The main event
While he doesn’t shy away from confrontation – and certainly doesn’t select his team based on what will make him popular with the Real Madrid hierarchy – Luis Enrique has saved himself a lot of grief by bringing Dani Carvajal and Marco Asensio to this World Cup. At Euro 2020, he named a squad which, in a first for Spain at a major tournament, didn’t include a single Madrid player.
Despite the fact some of them, most notably Sergio Ramos, had been hampered by injury, many of Madrid’s cheerleaders cried conspiracy and accused the coach of being biased in favour of Barcelona. Carvajal, for his part, later told Marca: “When I’ve heard that opinion I’ve tried to explain that he isn’t … [he] tries to call up the people he thinks will help him in what he wants, regardless of the team they play for.” Not that it made a huge amount of difference.
While it pales in comparison to the controversies at a tournament blighted by a litany of extremely serious issues, Luis Enrique has avoided a repeat in Qatar. Carvajal is likely to be first choice at right-back, while Asensio should get minutes from the bench. The coach remains a polarising figure back home having crossed the clásico divide, doing a reverse Luís Figo by leaving Madrid for Barcelona as a player in 1996. He become a folk hero in Catalonia before returning to lead Barça to the treble as a manager. Given how many view the Spanish national team through the prism of the clásico, his decisions inevitably come under microscopic scrutiny.
Luis Enrique has taken eight Barça players to Qatar, up from seven after he replaced the injured José Gayà with Alejandro Balde. The disparity is partly explained by the fact that Barça have 12 senior players eligible for Spain, while Madrid have seven. Of the seven, only Carvajal and Asensio have made 15 appearances or more in all competitions this season.
Then again, given the prominence of players from outside the clásico duopoly – not least Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte, Villarreal’s Pau Torres, Atlético Madrid’s Álvaro Morata and Athletic Bilbao’s Unai Simón – Luis Enrique has more important things to think about than which of the eternal rivals is best represented. Life is certainly easier when the two sides of La Liga’s forever war call a temporary ceasefire, but for the national team to be successful in Qatar they will need the 16 players who play for neither of Luis Enrique’s former clubs to mesh together into something cohesive.
You are not imagining all that extra time
Sean Ingle in Doha has pressed Fifa on why we have been seeing such lengthy periods of additional time being added to matches. They confirmed there is a new directive to ensure all “unnatural lost time” is added on at the end of each half. In Qatar it has asked officials to more accurately monitor when a game is stopped for goal celebrations, time wasting, video assistant referee decisions, substitutions, penalties and red cards – even if it means extending a match by many minutes. On Monday England’s 6-2 victory over Iran lasted a record-breaking 117 minutes, while Argentina endured 111 in Tuesday’s defeat against Saudi Arabia. The sense of relief when only five minutes were added on at the end of Denmark’s draw with Tunisia was palpable.
Ranking the all-time Mondial Cupsets
While they have struggled in recent tournaments, Saudi Arabia did qualify for the last 16 on their 1994 World Cup debut, beating Morocco and Belgium in the group stages, so they aren’t complete strangers to victory. But beating Argentina surely ranks as one of the greatest World Cup shocks of all time. The USA stunning England in 1950 is often cited, although that is a rather anglocentric view, bolstered by the almost certainly apocryphal tale of Fleet Street newspapers receiving the 0-1 score over the wires and assuming it must be a typo for 10-1. Senegal beating holders France 1-0 in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup is also often held up as an example – although this should perhaps be tempered by the fact that a French squad in disarray contrived to finish bottom of Group A with their only point coming from a 0-0 draw with Uruguay. Regardless of where it ranks, Saudi Arabia has declared Wednesday a national holiday as a result of the victory.
Incidents involving Football Association of Wales staff and Wales supporters having rainbow-coloured bucket hats confiscated before the Group B opener against the USA are being urgently investigated by authorities. Fifa and the Qataris were in talks on the matter on Tuesday, where Fifa reminded their hosts of their assurances before the tournament that everyone was welcome and rainbow flags would be allowed. Also falling foul of the ban was the state flag of Brazil’s Pernambuco. It features a rainbow-like device, and Brazilian journalist Victor Pereira filmed security staff trying to confiscate it.
The response to the armband edict has become more severe in Germany. Major grocery chain Rewe has scrapped its advertising campaign with the German Football Association after the crackdown on players wearing OneLove armbands in support of diversity. The move by Rewe makes it the first sponsor to take action after Fifa threatened to issue yellow cards to any player wearing the multicoloured armband at the World Cup.
