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Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Mbappe — the ugly becomes sublime in Week 1 of World Cup

Messi can turn an ugly moment into a beautiful one with two touches, Ronaldo elevates street smartness to another level, provoking allegations of play acting, along with Neymar’s theatrics are the awe he instils in the opposition and Mbappe’s sublime footwork comes with a fierce desire to win

(Clockwise from Top Left) Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar Jr. (Photos: AP)

There’s a word in football glossary that might seem a tad undignified for these pages but best captures the on-field chaos during Argentina’s must-win match against Mexico in the World Cup – ‘shithousery’.

The World Cup’s most attended match in 28 years saw tackles fly thick and fast, with players from both sides provoking each other with actions and words. The nervous Argentines pulled and pushed their opponents to stop them from advancing towards their goal. The fearless Mexicans returned the favour by clattering into the bodies of Argentine players every time they came close to the ball. Anywhere outside the stadium, the 22 men could’ve been booked for violence.

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One man shone in the middle of all the s***housery – Leo Messi. Just after the hour-mark, the Argentine number 10 was afforded enough space around 25 yards from the goal. There was so much drama in the split-second action that followed – the dread on the faces of the Mexican defenders after realising their mistake, Messi calmly pulling the trigger and the goalkeeper’s desperate lunge – that could it be turned into a renaissance painting.

Geniuses come in various forms and there were four moments in the first week of the tournament that personified the World Cup’s four superheroes. If Messi’s superpower is to turn ugly into beautiful with only two touches, Cristiano Ronaldo’s is his street-smartness.

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Dubbed ‘Penaldo’ because a major chunk of his goals have come from spot kicks, Ronaldo showed earning a penalty is as critical a skill as converting it. Portugal’s match against Ghana was a grind, as the under-achieving African giants were unwilling to concede even an inch to the former European champions.

With the match ambling along for more than an hour, a ball was played in the direction of Ronaldo inside the Ghanaian box. The Portugal captain got there ahead of the defender, who was slightly late to respond and ended up catching Ronaldo’s foot. The contact was nothing in comparison to the assaults seen during the Argentina-Mexico match but, in the eyes of the referee, it was enough to merit a penalty, a decision that Ghana coach Otto Addo called a ‘special gift’ to Portugal.

It took a briefing from FIFA’s Technical Study Group (TSG) to explain the importance of the ability to draw a foul. “If you look at the penalty that Ronaldo got,” former Colombia goalkeeper and TSG panel member Faryd Mondragon told the media in Doha, “people can say what they want about this man, but the smartness and the ingenious thought to just being patient and wait for that split second to touch the ball first before you, and continue my leg so that your contact will hit my leg.”

“That,” Mondragon declared, “is total genius.”

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Perhaps because cunningness is such an underrated virtue in football, Brazilian superstar Neymar is flogged by pundits, both the armchair kind as well as former players who now don that hat. Such are Neymar’s theatrics that, if he feels it’ll earn him the referee’s sympathy, he’d still be rolling on the ground, clutching his ankle, in Qatar for a tackle he suffered four years ago in Russia.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get hacked on the field. So otherworldly are Neymar’s skills that he strikes fear into his opponents, who feel the only way he can be stopped is by bringing him down physically.

In the 68 minutes he’s been on the field in Qatar, Neymar is already the most-tackled player of the World Cup. One of the tackles left him with a swollen ankle, rendering him out of the rest of the group stage. But like a superhero who keeps coming back no matter the amount of physical abuse he suffers, Neymar will keep enduring and entertaining – that’s his genius.

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As the World Cup chugs at a furious pace towards the knockout rounds, there’s a sense of impending loss; a feeling that this could be the last time we’ll see these geniuses – who are hoping that Qatar 2022 will be their moment of crowning glory – at work.

While the trio fades into the twilight of their international careers, another star has already emerged on the horizon and looks set shine bright for years to come: Kylian Mbappe. Only 23, he seems to possess Messi’s skills and Ronaldo’s steely resolve, already has something that that Argentine and Portuguese legends are yearning for, a World Cup medal, and looks determined to make France the first team to defend a World Cup in more than half a century.

Mbappe has the ability to make a sluggish France look spectacular and fill in the void left by the absence, due to injuries, of nearly half-a-dozen first-choice starting 11 players. He runs at such high speeds that an alternate career in sprinting awaits him. His sublime footwork could put a ballerina to shame. He can hoodwink players with his killer body feints. And his goal-scoring abilities are already being compared to some of the greatest who’ve graced the game.

He displayed all these traits during France’s 2-1 win over Denmark, which sealed their spot in the Round of 16. After scoring the first goal, Mbappe sprinted towards the corner, leapt over the advertising boards, celebrated with the fans and turned to the cameras. He had the expression of a man mystified that the world still does not recognise his genius.

mihir.vasavda@expressindia.com

First published on: 28-11-2022 at 13:59 IST
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