FIFA World Cup 2018's lighter side: England's high-tech leggings, good footballers and touchy-feely referees

Messi finally gets some space

When Diego Maradona scored against Greece at USA 1994, he famously ran over to a pitch-side camera and started screaming into it. He is invariably described as bug-eyed during this incident, although that is to cast aspersions on the world's insects who, despite rising pesticide use across the globe, are generally not drug-addled lunatics. In any case, after these antics it was no surprise that following Argentina’s next game against Nigeria, the great genius was led away by a female dope test official for testing, the result of which saw him leave the tournament, and his international playing days, in disgrace.

Lionel Messi reacts at the end of Argentina's second match at the 2018 World Cup. AFP

Lionel Messi reacts at the end of Argentina's second match at the 2018 World Cup. AFP

Currently in Russia to cheer his nation on, Diego has been back to his manic ways, with the only stable thing about him being his impressively lacquered hair. Throughout Argentina’s two disappointing games thus far, he has ranted and raved, waved his cigar with gusto (which could play havoc for VAR as it was this week suggested stadium smoke alarms could interfere with goal-line technology) and at one point seemed about to climb up on the plastic plexiglass in front of his seat. On the pitch below, Lionel Messi has been left equally as frustrated and crestfallen, missing a penalty against Iceland and being more ineffectual than an umbrella made of aspirin during the 3-0 defeat to Croatia. Still, there was one plus for the inheritor of Maradona’s crown. As he trooped off the pitch after that loss the doping guy leaning against the dugout seemed to move towards him before deciding to offer a sympathetic smile instead of a plastic cup. Messi had finally found someone who, unlike his opponents, was happy to give him a bit of space.

England, the Lizard kings

Referees, WAGs, winking opponents, David Beckham's haircuts. The list of excuses for English failures at World Cups is a pretty long and inventive one, but this time round they won't be able to blame that most common of footballing problems: “Our legs are the wrong temperature.” For at Russia 2018, Gareth Southgate’s so-far-all-conquering men are all wearing new Lizard Heat leggings, garments which keep their muscles at optimum temperature levels regardless of the climate. They even keep players’ legs at a steady temperature during rest periods, which sadly for England stars can often include the last three weeks of major tournaments. Labelled “High Tech Hot Pants” by The Daily Mail, the leggings are battery-powered so presumably could even be tweaked to give off a small electric shock to deter bothersome pests like the midges they endured in Volgograd. Or, indeed, the Panamanian defenders they encountered at corners.

Spy games

Inevitably for a tournament held in the nation of the KGB, accusations of underhand espionage make for great copy. Ahead of their first match, for instance, Sweden were accused of spying on a South Korean training session. Then the Koreans themselves admitted to subterfuge when their manager Shin Tae-yong revealed, in a statement that will have thrilled fans of old school 1970s British comedy, that opponents couldn't tell his players apart so in warm-up games he deliberately muddled up their shirt numbers. Furthermore, all throughout the tournament players and managers are covering their faces to stop strategic secrets being revealed by enemy lip-readers. Well, that’s the exciting version. Others suggest they do it to amplify their voices in a loud stadium or, perhaps in Joachim Low’s case, to provide a front for his touchline nose-picking and eating habit, which has again been in evidence this tournament.

In this climate of Cold War paranoia, it is therefore a bit silly for managers and coaching staff to carry around sensitive documents at training in full view of a paparazzi wielding huge-lensed cameras. First, England assistant manager Steve Holland was snapped holding a team sheet, although as it turned out not to be the starting eleven against Panama maybe it was just a clever piece of John le Carre style double-bluffery. Then it was the turn of Argentina manager, Jorge Sampaoli, who allowed the media to get a shot of some scribbled notes. It was a particularly big shock to see the publication of Sampaoli’s tactics. Most people, not least Argentina’s suffering fans, had presumed he doesn’t have any.

Officially touchy-feely

One feature of this World Cup is that referees have added to their repertoire of finger wagging and elaborate schoolmaster gestures by actually making physical contact with players. At times this has worked well. After Nicolas Otamendi decided to smash the ball into Ivan Rakitic’s head in Argentina's defeat to Croatia, referee Ravshan Irmatov moved him away from the ensuing melee with a decisiveness that prevented handbags turning into fisticuffs. At other times, players have looked less than impressed at being treated like a drunk man with a kebab stain on his shirt being denied entry to a nightclub.

One such star who disliked such hands-on refereeing was Neymar, who twice told Dutch official Bjorn Kuipers not to touch him during Brazil’s match with Costa Rica. At least in this instance Neymar managed to keep his cool and stay on his feet, in contrast to his VAR overturned penalty claim, where he was shown to have been violently assaulted by a gust of wind. It wouldn’t, however, be surprising to at some stage see a player, already upset by an initial incident, lose their cool and push back aggressively at an overly tactile referee. Thankfully, Paolo di Canio is long retired from the game.

Crime and excessive punishment

The World Cup has a fairly rich association with criminality. The trophy itself was stolen in 1966 and in 1970 a diplomatic incident ensued when England captain Bobby Moore was accused of stealing a bracelet in Colombia ahead of the Mexico 1970 tournament. Now a drugs ring hiding cocaine inside replica trophies has been busted in Argentina. It’s not particularly the narcos fault, but this must surely be one of the most unfortunate plans ever hatched. It might have seemed a good wheeze before Messi and Co’s first two group games but now anyone found in possession of such a celebratory trinket on the streets of Buenos Aires would inevitably be regarded with deep suspicion.

In other law-breaking news, a Colombian supporter has lost his job after being pictured drinking alcohol ingeniously smuggled into Mordovia Stadium in a pair of hollowed out binoculars. Luiz Felipe Gomez claims the binoculars didn’t even belong to him but his employers, airline Avianca Cargo, felt moved to sack him from his job as European-Asia regional manager. Drinking from a comedy pair of booze-laden fake bins apparently “went against their principles and values”. The Colombian president’s son even tweeted his condemnation, perhaps sealing Gomez’s fate. Poor guy. Such swift punishment without due process makes even the kangaroo courts set up by FIFA during the South Africa 2010 tournament seem like a model of judicial fairness.

Misconceptions up in the air

For all the relentless joy footballers bring the planet they still get a bit of a bad rap for reaping their just rewards. For alleged prima donnas, detached from the real world by the latest Beats headphones, the subject of their gilted lifestyles and pay packets are never far away whenever their side loses. This week, though, saw a few of these perceptions being challenged. First of all, in an act of supreme generosity and kindness, Jonas Knudsen’s Denmark teammates clubbed together to pay for a private jet so the defender could fly home to see his prematurely-born daughter.

Then an article by England forward Raheem Sterling appeared on the excellent Players Tribune website, which gives sportsmen and women the chance to air their views uninhibited by the horde of media minders employed by clubs and countries.

In the piece, Sterling addressed accusations he was an indulgent, tone-deaf playboy, which were made after he posted pictures of a property he'd bought for his mum just after England crashed out of Euro 2016: “The day that I bought my mum a house, that was probably the happiest I’ve ever been. If people want to write about my mum’s bathroom in her house, all I have to tell you is that 15 years ago, we were cleaning toilets in Stonebridge and getting breakfast out of the vending machine. If anybody deserves to be happy, it’s my mum.” Footballers, eh? They’re not so bad.

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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2018 12:32 PM

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