Four years of waiting finally came to an end today. It may not have been the match that we've all been waiting for, but Russia put on a show for the world and the first 90 minutes of the 21st World Cup went decisively to the host nation. It was a tough day to be Saudi Arabian, but for the rest of us there was plenty to learn. Here are a few of our initial reactions to day 1 of the best tournament in the world:
1) Ronaldo – the original – is a Legend
He scored 15 goals in three World Cups ('98, '02, '06), second only to Miroslav Klose who scored 16 over the course of four. Ronaldo was the definitive “Number 9” and the original Ronaldo. It’s fitting that Ronaldo, of all of the players in the world, was chosen to bring the official ball onto the field for the opening match (a ball that reportedly traveled to the international space station).
The other Ronaldo “CR7” is coming off of a Champions League title with Real Madrid and a European Championship title with Portugal. Cristiano is missing one key statistic; he’s only scored 3 goals in 13 World Cup appearances. Eusebio carried Portugal to the World Cup semi-finals in 1966, scoring an astounding 9 goals in 6 matches to win the Golden Boot. Portugal fell short to the host, England, in the semi-finals, but they beat the Soviet Union in the third-place match to achieve Portugal’s best World Cup finish in history. Cristiano doesn’t like being second-best, but can he score 9 goals this summer and take Portugal to the semi-finals? Can he score six goals to draw level with Eusebio? Will he be remembered like the original Ronaldo? It will take a massive World Cup to do any of those things.
2) The Russian team is big and kind of good, Saudi Arabia is small and kind of bad
It was a dream start for the host nation, and a nightmare for Saudi Arabia. But there was a significant statistic that became apparent early on, and it wasn’t one that could be seen on the scoresheet. On average, Russia has the sixth tallest team in the tournament (6’ ½” average) while Saudi Arabia has the shortest team (5’ 9” average)(FIFA CiES Football Observatory; resources.fifa.com).
While Saudi Arabia dropped further and further towards their own goal to deal with balls in the air, the Russians had more space to play and more openings in the defense to exploit. Early in the second half Saudi Arabia had a few good chances to cut the lead in half, but they really had no chance defending Artem Dzyuba, the 6’ 4” Russian Peter Crouch. Russia’s two goals in stoppage time give them a +5 goal differential in addition to three crucial points. A draw against Egypt could be enough to see them through to the Round of 16. Egypt faces Uruguay in an exciting Day 2 that will feature some of the world's top goal scorers including Mo Salah, Luis Suarez, and Edinson Cavani, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa in the Iberian derby.
3) VAR isn’t everything
Yury Gazinsky nodded home the first goal of the tournament, but in real time it looked like the goal would be called back for a foul. Taisir Al-Jassim, the 5’ 7”, 33-year-old Saudi Arabian midfielder, was on his back watching the ball hit the back of the net. Surely Gazinsky shoved him out of the way and the referee would overturn the goal upon review. But alas, Al-Jassim stumbled over his own feet, a moment that captured the day for Saudi Arabia.
We made it through 90 minutes without any decision being overturned or confirmed by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). There are four types of incidents that can be reviewed by VAR:
1) Goals: when the ball crosses the line, any question about the legitimacy of the goal can be reviewed;
2) Penalties: either after the referee has blown the whistle for a foul in the box, or if the referee does not call a foul, video review can be used to reverse or award a penalty kick;
3) Red Cards, to determine if a red card is necessary or not;
4) Mistaken Identity: hopefully this doesn’t come into play, but occasionally the referee is unsure of which player he’s supposed to send off (so that this doesn't happen)
We made it through day 1 without needing VAR. Let’s hope that Luis Suarez doesn’t bite anyone tomorrow, but if he does, or if Sergio Ramos gives the goalkeeper a concussion, they probably won’t get away with it.
Bring on Day 2! And stay tuned for more insights from the best tournament in the world.
Author: Nick Barron (@foot_thoughts)