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FIFA World Cup 2018's lighter side: Robbie Williams flips the bird, Mo Salah ventures offside and VAR woes

Ahead of any World Cup, fans are treated, subjected perhaps, to numerous “50 best moments” look-backs at previous tournaments. In Britain, this involves celebrities few people have heard of being shown a clip of, for example, Yordan Letchkov scoring the winner against Germany in 1994, then cleverly noting he didn’t have much hair.

Robbie Williams performs during the 2018 World Cup Opening Ceremony REUTERS

Robbie Williams performs during the 2018 World Cup Opening Ceremony REUTERS

This time round, Russia decided to extend the retro feel by inviting Robbie Williams, a man who last had a hit when some of President Putin's political rivals weren't in jail or graveyards, to sing at the opening ceremony. Looking like Morrissey as imagined by David Lynch, the former Take That star nonetheless made a game fist of belting out his best known songs. He was an unusual choice, but the minor chords and Gulag twang of Feel did at least lend the occasion a suitably Soviet quality. Williams then channelled his inner Virat Kohli by brandishing his middle finger at the camera as he walked off. All a bit odd, but regular opening ceremony viewers will probably feel being given the bird is still a step up on being given Pitbull.

Dubious territory

It’s common for players to meet local politicians and dignitaries, Popes even, in the build-up to World Cups. It’s thankfully less common for them to be paraded about in front of the cameras by local warlords, but this is exactly what happened to poor old Mohamed Salah. The Egypt star may justifiably have thought Sergio Ramos was the most uncompromising tyrant he’d encounter this year, but sadly this proved not to be the case. When his side arrived at their training camp in the Chechen capital of Grozny, the Liverpool star was commandeered by Ramzan Kadyrov, dictator of the disputed region, for a series of selfies which soon found their way onto Twitter. Kadyrov, who is accused of a plethora of human rights abuses, added an extra layer of weird to proceedings by sporting a lime green, vermeer tracksuit and a haircut borrowed from a hobbit. Salah smiled politely but not surprisingly looked a bit bemused by the whole thing.

Egypt then lost their first match in the tournament as the striker, still recovering from injury, was left stuck on the bench, making it a pretty grim few weeks for the unlucky forward. There was was one thing for his fans to smile about, though. As his side departed their plane after landing in Grozny, Salah’s teammates all emerged down the steps with a selection of flashy designer hand luggage. The famously down-to-earth superstar instead made do with a simple backpack. If anyone's luck deserves to change, it's his.

VAR’s the problem?

Those who’ve had the strength to follow DRS’s long road to mainstream acceptance in cricket will be chuckling a little as football works itself into a froth over VAR. Many of the same arguments made against technology in the sport of willow and leather are now being made in football, and by possibly a similar demographic of grizzled old ex-pros and pundits. Ahead of the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia, TV commentator Clive Tyldesley even archly remarked, “Someone could be a hero by 7 pm tonight. Well maybe 8 pm, as we’re using VAR.”

Remarkably the game didn’t finish an hour late, but it is self-evident the system can potentially cause a bit of a delay. Some fans therefore feel affronted their viewing experience is impinged upon, which is fair enough, but surely this isn’t too much to bear when vital decisions and thus matches and careers are on the line. It seems a bit entitled to expect players to endure potentially trophy-robbing injustices just because you have to wait a minute or so whilst the video footage is checked. Open another packet of crisps or something.

The further idea that VAR undermines officials’ authority seems similarly ludicrous to anyone with even a basic knowledge of lip-reading. Football is a game where referees and linesmen are generally treated with the same level of respect a bear grants a salmon. VAR will have to go some way to make it worse. So we’ll see where this all leads. The flat-earthers in cricket are now those who still believe DRS has no role to play in the game. You suspect, in time, football will be the same, possibly even — as in cricket — with teams themselves given the capacity to choose when it's used. Imagine the fun of Pepe, for instance, torn between wanting Diego Costa’s first goal on Friday to be reviewed for a foul but knowing deep down he himself had really just collapsed like a drunk giraffe with legs made of ice-cream.

Spain goes Dutch

The Netherlands’ failure to qualify was a disappointment for fans of in-tournament bust-ups. So long the masters of both wonderful football but epic self-destruction, the Dutch football team's absence left a worrying vacancy in this year's event for the role of self-imploding comic turn. Worry not, though, for in stepped Spain, who sacked manager Julen Lopetegui just two days before the tournament started. The coach’s departure came after it emerged he had been ensnared by the velociraptor clutches of Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, to be Zinedine Zidane’s replacement at the Bernabeu at the end of the World Cup. Who wouldn't be delighted to manage Real Madrid but sometimes it's best to keep your exciting job news to yourself. One of those times is when your job is the manager of an international football team about to play in the World Cup.

Into Lopetegui’s shoes stepped, ironically, Madrid legend Fernando Hierro, who took to the role with gusto during his inherited side's 3-3 draw with Spain. He paced and prowled the touchline, he laughed, he put his arms around his substitutes while whispering in their ears and chewing gum ostentatiously like John Travolta trying to charm a kiss out of Olivia Newton-John. He even celebrated Costa's second goal in the manner of the man Lopetegui pipped to the post at Real, Arsene Wenger, beating his fists down on an imaginary ball of pizza dough in the familiar style of the ex-Arsenal manager. His reign, whatever its length, should be fun.

La Decisión, reviewed

On the topic of jobs, France's Antoine Griezmann chose to share the news he had decided to snub Barcelona and stay at Atlético Madrid via a half-hour documentary, “La Decisión”, replete with slow motion replays of him looking very wistful. The idea of a Frenchman making a ludicrously self-indulgent piece of cinema may not have come as a shock to some people, but it was a still a strong effort from the goal-plundering scamp to spend a full thirty minutes essentially announcing he was doing nothing. It wasn’t all bad for Barcelona, though, as the video was produced by a company part-owned by one of their players, Gerard Pique, who presumably received a tidy sum from the venture alongside some slightly irritated sideways glances from his club’s fans. What Griezmann did wrong here, apart from everything, was to choose his director badly. If you want a movie done properly, ask an Icelandic goalkeeper not a Spanish defender. Hannes Þór Halldórsson may have found part-time employment saving Lionel Messi penalties, but his day job is being a filmmaker of some repute back in his homeland, even directing the stunning “Huh” chant advert for Coca Cola ahead of the tournament. His cinematic legacy is likely to be rather greater than Griezmann’s.

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Updated Date: Jun 18, 2018 13:55 PM

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