombia’s fate. The undermanned Los Cafeteros lost to the Blue Samurais 2-1. Japan became the first Asian team to beat a South American team in a World Cup game.

It’s only the first week and FIFA World Cup has already produced enough thrills and excitement the global community can revel and drive billions of people crazy.  As the tournament progresses and headed towards its conclusion things can only get better and electrifying.      

Hopefully, in the future, Filipinos can join the worldwide community and partake in the global revelry of celebrating the beautiful game enjoying its agony and ecstasy.

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