Tryst with Telstar | The Daily Star

From Russia, with no surprise!

Being the most formidable among 32 teams, France won the World Cup for the second time. First-time finalists Croatia had a good shot at the ultimate glory in football. But the World Cup, at least for now, is meant to be shared by the elite club of eight countries who won it previously.

The final had the full package: controversial decisions, pitch invasions, a first own goal, first teenage goal-scorer after Pele, comedy of goalkeeping errors and even the first trophy-awarding ceremony in the rain.

Sunday belonged to France. And what a win it was for a team with ultra-defensive capability. A 4-2 triumph in the final is a goal-fest that the world last witnessed 52 years ago when England beat the then West Germany at Wembley in London. A hattrick from great Geoff Hurst and a controversial penalty helped England win the trophy (known as Jules Rime Trophy then) for the first time by a 4-2 margin.

No other teams were as talented and skilful as France in Russia. No other teams were as formidable as France in every position. They were solid everywhere in the line-up, with equally qualified alternatives on the bench. They were all young, hugely talented and highly adventurous.

So, it's only natural for the coach of the fearsome team to become the toast of France. Didier Deschamps has the right to bask in glory as he is only the third man after Mario Zagalo of Brazil and Franz Beckenbauer of Germany to win the famous cup both as captain and coach.

The former France defender may not be popular with his school of football that advocates for 'win, not how you win' is what matters. France might not have played beautiful football but they indeed have won the cup. The two spectacular goals by Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe in the second half should serve as a strong rejoinder to the critics of France's defensive and dour style of play.

Both goals originated through rare build-ups before attack and ended in shooting precision, with Pogba's left-footer finding the top corner of the net and 19-year-old Mbappe's scorching grounder from 25 yards catching the Croatian goalkeeper laden-footed. The prince of this World Cup, Mbappe is certainly a great in the making.

Croats were attractive and attacking right from the word go, showing no sign of fatigue after playing three extra-time matches and getting less rest in between. They ruled the first half but France ended up lucky.

In the 18th minute, the referee let Croatia down. Antoine Griezmann took a cheeky dive to win a free-kick 30 yards from the Croatian goal. Griezmann took it and Mario Mandzukic headed it into his own net. Croatia came back into the match in 10 minutes with a superb strike from Ivan Perisic.

Only 10 minutes later, France again got the lead through a controversial penalty converted by Griezmann. Perisic leapt up to head the ball but it took a deflection and hit his hand, which should have been let off as unintentional ball-handling inside the forbidden zone. But, Argentine referee consulted the VAR (video assistant referee) and judged it intentional.

Two poor decisions in less than 20 minutes proved too much to overcome for Croatia. Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic was justifiably fuming.

“We played well but the penalty knocked the wind out of us and after that it was very difficult," Dalic said after congratulating France on their victory. "I just want to say one sentence about that penalty: you don't give a penalty like that in a World Cup final.”

Luck indeed played a small but significant part in that match!

Captain Luka Modrich was once again in the thick of Croatian things to launch attack after attack on the French fort. The No. 10 was deservedly chosen as the best player of the tournament. His Golden Ball will remind him of how agonisingly close he was to lifting the Cup.

The Telstar comes to a halt with the final result: the best team, not the best player, won the World Cup.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


Lady Luck plays a small but significant role in a World Cup that runs over a month.

Performance is of course the most important factor that brings the trophy. But then again, there are small things that at times draw the thin line between winners and losers on some days. The god of small things is Lady Luck, which may swing this way or the other in any of the seven matches, on any of the seven days that a team turns up to lift the coveted cup.

The best of teams may not win a World Cup if they are not a little bit lucky from tournament's first fixture to the final.

A deflected goal. Ball hitting the post and staying out. A player's slip-up at a crucial moment. A key player sidelined for unnecessary bookings. A misdirected spot kick from the unlikeliest footballer. A wrong pass to the opponent inside the box. A player not in the right place at the right time.

This World Cup in Russia has been witness to all these small things in one match or the other. At least one or two of the favourites -- Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Spain or Portugal -- that went home early would have played in the final had they been a little lucky.

Remember the curling free-kick of Messi that barely touched the fingers of the France goalkeeper to stay out, the deflected own goal of Brazil's Fernandinho, the injury of Edinson Cavani in Uruguay's match against France or the perfect dummy of Romelu Lukaku in the last minute that edged Japan out.

However, it's not because of luck alone that France and Croatia moved to the final out of the 32 teams in the tournament. Both teams are gifted with depth and talent. Rival coaches have also showed good tactics as well.

If France and Croatia fail to write their fate, the god of small things will for sure.

The writer is former sports editor of The Daily Star


Warriors! That is the word that describes Croatia the best.

Croatia has a short yet spectacular football history. A country (56,595 square km) half the size of Bangladesh has stormed into the final of World Cup for the first time. A nation that has five times less population than Dhaka have produced 23 footballers who have taken the country to the brink of becoming world champions.

How only four million people could build a team good enough to make it to the World Cup final, beating Argentina (43 million), England (66 million) and hosts Russia (144 million) along the way? What makes up Croatia? Why is Croatia so combative in football?

The answers lie in its history. War has made Croats tough, and football has given them a life. Croatia is football-crazy like Brazil, Argentina, Spain or Italy. It is the only sport people play, go to watch, care about and root for.

Croatia, however, did not even exist when Diego Maradona lifted the World Cup for Argentina in Mexico in 1986 and fell short of retaining the trophy in the final against Germany four years later.

