“The FIFA World Cup™ is proving as popular as ever around the world,” a Fifa press release trumpeted on Thursday afternoon. “For example, the opening game between Qatar and Ecuador on Sunday, 20 November was watched by an average of 3.3 million viewers, with a peak audience of 3.6 million, in Ecuador. This represented a 109% increase in viewership of the opening game in the country compared to the highest rating in the last 2 editions of the FIFA World Cup.”
Imagine: more than twice as many people in Ecuador watched a World Cup opening match involving ... Ecuador ... compared to the number that watched the 2018 opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Fifa’s press release did not mention that only nine million people watched Germany’s defeat to Japan, which was at least 16 million fewer than watched any of Germany’s matches in 2018. If every single one of the 18 million people in Ecuador had tuned in to watch Sunday’s opener, they would have made up for the German shortfall.
What have those lost German viewers been missing? This World Cup has had three dominant kinds of match. Blowouts: England 6-2 Iran, France 4-1 Australia, Spain 7-0 Costa Rica. Upsets: Germany 1-2 Japan, Argentina 1-2 Saudi Arabia. And most of all: nil-nils. Uruguay v South Korea was the fourth goalless draw in 14 matches at this World Cup. There was only one in Russia 2018, and seven each in Brazil 2014 and South Africa 2010. Somehow in Qatar we find ourselves on course for 18.
Why might this be happening? The traditional early-tournament explanation is to blame the new ball. In 2010, all anyone talked about for the first week of the tournament was how terrible the Adidas Jabulani was. Even Maradona complained it was impossible to put spin on it. Yet it is hard to recall anyone having anything to say about the new Adidas Al Rihla, even though it is in its own quiet way revolutionary, being the first World Cup ball to contain a positional tracking sensor. Maybe ball-chat can’t be expected to occupy much bandwidth at the sort of World Cup which kicks off with the Fifa president demanding three thousand years of apologies from Europe as penance for its historic crimes.
Another theory is that the rash of nil-nils is a consequence of the World Cup being in the middle of the season for most countries, meaning teams are turning up and having to perform without the usual multi-week training camp to fine-tune their systems. Hard to know either way, but if this is the reason then we should expect the goalless draws to dry up as teams find their rhythm.
The simplest explanation for why Uruguay versus South Korea ended in a goalless draw is that in the 22nd minute, Darwin Núñez kicked fresh air instead of volleying in from point-blank range.
Was it Bill Shankly or Johan Cruyff who said “If you miss easy chances, don’t be surprised if you don’t score?” Or is that just the kind of tired banality that appears in the mind of a journalist who spent the last two hours sitting in the woodlouse-like Education City Stadium watching a match that will never be revisited by even the most committed students of the game? Not only did Uruguay and South Korea fail to produce a goal between them, they failed to get a single shot on target.
Uruguay were the odds-on favourites to win this match but on the balance of play it was hard to see why. Their squad included four players appearing in their fourth World Cup, and two of these made the starting XI. At centre back, the 36-year old Diego Godin, who now looks more like the kind of guy you might expect to find in a skiff hunting marlin in the straits of Florida than a World Cup defender. At centre forward, the 35-year-old Luis Suárez.
To see the great Suárez waddling around the pitch now is sad for anyone who remembers the tornado he once was. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. Really, his place at the centre of Uruguay’s attack should by now have been taken by Darwin, 12 years his junior and incomparably faster and more energetic. Yet Uruguay’s coach Diego Alonso uses Darwin on the left of a 4-1-4-1 instead.
Just before the game the news had broken that the Liverpool sporting director who signed Darwin for a club record fee, Julian Ward, had declared his intention to quit the job at the end of the season, having only taken over full-time from his celebrated predecessor Michael Edwards in the summer.
Darwin was not the worst signing of the brief Ward era – that was Arthur Melo, the slow Brazilian who arrived as a last-minute reinforcement on deadline day and promptly suffered the latest in a series of long-term injuries. But he was the biggest, and it’s clear he has not been an instant success. The impact of his pace and energy is undercut by inconsistent technique and mediocre tactical awareness, and his failure thus far to live up to expectation is one of the reasons why Liverpool have started the season so badly.
Here he struggled to provide much inspiration in a cautious, cagey game. In the first half there was the air-shot. In the second, he had a good opportunity to create a goal when right back Moon-Hwan Kim fell injured, leaving him unmarked, but his weak cross was intercepted by the goalkeeper.
In the 82nd minute he received the ball on the left, cut back on to his right and – was this the moment? – fired the ball well wide of the far post. Edinson Cavani – a 64th-minute replacement for the exhausted Suarez – nearly connected with a header as the ball flashed by, but it was plain Darwin had been aiming for goal.
A moment later he turned up on the right, faked a cross to deceive the defender, cut inside opening up the possibility of a clever little ball to a team-mate ... and sent a stupidly overhit ball out of play. He screamed at the sky in frustration, and he wasn’t the only Uruguayan doing so.
Godin hit the post with a header from a corner. Fede Valverde, who has scored regularly from range for Real Madrid this season, also cracked the post, but his other effort was more in keeping with the game – an attempted blockbuster so feeble that Facundo Pellistri was able to retrieve it before it bounced slowly out for a throw on the far side.
At the other end Heung-Min Son was starved of possession, but when he did get on the ball he looked the best player on the pitch, showing the technical standard Darwin has to aspire to. A better point for Korea than for Uruguay, in what looks one of the World Cup’s most open groups.