Soccer

Upsets and surprises: in this World Cup, make predictions at your peril

There’s heartbreak around every corner in Russia this year, writes former South African footballer Matthew Booth

Russia's Denis Cheryshev in action with Egypt's Ahmed Fathy in their World Cup match in Russia on June 19 2018.
Russia's Denis Cheryshev in action with Egypt's Ahmed Fathy in their World Cup match in Russia on June 19 2018.
Image: Reuters/Dylan Martinez

и снова привет товарищи (Hello again, comrades.)

In 2002, Zambian international Gift Kampamba and I set off on our Russian odyssey, very much a trip into the unknown. We arrived towards the end of the Russian summer – as arranged by most of the Premier League clubs so that the foreign players, particularly those from Africa and South America, can ease themselves into the -30° climes of the Russian winter.

One of our first experiences upon arriving was jumping excitedly into a “taxi” … you can hail any official taxi or even just a skorokoro from the roadside and they will pick you up for the extra income. I once saw an ambulance with a body in the back stop to pick up a passenger.

Our “taxi driver” told us in broken English that Russian drivers were so erratic that it was the only place in the world where one could overtake another vehicle and still be hit from behind! I looked at Kampamba, aghast, as we simultaneously clicked our seatbelts firmly into place.

The current World Cup in Russia has already been erratic and caused many a bumper bashing and surprised looks … so scratch my previous predictions!

I’d seriously thought most of the African contingent would pull through. Was it good judgment or a purely sentimental call? Senegal flew the flag against Poland with some clinical finishing, while Egypt and Morocco have already booked their flights home.

Morocco, in particular, may feel hard done by because they played some enterprising football – but sometimes that is not good enough. The margins between success and failure at this level, in this modern age of football, are minuscule.

Take, for example, Egypt’s loss of concentration in the 90th minute of their opening game as Uruguay’s José Giménez powered in a header. Then, in their second group game, their captain, Ahmed Fathy, opened the scoring with an own goal as he tried to clear the ball with the wrong foot after his team had shown stoicism and tenacity for the entire first half against Russia. A small mistake and a seemingly innocuous chain of events can lead to a massive change in fortune.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matthew Booth is a former South African football defender
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matthew Booth is a former South African football defender
Image: Supplied

Heartbreak seems to be around every corner in Russia. Morocco conceded not one but two headed goals due to lapses in concentration after battering Iran and failing to man-mark the obvious – the dangerous Ronaldo.

Even the favourites, Germany, who won the Confederations Cup at a canter with their second-string squad, are under immediate pressure due to the Mexican wall that was built, leading to quips on social media about Trump and the “Germans paying for it”.

Another example was England captain Harry Kane taking a chance to drop into the space at the far post, pick up the “second ball” and head the ball in at the near post after seeing two defenders on the line at the far post. He got lucky as the Tunisian goalkeeper took an ever-so-slight step to his left in a split-second guessing game with Kane. That was the margin between three life-giving points and an early trip back home.

The football I have watched over the past nine days has reaffirmed my view that the lethargic football associations are being left behind, and the rising elite leaves you making predictions at your peril.

As I finish typing this article, so the final whistle blows on a Brazilian victory over Costa Rica. Normality resumed?

Paka paka i shes leva! (Bye and keep well!)


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