Croatia's existence as a national team began in 1990 with a friendly match against the United States, which wasn't recognised by Fifa, the game's governing body. It was still a part of Yugoslavia then along with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia and Kosovo. Croatia finally split in 1991 through a bloody war in the Balkans that witnessed the horrifying ethnic cleansing and bitter enmity between the nations which spoke almost identical languages and had been part of the same country for most part of a century.

Fifa recognition came in 1992, and the war-ravaged country caught the world by surprise within four years in the Euro 1996, where they were beaten by Germany in the quarterfinals. Yugoslavia had a long legacy in football dating back to 1913. Croatia certainly inherited those football genes and could come out strongly even as a fragmented country. It's just amazing how quickly Croatia got good, from a fledgling football nation to a formidable force.

Greater achievement came in the 1998 World Cup, when Croatia unveiled its first Golden Generation of footballers including Slaven Bilic, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker to the global audience, racing up to the semifinal against France. Unfortunately for them, there they came up against Zinedine Zidane, the new king of world football. Croatia were stooped with 2-1 defeat, but not before making their red-white chequered jersey famous on world stage.     

'Yes, we can do it!' was the great example they set for future generations. They showed that it is possible to become a force-to-reckon-with in world football even with a limited pool of players.

Interestingly, it's time for another Golden Generation from Croatia that will take on France again, this time in the final today.

Most of their star players -- Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Vedran Corluka -- were directly affected by the war. As children, they lived through horrifying events. They had to fight for their life, spread across Europe and grow up in war hang-ups. All these experiences have made them tough and highly nationalistic. Younger players were less directly affected, yet they remained highly motivated by memories of war of their families and friends.

That's why Croatia is a group of warriors: a dangerous side to defeat. And, inspiration from the 1998 game may not be enough for France this time in Russia. The match is certain to go down to the wire.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


Here comes a game that no one wants to be involved in. What glory can two losers achieve from a third-place deciding game? For teams, nothing but the World Cup matters. It's just cruel to ask one of the losing semifinalists to lose again.

Crushed emotionally, both Belgium and England badly needed a break from football. For frustrated fans, it would be all the more difficult to get over their disappointment and be reminded again how close their teams were to the final and the Cup.

All they want right now is to hide themselves somewhere for some time and lick their wounds. But Belgium and England have no choice. They have to take the field once more and play out the frivolous formality on July 13.

It will take Belgium years to get over the heartbreak in their semifinal match against France. The margin of 1-0 will never tell how unfair the defeat was! Belgium dominated proceedings, played an exciting brand of football yet went down to a chancy header on the counter.

It was possibly the best chance for Belgium to lift the trophy for the first time, but it slipped away. The style of play and the skill of their footballers enthralled the global audience since the World Cup kick-started about a month back. Skipper Eden Hazard established himself possibly as the most valuable player of the tournament. Also the best player to wear the No. 10 jersey, the playmaker was just phenomenal in almost every match. Hazard is truly hazardous for opponents.

They were so close to embracing the ultimate glory in football after dispatching five-time world champions Brazil in the quarterfinals. Against France in the semifinals, Belgium again started where they had left off only to be denied by the super-defensive game plan of Didier Deschamps' men. Quite unabashedly, Belgium footballers wept and vented their frustration openly, with fans on the stands booing France off the ground.

Going back to play a match three days into the heartbreak will be like getting punished twice for no good reason. And what if they lose again? May God bless Belgians!

England too will get little solace from the match. They were in the quest of the Cup they did not win in the past 52 years. This England side was youthful, highly energetic and hungry for success, something that all the previous squads lacked. They were attacking and attractive, playing so aggressively that England started to believe that the trophy was coming home finally.

However, that was not to be. England choked under pressure against a never-say-die Croatia in the semifinal. The quest for their second World Cup after 1966 ended in agonising manner.

Harry Kane, the mercurial marksman and England skipper, fired blanks when he was needed to fire the most. The top scorer with six goals, Kane would feel the pain again if he scores and then remembers that he had failed against Croatia. England should dread playing in this meaningless match.

Neither the teams nor the fans are interested. But Fifa, the game's world governing body, has a pervasive reason to keep the tradition of the third-place play-off going: more revenue. Fingers are crossed for the losers.


The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star 


Sorry, England! It's not the World Cup, but the footballers who are coming home.

England's 52-year wait for a World Cup was further extended by Croatia on Wednesday night in an exciting semifinal that seemed headed for penalty shootouts. But the Croatian footballers stepped harder on the gas to clinch the winner with only two minutes to go for the penalty decider.

In the dying minutes, the two opponents were in contrasting mood: England worn-out and Croatia reinvigorated. Winning the ball from a header, Croatian marksman Mario Mandzukic swiftly capitalised on lapses in concentration at the back. He drifted in behind an England defender before beating an otherwise rock-solid custodian Pickford with a cool, low strike into the net. 

Quite understandably though, expectation was running high among England fans at home and in Russia as this youthful side of Gareth Southgate played some high-octane games on way to the semi final. 'It [World Cup] is coming home' was the wave the 66-million population of England were riding for the last three weeks.

But little did they know what fate had in store for them. A team from a 27-year-old country of a population of only 4 million burst the English bubble with a display of constantly attacking football. The score could have been 3-1 had Pickford not deflected a goal-bound jab by Mandzukic minutes before the decisive goal.     

Unlike the knocked-out pre-tournament favourites, England had not come up against quality opponents till Wednesday. It was undoubtedly a high-pressure game that tested team character. Under pressure, the character of both teams came to the fore: Croatia delivered and England choked.

