Great moments in World Cup recalled

Lance Neita

Sunday, March 11, 2018

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For football fans all over the world 2018 officially starts on June 14 when the referee blows the whistle in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow for the kick-off of the opening World Cup match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. That's the magic moment when the world's best soccer players will start the ball rolling around host country Russia's finest football fields to decide which team will emerge as the champion of champions and holders of the 2018 Jules Rimet trophy.

It's a moveable feast indeed, destined to combine beauty, drama, grief, triumph, and spectator anxieties and thrills across the continents of the world. World Cup is the best-loved sport event in the world, exceeding the Olympic Games as a spectator spectacular. Some 26 billion people watched the 2014 World Cup matches and the finals drew an audience of 715 million.

The Iceland team is the darling of the tournament, coming from a population of 330,000 people, the smallest ever to qualify, and the loudest with their famous Viking Thunderclap cheers taking over from the South African vuvuzela.

Even as we count down the last 100 days, there is a lot besides football to talk about. Fans will still commiserate with Italy as that country weeps at its absence from the games. Some other famous names are missing, the Netherlands who have been three times runners-up, Cameroon, Chile (the 2017 Confederations Cup Champion), New Zealand, and the USA. We are also accustomed to seeing and enjoying those perennial African teams from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, teams you could count on to make an early dent and create upsets in the opening rounds.

With the USA out of the spotlight the international political factor creeps into the equation as Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles all the way to the bank. After landing the bid for host nation way back in 2010, Putin could not have wished for a greater headline monopoly than when USA failed to qualify. If he was gloating last year, he must now be ecstatic as a result of the draw which has given him Saudi Arabia to play with in the opening match.

Russia and Saudi Arabia share the lowest rankings out of the field of qualifiers. Their other counterparts in Group C are Egypt (which last qualified 28 years ago), but don't count your chickens too early, Putin, you will also have to put up with Uruguay in Group A, a formidable world football power.

Russia should advance however, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of a host team failing to make it into the second round, and a certain “too bad” teasing call from his friend US President Donald Trump, who himself is not too pleased that he can't be in Russia to share the political spotlight with Putin. So far the Russian president has been using the World Cup to score his own goals (with presidential elections set for March 18), and he has seized every photo opportunity to portray himself as world number one football fan, including video bits posing with top players and FIFA officials.

As for the final-round matchups, the experts are calling Germany, Brazil, France, Spain as the likely contenders. A Germany vs Brazil final is a mouth-watering prospect. Brazil would be seeking to revenge their shocking 7-0 humiliation at the hands of Germany in 2014. Head Coach Tite will be counting on a fit Neymar to make all the difference, but Neymar just underwent surgery on his leg last week, and it's a race against time whether he will recover by June. But with Wayne Rooney out of the England Lions, Lionel Messi facing his last chance to lift one for Argentina, Paul Pogba leading France as one of the best players in the world, all eyes will still be on Neymar, who is just 26 and heading towards the peak of his career.

France should have an easy run in Group C against Denmark, Peru and Australia, while Spain — they surprisingly crashed out in 2014 — will have to get past Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo in the opening rounds.

So all that sets the stage for a brilliant World Cup this year.

Unforgettable moments in World Cup history

A look back at some of the fascinating moments in the history of the competition will add to the conversations making the rounds.

For example, England will never forget their shocking upset defeat by the USA in 1950. An England side, brimming with world-class talent such as Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Alf Ramsay, and Jackie Millburn, arrived in Brazil for the series. The excitement around the England team only intensified when the Brazilian press dubbed them “Kings of Football”, having won 23 out of 30 games since the Second World War. The outcome of their second match of the competition, however, proved to be a catastrophe for English football. Playing against a hurry-come-up USA team, they lost 1-0, a result that would haunt them for years to come. The USA team were 500-1 and made up entirely of a happy bunch of amateurs who included a mailman, a paint-stripper, a dishwasher, and a hearse driver.

Here is what happened. For the first 30 minutes of play England went on the attack. Then suddenly, in the 38th minute, America scored the decisive goal when midfielder Walter Bahr's shot from 25 yards was met by a lunging Joe Gaetjens (the dishwasher) who glanced the ball past Bert Williams. It was a fluke goal, what we would probably call a fake goal in contemporary language, but it turned the tournament upside down.

Football fans in England refused to believe the result. Added to that, there was a West Indian connection to the whole episode. On that very day, June 29, the West Indies gained a sensational first-ever victory over the English cricket Test team at Lords. Taken along with the 2014 debacle in Brazil (the infamous 7-1), anything can happen in 2018. The ball is round.

Then there was that 'hand of God' Maradona moment when England met Argentina in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. With the game at nil-all, England midfielder Steve Hodge sliced a high, curving ball into his own goal area, and guess who was on hand (figuratively) to receive it? The great Maradona as it fell just in front of the penalty spot. In a split second Maradona, with his left fist, slickly nicked the ball over the head of the advancing goalkeeper and into the goal. With 114,000 'see and blind' spectators roaring him on, the little man raced off towards the right-hand corner flag to celebrate, stopping for one second to take a quick peek back over his shoulder, in case the referee was wise to the foul.

A frustrated England was in turmoil, and four minutes later Maradona dribbled past five of their players to score a sensational (and legal) goal which became known as the “goal of the century”.

There had to be a Jamaican connection here, of course, as it was only when our John Barnes came on in the second half that England finally threatened. Barnes set up a goal with a cross from the left side for Gary Lineker to score, and repeated five minutes later with another brilliant pass to the centre, which was flunked by the forward line.

Finally, I close with the Cyruff Turn, described as the defining image of the 1974 World Cup, the defining image of the great Dutch team of the 70s, and the defining image of one of the most talented, enchanting and magical players to ever breeze around a football field.

That stunning moment, named after its maker, occurred in the 23rd minute of the Group 3 match between Holland and Sweden, when the Swedish centre Arie Haan sprayed a long pass towards the left-hand corner flag, and guess who turned up to intercept? None other than the Dutch Captain Cryuff, who rolled the ball under his studs while turning through 180 degrees. He's now facing back down the pitch, with the fullback Swedish Olsson right behind him. I will let Scott Murray of the Guardian describe what happened after that:

“Cruyff shifts his shoulder a few centimetres and in that moment sells the defender the mother of all dummies, the subtlest of swerves. He caresses the ball with his right instep, pulls it back and spins to the right, retracing those 180 degrees. Olsson's been packed off downtown, but Cryuff is now going away in the other direction, making good for the touchline, and the Swedish box. A split second, and already there are a couple of yards between the players, Olsson struggling to stay upright as he realises he's been diddled by a million-to-one shot; Cruyff striding into the area, free as a bird.

“Those are the base mechanics of what happened on the field that day, though a thousand words would never be quite enough to paint the full picture. No matter, as two words suffice as a trigger to jog the memory: Cruyff Turn. The move became instantly world famous, seared indelibly on the brain, stored forever and available for replay on your mind's eye-player. There it is! Cruyff Turn!”

More great moments are ahead. Let the games begin!

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant and writer. Send comments to the Observer or

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