Tryst with Telstar | Page 2 | 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


Japan were just incredible!

It all happened in the dying minutes of a spill-thrill game. A 2-0 lead was reduced in last 20 minutes to 2-1, then to 2-2 before likely winners became losers 40 seconds from the long whistle. An epic harakiri that will be remembered for a long time by football pundits and fans.

What a surprise Japan had saved for their match against Belgium after qualifying for the third time into the knockout phase of a World Cup! It was supposed to be a contest between underdogs and hot favourites. But in reality, it was Japan who played like hot favourites and almost knocked fancied Belgium out of the World Cup.

Japan eventually lost the match but won millions of hearts.

Like any Asian country competing against the world's superpowers from Europe, America or Africa, Japan had all the odds stacked against them. They fell short in size, stamina, skill, experience and footballing culture. But they were no less than their opponents in two areas -- intelligence and desire to excel.

In terms of physical stature, the Japanese were the Davids and the Belgians Goliaths. Goliaths had the distinct edge in aerial football, with two of their goals coming from headers. But the Blue Samurai more than made it up by giving the imposing Romelu Lukaku and Co. no space to operate in their defence, at least not in the first 70 minutes of play.

To overcome the odds, Japan's footballers moved in a group on the ball like a well-oiled machine. While defending or attacking, a group of 3-4 players were always on the ball. And that's why Japan looked so intensely fluent in their counter-attacks that produced two goals.

The first half was barren, with Japan busy thwarting Belgian attacks with moves in a small group. But it was a pulsating, raucous, tense and brilliant second half, with Japan going more onto the offensive right from the start. High quality stuff was demonstrated at both ends of the pitch. But the first 25 minutes belonged to Japan, with Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui striking a goal apiece within a span of four minutes. You have to love those moves that resulted in two spectacular goals.

In my view, a bold tactical decision by Belgium coach Roberto Martinez threw a spanner into Japan's works and put the match on a reverse course. His double substitution in the 65th minute proved to be decisive, and Belgium instantly came back firing. Within four minutes, the nation of less than 12 million people scored the first goal from a lofted header through Jan Vertonghen from just inside the box and the second one, also off a headed-strike five minutes later, from substitute Marouane Fellaini. And the other substitute Nacer Chadli drove the last nail into Japan's coffin in the final minute following a substitution by Japan.

In came veteran celebrity footballer Keisuke Honda as a substitute 10 minutes from the end of regulation time, and he nearly shot Japan into the quarterfinals from a perfect free-kick in the last minute of play. Ironically, within seconds of that free-kick, the Red Devils hit back on the counter with the last kick of the game. It happened in less than 10 seconds: a diagonal pass to Thomas Meunier, then a low cross left by Lukaku following a perfect dummy and finally a jab into net by Chadli.

And, with that Belgium became the second team after Portugal to come back from 2-0 down and win a World Cup knockout round match. In 1966, Portuguese legend Eusebio starred in a dramatic 5-3 win over North Korea, with his four breath-taking goals helping Portugal come back from 3-0 down. Well done, Belgium!

Japan, however, emerged as the lighthouse of hope for Asian lightweights. They can head home as champions, with their footballers being winners in fair play and fans being model spectators.

Salute to Japan!

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


It's been a strange World Cup so far in Russia: smiles for also-rans and tears for big guns.

Three of the strong contenders-- Germany, Argentina and Spain --havegone home, and one traditional favourite, Italy, are watching the football fiesta from home. That should make the race easier for others-- Brazil, France, England and Uruguay--who have won World Cups. But that seems not to be!

Last night, Brazil were favourites yet not secured when the five-time world champions took on Mexico, their bogey team for decades. The scoreline may read 2-0, but the match was a hotly contested affair.

No team has been able to get under the skin of Brazilians as regularly as Mexico.Brazil never lost a World Cup match against their oldest of enemies (winning three out of four matches and drawing others) but suffered six defeats against five wins in their 13 meetings since 2010.

