2 Days To Go - World Cup 2018
2 days. 48 hours. 2880 minutes, give or take.
Whichever way you look at it, the 2018 FIFA World Cup is so close you can almost touch it. You can almost smell it. You can almost hear Robbie Williams rocking the pre-match ceremony with his repertoire of rip-roaring hits. I, for one, can’t bloody wait!
Allow yourself to be pulled away from the first World Cup in Russia momentarily, for a stroll down memory lane, back to 2002 and the first World Cup to be held in Asia, unique not only for this, but for being the first finals to be held in two countries.
The first World Cup of the new Millennium, witnessed Japan and South Korea come together to host perhaps one of the most enthralling finals in recent memory.
The three R’s – Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo - ensured Brazil reigned supreme, the latter hitting eight goals en route to Seleção clinching their fifth crown against Germany in what had become the anticipated final following early exits for Portugal, Argentina and France, all of whom were made to feel the wrath of a nation at having to board the first flight home.
Undoubtedly though, best ever World Cup finishes for Senegal, Turkey, and co-hosts South Korea means we’ll look back on the finals in 2002 as the year the underdogs well and truly prospered.
Diouf, Diao and Diop dazzle for debutants
Papa Bouba Diop. (Not sure about you but I just love saying the name Papa-Bouba-Diop). And so did about every Senegalese alive after the midfielder enforcer, unknown to the footballing universe prior to this match, bundled in the winner to shock France, the World Champions, in the opening game and set the tone for what was to come.
Their refreshing brand of carefree football saw everyone’s new second team comfortably seal their passage through the group as (unbeaten) runners-up to Denmark, and onto meet another Scandinavian outfit, Sweden, in the last 16.
A golden goal from Henri Camara put pay to the Swedes as the new ‘kids on the block’ made light work of performing on the world stage to make it to the Quarter Finals.
Yet, as we know, all good things eventually come to an end. Diao, Diouf, Diop and co. had captivated millions but their incredible run was ended by another unfamiliar name who also happened to find themselves in uncharted territory.
Plucky Turkey fly home heroes
In only their second ever finals, Turkey were welcomed home National heroes after coming all so close to becoming World Cup finalists. Only, Brazil, the eventual World Champs, stopped Rüştü Reçber and his comrades from pulling off what would have been the most stupendous story in finals history, narrowly defeating them in the last four.
Of course, there was no disgrace to succumbing to Brazil, who had also prevailed in the Group C opener between the two sides earlier on in the competition. A runners-up spot was owed much to a win over China and a draw with Costa Rica.
Also en route, Turkey spoilt the party for co-hosts Japan, a victory by a goal to nil enough to seal a quarter final berth and a showdown with Senegal, who were sweeping aside opposition at will.
But while everybody focused on what Senegal had brought to the competition, the dogged Turks weren’t perturbed one iota and were busy writing their own script.
A 1-0 victory in extra time saw them advance to the last four and though they were denied at the final hurdle, a victory in the third place play off helped to soften the blow.
Co-hosts caught up in conspiracy chaos
The co-hosts were the opponents for Turkey in the match for third place but whereas Senegal and Turkey were adulated for their efforts, the same cannot be said for South Korea, whose run to the semi-finals was overshadowed by controversy.
To be fair, the group stage passed without much incident at all, wins against Poland and Portugal and a draw with the USA saw South Korea top their group, much to the delight of the home fans. But all hell was to break loose from here on in.
Supporters of both Italy and Spain still to this day writhe at injustices in their respective knockout games with the co-hosts. And, well, you could say they have a point.
In the last 16 encounter with Italy, Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno allowed a number of vigorous fouls to go unpunished throughout, leaving Guus Hiddink’s men with the freedom to persist with their unsettling tactic. He then went on to disallow what appeared to be a perfectly legitimate goal for the Azzurri and then proceeded to issue Francesco Totti a red card for diving.
A golden goal compounded the Italian’s’ misery and led to all sorts of allegations of a conspiracy theory, which featured the officials helping to pave the way for South Korea to progress as far as possible (without it becoming too noticeable) as a way of further boosting FIFA’s profile in Asia.
Albeit they found themselves in the quarter finals and it was the turn of Spain this time to spit feathers. Egyptian ref Gamal Al-Ghandour ruled out not one but two goals, again for no clear reason, while the Spain attack seemed incapable of staying onside, the linesman raising his flag when he see fit.
There probably would’ve been riots in streets across Europe had Germany been the next to fall at the perceived dirty hands of the refs and co-hosts but Michael Ballack put a stop to their dubious looking run once and for all.
Whether they were fortuitous or given a helping hand or two, the tournament is looked back on fondly by South Korea who rejoiced in their best ever World Cup campaign. Just don’t mention the finals on the streets of Madrid or Milan, will you now.