After 60 matches over the past three weeks, the 2018 Fifa World Cup has been whittled down to just the four semi-finalists. There have been thrills and shocks aplenty and so, with just six days until the curtain comes down in Moscow, we have prepared a final round-up of the performance-related stories that have caught our eye over the past 14 days of the tournament. Parts I and II are available here and here.
By John Portch
How does data inform the story?
Former World Cup winner Jorge Valdano has been making waves with his eloquent, occasionally poetic – and always insightful – columns in the Guardian. Here, the Argentine warns of the dangers of coaches investing in technology merely to keep up with their opponents. With so much snake oil being pedalled in an already congested marketplace, Valdano expresses valid concerns rather than mere luddism: it’s a common message that the tech companies need to heed. He also waxes lyrical in another column about the remarkable exploits of Argentina’s neighbours across the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay, and their approach to both football and life.
It was not enough to extend La Celeste’s stay in Russia, but Uruguay confounded most of the stereotypes that have attached themselves to Uruguayan football during a tournament where their disciplinary record was exemplary and their defensive record admirable. Much of the credit must go to their Head Coach, the magnificently-named Óscar Washington Tabárez. The 71-year-old, who walks with the aid of a crutch due to suffering from the rare Guillain-Barré Syndrome, has fully committed to the challenge of raising well-rounded players, whether that means enforcing a ‘no muddy shoes’ policy or making English lessons available. The message is clear from the man whom the players call ‘El Maestro’: “You can make good contracts in clubs, gain prestige, but there are some things you can only get playing for Uruguay.”
VAR: destination unknown
The consensus is that Video Assistant Referees [VAR] have made this World Cup richer, fairer and, in numerous cases, more rewarding as a spectacle. But what of VAR’s potential to evolve the sport in unpredictable ways? We have already seen 28 penalties in 60 matches and the further implications for tactics, development and performance could be profound.
Accidental manager to unexpected hero
England and Head Coach Gareth Southgate have well and truly exceeded national expectations in their run to a semi-final meeting with Croatia on Wednesday. Whatever happens, Southgate should be lauded for his success in building a working England team culture, bringing an exacting attention to detail, as well as the decency of his motives.
Staring into the abyss
One thing that has struck attendees as well as the hundreds of millions of people watching the World Cup around the globe, is the profound effect of mistakes on the players who commit those errors. Some handle those moments better than others, as demonstrated by Croatia’s Luka Modrić, who stepped forward in his nation’s last-16 encounter with with Denmark to score a penalty in the shootout having missed one earlier during regulation play. Tom Bates, a performance psychologist with a UEFA A Coaching Licence, explains some of the methods elite players use to recover from mistakes or setbacks with the aid of psychological support services.
And with this year’s Championships at Wimbledon running concurrently, Sky Sports ask: what can England’s penalty takers learn from seven-time champion at the All England Club Serena Williams? The American’s low emotional range, allied to her supreme talent and will to win, seems to be the one area that all athletes can aspire to match.
England, Croatia, France, Belgium and, er, Anderlecht
If Belgium win the World Cup on Sunday in Moscow then the finger prints of the Brussels-based RSC Anderlecht will be all over the success of Roberto Martínez and his side, with eight of the 23-man squad emanating from their academy. Anderlecht’s success in breeding elite players stems in part from the quality of their coach education, which includes psychologists and pedagogical teachers.
Standing in the way of Les Diables Rouges are neighbours France, whom they face tomorrow evening in Saint Petersburg in a semi-final that brings together 46 players, including 23 of African descent. Those of you with a keen interest in pub quizzes may also note that Belgium’s Kevin de Bruyne is eligible for Burundi courtesy of his mother’s place of birth and childhood spent in the east African nation.
Yet for all this representation, the relative failures of African sides, not to mention those from the Americas and Asia, ensure that the final week of the World Cup is an all-European affair. Why has no African team managed to match the achievement of Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002, and Ghana in 2010 in reaching the quarter-finals? Cristiano d’Orsi looks at some of the reasons behind Africa’s footballing stagnation on the biggest stage.
The World Cup casual chic nirvana
The untucked shirt was once the preserve of the maverick but now it’s pretty much de rigueur for all and sundry, with the almost lone exception of the match officials in Russia. Fashions change and it’s certainly having an effect on the way jerseys are being made in the modern era.
Finally, we take a look at the spectacle within the spectacle: players feigning injury. No team is innocent and it has ground the gears of viewers across the globe. ‘Simulation’, to use Fifa parlance, is often described as ‘acting’ but what do professional actors actually think of that view? Not much, to say the least.