Coach Zlatko Dalic inspired Croatia to their first ever final in their fifth appearance in World Cup finals. And the ultimate glory is now one match away and with one team standing in the way. Croatia came out the better side in all aspects of the game Wednesday. But, on July 15, they need to do even better against the more fancied France, who knocked them out of their previous World Cup semifinal in 1998.

Morning shows the day... but not always. England took the lead only five minutes into the match from a scintillating curling free kick over the defence wall by Kieran Trippier, and held on till Ivan Perisic steered a cross into the net in the 68th minute.

Croatia just went on to lord over England after the goal with forays of attacks. England had no clue about how to counter the skills of the midfield duo of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

Happy final, Croatia! 

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


France won the match, but not the hearts.

The first semifinal between the two best sides of the World Cup failed to live up to its Battle Royale billing. It was a good match but could have been great had France not played negative football. There was no reason for France to play defensively.

Didier Deschamps could not emerge as a coach of attacking and entertaining football despite having all the weapons in his armoury to do so. He brought the most talented and balanced side among all 32 teams to Russia. Thirteen of the 23 players are of African origin. They were solid everywhere in the line-up, with equally qualified alternatives on the bench. They were all young, hugely talented and highly adventurous.

Yet, the game plan of France's 1998 World Cup-winning captain was solely aimed at winning the match, not the hearts of fans who love beautiful football. He was an orthodox defender in his playing days and has brought that defensive football gene into his coaching. What a disappointment!  

It was a sore sight during most of the first half when play was limited to France's half, with Roberto Martinez's men attacking and Deschamps's young talents defending. Thanks to a chancy header by Samuel Umtiti from a curling corner by Antoine Griezmann after the break, France could get away with their ugly game and reach the final for the third time. A goal came from a set-piece in an unlikely France way. It was the first goal by France from a set-piece in this tournament.

My heart really goes out to Belgium, and I can't agree more with captain Eden Hazard for feeling so bitter about France's style of play.    

"I prefer to lose with Belgium than win with France," said Hazard after the match. "We know Deschamps' France. We expected that, but we couldn't find that little spark to score a goal. I didn't find it. France scored first and it became difficult.”

Belgium indeed played brilliant football. They had far better ball possession (64 percent), number of passes (595 against France's 345) and corners (5 against France's 4). The Red Devils ruled the whole pitch yet something went wrong when their marksmen entered the D-box and tried to shoot or head into the net --  just some small things they could not do right in front of the goal like Brazil, their opponents in the quarterfinals.

Lady Luck was with them against Brazil, but three days later, against France, she switched sides.

A reversal of fate it may seem. Against Brazil, Belgium chose to keep fending off waves of attacks before knocking the five-time champions out of the tournament on fast counters. Tuesday night saw a role reversal, with Belgium, like Brazil, on the offence and France, like Belgium against Brazil, on the back foot. Belgium dominated the match and France got lucky on the counter.

However, it was really eye-pleasing the way Eden Hazard played his game. He was always busy, doing something -- either winning the ball from his opponents' feet, making diagonal passes, dodging, turning and twisting to free himself from 2-3 chasing defenders or shooting on target. He was truly hazardous for France.

To me, Hazard was the best player with No. 10 jersey in this World Cup. And it is sad that he won't be the one to kiss the famous cup on July 15. But thank you, Hazard, for making football beautiful.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


France, Belgium face off.

The two best teams of this World Cup lock horns tonight. A dream match that has every potential to live up to its billing as a Battle Royale.

A fierce fight is on the cards at many levels between the two attacking sides of world football. France are in possession of the richest talent and Belgium in the company of their Golden Generation. Both teams have already proved they can score, hold on to it and come back into the match after conceding goals.          

There will be lots of small fights within the fight.

A fight of class between No. 10s is one of those.

Although not always the case, the best player of the team usually puts on the number 10 jersey in football. The No. 10 jersey carries with it a sense of greatness, a sign of respect and a symbol of hope. The history of the World Cup is filled with magical players who, with this jersey on, put in amazing performances for their countries. The No. 10 jersey was popularised with Pele's phenomenal performance in 1958, and then almost all the greats including Maradona arrived thereafter wearing the shirt and made it more famous. In this World Cup, Lionel Messi and Neymar too wore the No. 10 but could not do much.

It would be interesting to see how the No. 10s of France and Belgium fare. Eden Hazard is not only the best in the Belgium camp but also one of a few top playmakers in the world eligible to wear the number. He is the heart of Belgium that never stops. Either he is scoring or making intelligent assists. He is active all the time. On the other hand, a French wonderkid is wearing the No. 10 in his debut World Cup. And Kylian Mbappe has already more than justified the decision. Interestingly though, Mbappe has invoked memories of Pele by becoming the first teenager since the Brazilian legend to score two goals in a World Cup knockout match.

There will be a battle of wits between two coaches -- France's Didier Deschamps and Belgium's Roberto Martinez. The game plan is all too crucial. At this stage of the tournament, they have adequate knowledge about each other's weaknesses and strength. So, the homework is done and the plot ready.        

There will be a battle of efficiency between two captains in implementing game plans. France's Hugo Lloris can count on his captaincy experience to prevail over Eden Hazard, Belgium's captain for this World Cup. Lloris will keep under the bar while Hazard will lead the attack from midfield. The captain's armband is a test of character. Some rise to the opportunity and become magnificent. Hazard is becoming magnificent.

