The World Cup is almost 75% done, as we now get into the knockout stages. There are only 15 matches remaining before the 2018 FIFA World Cup winner is crowned. There will be tighter matches, lots of extra time, hopefully, penalty shootouts that will lead to legends being born and villains made. The remaining 16 teams will plot their routes to the finals in the following manner:
Lots of football analysts have noted that one side of the draw seems much stronger than the other, at least on paper, the side with Spain looks much weaker than the one on the left with Uruguay, France, Argentina, Brazil, and Belgium. However, this World Cup has shown little respect for pedigree and big names. The following are some of my thoughts on the World Cup so far, and tentative predictions for the remaining 15 matches:
Africa has a long way to go
There is a fantastic article on the Independent that shows how big nations such as France, Spain, and Germany have industrialized youth academies, which explains why these teams are drawing tens of excellent young talent in seemingly bottomless pits.
Indeed, of the remaining 16 countries in the World Cup, 10 are from Europe (UEFA), 4 from South America (CONMEBOL), one from Central America and one from Asia. The world cup has rarely looked like a Europe vs South America affair in the 21st century as much as it does now. For Africa to catch up, much more must be done to invest in youth academies, coaches and under 20 football tournaments. Otherwise, Europe will continue to recede into the horizon and qualifying for the knockout stages will continue to be an uphill battle for African teams.
VAR is here to stay, and penalties will increasingly decide matches
So far, VAR has been used remarkably well. The Senegal vs Colombia match where a penalty was overruled after VAR, as well as the South Korea vs Germany match where a goal was given after VAR was used, are just the recent examples of VAR being used decisively to overturn decisions and make the correct call. Going forward into this tournament, players will have to be more careful on grappling at setpieces and corners, as well as off the ball violations which are liable to be corrected after VAR analysis.
It is anyone’s World Cup to win
So far, there is no team that has put a compelling case to be the outstanding favorite. The shocking exit of Germany means that there is no outstanding squad, although Belgium and Spain have star quality. It is one of those competitions where everyone will back themselves to lift the title. Spain has the individual quality, especially in midfield, but they conceded five goals in the group stage to Portugal and Morocco and Sergio Busquets looks a bit isolated in midfield. Talk is that Nacho, who is normally a backup center-back for Spain and Real Madrid, might be brought into midfield to add another defensive screen ahead of the back four, while David de Gea’s place is under threat from Pepe Reina in goal. Belgium looks very good going forward, but I expect their wingbacks, especially Yannick Carrasco’s flank to be tested by better sides than they faced in the group stage.
Croatia looks as good as anyone especially in midfield and will be a team to watch out for, but they have never played in a world cup final and don’t have great strikers. Brazil are my personal favorites, they have looked solid and have a plan, but Gabriel Jesus hasn’t impressed as ‘the striker’, and injuries and fitness worries for first choice fullbacks Dani Alves and Marcelo respectively could start to show when they meet better sides. Remember the name Fagner.
The must-watch games for me in the last 16 are France vs Argentina (Saturday 30th June 5 pm East African time) and England vs Colombia (Tuesday 3rd July 9 pm east African time); finely balanced games that could genuinely go either way. It promises to be an engrossing final two weeks of football.