With the final round of group matches starting today at the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia, some nations are basking in the warm glow of optimism (here’s looking at you Russia and England) and others are already aware that this third round of matches will be their last. Whatever the fate of the 32 competing nations, there has been performance stories aplenty. Below you’ll find the best of the latest and, if you’re so inclined, you can check out our first batch here.
By John Portch
Is there a cure for cabin fever?
That the currently free-scoring England have a solitary World Cup success to their name is, rightly or wrongly, seen by many in English football as an historical under-achievement. Poor talent development pathways, sub-standard coaching, and an ill-conceived infrastructure have long been cited as some of the possible reasons, but another nagging doubt has been the team’s accommodation arrangements when travelling to competitions, which have veered from boot camp-style set-ups in South Africa to celebrity goldfish bowls in opulent German spa towns. Here, three former England World Cup stars recall their experiences and offer hints of what to avoid when holed up with 22 other athletes for up to six weeks.
The current squad, based in the Repino area of St Petersburg, have been afforded creature comforts from specialised mattresses to family photos placed around the medical rooms. Too bad the Football Association can do little about the near-incessant daylight in northern Europe at this time of the year. At least England Manager Gareth Southgate, who dislocated his shoulder while jogging one morning, will not be called upon to play.
Switzerland are another nation looking to gain a competitive edge through sleep hygiene. Before the tournament, Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka told Wired about his specialist sleepwear, as well as his use of bespoke lightbulbs, and glasses designed to filter out the sleep-inhibiting blue light emitted by his phone. He is certainly doing something right, if his superb drive against Serbia on Friday is anything to go by.
Germany playing the numbers
On Saturday night Toni Kroos popped up at the death to rescue reigning world champions Germany with an adroit winner to sink Sweden, but Joachim Löw’s side still have plenty of questions to answer out on the pitch. Nevertheless, their inversion of the top-down approach to data and analytics offers a genuine ‘not-what-you-collect-but-how-you-use-it’ approach for data advocates who face the scepticism of their coaches or key decision-makers. The Nationalmannschaft’s players have bought in ever since they progressed to the final in 2014.
Colour me informed
Social media traffic was dotted with complaints of a kit clash during the opening match between the hosts and Saudi Arabia. For the record, Russia wore their traditional red jerseys, white shorts, and red socks, while their opponents, the Green Falcons, lived up to their nickname in sporting an all-green outfit. While most onlookers were unmoved by anything beyond Russia’s dominance and Saudi Arabia’s struggles, it was pointed out that a significant number of the estimated 320 million people worldwide with a form of colour vision deficiency [CVD], would have had trouble distinguishing between the teams.
Little more was said on the topic until Denmark and Australia both switched to their second choice strips for their Group C meeting in Samara. It seemed unnecessary, as Danish red did not clash with Australian gold, but the Danish federation were in the know and the wider public became aware when midfielder Thomas Delaney rang Danish national radio in the wake of his side’s friendly meeting with the green-shirted Mexico earlier this month in order to explain his difficulty playing the match and to declare his CVD. It turns out that Aussie gold is another colour that Delaney is unable to distinguish from red.
CVD is on a spectrum and below are images that illustrate one example of how both a footballer with regular vision and one with CVD may actually see the iridescent colours of the dressing room:
European football’s governing body, Uefa, wrote on the matter of CVD in the January edition of the confederation’s in-house magazine. So Denmark, anticipating problems for their man, switched to their white-based second strip, while Australia plumped for contrasting all-green. For his part, Delaney has been praised by UK-based charity Colour Blind Awareness for being the first elite footballer to go public about his condition.
Food for thought
However you look at it, teams that progress to the quarter-finals will have played five competitive matches in the space of three weeks – make that seven for teams that reach the semi-finals. It is essential to get the refuelling right and The Conversation takes a look at suitable nutrition strategies.
Let’s move on with a quick show of hands: who knew that Mexican red meat has a history of contamination with Clenbuterol, a substance used to promote growth in livestock, which is also a performance-enhancing drug? Either way, it prevented Mexico’s squad from eating their favoured tacos and quesadillas during prior to reaching Russia. Team Nutritionist Beatriz Boullosa, who is behind the team’s individualised nutrition plans, points to the psychological benefits of eating familiar food in a team setting. Judging by El Tri‘s results out on the pitch she could have a point.
Persona non grata
Speaking of Mexico, their captain, Rafael Márquez, is on the United States Treasury Department’s blacklist for alleged involvement in money laundering for drug cartels. Not something a sportsperson wishes to have hanging over them as they lead their nation into a World Cup, but it is the practical implications, from Márquez being effectively banned from winning a Budweiser-sponsored ‘man of the match’ award to the bibs he wears in training, that strike the most resonant chord in this New York Times exposé.
The heart-warming sight of female Iran fans supporting Team Melli live for the first time – women are currently banned from attending men’s sporting events in their native land – has been one of the feel-good stories of a World Cup steeped in a foreboding narrative of geopolitics and corruption. As such, this is an opportune moment to focus on the rise of the Iranian women’s national team under American-Iranian Head Coach Katayoun Khosrowyar. Check out her 2015 TED Talk here.
With Video Assistant Referees [VAR] dominating the narratives on the pitch, Adidas’ Telstar 18 official match ball has largely gone under the radar, which is exactly what its creators hoped for. After the controversies of past World Cups, there is a consensus that the Telstar 18 is alright. Players have got to grips with the way it behaves and, if this is anything to go by, we have already seen more goals direct from free-kicks (four, since you’re asking) than in the entirety of the 2014 tournament (three).
‘I’ve got something to say’
These are the words of Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku, who brilliantly recounted the penury of his childhood on The Players’ Tribune last week. As a child, he clocked his urgent need to make it as a footballer the moment he saw his desperate mum mixing milk with water in order to make it last longer. Lukaku also quickly learnt that he was widely considered ‘Belgian’ by his compatriots when things went well on the field but was merely a ‘Belgian of Congolese descent’ when they did not. A bold, brave and articulate exploration of poverty and racism in Belgium society – and another indication of how important it is to know the person in order to reach the athlete.