In Iran, the position of the players who refused to sing their national anthem on Monday looked more imperilled. While Iran’s heavily censored media made very little mention of the team not singing the national anthem, on Tuesday, Mehdi Chamran, the chairman of Tehran city council, said: “We will never allow anyone to insult our anthem and flag”, and a restaurant in Tehran that had backed England on its Instagram page was shut and sealed by the authorities.
Argentina’s media were understandably unimpressed with La Albiceleste. Daniel Lagares wrote for Clarín that the team lost because “they played badly, they underestimated the game and they were unlucky”. Lagares said “Messi must have played one of his weakest games in his long career in the national team” and complained “there was no plan B, aggravated by very low individual performances”. Football writer Diego Macias called the result “a hammer blow”, saying “Argentina lost much more than a game against Saudi Arabia. It forgot its footballing principles in the changing room and began the World Cup in the worst possible way.”
The Danish press were not overly thrilled with their opening either. Tabloid B.T. described their draw with Tunisia as “close to being a true disaster”, complaining that “the first half was the worst 45 Danish minutes under Kasper Hjulmand” and pondering: “Was it the heat? Was it all the fuss about Qatar, OneLove and armbands filling heads with the wrong things? Or was it just a Danish national team that couldn’t handle the insane pressure that 30,000 passionate Tunisians put on the Danish boys?”
The internet reacts
If Argentina were mourning their shock defeat, the result went down well with Brazil fans. A reworked version of Argentina’s triband flag – in which the yellow sun at the centre wept uncontrollably – went viral on social media.
On Monday, United States winger Tim Weah became the first player to find the back of the net against Wales in a World Cup match since a 17-year-old upstart named Pelé eliminated the Dragons from the quarter-finals back in 1958. On Tuesday, George Weah – the only African winner of Fifa’s World Player of the Year award and the Ballon d’Or, who serves as Liberia’s president – played the role of proud dad after his son managed to score in the tournament he’d never had a chance to play in.
Morocco v Croatia (Group F, 10am GMT, ITV1) Having finished top of their Nations League group in September, taking a draw and a win against France plus two victories against Denmark along the way, Croatia have ominous momentum behind them. Beaten finalists in Russia, they go into this game on the back of five straight wins. Morocco will be tricky opponents, boasting one of Europe’s most dynamic defenders in Achraf Hakimi and a mercurial creative maestro in Hakim Ziyech. They will have to suppress the enduring genius of Luka Modric, still Croatia’s leading man aged 37.
Germany v Japan (Group E, 1pm GMT, ITV1) After limping through Russia 2018 and Euro 2020, Germany are looking to restore some pride in Qatar. Joachim Löw has gone to the great coaching conference in the sky and in his place stands his former assistant Hansi Flick. Germany have lost only once in 16 matches under Flick – a shock 1-0 defeat to Hungary in the Nations League – but have been strangely inconsistent. Japan, meanwhile, have a smattering of Premier League players past and present in Takehiro Tomiyasu, Takumi Minamino and Maya Yoshida. They succumbed to a 2-1 defeat to Canada in their final warmup game.
Spain v Costa Rica (Group E, 4pm GMT, ITV1) While Spain are inevitably among the favourites in Qatar, there is a question mark over whether their high-risk style under Luis Enrique will pay off. They arrive in strong form, but a 2-1 defeat to Switzerland in the Nations League in September shows they have gaps in their armour. Costa Rica are unlikely to produce a goal fest, with Luis Fernando Suárez reliant on his steely defence.
Belgium v Canada (Group F, 7pm GMT, BBC One) Belgium have spent much of the last decade being tipped for great things, but have only a third-placed finish at Russia 2018 to show for it. They may not be much fancied this time around, with Eden Hazard treading water and Romelu Lukaku struggling with a thigh injury which will keep him out of this match, but they have gamechangers in Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne. Their defence has been a nagging weakness under Roberto Martínez. With superb young players in Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies, Canada could cause them serious problems.
Player to watch
Junya Ito Having risen to prominence under the management of Hajime Moriyasu, Ito is Japan’s main attacking outlet. A winger blessed with a sprinter’s pace and a dancer’s feet, instantly recognisable by his mop of blond hair, he has excelled at Reims in Ligue 1 this season and could be a handful for Germany.
And finally …
Yesterday we mentioned that England’s Jack Grealish had dedicated his goal celebration to an 11-year-old fan with cerebral palsy who he had met, and promised he would do the wavy-armed dance next time he scored. Finlay Fisher, the boy in question, spoke to the media on Tuesday morning, saying he nearly missed the England match, as he had been in A&E with a leg injury, but he got home 10 minutes before kick-off. Of seeing Grealish do the dance, he said: “It feels like a dream come true, I can’t say how happy I am. I’ve still not got over it yet.”