World Cup 2018: The Stars Shine, While Soccer’s Possible GOAT Messi Muffs His Chance

Star Eriksen to scorer Poulsen for Denmark’s winner
Croatian Captain Modric in on both goals
France’s Pogba with VAR-assisted winner

Argentina 1–1 Iceland: Okay, it’s only his team’s first game but Messi had a chance to win the game for his country but failed — unlike Real Madrid’s Ronaldo’s late set piece that earned a draw for his Portugal versus one of the favorites, Spain.

Other national stars shone today.

France 2–1 Australia: Paul Pogba of Manchester United, is one of the world’s most expensive players, and aided by VAR, he dinked in his team’s winner, admitting, “It was a tough game. They were good. Luckily, we got the three points.” As for Australia and a dodgy PK and technology decision that did go against them, as one pundit put it, the Socceroos “just suffered a 21st century loss.”

Denmark 1–0 Peru: Christian Eriksen, star of Tottenham’s midfield, and the key man behind Denmark’s hopes, sprung a counter-attack and set up Poulsen for the winner — Eriksen has been involved in 17 goals (scored 12 and assisted five) in his last 14 appearances for Denmark. Meanwhile, Leicester’s goalie Kasper Schmeichel was heroic between the posts. Brave Peru deserved more but at this level, you can’t be missing chances like Christian Cueva’s “Row Z” PK attempt.

Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel

Croatia 2–0 Nigeria: Luka Modric, former Tottenham star and one of Real’s midfield maestros, captained his Croatian team to victory with a corner that caused an own goal, and then added his own successful PK.

So far, stars Ronaldo, Pogba, Eriksen and Modric have all made an initial impact on this tournament, even though it’s still early. But, will the pressure on Argentina’s captain Messi, who’s never won a World Cup — his team lost the 2014 final to Germany 0–1 — be overcome this time?

Messi muffs his chance for winner

Recognized as the best player of this era, alongside La Liga rival Ronaldo, some say Messi may actually be the GOAT — better than Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Cruyff, and Beckenbauer, etc. And his records back up the claim, including: a record-tying five Ballon d’Or awards, four of which he won consecutively, and a record five European Golden Shoes; spent his whole club career with Barcelona, where he’s won 32 trophies, including nine La Liga titles, and four UEFA Champions League titles.

But with Maradona in attendance at today’s tilt between the two-time World Cup champ versus the smallest nation in FIFA, Messi flubbed his lines, admitting, “Obviously, it hurts to have missed the penalty. They’d have opened up a little more and we could have found more spaces.”

Icelandic hero, Hannes Halldorsson saves from Messi
Icelandic Thunder Clap

Iceland’s heroic goalie Hannes “Halldors-son” — all his teammates’ names end in “son” like Gylfi Sigurds-son — had dived the right way and stymied Messi, later explaining, “To face the world’s best player on a penalty kick, it was a dream come true to save it. And, it helped us get a big point to help reach out goal to qualify from the Group.” After the game, the Iceland’s dramatic and celebratory “thunder clap” was in full force. Got to love those Vikings.

In the FOX studio, former Argentine striker Hernan Crespo who played with a younger Messi, offered: “Yes, there’s pressure but he’s used to it. He just needs some luck to change everything.”

Now, to two other subjects.

Commentary: Speaking of FOX’s World Cup in-game coverage over here in the USA, they’ve been presenting all sorts of play-by-play/analyst pairings, mostly commenting not directly from Russia but from the studio. The Mexican pairing for the Denmark-Peru game included Jorge Perez-Navarro and analyst Mariano Trujillo, a former Mexican team player. They were knowledgeable and worked hard, which was great. Except, Perez-Navarro tried a little too hard, much like a Latino version of that notable blowhard, Alexi Lalas. So, just dial it back a little Jorge! Unless FOX and its associated networks are partial to blowhards — like FNC’s Sean Hannity — which if true, then never mind.

VAR: What’s your early take on VAR (Video Assisted Referee) technology, is it working efficiently enough?

Remember the 2010 World Cup and English midfielder Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in their loss against Germany — his shot hit the crossbar and even by the naked eye seemed to land well behind the line. But there was no VAR. Well, today, VAR worked wonderfully for Pogba’s eventual winner. It was difficult to see the ball cross the goal line with one’s naked eye. But the technology quickly proved it had. Okay, all good.

But earlier in the game, a VAR decision caused post-game criticisms. France’s striker Griezmann went down in the penalty box under a challenge but the Uruguayan ref waved play on. A minute later he stopped play and “after a wait that seemed to take an eternity,” the ref the pointed to the penalty spot, and Griezmann scored.

The Aussie goalie Mat Ryan quite accurately observed afterwards that the technology has “grey areas” and added, “I was pretty sure from what I had seen that it was not [going to be a penalty]. But it was given. It’s a difficult one to digest. I feel hard done by. I don’t feel we were beaten by a better team, but almost by technology a little bit.”

France’s manager, Didier Deschamps, a former World Cup winner as a player, then noted that in-game decisions, even with new technology, still remain in the purview of human decision-making: “Even with the VAR you can interpret goals. Referees get alerts from the system (but) it is really up to him.” Which begs the question, if the old way was really up to the ref and the new way is still kind of up to the ref, then WTF?

VAR technology will probably continue to be a lightning rod for modern controversy — it will most assuredly rear its head again and again at this World Cup. But the sport of football/soccer is a game of contested decisions — was it a foul inside the penalty box or not — and a game of opposing opinions — is Messi or Ronaldo the greatest of all time?

If he’s the GOAT, he’s got to show it at the World Cup

Let’s just hope the human element continues to play a major part in the beautiful game, and our basically free-flowing game doesn’t become a stop and start event, and an excuse for interminable commercial timeouts.

Za Zdarovje!

Award-winning journalist-author-blogger for Playboy, TO Star, Movie Entertainment, HuffPost, Hello Canada & my novel REJEX (Pulp Hero Press) is on Amazon.