No real violence — that we have heard of — so far but other concerns harboured about this World Cup in Russia have, unfortunately, come to pass. Just a week into the tournament and we’ve had tales of racism, drugs, and the inevitable squalls over sponsorship that always seem to ruffle the feathers of the bigwigs in blazers from Zurich.
It’s the sources of these stains that have surprised.
There have been no word of rampaging Russian hooligans laying into English or African fans. No player has yet to fail a drugs test (even if that doesn’t say much). And we haven’t been privy to any news to do with Fifa and its ruthless policing of no-go zones for those brands that haven’t fed officially into the corporate trough.
It won’t be any surprise to anyone who has attended a World Cup or a European Championship that the buzz on the streets of Moscow and Ekaterinburg and Sochi appears to have been one of bonhomie rather than bottle-throwing and fisticuffs. The only prominent examples of racism so far have actually emanated from ivory towers rather than back alleys or metro stations.
Alan Sugar pinged out a tweet of appalling taste on Wednesday about the Senegalese team. Though duly deleted, his astonishment at the anger it created, allied to claims that Diego Maradona made a racist gesture towards Asian fans last week, proves yet again that it isn’t only shaven-headed, fascist thugs that can claim the right to be complete pillocks.
As for the drugs, we have the bizarre case of Rafael Marquez to thank for that. The Mexican veteran can’t wear any apparel bearing the team’s sponsors, drink from the same branded water as his teammates, or engage in any sponsorship activity because of a US Treasury Department blacklist over suspected links to a Mexican drug cartel.
There has really been no end to the left-field subplots.
Iranian players barred from wearing Nike boots because of US sanctions. The engine failure suffered by the Saudi Arabian team plane. Antoine Griezmann’s bizarre documentary. The fallout from Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan’s meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Patrice Evra and the sexist storm over his appreciation of fellow pundit Eni Aluko on ITV. Brian Kerr’s accent.
If nothing else, all this has given us something to get our teeth into.
The football hasn’t been awful but too much of it has been uninspiring. A bit… meh. A passable Sunday carvery rather than the sumptuous dish we tend to drool over prior to kick-off. You’d think we’d learn. That games like England’s 0-0 draw with Algeria in Cape Town eight years ago would be seared into the collective consciousness and released as an antidote to extreme giddiness levels.
South Africa in 2010 was, as a whole, a frigidly cold and austere affair. Brazil last time around was better. It had to be. The stats after a round of group games bear that out. There were just 25 goals managed eight years ago but the 51 recorded in South America has been the highest since the tournament’s endless bloating ballooned to the 32-team stage.
The fare so far in Russia has been so-so by comparison.
The total of 38 goals scored in the opening round of ties comes in just below the average of 39.6 for the previous five tournaments, stretching back to and including France 1998 when Fifa, channelling Gordon Gekko’s ‘greed is good’ mantra, added eight teams to the 24. Dig a layer further and the suspicion that the current competition is no better than mediocre is confirmed.
Of those 38 goals, 22 came from set-pieces. Add in four own-goals and that left just a dozen scored from open play. Come the 20-game mark we’d been treated to nine 1-0s. It has been, as some have said, a World Cup of great moments rather than great games, with late drama from Uruguay, Iran, Portugal, and England skewing our memories of too many dour games.
The great exception in that was Spain-Portugal. This could have been the poster boy for the burgeoning theory that this is an event where the headlines off the pitch are destined to drown out the noise on it: What with Julen Lopetegui sacked days beforehand for his canoodling with Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo landed with a multimillion tax bill by the Spanish authorities.
Imagine what the mood surrounding this tournament would be if the game that followed in the Fisht Olympic Stadium last Friday had fallen flat. The pickings either side of it have been slimmer than Jesse Lingard’s hips but the heavyweight Iberian bout has served to remind us all of what should await just down the road when the minnows are swallowed and the waters deepen.
So, keep the faith we must, but it will only become harder to stay the course with this particular church in the years to come. If the first ten days or so have made anything clear it is the fact that less really can mean more sometimes. And that the idea of 48 teams taking part come North America in 2026 may have us all looking back on the week just passed as some sort of idyll.