Croatia midfielder Luka Modric. Photo: AFP
Croatia midfielder Luka Modric. Photo: AFP

FIFA World Cup 2018: Why Brazil, Spain, Croatia are teams to watch now

It is hard to pick a winner in this World Cup. But ginga, tiki-taka, and open football take the honours for viewing pleasure

Bengaluru: AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA… That @FoxSportsBrasil tweet after South Korea dumped Germany out of the World Cup—schadenfreude after Brazil’s 7-1 humiliation by Germany in the last World Cup—may seem cruel. But it does express a secret desire many neutral fans harbour of seeing the German machine break down.

Most times, it’s the Germans who crush hopes—by coming back from 0-2 to end the dream run of ‘total football’ by Johan Cruyff’s Holland in 1974, by spoiling the coronation of Lionel Messi as the king of football in the last World Cup final, and so on.

Efficiency and organisation mark German teams, more than creativity and flair. The players are tall, strong, and technically sound. A run down the flank, a cross to the middle, and a header—rinse and repeat. We saw that against South Korea, except that the Mats Hummels headers always found a tall, lanky, bright yellow apparition in the way—South Korean goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo.

Watching from the stands was Miroslav Klose. The German hero holds the record for the highest number of World Cup goals—many of them via headers—but it’s the ball skills and creativity of Brazil’s Ronaldo or Spain’s Andres Iniesta that are a treat for most fans, including this one.

These are skills that are hard to build in the templated drills of football academies. They grow in street football or futsal—a five-a-side game played with a small, raggedy ball that created Pele and Maradona, Neymar and Messi. South American giants Brazil and Argentina are the obvious exponents of such football. But it’s equally exhilarating to see the Spanish tiki-taka or the open, expansive football of Croatia, which is so different from the defensive, counter-attacking style of most European teams.

From that point of view, the exit of Germany just clears the path forward for the likes of Brazil, who will face Mexico instead of Germany in the round of 16. Mexico are no pushovers, despite the 3-0 loss to Sweden. The prospect of seeing fast-paced end-to-end football is mouth-watering.

Neymar still looks rusty, coming into the World Cup under-prepared after breaking a bone in his ankle in February. But he’s improving with every game and came close to scoring twice against Serbia. He created chances for others and his jugalbandi with Gabriel Jesus was beautiful.

That’s where Brazil are different from Messi-centric Argentina whose only game plan seems to be to get the ball to the Barca star. Apart from the Manchester City forward Jesus as striker, there’s a second playmaker in Philippe Coutinho who passed the ball for central midfielder Paulinho to make a good run and beat the Serbian goalkeeper—not quite Messi but eye-catching nevertheless.

Just watching Brazil dribble the ball around ginga-style and pirouette when challenged is fun. That they have finishers and playmakers other than Neymar, and a strong defence to boot, with the likes of Thiago Silva also winning the ball in the air and scoring, make them a favourite for neutrals.

Likewise with Spain. There’s no single Spanish player that dominates, with the possible exception of Iniesta as playmaker. What’s mesmerising is the fluid short-passing of tiki-taka, which has been likened to a bull-fight. An agile, slender matador weaves and dodges his way around a charging bull, inflicting small wounds before delivering the coup de grace. To watch Iniesta & Co. take on larger, stronger opponents with dexterity has a similar, hypnotic effect, without the cruelty of a bull-fight.

The other European side that has shown oodles of flair at the group stage of the World Cup is Croatia. Their runs down the flanks and harassment of the Argentinian defence for a 3-0 drubbing was emphatic. They have players of great quality in Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric, Barcelona star Ivan Rakitic, and Ante Rebic, who scored that volley past the Argentinian goalkeeper Willy Caballero. Their defence looks equally solid, conceding a solitary goal in the three group games. That was against Iceland after resting nine players from the original line-up because they were already group toppers after two games.

This is why Brazil, Spain, and Croatia are the most exciting teams to watch in the knockout stage of the World Cup, which gets under way this weekend. There will be other exciting encounters too, such as between Portugal and Uruguay and then possibly a showdown between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the quarter-finals. Belgium and England are full of possibilities. But for the sheer joy of watching the beautiful game, I’d pick ginga, tiki-taka, and the open football of dark horses Croatia.

Sumit Chakraberty is an author and independent writer based in Bengaluru.

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