It will also be a battle between midfield marshals to dictate the game. It would be a treat to watch how France's masterful duo of Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante operate against Belgium's highly energetic trio of Axel Witsel, Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini.

And, of course, goals are all that matter in the end. So, the focus will be on two rival strikers -- France's Kylian Mbappe and Belgium's Romelu Lukaku. Both are of African origin: formidable, speedy and hungry for goals.  

But which team are going to celebrate in the end? It's a close call. But it is safe to say that the team that prevails in the majority of battles within battles would win the match!

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


Football is played in cycles, although they do not change often.

Every country plays the game, but you will see little change in the rankings. Dozens of countries qualify to the World Cup finals every four years, but only eight countries have won the 20 World Cups played so far.

But this World Cup in Russia appears delectably different and signals a change in the cycle. It's about time for world football to embrace many changes, with the emergence of new dominant forces and stars.

Favourites have been sent home in tears, superstars made spectators, champions preys of also-rans, and the olden not always golden. Reigning champions Germany were sent home with a shocker of a 2-0 win by world minnows South Korea, five-time champions Brazil bulldozed by Belgium, two-time champions Argentina made to head home early, hot favourites Spain forced to perish in the first phase, and Portugal pushed out from the round of 16.   

The media focus was mostly on three club kings -- Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar. And quite rightly so; since the trio shared almost all the major trophies, awards and most of the money their clubs spent on players between them for the last four years. Yet, on the world stage they failed to become world kings, with global media splashing more of their pictures in tears than in cheers. The reign of Messi and Ronaldo that many thought would never come to an end, and it's still premature to think it has, but this World Cup has shown there are players ready to take the mantle.

Expected to captivate the global audience, other star footballers themselves are being captivated and enthralled by the performances of the less famous, lower-paid footballers than them. Toni Kroos, Thomas Mueller, Andres Iniesta, Diego Costa, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho and many others are now watching the World Cup from home.

It is too bad for their fans that they could not be like a Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Harry Kane, Paul Pogba or Kylian Mbappe in Russia.

The month-long football fiesta in Russia entered the last week and more surprises may spring up tonight when France take on Belgium in the first semifinal.

Of the four semifinalists, only England and France know what it is like to kiss the famous cup. For England, that glorious moment of 1966 has almost faded into oblivion. But this England side is young and eager, ready to repeat the feat. Croatia and Belgium, on the other hand, have never won the tournament, with their runs ending at the semifinal stage previously.

Among the favourites, France are the only exception, rising up to its tag every time so far. Didier Deschamps has possibly brought the most talented and balanced side among all 32 teams to Russia. Solid everywhere in the line-up, with equally qualified alternatives on the bench. But 'beware of Belgium' should be the caution from the coach to his charges.

Against Brazil, Belgium proved they are not only about Lukaku. They are tall, tough and, most importantly, a team. A very dangerous and attacking team, this side loves to play total football, and the Red Devil's success under Roberto Martinez is a little less surprising.

This Golden Generation has long been regarded as one of the most talented groups of footballers at international level in recent years, but they've never before hit their potential. At this World Cup, everything seems to be going in Belgium's favour, including Lady Luck.

Almost all of their footballers are seasoned in prominent leagues, and their wealth of experience is contributing to the game plan.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Eden Hazard is one of the best No 10s in the world. His pace, superb dribbling and long-range shooting make him a phenomenal player.

Lukaku on the other hand, is always the man capable of causing the most damage. With four goals in the tournament so far, the imposing striker will be the forward to tackle for France. The life of Lukaku has made him tough as teak. Growing up in extreme poverty, the son of Congolese descendants developed in himself an attitude to succeed. Every match he plays is a final to him. And he will be up against France in yet another final of his life.

Lukaku never says never. He will try his best to score. If he can't, he will get his mates to score with assists. And Brazil can vouch for how good Lukaku is with assists.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


The World Cup's tryst with Telstar 18 came to an end Thursday night. The high-tech official football, made by Adidas, proved to be quite exciting as it produced goals in all but one of the 44 matches played with it.

Now it's time for a new match ball, the Telstar Mechta, adorned by vivid red. Adidas has designed the ball taking inspiration from World Cup hosts Russia's red and the 'rising heat of the knockout stage of the tournament.'

Mechta means dream. And the world will wait up to see which of the 16 countries live up to the theme of the Mechta and dream big as the knockout phase gets underway today, with Argentina taking on France.

Les Bleus advanced unbeaten from Group C while La Albiceleste narrowly averted an exit from Group D. Two great teams with lots of exciting players in their possession, but neither side has played to its potential as yet. Still, judging from performances and the hunger to win, France look the better side to bet on.

France arguably have more talent than any other country with highly-rated players competing for every position. A midfield of Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante has the capability to dominate any country they face, and up front they have Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. Coach Didier Deschamps has a side so stacked with frontline stars that he has the luxury of leaving Ousmane Dembele and Thomas Lemar on the bench.

Argentina, on the other hand, have Lionel Messi, who is a host in himself. He is one of such rare calibre who has the ability to turn any match on its head with one shot, a pass or a flick of his foot.

Argentina however are more than Messi. Coach Jorge Sampaoli has brought to Russia at least seven players who are regarded among the world's best in different positions by their clubs.

The two coaches will head into the match with two different worries.

The charges of Deschamps are known to be highly temperamental, and if some of the vital cogs are not in the right mood, France tend to lose their way. A discipline-obsessed Deschamps will certainly do his best to keep his key men motivated. It is too bad for France that there is no one like Zinedine Zidane in the team. The French legend and a World Cup winning mate of Deschamps, Zidane was someone who had the ability to get teammates all charged up with his own electrifying performances.

