The World Cup’s first round of games wraps up today. If you haven’t been paying attention, you’ve missed out on an exciting tournament. Almost all the matches have offered consistent action while avoiding controversies that plague most World Cups. In addition, the fears of Russian racism, homophobia, and hooliganism have yet to be realized.
The World Cup started off with a bang thanks to Russia’s 5-0 thumping of Saudi Arabia. Such lopsided affairs aren’t always fun to watch, but this was a great way for the host nation to kick off the tournament.
The thrills continued on Friday. Each game featured a winning or tying goal after the 80th minute. Spain and Portugal treated viewers to the best match so far, with a hat trick from Ronaldo and Nacho’s stunning half-volley from distance leading to a 3-3 draw. Iceland provided the first shock of the World Cup on Saturday when they tied Argentina 1-1 in a match that included a missed penalty by Lionel Messi.
Sunday saw no rest for shocks and stunners, lead by Mexico’s 1-0 defeat of Germany and followed by Brazil’s 1-1 tie with Switzerland. Keep in mind that Mexico stole the headlines on a day starring Aleksander Kolarov’s free kick winner against Costa Rica, Coutinho’s gorgeous curler against Switzerland, and Neymar’s hair.
Monday’s games were practically dull by comparison. The only highlights were a Dries Mertens volley against Panama in Belgium’s 3-0 win and Harry Kane’s stoppage time winner against Tunisia. Through 15 games, only Croatia-Nigeria and Sweden-South Korea have been anything but exciting (and they were pretty drab).
The game has been helped by a significant decrease in referee controversies, thanks largely to video review. FIFA decided to use Video Assistant Referee (VAR) at this year’s World Cup despite mixed reviews in other leagues and FIFA’s own Confederations Cup. But VAR has received good reviews so far and has done its job without breaking up the flow of the game too much (though not everyone’s convinced VAR is a good thing).
The host nation has mostly avoided negative headlines off the field. No incidents of racism have been reported. Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel even said “there hasn’t been any racism,” although that quote (from RT.com, no less) seems a bit on the nose. The only homophobia issue is Mexican fans’ controversial “puto” chant, which FIFA says it is investigating.
Violence and hooliganism have not been a problem yet either, aided partly by banning the instigators from Euro 2016. Perhaps Vladimir Putin really did crack down. The Russian plane carrying Saudi Arabia’s team did catch on fire, the first real black eye for the hosts. Thankfully, the plane landed safely. But, as I mentioned in my preview, Russia has an air travel problem. Putin’s iron fist will mean little if a plane goes down.
Overall, it’s been a terrific World Cup. We’ve been spoiled so far, to be honest. The next two rounds offer plenty of intrigue. Everyone bar Saudi Arabia still has hope. Most of the pre-tournament favorites have to make up for lost ground. Assuming you don’t have a Seymour Skinnerian distaste for the sport, it’s worth checking out.