Friday, 15 June 2018

It's All Kicking-Off, Big-Style

Traditionally, World Cups always used to start with a tediously dull opening game. Indeed, once upon a time, a direct co-relation could be drawn between how mind-numbingly rotten the tournament opener was and how good that competition would end up; three of the very best World Cups, for instance - 1966, 1970 and 1974 - all began with the sort of goalless draws that you wouldn't inflict on your worst enemy. That has changed of late and, indeed, several recent tournaments have kicked-off with something approaching goal-feasts (2006 and 2014, in particular).
The 2018 World Cup began on Thursday with a game that included five goals. Whether a good game or not, that's a somewhat different matter. The hosts, Russia, aren't a particularly good side in world terms - they're currently seventieth in FIFA's rankings, the lowest-placed side in the finals (three places below their opponents on the day). Of course, FIFA's rankings are notoriously unreliable as a guide to pretty much anything and Russia are where they are largely because the national side have had an appalling run of late - seven successive defeats. In terms of overall ability, they may well be ten or fifteen places better than their current ranking suggests. But, they're not fifty places too low, let's put it that way. And yet, their five-nil public caning of Saudi Arabia is going to make some people think they're a lot better than they actually are. It reminds this blogger rather of that game in 2006 when Argentina put six past a thoroughly woeful Serbia & Montenegro side and caused lots of media pundits to scramble over each other and stick their tongues right up some Argie ring-piece whilst declaring that we had just seen the likely winners of that tournament. We hadn't, as Argentina's - hilarious - defeat to Germany in the quarter finals proved. By contrast, what we had seen was, by a distance, the worst team at that particular World Cup in their hapless, hopeless opponents. Thus, whilst Russia in the opening game were pretty decent all round, had a solid shape, moved the ball quickly, pressed their opposition well, played to their strengths and were certainly - to a man - pumped by a jumping Moscow crowd, what the game said far more about was just how thoroughly rotten Saudi Arabia were. Just like the 2002 World Cup when their eight-nil 'surrender before kick-off' against the Germans marked them down as the worst team at that particular tournament - also, by a distance. Once again, it appears the Saudis have sent their Under-Elevens along to a World Cup to play against The Big Boys. Still, bright side, they're one of the two biggest oil producers in the world (interestingly, they were playing the other one) so, they're probably not too bothered about losing a game of football so long as the black gold keeps on flowing. As for Russia, Stanislav Cherchesov's team had been criticised from all sides recently, including a series of barbed comments from The Butcher of Grozny (not really the sort of chap you want to get on the wrong side of, by and large). The Moscow Times proclaimed the team was 'doomed to fail' whilst another sports writer claimed that 'only a miracle' could save Russia from an humiliating first round exit. But they were the vastly superior team on a mild Moscow evening, repeatedly overrunning a naïve Green Falcons' side who were simply unable to handle their physical threat and determination. An unmarked Yuri Gazinsky headed his first goal for Russia before Denis Cheryshev evaded several weak challenges and scored at the near post before half-time. The tempo slowed after the restart, but substitute Big Artem Dzyuba illuminated a match of often dubious quality with a precise header to extend his team's lead just minutes after replacing Fedor Smolov. As the match moved into injury time the impressive Cheryshev added a fourth before Aleksandr Golovin curled a free-kick around the wall. The Butcher Of Grozny smiled - in the same way that sharks smile just before they bite you in two - and shook hands with The Crown Prince. Pure oil.
Uruguay snatched a late winner as they began their World Cup campaign with a dramatic victory over Egypt, who left Mohamed Salah on the bench. Jose Gimenez headed powerfully into the net in the ninetieth minute as he met Carlos Sanchez's free-kick to give the South Americans a winning start in Russia. Uruguay had been marginally the better side as Luis Suarez had missed four chances and Edinson Cavani had hit the inside of a post with a twenty five-yard free-kick. Salah, who scored forty four times for The Liverpool Alaabam Yee-Haws this season, remained an unused substitute as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury sustained in last month's Champions League final. Without Salah, Egypt lacked any sort of a cutting edge but had looked on course to earn a point in their first match at a World Cup finals since 1990 before Gimenez's late goal.
Iran won their first match at a World Cup finals since 1998 as Morocco substitute Aziz Bouhaddouz scored an own goal in injury time in what, up until that moment was suggesting Gruop B might be this tournaments 'Group of Sleep.' Bouhaddouz put the ball into his own net with a diving header at the near post in the fifth minute of injury time as Morocco defended a left-wing free-kick. The result was, perhaps, a little harsh on the African side, who had wasted numerous chances in the first half and were denied late on when Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand produced a fine save from Hakim Ziyech. But Iran took the victory, only their second in World Cup history after a - thigh-slappingly funny - two-one win over the United States at France 1998.