For Sampaoli, the worry will be the midfield supply to Messi. With supply of passes being cut off, Messi can be made quite ineffective. The coach is however a victim of his own game plan. Against France, a Messi-centred game plan is certain to backfire. He should devise a strategy that tasks others to take charge and allows Messi to play his own game, without pressure.

But Sampaoli may not agree. Like his predecessors, he too believes Messi alone can bring Argentina the World Cup. Is there any change of plan, Sampaoli? A penny for your thoughts!

It's a bit tricky to predict the result of the match. If France play up to their potential, they should win the match but, under Deschamps, Les Bleus have more often than not fallen short of expectations.

I believe it will be a low-scoring match, possibly 1-0, following which France will catch a flight home.


The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


Heartbroken and humiliated, Germany will be haunted by South Korea for years.

The world's number one football nation met their biggest disgrace in 80 years when the rank outsiders from Asia dumped them out of the World Cup with a shocking 2-0 victory on Wednesday.

It's the biggest upset in the World Cup as well as in the history of the game.

Football is not cricket, which is often dubbed as the glorious game of uncertainty. Here skills, stamina, strategy and conviction count in every win. And Germany, known for their consistency and methodical approach to the game, are the unlikeliest team to make such headlines.

Die Mannschaft is the name in German for their football team, and the term means to work collectively to achieve a common goal and thus be responsible for each other. The philosophy is manifested in German footballers to almost mechanical precision, making them the most consistent footballers on earth.

That is why French football legend Michel Platini once said: "When the Germans play well they become world champions; if they play poor they reach the final."

So, what has gone wrong with Germany, then? The players, who mesmerised world football for four years, are suddenly out of their element. It is hard for pundits and fans to believe. But the sad reality is that the reigning World Cup champions crashed out of the tournament from the group phase with two defeats and a stoppage time win.

No European nation defending the World Cup has survived the group stages in the last two decades, France failing in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and now Germany in 2018.

In my view, here lies the main answer to why Joachim Loew's side failed. Like others, Loew too made the same mistake by keeping faith in his trusted and tried old guard to repeat the Brazil feat. Nine of his team members are from the last World Cup winners. To accommodate them, he left out the youngsters who won the Confederations Cup last year, which interestingly was also on Russian soil.

Loew banked on Thomas Mueller, Mario Gomez, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, all of whom seemed to have passed their sell-by dates. Meanwhile, Confederation Cup heroes like Leon Goretzka, Niklas Sule, Julian Brandt and Sebastian Rudy got chances to come off the bench only when Loew's first choices failed or were injured.

Another reason was the hunger factor that went missing among his players. Somehow, Germany lost the edge and looked afraid of attacking. Except for youngsters, they all looked sated and complacent. Striker Mueller, who scored five goals, including a hattrick four years ago, never looked hungry enough to score a goal.

There is also the stagnation in coaching and innovation that pushed Germany downhill. Loew possibly has already given all he could to German football in 12 years at the helm. He could not develop the team further tactically, deploying the same 4-2-3-1 formation and style of play. He failed to read the writing on the wall from defeats to Brazil and Austria and a shaky win over Saudi Arabia in a pre-tournament friendly; and adjust the strategy.

Another lesson for Germany as well as for Western European countries that host the world's most attractive leagues is that globalisation indeed takes hold in football. Knowledge is moving farther and faster through players and technology to reduce the gap in standards across the world.

The run of Germany's golden generation would have come to an end some day and in some way. And the day, it seems to me, when Germany turned over to a new chapter and a new beginning, was June 28.

However, let's take nothing away from South Korea. It was a masterclass that outclassed a team that won four World Cups.

Cheers, Asian warriors!

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


Lionel Messi lives on in the World Cup, at least for another match in Russia.

God was with Argentina in that nerve-wracking match against Nigeria, where the two-time world champions clawed back from the brink of a humiliating exit to a sensational late win.

To qualify from Group D into the round of 16, Argentina needed a win against the Super Eagles and a draw or defeat from Iceland against Croatia. Everything happened in Argentina's favour but not without hiccups.

It was in fact all drama on Tuesday night.

The players' revolt against coach Jorge Sampaoli, controversy over team combination, Messi's missed penalty in the 1-1 draw against newcomers Iceland and the 3-0 mauling at the hands of Croatia set the stage for the drama to unfold.

One of the greatest players of all time, Messi, who cracked under pressure and appeared a stranger among teammates against Croatia, got back to his best with a magical goal that only he can score.

Running in behind Nigerian left-back Kenneth Omeruo and twisting his upper body to the left, Messi received a lofted cross by Ever Banega from the halfway line. He took the ball down on his left thigh, feather-touched it forward with his left boot and beat the keeper with his right foot, never breaking stride in the process.

Lots of drama followed the 45th-minute goal. Messi came close to scoring again with a free-kick, the ever-trusted Javier Mascherano's foul helped Nigeria win the equaliser six minutes into the second half, Gonzalo Higuain blasted miles over the bar from close, Argentina started to play like disjointed pieces of a machine, Mascherano wasted not a second to treat his blood-oozing wound on his face and Nigeria were denied a penalty appeal through VAR (video assistant referee). Interestingly, the referee gave a reverse verdict over an unintentional ball-handling inside the box in Iran's favour against Portugal only the other day.

When it all appeared over for Argentina, centreback Marcos Rojo -- having survived the handball appeal -- fired a one-touch boomer into the bottom corner of the net to lend the final twist in the dying minutes.

