Wind of change in football
12:00 AM, July 10, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:14 AM, July 10, 2018

Wind of change in football

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

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