What a difference between Monday and Tuesday!

Maswood Alam Khan | Published: July 04, 2018 21:24:02 | Updated: July 04, 2018 21:36:36


Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is the toast of his teammates as England beat Colombia 4-3 on penalties to book their place in the final eight of the FIFA World Cup late Tuesday. The English hero later said that he had a lot of research on Colombia prior to the match.

Profoundly shocked! A World Cup knockout game between two football-loving nations marred by so many scuffles, fouls, and yellow cards! This was not a football of pedigree. This was not a world event worth burning the midnight oil and missing a good night's sleep. Both England and Colombia showed their lacklustre performances. What a terrible game! What an appalling scene! England dragging at Colombian shirts pulling them down to the ground, Colombia shouting, spitting, furiously arguing with the referee! The game stoked my childhood memories when playing football in torrential rains with a grapefruit (pomelo/jambura) on a muddy yard was a real fun and fighting with players and the referee an inevitable part of the game.

Instead of headlining that England won the game it could be more appropriate to say Colombia lost the penalty shootout. Colombia are, as we saw, one of a few teams who played excellent football in the previous matches and deserved a place at the club of the quarterfinalists. Surprisingly, the same Columbia put on a putrid performance on Tuesday night! Why? Hardly anybody cares to dig deep to find an answer to why a bunch of players does a stupendous job in one match and just the reverse in the other.

Many of us can't help but point the finger at the American referee Mark Geiger. I wonder why Geiger had to give up an excellent teaching career where he used to bask in a serene academic atmosphere and received the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching! Shepherding a bunch of rowdy footballers is not the perfect tea in a cup he should savour! Football referring is not his job. He messed up the whole match and lost control of the game absolutely. Instead of imposing his authority on proceedings with firm decision-making, he instead indulged in lengthy lengthy discussions with players, as if in kinds of 'committee meetings" It was as though he had been convincing a student of a mistake he committed in his math homework and took time to explain 'how, in derivative calculus, a function of a single variable works at a chosen input value'. The question that must have befuddled the audience was why FIFA had to choose this Mathematician to referee a football game at this level!

England, however, won the game against Colombia to secure a quarter-final meeting with Sweden in Samara on Saturday.  Rather, (Shouldn't we say?) England won a lottery in a penalty shootout to overcome Columbia on a night of high drama at Spartak Stadium in Moscow and luckily got a slot in the upcoming quarterfinals.

Amid a fevered atmosphere, England's Eric Edgar Dier scored the winning kick after English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford's brilliant save from Carlos Bacca of Colombia. There was tense atmosphere, no doubt, inside the stadium and anxieties befalling the TV viewers. But to me, it was a tension that you face while staking your last dollar in a poker game. It is not that spur you get when a striker dodging several furious defenders and snaking a labyrinth of escape routes ultimately attempts a direct strike on the goalpost.

Kicking a penalty shot is undoubtedly a huge task, but scoring a goal in a penalty shootout is mere playing with a dice where many sterling players fail and an ordinary player succeeds. Pele said: "A penalty is a cowardly way to score".  And, of course, some Brazilian people also say metaphorically: "Penalties are so important that only the president should be allowed to take them".

England have all the more reason to feel energised and joyous as they are extraordinarily fortunate. The field on the final day is literally empty. Not many previous world champions stand between England and the final. The winners of their quarter-final will face either Croatia or hosts Russia for a place in the Moscow showpiece on July 15. "England" said Southgate, "can write their own stories". What that story would be like is yet uncertain.

The only thrilling moment one could find in the match was when England were only two minutes away from advancing to the quarterfinals with a lead of 1-0. But, then a lightning thundered from the camp of Colombia. The Colombia striker Mateus Uribe's long-distance shot caused a corner kick, and Yerry Mina once again gave Colombia a needed goal on Colombia's second scoring chance of the match. The equaliser in the closing seconds of the stoppage time sent the massed ranks of Colombia fans deliriously wild.

England looked set for agony when Henderson's penalty was saved by David Ospina but Mateus Uribe smashed the following kick on to the crossbar, paving the way for Pickford and Dier to be England's saviours and sending their country on an edge towards glory. If they can somehow overcome Sweden in the quarterfinals, the possibility of their appearance in the semi-final meeting cannot be altogether ruled out.

The midnight show between England and Colombia made the difference between Monday and Tuesday very stark. On Monday, we saw players in both matches maintaining their élan, pace and flow and showing their skills in passing, dribbling, first touch, etc. while on Tuesday, we saw several yellow cards being slapped on some rowdy players wearing yellow shirts and some players, from both sides, flinging themselves down and rolling around enthusiastically, showing excruciatingpains in their groans and faces---only to beg a penalty and getting angry when the referee didn't buy their playacting. What a difference between Monday and Tuesday!

The other match, however, in Saint Petersburg Stadium was a better evening show between Sweden and Switzerland. Sweden deservedly made their entry into World Cup Quarterfinals for the first time since 1994 beating Switzerland, 1-0, on the vigour of a goal in the 66th minute by 26-year old Emil Peter Forsberg, the Swedish midfielder.

For most of the first half Switzerland dominated with better possession of the ball. But Sweden's defence was made of solid bricks to block any shot. After some agile passes around the outskirts of the box, Forsberg unleashed a shot from the half-moon that took a little deflection off Manuel Akanji, the Swiss defender, making a difference between victory and defeat. Switzerland pressed in vain for an equaliser.

Next up for Sweden is England on Saturday in Samara.

With the World Cup quarterfinals fields now set, any of the eight teams will lift the most coveted prize in the sport. There are some big names and there are some dark horses in the football market. Brazil and France are obviously two of the top teams vying remaining and are two favourites to win, while England is on the weaker side of the bracket. England, however, earned some traction after beating Colombia in penalty kicks. Belgium is the robust one who showed how to play a modern football and maintain cool even on the extreme edge of a stiff cliff. They have showed how to play a real cliffhanger. They are a team that have what it takes to make the final, but that path is still a tough one with Brazil or Uruguay or France roaming around for chances to steal. As for Sweden and Russia, they are, as expected, the two biggest longshots. 

maswood@hotmail.com 

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