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World Cup 2018

5 shots from World Cup day 16: Knockout stages loom

Star players Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo greet each other at a Barcelona-Madrid match
Star players Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo greet each other at a Barcelona-Madrid match Reuters

Will the fair play rule survive? Will there be the drawing of lots? Can all concerned keep control of their sphincters? Will Suarez keep control of his appetite? Are star players more trouble than they're worth? Just some of the questions that occur on a rest day of the 2018 World Cup.

  • Football never stops

After 15 days of continuous action, there are no matches on day 16. But there is the preparation for the matches to come and that entails training and talking about them. It also provides a chance to look back at the highs and lows of the first phase. Colin Smith, Fifa’s chief tournaments and events officer, said that the fair play rule – controversial to some and a godsend to others - would be reviewed after the tournament. The concept was deployed to determine second and third place in Group H. Japan, who were going through because of the rule, effectively just kept the ball as they realised that a 1-0 defeat to Poland would serve them fine. Their players had fewer bookings than Senegal’s who were losing 1-0 to Colombia. Poland, who were already out, went with the flow and did not try to score a second goal. The last minutes of the game between the two in Volgograd were rather drab. “What we want to avoid is the drawing of lots,” said Smith of the system which was first used at a women’s youth tournament. “We believe that teams should go forward on their performance and what happens on the pitch and not what happens in a draw bowl. This was introduced to provide one more level before we would have to resort to the drawing of lots.” Smith added: “We’ll listen to the feedback.”

  • Lots of fun

The review remembers places at an Africa Cup of Nations decided by lots. It was very odd back in 2015. But as one reporter pointed out on day 16 to the Fifa suits, the awarding of yellow cards can vary from referee to referee. The bigwigs shrugged off such an impertinent question. And one would hope that one player elbowing another would lead to a red card from a referee, no matter if the player is called Cristiano Ronaldo.

  • Charming phrase

The legendary Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson had a turn of phrase for the end of the season and the run in to the title. He called it squeaky bum time. And as we broach the knockout phase, this is the time to be stiff of sinew and strong of sphincter. But perhaps Fifa could reduce the energy levels needed to be tight of purpose and introduce the yellow card rule for the 90 minutes. That would speed things up.

  • Striker bites

Luis Suarez is one of the most lethal finishers in the game. At 31, this is probably his last World Cup and he has a chance to be remembered for his finishing. In 2010, he punched away a goalbound header on the line in the dying seconds of Uruguay’s quarter-final with Ghana. He was sent off and Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty. And Uruguay eventually advanced in the penalty shoot-out after extra time. You see, on the fair play rule within 90 minutes Ghana would have advanced to the semis. In 2014 Suarez got peckish during Uruguay’s group stage match with Italy and chewed the arm of Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini. Though he wasn’t sent off, he was subsequently banned from the tournament. This time he’s into the knockout stages with Uruguay and can do something a bit more upbeat like score a hat trick.

  • Help Ronaldo

It’s not the name of a film – yet. The Portugal boss Fernando Santos said on day 16 that Cristiano Ronaldo could not beat Uruguay all on his own. He’d need the team. The Argentina manager, Jorge Sampaoli, on the same day urged the others in the squad, including himself, to try to step up to the level of genius of Lionel Messi for the last 16 match against France.  Honestly, star players, are they more trouble than they’re worth?  

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