Russian fans are enjoying the soccer spectacle so far and will be hoping for more of the same from the host nation when they take on Spain later today. Photo: Reuters
How do you measure the success of a soccer World Cup? Is it by gate receipts? Is it the television audiences? Is it by goals and action? Is it the feel-good factor?

It’s probably a blend of all these, in which case Russia has put on a tremendous World Cup so far. The 2018 jamboree has throbbed from the start with drama, goals and big, wondrous crowds offering a sumptuous backdrop.

Sorry haters, but this edition has been awesome.

Nothing in sport is worse than predictability and there’s been little of that. Lionel Messi struggled and surged, Mo Salah barely fired a shot, the Russians surprised themselves by starting like a house on fire and champions Germany were bounced.

Even VAR, the video assistant referee, has been fun, and flawed. It’s added an element of tension and while many have grumbled about it, it’s proven the same as any technology: it’s only as good as the people who use it.

VAR wasn’t to blame for allowing Cristiano Ronaldo off the hook for his cynical elbow in the face of Morteza Pouraliganji; the referee was, for allowing him to get away with it. Officials must be examined, not the review system.

A Mexico football fan smiles ahead of his teams match at the World Cup. Photo: AP Photo

VAR also produced the best quote of the tournament, courtesy of Iran’s dapper coach Carlos Queiroz: “An elbow is a red card in the rules. The rules don’t say if it is Messi or [him]. Going back to the story about my daughter, I need to know if I am a grandfather or not. I don’t want to know if my daughter is ‘a little bit’ pregnant. The decisions must be clear for everybody.”

There have been many highlights: Ronaldo’s brilliance, the age-defying form of Egypt’s keeper, Essam El Hadary, the bravery of Iran and Morocco, the sensational Toni Kroos score, Harry Kane’s virtuosity; also, the fans, who have uniformly been fun and vibrant and endlessly boisterous.

And the soccer? If it hasn’t quite matched the standards of recent years, compensation has come with the sheer volume of goals, the Russian tournament offering the longest a World Cup has gone without a 0-0 score - 37 matches before France and Denmark deadlocked.

If aficionados have reason to bicker, the average fan has applauded the generous levels of entertainment. The World Cup has been exciting from the first minute. The action has come so fast, it’s been difficult to take a breath.

Perhaps best of all, the Russian hosts have offered great warmth and bonhomie. Laws have been relaxed, the police are less officious than usual and locals have embraced visitors.

So much for the cold-eyed, cold-hearted stereotype.

Brazil fans are loving the World Cup so far as their team made it to the knockout round. Photo: Reuters

Concerns that the Kremlin would exploit the event for propaganda purposes have evaporated - Russians themselves have sold their country as a place well worth a visit.

Molodets!

Ironically, President Putin’s popularity has dipped, this in the wake of his government raising the retirement age. Given his prevalence at the Cup, it’s something he’ll worry about later.

Indeed, the World Cup traditionally sees fans put aside politics, religious differences and traditional niggle to enjoy the soccer, much as we did in 2010. Only afterwards did we get back to fighting with one another.

There have been lovely stories played out on the margins. The intrepid British soccer writer driving to all 12 venues; fans posing for pictures in massive pot holes, the reality of daily life in provincial Russian towns; the Bangladeshi farmer who made a 5,5km-long flag in homage to his favourite team (Germany); the Ronaldo fan who cycled from Portugal to Russia; the Colombian fans who rescued a drowning, and evidently very drunk, Russian. And on it goes.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the supremacy of European and South American teams.

No team from outside these regions has ever won the World Cup and they’ve been dominant again.

Perhaps it’s the mature nature of their leagues, perhaps it’s because the best players gravitate there. Whatever. Based on what we’ve seen, it’s difficult imagining an outsider breaking into that cosy club.

Sadly, there’s just a fortnight of the great soccer circus to go. If the end is anything like the beginning, it will continue to charm and captivate us as only World Cups can.


Sunday Tribune

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