'We thought it would be the game of the tournament so far, it might have been the game of the tournament, full stop,' said the BBC's Steve Wilson at the climax of the point at which the 2018 World Cup finally started to look like it was worth getting excited about. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a sensational late free-kick to round off his hat-trick and salvage a draw for Portugal against Spain in a captivating match on Friday evening in Sochi. The first half in particular was a sensational exhibition of skill, technique, precision and flair from both sides. Two days after Julen Lopetegui was fired Spain boss for agreeing a post-tournament move to Real Madrid, more pain lay in wait for the Spaniards as Ronaldo swerved a vicious shot into David De Gea's corner to avert defeat in a spellbinding, topsy-turvy match. Ronaldo had earlier opened the scoring, a penalty in the fourth minute after Nacho tripped him in the box, before Diego Costa's bullying low finish dragged Spain back into the match. Just before the break De Gea made a terrible - and very uncharacteristic - error, fumbling a Ronaldo shot through his gloves and over the line. But Fernando Hierro's men responded through Costa again, the Atletico Madrid striker smashing in from close range after Sergio Busquets' knockdown nine minutes after half-time, before Nacho redeemed himself with a volley from the edge of the area that crashed in off both posts. For his part, Ronaldo was in largely anonymous in the second half, a spectator to Spain's recovery, but he emerged from the shadows of this fascinating spectacle to define the game's result and in doing so become just the fourth player to score at four World Cups.
It is fair to say that Friday evening's brilliant Spain versus Portugal game captured the imagination of British World Cup viewers after three - somewhat duller - earlier matches. Over twelve million punters watched the BBC's coverage of the three-all draw on one platform or another. BBC1 attracted a peak overnight TV audience of 10.4 million (a forty eight per cent share) for the Group B game, with a further 1.9 million streams via the BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport. The game featured Ronaldo's fifty first hat-trick for club and country. It comprised his eighty second, eighty third and eighty fourth international goals, putting him joint-second on the all-time list alongside Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas, now trailing only Iran's Ali Daei on one hundred and nine. 'I'm going to get a flight back tomorrow because I won't see a better game than that,' suggested former England winger Chris Waddle, in Russia commentating for BBC Radio.
FIFA is reported to be 'looking into' why there were more than six thousand unoccupied seats at Uruguay's win against Egypt on Ekaterinburg's first day of World Cup action. Which is, clearly, a nasty blow to the Urals. Although the two looming ends of the ground were largely full, there were swaths of empty orange seats down both sides. 'We can confirm that the official attendance for the match between Egypt and Uruguay in Ekaterinburg is twentyseven thousand and fifteen,' a FIFA spokesman said. 'The FIFA World Cup stadium capacity is thirty three thousand and sixty one. The fact that the actual attendance is lower than the number of allocated tickets can be due to different factors, including "no shows" on match day, which FIFA is currently investigating.' There were also reported to be problems with a complicated queueing system. All morning, at various venues throughout the city, there were long lines stretching from venues handing out the fan IDs necessary to gain access to the ground. Those laminated cards were enough to get supporters into the concourse but once there they had to queue again to receive a wrist band that allowed them into the stadium. 'It was very confusing,' said one Egypt fan. 'We didn't know which line was which, so you found you had been queueing for ages for beer or merchandise, not access. There were lots of very helpful volunteers, but I'm not sure they were well directed.' The most striking features of the stadium in Ekaterinburg are the enormous temporary stands that stretch up above the roof at both ends of the ground. The local sports minister Leonid Rapaport was 'unconcerned' by the curiosity the stands had provoked. 'They are really very stable,' he claimed last week. 'And these stands are made of the famous Urals metal.'
