BY JONAH BYAKUTAAGA
The world’s second highest ranked nation collapsed at the first hurdle, perhaps marking the end for their “Golden” generation. There is a reason the golden is accurately punctuated with the quotation marks.
A central defensive partnership averaging 34 years not matching the performances of a 39-year-old Pepe captaining Portugal is inexcusable. A captain in Eden, who hardly played for his club side all season and promised so much but delivered so little, becoming a hazard (pun intended) to his own team, complete with a striker who has become the football nomad from Milan to Manchester via London in Romelu Lukaku. I could go on about the Belgians but that will leave me with little or no space for the Germans who quietly went home with their hands over their mouth protesting how cruel the game of football could be after falling to the Samurai warriors.
This is supposed to be about the last 8 teams in the tournament or better put the best 8 teams. Of these it is difficult to look beyond the Samba boys. At the start of the tournament, I confidently picked Brazil as my favourites with the Portuguese as the dark horses and England as the outsiders. I stand by that and nothing has altered my confidence. The potential Brazil-Portugal final that I anticipated then could however be watered down with the absence of the greatest goal scorer the world has ever seen. I did not stutter as I typed that, even tempted to say the greatest player ever especially if the Jules Rimet trophy is delivered to Lisbon one way or another. No, Cristiano Ronaldo is not injured or suspended; he is simply resting his tired 37-year-old legs on the bench.
Brazil’s swashbuckling dismissal of the more peace-loving Korea, was entertaining if not ruthless drawing comparison with their famous capoeira dance. The jigs, after every goal were so contagious that the grey haired Tite joined in the fun. This is a team playing with so much camaraderie that splitting them before Sunday, 18th December, 2022 will be injustice. Neymar is back and looking hungry and ready to fulfill his long-awaited destiny following in the great strides of giants that wore that prestigious shirt 10, none more outstanding than the ailing great Pele. I expect Portugal to squeeze through their half of the draw and line up against the Samba boys but getting past the English or the French reigning champions might take the lottery of penalties at some point.
France has looked entertaining and decisive, making me wonder if Ngolo Kante, Paul Pogba & Karim Benzema’s injuries did not lead me into hurriedly writing them off. Olivier Giroud has filled in perfectly at the top of their attacking spear, making history as he became France’s highest ever goal scorer surpassing the great Thierry Henry. Kylian Mbappe is now of age and has as good a chance as any of finishing this tournament with not just the golden boot, but the golden ball itself if France were to get to the final.
I won’t spend much time on the Croats who did finish as losing finalists in Russia 4 years ago because I do not expect them to be genuine contenders. Making the final 8 is an achievement in itself. Louis Van Gaal’s highly mechanized Dutchmen might carry the final upset of the tournament. Argentina are favourites to some (not to me) simply because they have a certain Lionel Messi leading the ranks, but Van Gaal’s men have been moulded into a machine that is fully functional once all pieces are operational. They simply do not have a superstar distraction and that makes them extremely dangerous. If Argentina survives their onslaught, they will simply not have enough left to get past Brazil in the semi finals.
My final thoughts are on Africa’s sole survivor Morocco. A team that has drawn mixed reactions from neutral African fans and would be supporters. We cannot ignore the fact that they attempted to join the European Union in the past, nor the comments from one of their star men, former Southampton attacker Sofiane Boufal who dedicated Morocco’s Round of 16 victory over Spain to the Arab world and his home nation. Perhaps we got carried away as Pan Africans and it is time to cheer for our favourite English Premier League stars, after all it could end up coming home.