An emotional Sergio Ramos can’t believe Spain exited the World Cup via penalty kicks. (PA Images/Sipa USA via USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
During the past few weeks, I have alluded to the soccer gods, how they like to giveth and taketh away, especially during the World Cup.
This weekend, we got a perfect example of that.
On Saturday, we got two superb Round of 16 games with a few twists and turns, some drama and some heroics.
In the matinee, France managed to get past Lionel Messi and company. In that game, the French found the scoreboard first, lost the lead and then came storming back as a star (we hope) was born in 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé in a 4-3 triumph over Argentina. It was the first time a knockout-round game ended with that score. Remember, this is the 21st World Cup.
In the nightcap (well, in Russia and Europe it was night), Uruguay tussled with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and survived with a 2-1 victory. Not nearly a classic as the opener of the Saturday doubleheader, but definitely a fun game to watch.
It continued what has been a highly entertaining World Cup.
Then came the Sunday punch to the gut, two games that should be left off any Russia 2018 highlight video because they did not live up to our expectations (yes, we are a demanding soccer public) or what had transpired before the kickoff Saturday and in many group stage encounters.
Both games went into extratime, with host Russia and favored Croatia overcoming 2010 world champion Spain and Denmark, respectively, in shootouts.
The first match was a stunning result for so many reasons. Spain, masters of possession, did just that — with one problem. It did nothing with the ball except pass. There has to be a game plan, a way to finish. That’s why teams want possession, to figure out a way to take a shot that is worth becoming a goal. The Spaniards failed at that miserably.
The Russians? They were void of ideas and parked just about every bus they could find in Moscow in front of their goal. The hosts worked their way to penalty kicks and goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev managed to make a kick save and a beauty (my apologies to Marv Albert) on Spain’s final attempt by Iago Aspas to turn into a national hero and turn the soccer world on its head.
Quite frankly, neither team deserved to win.
We were teased in the second match (those soccer gods can be cruel). Croatia and Denmark traded goals in the opening four minutes and there was hope the confrontation would become a good game, perhaps a classic. Well, sometimes the game was a classic bore. The Croatians, one of the best sides in the opening round, prevailed in PKs over a stout Denmark team.
Croatia now will take on Russia in the quarterfinals.
On Saturday, the irony was dripping quite heavily that within hours of one another Messi and Ronaldo exited the World Cup. Forever the ying and yang of modern soccer, Ronaldo stars for Real Madrid in Spain, while Messi is a standout for rival Barcelona. Two great players on two terrific teams.
The $64 million question is whether their inability to win a World Cup will hurt their legacy.
I don’t think so. There have been plenty of greats through the years that never had the opportunity to raise the FIFA World Cup trophy over their heads. Perhaps you have heard of some of them. Michel Platini and Johan Cruyff, to name a few.
We have been quite fortunate to have two of the greatest players and showmen of the sport performing not only at the same time, but in the same league. So, we could measure them and compare and contrast them even more.
For the fans of both players, seeing them on the sidelines will hurt, but come August and September when La Liga starts up again, Russia ’18 will be in the rear view mirror as will start concerning ourselves with the UEFA Champions League, Euro 2020 and even the 2026 World Cup in Qatar.
Those two superstars might not be playing internationally future big-time national team competitions. They ain’t getting any younger. Ronaldo is 33 and Messi is 29.
So, let’s enjoy those soccer gods who walk and run among us before the sun sets on their careers.