It was a huge relief for Argentina. The early morning uproar in Bangladesh and intense jubilation in Russia may suggest Argentina have won the World Cup!

Argentine football god Diego Maradona, who forecast that his country would not win a single match, was seen demonstrating his antics in the stand, rolling his eyes, mumbling at the sky, showing two middle fingers, nodding off to sleep in tension and, eventually, ending up in hospital.

Argentina survived; so has the attraction of the World Cup. But frankly, Argentina will not be able to survive another match in the knockout phase unless they radically improve as a team.

The ball only made sense when it was at Messi's feet. Apart from that, they were a group of individuals, which looked disastrous against Nigeria. Harmony among them was sorely missing. They were chasing the ball without purpose, badly organised at the back, losing the ball, making little effort in building concerted attacks and pathetic up front.

In Sampaoli, La Albiceleste was virtually a dead man stomping in front of the dugout. The match hardly reflected his tactical brilliance, intelligent substitution or control over players. He indeed switched from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 formation and made five changes in the team to ensure the adequate supply of passes to Messi, the heart of Argentina. And the outcome was that Messi got only one good pass in the whole 95 minutes, from which he scored.

Against France on June 30, Sampaoli needs to come up with a sound game plan and sort out players who can make it work together. His game plan revolved around Messi despite having plenty of top marksmen in his possession. His strategy should allow Messi to play freely and without pressure, enjoying his game. 

Can Sampaoli think of a way? If not, God too might give up on Messi & Co. 


The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


Winners won matches and losers the hearts in the early hours Tuesday.

World Cup favourites Spain and Portugal survived elimination scares before scraping through from Group B with draws. Rank outsiders Morocco and Iran, meanwhile, came close to writing qualification scripts in their favour with dazzling displays of fast football.

It was a day to forget for Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Arguably the best footballer on earth over the last five years, Ronaldo saw the other side of the coin after starting the World Cup in fabulous fashion: four goals off two matches including a hattrick.

The mercurial marksman was lively early on, but his play worsened as the game progressed. CR7 missed a 53rd-minute penalty, and seven minutes from time, came close to being sent off for a clash with Saeed Ezatolahi. After consulting the VAR (video assistant referee), the referee decided to let him off the hook with a yellow.

Portugal's hearts stopped momentarily when the spot-kick was missed by someone often dubbed 'Penaldo' for his penchant for scoring penalties. And Karim Ansarifard rubbed salt into Ronaldo's wound when he scored from the spot to give Iran an equaliser in the 93rd minute.

However, Ronaldo, whose success rate from scoring from the spot is close to 84 percent, can draw consolation from the squandered penalty earlier in the tournament by his arch-rival in the game's fame, Lionel Messi of Argentina.

Messi missed the chance to take a 2-1 lead over Iceland when he failed to convert a penalty and that was a major contributor to Argentine agony in Russia. Like Ronaldo, Messi is also the default penalty-taker for Argentina and his club Barcelona, but he lags slightly behind the Portuguese great with a success rate of nearly 81 percent.

Ronaldo took more penalties than Messi at club and country levels, with each of them scoring more than 600 goals. Of Ronaldo's goals 15.92 percent were from penalties,  while for Messi the number is 12.97 percent.

But despite the impressive records of the duo, the two teams would now think twice before choosing the man to take the next penalty!

Back to the other Group B match, Morocco were in the process of sending Spain packing when technology came to their rescue. Spain were able to equalise (2-2) in stoppage time thanks to VAR system, which ruled that Iago Aspas's goal was legal.

Brought on as a substitute for Diego Costa, Aspas raced on a low pass from the right by Carvajal before flicking the ball into the back of the net, only to be flagged offside. With the field ruling overruled, Morocco found it hard to accept. So, chaos followed."Bulls**t!" was the word used at the camera by Moroccan players about the VAR decision.

Spain will remain grateful forever to Fifa, the game's global governing body, for using VAR for the first time in a World Cup. It was not easy for Spanish players to stay focused on the game after losing coach Julen Lopetegui (sacked for taking up a coaching job with Real Madrid) only a day before the World Cup got underway.

Take no credit from Morocco though. They played brilliant football from the start and took the lead from a mix-up between Andres Iniesta and Sergio Ramos. Moroccan striker Khalid Boutalib snatched the ball and raced on before slotting the ball home through the legs of David De Gea. Playmaker Isco played his heart out to level the score, but Morocco went ahead again through an unstoppable header by substitute En-Nesyri off a corner.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


It's a game of mathematics now.

The World Cup in Russia has reached an exciting phase. Except for eight teams, the fate of the rest hangs in the balance. Wins alone in the remaining group matches are no longer enough for teams to qualify into the round of 16. Complex mathematics comes into play. Permutations of points, goal difference, head-to-head records, fair play points or even the drawing of lots may decide their destinies.

The eight nations of Portugal, Spain, Russia, Uruguay, France, Croatia, Belgium and England are relieved, and eight others -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Peru, Costa Rica, Tunisia, Panama and Poland -- are packing their bags to catch a flight home.

The tournament's top favourites -- Brazil, Argentina and Germany -- are yet to make it to the next level. Eight spots are up for grabs, and one stumble or a better showing by also-rans can get any of these world giants out of this World Cup.

Tensions run high in three out of eight World Cup groups -- D (Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland and Argentina), E (Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica) and F (Mexico, Germany, Sweden and South Korea). The race is wide open.

