We are on the eve of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and what an exciting time to be alive in this beautiful game! Most of the lead up to this World Cup was about who would not be there. High profile omissions from the likes of Italy, the Netherlands and Chile meant that this is what most people were concerned about, especially Italy. With such a strong Italian immigrant population in my home city of Toronto, there didn’t seem to be the same fervour from a certain pocket of the Greater Toronto Area. With the first game about 24 hours away, all that seems to have dissipated. The World Cup is here, it conjures up the same drama and controversy and hopefully quality of football it always has.
Maybe the biggest story of this World Cup is of its greatest superstars, two men who are still playing at an incredible level, however it’s fair to say, have peaked in terms of their career arc. This is probably their last chance of defining glory. This will unequivocally hoist them above all others if they propel their nation to glory. The fact that two of the game’s greatest ever players, Ronaldo and Messi have battled each other domestically for goals and honors in La Liga for about a decade now, would somehow make it fitting if they meet on the World stage possibly one last time. That however, is unlikely mainly because of the vulnerability of both their national teams. Argentina are extremely flawed. The teams change of coach to the energetic and high pressing style of Sampaoli has not had the desired effect. He has inherited a group of players who are not capable of playing games with the tactical identity of their boss. He has had to adapt his philosophy to attempt to achieve success for one month. One month that could both cement his and his superstars legacy.
Ronaldo on the other hand has an ageing defence and a young and inexperienced attacking cast. They have shown with Fernando Santos, that they have a coach astute enough to play a difficult to beat brand of tournament football, with their captain and superstar the focal point of course. This helped them to win Euro 2016 even when Ronaldo left the field early on in that match. Rule them out at your peril. They have shown time and time again that their level of performance and heroics has no boundaries.
The biggest news on the eve of this tournament is not however the irreplaceable Ronaldo or Messi. It’s the news from one of the tournaments favorites and 2010 winners, Spain. This news is not of a squad in fighting or an injury to a star player, it’s about their head coach Julen Lopetegui. It was announced yesterday that Lopetegui would replace Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid after the tournament. The time of this news was handled horrendously in my opinion by both the club and Lopetegui. It should have been kept under wraps and not mentioned until the end of the tournament or Spain’s exit. This was not the case. An embarrassed Spanish Football federation scrambled and convened and eventually decided to dismiss Lopetegui with immediate effect. This now means that one of the favorites go into the greatest competition in world football with no coach, sensational and unprecedented for a team with realistic ambitions of taking the trophy home. I firmly expect them to announce a replacement even as I write this. The early favourite is Albert Celades, who had a successful career for a number of teams including Real Madrid and Barcelona. He now coaches the U21’s for Spain so he knows the system and presumably worked closely with Lopetegui. I think an interesting choice would be Luis Enrique. He, of course, played for the Spanish national team and most recently coached Barcelona and is out of work. If they were to approach him it would presumably be to coach this tournament only. He has ambitions to move back into the club game however with this being a one off tournament and his immediate availability, coupled with the Spanish federations need to save face from this farcical mess, he might just be the best choice. He can also be a controversial and polarizing figure, as was highlighted from his spell at Barcelona, where it was rumoured he had a fractious relationship with the team’s main players.
One thing is for sure, none of this is ideal preparation for a World Cup and a difficult opening game with Ronaldo’s Portugal. If it was a soap opera you couldn’t script it better. If history tells us anything, drama is conjured up and created every day within this tournament.
Stories a plenty to be debated and talked about and argued over again and again in pubs, living rooms, schools and soccer fields all over the Globe. That’s why this is the greatest event in the world. That’s why football is the world’s game!
Join Kristian, Luke and myself for every match on TSN and CTV. We are not sure what stylistic path the 21st World Cup will take, but one thing is certain, there will be drama.