World Cup 2018 could be the best

Lack of tough con­tests in the group stage could help the big­gest teams and the best play­ers find their way in the later stages.

The Sunday Guardian - - Sports -

Ru s s i a n p r e s i - dent Vladimir Put i n promised “a ma­jor sport­ing fes­ti­val of friend­ship and fair play”, his Fifa equiv­a­lent Gianni In­fantino as­sured the au­di­ence it would be “the best World Cup ever” and an en­dear­ingly en­er­gised Gareth South­gate said “it re­ally takes you back to the pure­ness of foot­ball, a kid fill­ing in the games, and that gen­uine ex­cite­ment of be­ing in­volved”… only for the first game to be the hosts against Saudi Ara­bia. That is a fix­ture be­tween what are cur­rently the two worst ranked teams in Rus­sia 2018, and might well be the most un­der­whelm­ing open­ing match of all time, but that just sets the tone and fits for what might be the most un­der­whelm­ing group-stage draw of all time.

It was a feel­ing that was im­pos­si­ble to es­cape after a pre­dictably glitzy cer­e­mony in the Krem­lin State Palace that means this World Cup will miss two sta­ples of World Cups past: a proper group of death and the kind of prop­erly con­se­quen­tial heavy­weight fix­tures that re­ally en­er­gise such groups and tour­na­ments. That is prob­a­bly a re­sult of the new seed­ing sys­tem and un­de­ni­ably cre­ates a soft start to the com­pe­ti­tion – es­pe­cially for those big sides – some­thing that is all the more un­der- whelm­ing be­cause the group stage is of­ten the true essence of a World Cup; when the games come thick and fast and there is such a joy to jump­ing around dif­fer­ent teams as the many dif­fer­ent sto­ry­lines of a tour­na­ment start to take shape. If they don’t feel like they have the same con­se­quence, it won’t feel the same.

One big con­se­quence of that, how­ever, is that it could lead to some­thing that has largely es­caped dis­cus­sion of the group- stage draw and what the World Cup as a whole has missed over the past few decades: a prop­erly crackling knock­out stage, with mas­sive heavy­weight fix­tures.

The groups mean one of the like­lier quar­ter-fi­nal line-ups as it stands could be: France v Por­tu­gal, Brazil v Eng­land, Spain v Ar­gentina and Ger­many v Bel­gium.

There have ad­mit­tedly been sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments ex­pressed about pre­vi­ous tour­na­ments, and South­gate has spent a lot of the week talk­ing about the ten­dency to un­der­es­ti­mate mid-rank­ing teams, an is­sue that is all the more rel­e­vant in an era where there have been more “sur­prise” semi-fi­nal­ists than ever be­fore.

It’s just those sen­ti­ments have been ex­pressed when there was more con­cen­tra­tion of qual­ity in groups.

The only matches that re­ally stand out as big games in this group stage are Por­tu­galS­pain and Bel­gium-Eng­land, al­though there is the dan­ger that the lat­ter could be a dead rub­ber be­cause it is the last game of a fairly luke­warm group that also in­volves Tu­nisia and debu­tants Panama. Re­ally, nei­ther Eng­land nor Bel­gium should have any prob­lems qual­i­fy­ing. That can’t quite be said for Ar­gentina, and their Group D (Ice­land, Croa­tia, Nige­ria) is prob­a­bly the clos­est thing to a group of death be­cause of its rel­a­tive tight­ness, with Groups E (Brazil, Switzer­land, Costa Rica. THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

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