Mexico, on the other hand, failed to go beyond the round of 16 in their last six World Cup attempts. One of the sub-plots of last-night's exciting match was that they had a Colombian coach who knows Brazil and their manager Tite very well.   

Juan Carlos Osorio coached Brazilian club Sao Paulo prior to taking over Mexico. And, as far as tactics go, he drew with Tite, who was coach of Corinthians at that time, in one-off match between the two teams. Osorio considered Brazil the best team in the world at that moment yet declined to back things in and play the defensive game.

So, as expected it was a high-octane affair, with Tite letting his wolves loose, a favourite metaphor he often uses to mean players hungry for goals. For his part, Osorio stuck to his guns with Mexico also mounting several attacks and testing the improved Brazil defence.

Brazil are born again under Tite. A 7-1 drubbing by Germany was a slap across the face of a country that won more World Cups than any other football-playing nation.The mauling in the last World Cup was just gross and little more than a public flogging.

But Tite has already scored a huge A-plus in helping the Selecao rise from the ashes. This Brazil team look like one that can go all the way and win the cup. Unlike the team under Philippe Scholari, Tite's men play like a single unit, where one of at least half a dozen players win match for Brazil.

Biggest Brazilian ace Neymar is still limbering up in the tournament and yet to hit the right groove. Still, the world's most expensive player of the world notched up one goal and set up another for substitute striker Roberto Firmino to tap in. But that brought no frowns on Tite's face, as he has a pack of wolves with him.

With Philippe Coutinho already becoming the tournament's most beguiling No 11, youngsters in his pack have already showed opponents how hungry they are. Gangling winger Willian, who was not that piercing in group matches, transformed himself into the heart of Brazil last night, tormenting the Mexican defence with his sheer pace, skill and intelligent passes. Unfortunately for him, he went goalless, thanks to excellent goalkeeping by Guillermo Ochoa.

In Willian, Tite's new wolf emerges. There will be a lot more wolves to emerge, for sure!

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


It was a Black Saturday that saw the fall of the two most glittering stars of world football.

Cristiano Ronaldo bowed out of the World Cup just hours after France bade goodbye to Lionel Messi. Hearts really burnt after the way the hope of winning a World Cup of the world's two best footballers ended so early.

Together, the two reigned over the football world for the last 10 years, winning every possible trophy for their clubs -- Ronaldo for Real Madrid and Messi for Barcelona -- and countries. But the ultimate glory that mattered, a World Cup, will remain missing from their trophy trove.

Now at 31, Messi still has one last chance four years later in Qatar. For Ronaldo, who will be 37 in 2022, the last chance to win the coveted cup for him and Portugal as well slipped away Saturday when the best scorer on the planet ran into the best defence on the planet. With a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay, his final quest ended with a whimper.

Before the tournament, most of the media focus was on Ronaldo. It is not because he was expected to lead his country to its first ever World Cup glory. Although one of the highest-earning players is found to be lacking in humility, football buffs somehow have managed to love him. Such is his fan following that nothing Ronaldo does escapes notice. He rips off his shirts and his fans swoon. He puts an ice pack on a bruised knee and the world grimaces. He steps on to the field, defenders cling to him closer than a GPS. And when he roars after a goal, the stadium just erupts.

That is the usual scene when the Real Madrid superstar plays his club football. But the turf at the world stage turns out to be quite the opposite. Here, a superstar is just not enough for a team. Here, a group of ordinary stars may be good enough for a team. Portugal need this superstar to gel well with the team and operate like a cohesive unit on the field.

In Russia, Ronaldo operated like that, kick-starting the opener against Spain with a hattrick, scoring one against Morocco but missing a penalty against Iran. But against an opponent like Uruguay, known to have the meanest defence among all teams, Ronaldo's goal-scoring prowess was all that Portugal needed to proceed.


A ball possession stat of 65 percent reflected how dominant Portugal was. Ronaldo too tried desperately yet couldn't find the net. Meanwhile Edison Cavani struck twice on passes from quick Uruguayan counter-attacks.