A few of the superstars sparkled, but most others are still a pale shadow of their famous selves. Stars shone, teams won: that's the story of the World Cup so far. Notwithstanding yesterday's missed penalty against Iran, Cristiano Ronaldo is the only superstar who showed no dip in the superb form he has been displaying for his club Real Madrid. For him, it was just a change of jersey from club to country. He started off with a hattrick against Spain and scored one goal in the next, against Morocco.

England striker Harry Kane topped the list of goal-scoring stars with 5. Romelu Lukaku (4) and Eden Hazard (2) spearheaded Belgium's exciting journey forward. Denis Cheryshev (3) of Russia, Diego Costa (3) of Spain, Ahmed Musa (2) of Nigeria, Luka Modric (2) of Croatia and Philippe Coutinho (2) of Brazil are among the goals.

But Argentina's greatest goal-machine Lionel Messi is still hibernating and Brazil's big hope Neymar not up to the mark yet.

So, for fans of this beautiful game, it's time to live with nerves frayed and keep fingers crossed for their big stars to come out firing on all cylinders!

As records go, Europe plays best on European soil. And in Russia, there is no exception to that yet. European nations are dominating and American countries struggling. Japan and Nigeria are however carrying the lights of Asia and Africa quite commendably.

England are the latest of the European countries going great guns with a thumping 6-1 win against Panama that included a hattrick, the third in their World Cup history, from Harry Kane. The mercurial skipper also struck twice in England's 2-1 victory in their opener against Tunisia, including a header in injury time.

This English side look completely different than that seen in Brazil fours back. In 2014, England, with survivors of its so-called Golden Generation in the team, bowed out from the group stage winless and blamed it all on the heat, particularly the humidity of the Amazonian jungle.

Those were older, more experienced and celebrity-obsessed. These are younger, hungrier and goal-obsessed. The second-youngest in Russia, England's players of below-26 demonstrated joyous display of togetherness in the sweltering heat of Nizhny Novgorod.

In my view, momentum is everything in football.

Fortunately for Gareth Southgate, his men picked the momentum at the start. Now the challenge is to keep the momentum going all the way. And England fans have every reason to be pumped up this time. Fifty-two years went by after the father of modern football won the cup in 1966.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


It was a typical German show of grit and guts: never-say-die till the long whistle.  

Tied 1-1 and down to 10 men, deep into injury time against a highly spirited Sweden, their World Cup hopes hanging by a thread, the Germans stepped up to find a winner through a stunning strike from midfielder Toni Kroos. An absolute heart-stopper!

It was 95 minutes into the game and possibly the last German shot at goal when the defending champions won a free kick yards off the left side of the box. The most common tendency would have been to scoop the ball high into the penalty area for a teammate to head home or to create a scoring opportunity from a goalmouth melee.

But Kroos chose not to leave the last shot to chance. He appeared cool, composed and almost mechanical in a nerve-fraying situation. Teammate Marco Reus stopped his light tap on the ball for Kroos to step up and fire in the ball that sailed smoothly over the heads of leaping defenders, curved slightly to evade the outstretched hands of Swedish goalkeeper before slamming into the net at the far post. A perfectly guided Kroos missile numbed the Swedish into disbelief and sent German fans into frenzy.    

The margin of error was minuscule and more often than not that shot by most players would have sailed wide and high. But Kroos got everything right in this exquisite shot, executed with machine-like precision to deny Sweden a well-deserved draw and prove how prophetic was the quote of former England captain Gary Lineker.

"Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win," lamented Lineker following defeat at the hands of the Germans in the World Cup semifinal in 1990.

The goal means Germany still need a win in their final World Cup game against South Korea, and will have to hope that results go in their favour in the Sweden-Mexico game.

Interestingly, scoring match-winning goals in the final minutes goes well with the typical German mentality. In the 1954 World Cup, when Germany was divided and played qualifiers as East and West, West Germany lost a group game 8-3 to the fabled Hungarian side. Against the same side in the final West Germany were 2-0 down within eight minutes of the kick-off, but before 20 minutes had been played the game was 2-2 and Germany took the lead in the end.

England were the victims of West Germany's habit of pulling late surprises in the quarterfinal of 1970 World Cup. Franz Beckenbauer inspired West Germany to equal England's two-goal lead before pulling off a 3-2 win in stoppage time. Four years later in the next World Cup, West Germany upset tournament favourites Netherlands by winning a late spot-kick and scoring from it.

However, the late German revival of June 23 seized the spotlight from a brilliant Belgium performance. Belgium threw a grim warning once again to other title aspirants by routing Tunisia 5-2, with each of their two superstars -- Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku -- scoring twice.

This Belgian side is certainly blessed with an abundance of talent, and has the ability to go all the way, shocking lots of heavyweights in the process. Trust me, Belgium are the tournament's dark horses.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


Whew! What a relief Friday night offered to fans of two Latin American football powerhouses -- Brazil and Argentina -- in Bangladesh and beyond.

Brazil left it very late before overcoming Costa Rica with two stoppage time goals and finally finding their feet in the World Cup after a drab 1-1 draw in their opener against Switzerland.

And Argentina, on brink of elimination following a draw against newcomers Iceland and a 3-0 humiliation by Croatia, got the last straw to clutch at when Nigeria beat Iceland to keep their qualifying hopes alive from Group D. Lionel Messi & Co now must win again Nigeria on June 27 and hope Iceland do not pull off a miracle win against Croatia.

