Sometime between the fourth minute and the final whistle of Portugal vs Spain Group B opener, the FIFA 2018 World Cup truly arrived. To try and put a finger at the exact time this happened is an exercise in futility, precisely because there were so many incidents, each building up to the next one, that you could choose from.
First up, Cristiano Ronaldo, fresh from giving a rousing rendition of his national anthem, perhaps fuelled by the TV camera stuck close to his well-chiselled cheekbone and obviously bursting with pride, took the fight to Spain. In that opening salvo, he received a pass, turned and attacked his Real Madrid teammate, Nacho, with the bloody single-mindedness we have come to associate him with. 90 seconds later, he buried the ball past David de Gea via a penalty.
Then there was the response. Diego Costa starting a fightback, quite literally, of his own. Chasing a long ball from Sergio Busquets, he jumped, knowing quite well he wouldn’t get to it so he did the next best thing. He shoved his elbow straight down Pepe’s throat, knocking him down. He then bullied three more defenders before finding the bottom corner. Think of Conor McGregor throwing a “hand truck” at a bus and breaking its windshield for perceived slights against his friends.
Third, there were David Silva, Don Andres Iniesta and Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez, ‘Isco‘. Three tiny, fleet-footed magicians running rings around a Portugal defence that was retreating more and more. A period of time that culminated with Isco striking a powerful shot that came off the bar, bounced off the line and was eventually cleared to safety.
It was breathless. Tweets were drafted and sent. Tweets hailing the eventual arrival of “real football”. But more was still to come. Counter attacks, led by Portugal’s irrepressible captain, occasionally flicking the ball around the Spanish defence, laying the ball off to his teammates, making runs that were not picked out. Then there was an error by David de Gea, unbelievable in itself as it seemed a routine save for him. And then a second by Diego Costa and Spain’s third by Nacho. A goal of the tournament contender and a moment of personal redemption for him. All of which led us to the defining moment of this tournament thus far…
It was a familiar sight. But with an explosive ending. Cristiano Ronaldo, taking measured steps backwards. Standing with his legs apart, chest out, shoulder high, inhaling and exhaling as he prepared to launch one into the stands. As has often happened. But this is the World Cup. The biggest stage of all. And so, a player who demands responsibility and often delivers in such crucial times launched a curling effort, markedly different from his usual technique, that went around the Spanish wall. A wall that was specifically built with Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, Spain’s two tallest outfield players on the outside. A peach of a freekick that even the ‘best’ goalkeeper in the world didn’t bother chasing. A fitting end to a match that will surely be one of the games of the tournament.
Russia had kicked off the World Cup with a 5-0 win. An unexpected goalfest that had a lot more to do with Saudi Arabia’s awful defending and general inability to pass the ball beyond the centre circle. Then Egypt managed to stifle Uruguay for large parts of their game only to be undone by a thumping header by Jose Maria Gimenez in the 89th minute. Morocco, having started brightly and boasting skilful wingers could not get past a well drilled Iran side. They too, as their North African counterparts, were undone in cruel fashion by a set piece late on. Those three opening games were classic World Cup games. Awful sides thumping goals past each other or half decent teams defending a lot and holding on to “what we have” with games being decided on mistakes or set-pieces.
But it was in the fourth game that we all felt and acknowledged that football had finally arrived. A blockbuster of a football match that will surely be one of the games of the tournament. To use the words of a fan favourite football commentator, “A smoked salmon sandwich of a football match”, if there were one!