One of the indirect results of social media is that causes an inevitable extremism of opinions. When everything you post is judged according to its notoriety via retweets and likes, subconsciously you strive for popularity. As elements of a struggling media and the politics of certain western superpower with tell you, nothing sells quite like controversy.
Four days ago, the 2018 World Cup was suffering from a wave of criticism. Wednesday June 20 was the Day Of All The 1-0s, three overwhelming favourites labouring but ultimately successful. There’s nothing quite so disagreeable in sport as the bigger and better team winning without any kind of flourish. Uruguay, Spain and Portugal did exactly that.
Soon came the hot takes. ‘Worst World Cup ever’. ‘International football is boring’. ‘Where are all the goals?’.
It is true that this World Cup started slowly, but that should hardly be any surprise. The typical rule is that the more important the match, the less likely the chance of goals. Tension reduces freedom of expression for fear of making a mistake. Safety-first becomes the norm.
In the four World Cups between 1998 and 2010, only 9% of teams who lost their first match at a World Cup made it through the group stage. In a four-team league, every goal matters more. Expecting expansive football under those circumstances is wishful thinking.
But recent World Cups have also altered our expectations of goalscoring. The clanging cliche of ‘no easy games’ doesn’t quite ring true – see England and Belgium vs Panama and Russia vs Saudi Arabia – but the standard of defending in weaker nations at major tournaments has improved dramatically.
In 2006, Serbia were the only team to concede more than four in a game. In 2010, North Korea were. In 2014, Spain, Brazil and Switzerland were. The only three teams to suffer defensive calamity four years ago are all now in the world’s top ten. Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Panama are exceptions to the rule in 2018. None of the other 15 teams seeded third and fourth in their groups have conceded more than three times.
In fact, if there is any blame to be allocated for the early lack of goals, it should be handed to the elite teams themselves. There was a lack of intensity and invention amongst the supposed favourites for this tournament. France, Germany, Brazil and Argentina all deserved censure; some still do.
As it happens, this World Cup has now come alive. The current goals per game average is now 2.65, higher than in three of the last four tournaments and within 0.06 goals per game of every World Cup back to 1986. If the number of set-piece goals has increased, that is explained by the introduction of VAR. More penalties have been awarded, while countries (notable exceptions aside) have grappled less at set pieces and so let runners leave their sides.
Most importantly when answering the naysayers, there are stories at every turn. With one round of group matches to play, only Groups A and G have their two qualifiers confirmed and even then finishing first and second may well prove crucial.
The list of countries who have not confirmed their participation in the knockout stages includes Spain, Argentina, Germany and Brazil. That’s three of your four semi-finalists from four years ago.
For those who source joy from individuals in a team sport, three of the world’s best strikers have scored four or more goals in the race for the Golden Boot.
And look beyond those headline-makers. Iran still have a chance to cause a monumental upset in Group B, Mexico and Croatia are playing some of the best football in the tournament despite huge pre-tournament concerns about manager, key players or politics. After a slow start, Africa has two teams in decent positions to make the knockout stages, while Japan top Group H for Asia.
“Senegal represent the whole African continent,” said coach Aliou Cisse after their win over Poland. “We are Senegal but I can guarantee that the whole of Africa is supporting Senegal. I get calls and lots of people are proud. We are proud to represent the African continent.” Where else do you get that, in sport or in society, unity embraced not feared?
There is no secret to knowing where this World Cup goes from here – there is a script. Final-round drama leads to an absorbing round of last-16 matches, with a couple of exceptions, before bigger teams in crucial matches produce tight, tense affairs from the quarter-finals onward. Five of the eight quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals in 2014 contained one goal or fewer. Look out for the moaning starting again.
Meanwhile, the rest of us delight in the blend of quality and quantity that comes around only once every four years. This is neither the best major international tournament in living memory nor the worst. But when you are tired of the World Cup, you are tired of sport. Why on earth would you err on the side of pessimism?