Do you know what grates this blogger's cheese, dear blog reader? Then Keith Telly Topping shall tell you. What really grates this blogger's cheese, what really boils his piss, what really smokes off his cornet big-style is a curious phenomena which usually occurs during the run up to and the duration of all major football tournaments (and, to a lesser extent other major sporting competitions like the Olympics); this sees lots of people that you've never heard of proudly telling the world - or telling a few dozen others on Facebook anyway - how much they don't like football. As thought that somehow makes them in some way special. It doesn't, it just makes them different for others - like this blogger, for instance, who does like football. But, the important question to ask at this point is why do they think anyone else is in the slightest bit interested? This blogger doesn't particularly like marine biology, for example, but he doesn't use the start of each new marine biology documentary series of Discovery to inform the world (over and over again) of this discombobulation. Listen, dear blog reader, it's very simple - the World Cup is on for the next month and will be widely covered on BBC1 and ITV. If you don't want to be involved in it, then that's perfectly fine - there's no law that says you have to. There are plenty of other things you can, surely, find to do during the next four weeks. You live in a world where television now offers hundreds of alternatives choices of viewing. You have DVDs you could watch, CDs you could play, books or magazines you could read. You could do something else constructive with your time, go for a nice walk in the fresh air, have a meal or drinks with friends or family, go on a blind date with a consenting adult of your choice. You may even find the time to go up the local park and have some disappointing sex (with someone else or, indeed, with yourself if that's what floats yer boat). Or, you could do what you're currently doing - whinging about something you were never going to participate in anyway on social media. Twenty First Century life in a nutshell.
US broadcaster FOX has grovellingly apologised to viewers for the allegedly 'offensive' gesture Robbie Williams gave during his World Cup opening ceremony performance. 'As it was broadcast live, we did not know what would happen during [the] performance and we apologise,' the network snivelled to The Hollywood Reporter. Neither the former Take That star nor his representatives have offered an explanation for the gesture. The incident was not seen by UK viewers but has been widely circulated online. ITV had already cut away from the opening ceremony when Williams 'flipped the bird' whilst singing 'Rock DJ'. The forty four-year-old altered the lyrics from the song, adding the line 'But I did this for free' before giving his one-finger salute. Williams had previously tweeted that he was 'very excited to be returning to Russia to perform at the opening of the World Cup.' He did admit, in an interview with Reuters, that he had been asked not to sing 'Party Like a Russian', his 2016 song about hedonistic Russian oligarchs. The song prompted some Russian media outlets to call for him to be banned from performing in the country. Or, indeed, arrested and banged uyp in the salt mines. Probably. Robbie's performance began with 'Let Me Entertain You' and included 'Feel' and 'Angels', which he performed with Russian soprano Aida Garifullina.
A pig with alleged 'special powers' has chosen the four nations that will reach the World Cup semi-finals. Mystic Marcus, a pig from Heage in Derbyshire, chose Belgium, Argentina, Nigeria and Uruguay. He did it by eating apples marked with the flags of all the other teams. He correctly predicted the outcome of the 2014 World Cup, the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's election, claimed owner Juliette Stevens. One or two people even believed her. The pig breeder said: 'Marcus is the seventh child of a seventh child and apparently they're gifted with special powers, so maybe that's where it comes from.' Interestingly word 'apparently.' Stevens has about one hundred animals on her farm, but Marcus holds a 'special place in her heart.' Until his usefulness is over, of course, at which point he will have a special place in her stomach. However, despite the breeder's claim of a 'one hundred per cent success rate' Mystic Marcus has, seemingly, slipped up a few times. In 2016, the pig backed Derby County to beat Hull City in the Championship play-off semi-final after choosing the apples with the club's badge. The Rams lost three-nil. Also, the teams he has predicted will make the World Cup semi-finals cannot all reach the last four without at least two of them meeting in the quarter-finals. So, sadly, this blogger is using his own mystic power to predict your future, Marucs. It involves two slices of bread.
Cristiano Ronaldo has reportedly agreed to accept a sixteen million knicker fine and suspended jail term to settle tax evasion charges. The Real Madrid and Portugal footballer was extremely accused last year of defrauding tax authorities of €14.8m, charges which he denies. Nevertheless, Ronaldo offered to pay £12.9m in June 2017 but the government rejected the offer, the El Mundo newspaper reported. The news came hours before Portugal took on Spain in the World Cup. Spanish courts have recently cracked down on tax evasion among footballers. Ronaldo is unlikely to serve any jail time under the deal - reportedly a verbal one at this stage. Under Spanish law, a two-year sentence for a first offence can be served on probation, with no requirement for custody. Any deal would have to be signed off by Spain's tax agency. It has accused the footballer of trying to hide money linked to image rights made between 2011 and 2014. In 2010, as the financial crisis deepened, Spain lifted a tax exemption that had become known as 'the Beckham law,' which had allowed footballers to curb their taxes. Barcelona's Lionel Messi was given a twenty one-month prison sentence in 2017 on similar charges to Ronaldo but under Spanish law was able to pay a fine instead.

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