Brazil were clearly under tremendous pressure but played the crucial match unlike their arch-rivals Argentina. The five-time world champions operated like a single unit, with their backline setting the tone for the game and midfield building the momentum before the frontline rocked the Costa Rican fort time and again. Much to the frustration of Brazilian forwards, waves of attacks failed to cause any cracks because of one man, goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

Navas showed the world why Real Madrid trust him so much under the crossbar and why pundits rank him among the top goalkeepers in the world. The Costa Rican was simply invincible till the match rolled into stoppage time after the 90-minute regulation phase.

But the enormously frustrating evening for the favourites -- during which Neymar was heavily criticised for his on-field theatrics -- was forgotten with two strikes in three minutes.

Fully-recovered from a broken bone in his foot in February, Neymar was too desperate to rediscover the magical form that made him the world's most expensive player and was the centre of attention for much of the match. He did everything possible-- dribbling, dodging, passing, rainbow-flicking, shooting, missing, shouting, crying and even conning the referee for a penalty.

In the dying minutes of the game, the superstar's fake backwards fall inside the box upon the slightest touch from Giancarlo Gonzalez almost dragged Brazilian football -- known not for its cheating but its beauty -- into a deception scandal.

Neymar should have known even Diego Maradona's infamous 'Hand of God' goal against England in 1986 would have been cancelled out in this age of technology. Thankfully, the Dutch referee resorted to video technology to review and overturn his original decision of awarding a penalty against Costa Rica.

Not Neymar but Philippe Coutinho was the best in Brazil's now-customary blue jersey, with tonal strips, in celebration of the country's coastline and surf culture. The playmaker, who was in the thick of every Brazilian thing, eventually broke the evening's duck before Neymar had the final say moments later with a close-range tap-in to make it two.

The steam went off from Brazilian cooker, at last! And it could be heard in the night air filled with raucous cheers across Bangladesh. Later in the night, Argentine fans too had the chance to heave a sigh of relief at the success of Nigeria.

Both Brazil and Argentina now need to move up a gear or two to go past the next round, where there is no scope for error.


The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


What a shocker it was! No football buff, I believe, saw this coming. Argentina, the powerhouse of world football, are on the brink of elimination this early from the World Cup in Russia.

A 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Croatia numbed the Albiceleste fans, who were rightly expecting the two-time world champions to regroup after the 1-1 draw against World Cup rookies Iceland and hit the right groove.

But the way they played was total rubbish, as our finance minister Abul Maal Muhith would have loved to sum up in disdain. Soon after the humiliation, social media and regular media were abuzz with cries and criticisms, wondering what had gone wrong with Jorge Sampaoli's men.

The scale of fury and frustration has gone up to an unbelievable extent, so much so that 'Don't cry for me, Argentina', the hit song of 1976 in the film Evita, returns to encapsulate the expressions of fans and media alike.

Right from the whistle go, Argentina, studded with superstar and stars, seemed like 11 cats on a hot tin roof. The famed footballers seemingly treated Telstar, the high-tech official football for the tournament, as a ball of fire. Too desperate to dispatch the ball the moment one received it. Defenders exchanged short passes too close to their ball-chasing opponents and went on to lose control of the ball several times in the opening half, drawing groans and grunts from the stands and from millions watching across the globe.

It was too dangerous and absolutely unnecessary. And Argentina paid the first price through their nose because of this madness. Following some short-pass exchanges, goalkeeper Willy Caballero scooped up the ball from deep inside the box for Croatian winger Ante Rebic to hit home perfectly. It was a gift to Croatia from a goof of a goalkeeper. And, for decades to come, it will be seen as one of the ugliest goals ever scored off a blunder.

A crucial match it certainly was. And Argentina could not cope with this pressure. They started off the game with pressure plastered all over their faces. They appeared too tense to think clearly and build a planned attack. The match required cool customers, from coach to keeper. Coach Sampaoli himself demonstrated the unwanted image of impatience. Tensed, Sampaoli was seen stomping around in front of the bench, throwing his hands, grumbling, gesturing, taking his jacket off and what not. This overly tensed image of a manager played a part in pushing his charges over the edge! As it happens in such matches, a staggering 38 fouls were committed, 16 of them by Argentina.

With Argentina being a bundle of raw nerves, Croatia could take total control of the match gradually. Luka Modric showed his opposite number Lionel Messi how a No 10 was supposed to play by hammering in a pile-driver after twisting and turning through a few defenders. Ivan Rakitic made it 3-0 some time after his magnificent free-kick ricocheted off the far post.

So, should Argentine daggers be out for Messi, the five-time Ballon d'Or winner and arguably the greatest player on earth? It will be very unfair.

Argentina is more than Messi. In fact, all the glittering stars of leading clubs make Argentina. Javier Mashcherano, Sergio Aguero, Enzo Perez, Eduardo Salvio, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria, Paulo Dybala and so on. Together, they should have formed a team of Invincibles.

Unfortunately, Sampaoli, like his predecessors, failed to mould his players into a team. They played like listless individuals and without any objective. They were eleven players but still not a team. Here the role of a coach becomes so crucial. Sampaoli failed to play that role. He also appears not to be a good tactician.

Argentina didn't have a game plan. If they had one, they forgot about it as soon as they entered the field. They played like disjointed pieces of a machine. Defence was delinked from midfield and midfield oblivious of its forwards. The supply from midfield to Messi or other forwards was almost nil. Argentina was designed to fail.

Croatia advance to the round of 16, and Argentina hope against hope for a miracle in Group D to qualify as the other team. And if that does not happen, the World Cup would be less exciting without Messi.


The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star