World Cup diary 2018 – Saturday 23 June
Friday’s games could all have been labelled as the ‘late, late show’ starting with the Group E encounter between Brazil and Costa Rica. VAR once again had its part to play twelve minutes from time, thankfully reversing the on-field decision of the referee to award Brazil a penalty after a theatrical collapse from Neymar. With ninety-minutes up, the score was 0-0 and a frustrated and petulant Brazilian team looked to be heading for a second successive draw at these Finals. However, in the first minute of stoppage time, Coutinho fired home after a knockdown in the box to save his teams blushes. Then just five minutes later, Neymar got a less than deserved second for the five-times World Cup winners. As with the Brazil squad in 2014, I just can’t warm to them and have fingers crossed that another beating a la Germany four years ago is waiting in the wings for Neymar and his chums.
Iceland were next up against Nigeria in Volgograd, and despite starting well, lost out to a brace from the Leicester City striker Ahmed Musa (49′ & 75′) who is currently on loan with CSKA Moscow. Despite the fantastic support of their fans, Iceland couldn’t handle Nigeria in the second-half and even a penalty ten minutes from the end, which would have given them a lifeline was blazed high and wide by Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson. It was a result that gave fresh hope to Argentina being able to now make the knock-outs.
The final game turned out to be controversial for a number of reason. Serbia were good value for their 1-0 lead at the break courtesy of on-loan Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic after five minutes. However, the Swiss were significantly better in the second-half and an absolute screamer from Granit Xhaka. Despite that Mitrovic continued to be a threat and should have had a penalty mid-way through the second period, as when he attempted to get his head on a cross, he was in what only be described as a two-man rugby tackle was hauled down. Now you don’t need VAR to see that it was a blatant penalty, so quite what German referee Felix Brych was thinking goodness only knows. The Serbs were then punished again as in the final minute Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri broke from the half-way line to score the winner. As with Xhaka, Shaqiri celebrated with a gesture that had political significance.
As the BBC explained: Serbia has hit out at a “provocative” double eagle celebration by two ethnic Albanian goalscorers in the World Cup…Their gesture is a nationalist symbol representing the double headed eagle on Albania’s national flag. Critics say it could inflame tensions among Serbian nationalists and ethnic Albanians… Xhaka and Shaqiri’s families are from Kosovo, where a Serbian crackdown on the Albanian population only ended with NATO military intervention in 1999…Xhaka’s father spent three-and-a-half years as a political prisoner in Yugoslavia for his support for Kosovan independence. Shaqiri was born in Kosovo and his family fled to Switzerland as refugees…Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority declared independence in 2008 but Serbia, its ally Russia and most ethnic Serbs inside Kosovo do not recognise it.”
Many say that sport and politic shouldn’t mix, but history is littered with examples of the when tournaments are used as propaganda or provocation by countries and their governments. And when the world is watching it is the biggest free advertisement going.