Portugal hoped that the Real Madrid superstar would be able to finish the unfinished job of their football legend Eusebio some 52 years back. Lovingly called The Black Panther, Eusebio almost alone took Portugal into the semifinals, scoring nine superb goals in the 1966 World Cup.

The team that Eusebio played with was no better than the one Ronaldo played with in Russia. Yet, an ordinary bunch of players often pull off a surprise if they play as a team. Eusebio was undoubtedly a superstar then but he was also a superb team guy. He starred in a dramatic 5-3 win over North Korea, with his four breathtaking goals helping Portugal come back from 3-0 down. Portugal lost 2-1 to eventual Cup-winners England. But the tears that Eusebio left the field with are still vivid in the minds of football buffs.

After all these years, Ronaldo was expected to revive the Eusebio magic in Russia. But the expectation remained just that -- an expectation. Let the legend rest in peace, Ronaldo could not be even be Ronaldo. On this day, Portugal missed a Eusebio against Uruguay.

The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star


With hands on hips, eyes bleary and lips quivering, he looks on after losing another crunch match.

It's the same script from Brazil being replayed in Russia four years after. The other difference was that it was not the final against Germany but a round of 16 match against France last night. The margin of defeat was 0-1 then and 3-4 now.

But the fate is identical. The World Cup, tragically for Argentina, remains elusive for a player considered one of the greatest of all time. Lionel Messi failed once again to win what was required for being alongside Diego Maradona, the football god of his country.

Little Leo could have done it this time in his fourth World Cup appearance with help from a right coach and a suitable game plan. He could have emulated his country's legend by winning the Cup for Argentina, a feat that is needed for his critics to place him in the same bracket with Pele and Maradona.

Messi, who has won every possible glory for his club Barcelona, was expected to reproduce the magic Maradona produced in the 1986 World Cup. But not all stories end the way they should. The Messi story seems to end without a World Cup.

It was, however, the night for France. The score-line would not be able to completely reflect the French domination. It could have been 5-3, had not Antoine Griezmann's superb free-kick ricocheted off the crossbar.

Coach Didier Deschamps must be a happy man seeing his plan work for Messi and immensely gifted booters deliver the goods. The 19-year-old French striker Kylian Mbappe showed his worth by scoring twice, with Griezmann and defender Benjamin Pavard scoring one apiece. This France have the potential to go far.

Angel di Maria scored the best of the three Argentine goals -- a 31-yard beauty that kissed the net on the far post.

The match will be remembered as a harsh lesson for the Argentina coach of the future. Jorge Sampaoli refused to take lessons from his poor game plan in the tournament.

Sampaoli's strength was also his weakness. His opposite numbers successfully exploited his Messi strength as his Messi weakness. When a coach has a player like Messi at hand, it's only natural for him to let the team revolve around him. Argentina played all the matches centring on the five-time Fifa world player of the year.

So, strategy for Sampaoli's rivals was pretty simple: Neutralise Messi to neutralise Argentina. Luckily for Argentina, Messi is a player of unbelievable ability. With some mysterious sways, he, at times, could free himself from the defensive shackles placed around him to score or assist in group matches.

But it was not possible against France, who could implement their Messi plan perfectly. The two midfield generals N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba simply snapped the supply of passes to Messi by moving themselves up the yards.

The Argentine teams of 1986 and 1990 revolved around Maradona, almost identically. Carlos Bilardo lived up to his reputation in 1986 as one of the shrewdest coaches in the world, inspiring Argentina to their Cup glory.

Bilardo masterfully exploited opponents' over-attention on Maradona by dropping the legend down in the midfield and pushing midfielder Sergio Batista up a little as his shield. Maradona himself scored and, when he couldn't, he made Jorge Burruchaga and Jorge Valdano score.

We haven't seen Messi doing anything like that in either of the four World Cups he played. Messi & Co lost simply because Sampaoli was no Bilardo. Argentina needed a Bilardo.

Messi will be 35 when the next World Cup takes place in Qatar, so he still has a chance to convert himself from Club King to World King. But he certainly has lost his best chance in Russia. 


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