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France are World Cup champs, but soccer may have lost big time

France won its match against Croatia and the World Cup in one of the most exciting matches of this year, but the event was mired by too much acting, negatively impacting the game.

In what is perhaps the most disappointing World Cup in recent memory, audiences were treated to a laughably theatrical display of sportsmanship. From players rolling on the floor and faking injuries, to VAR controversies, to big-name teams making a disappearing act, the event was a total disappointment.

This year’s tournament has brought into question whether there remains any sportsmanship in the World Cup at all, which seemed to devolve into a bout of staged WWE sports entertainment, far too often.

There has been one saving grace, however, and that was the rise of the underdogs.

And everyone loves an underdog.

In what we at AMEinfo appropriately dubbed the Year of the Underdogs, this World Cup has been one of many surprises and letdowns.

READ: The harsh truth about Arab teams’ failures at the World Cup

Letdowns: Foul play and fake injuries 

One has to wonder whether FIFA’s quadrennial tournament is devolving from a professional sports event to a theatrical sports ‘entertainment’ event akin to a pro-wrestling match. It has left fans with a bad taste in their mouths.

Foul play and negligence was found on both sides of the fence, both by players and organizers.

Sports site FiveThirtyEight investigated the stoppage times declared versus the real amount of time that should’ve been awarded for the first 32 matches of the 2018 World Cup.

Their findings were troubling.

“Actual stoppage time is a wildly inaccurate measure of how long the game was actually stopped. The average added time flashed on the board for these 32 games was 6:59, which includes both halves. By our calculations — which adhered to FIFA’s rules on the matter — the time that should have been added to each game was 13:10. This means stoppage time was roughly half of what it should have been for most games,” the site’s data revealed.

Table: FiveThirtyEight

Then we move into the realm of the unethical: intentional time wasting.

In their semifinal match against Belgium, one of France’s players intentionally kicked away a throw-in ball from a Belgian player. The referee spotted him, and he received a yellow card for it.

Not all foul play at the World Cup has been this obvious, however. Teams and players are skirting the rules by ‘cheating’ and stalling within permitted parameters, like asking for a player substitute in stoppage time when a team is already winning, or deliberately taking their sweet time shooting a free kick.

Table: FiveThirtyEight

The biggest offender year after year, though, is the stunning amount of faked injuries, or ‘dives’. These are done to waste time, earn penalty kicks, or get players on the opposing team disqualified.

The poster boy for this cheap tactic has been Brazil’s star player Neymar, whose image as a prestigious and skilled player is being soiled with his latest antics. Neymar was reported by Swiss TV channel RTS Sport to have spent 14 minutes on the ground. This has led to him becoming the laughing stock of fans and the media and has brought into focus the number of feigned injuries resulting on the field from all the teams.

In 2014, the Wall Street Journal’s research found that Brazil faked the most injuries in the World Cup during that year.

2014 World Cup stats by Sportskeeda

But Neymar isn’t alone. Players from all teams are guilty of this behavior. In fact, France, who faced Croatia at the final, was one of the most prominent time wasters during this year’s tournament. Croatia’s stats, on the other hand, showed a relatively time-efficient team.

Letdowns: Favorites and Arabs

Germany, 2014’s champions, couldn’t even make it past the group stage, much to everyone’s shock. This is the first time Germany fails to make it past the group stage in 80 years.

Argentina, Portugal and Spain, all failed to make it past the round of 16 stage, save for Brazil. Yet, even the iconic green-and-yellow clad team failed to live up to expectations, getting knocked out in the quarterfinals.

In perhaps the greatest disappointment of this year’s tournament for the Middle East, not a single Arab team managed to qualify past the group stage. This year marked a record number of Arab teams who’d qualified for the event. Despite Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia participating, not a single team could muster more than 1 win.

To add insult to injury, the Arab teams’ losses didn’t even come with respectable scores. Saudi was crushed at 5-0 in the event’s opening game, setting the mood. Tunisia lost 5-2 to Belgium, while Egypt lost 3-1 to Russia.

Mohamed Salah, who most Arabs were pinning their hopes on, entered the tournament with an injury, a lot of expectations on his shoulders, and an underperforming team. However, time and time again this year, with Salah, Ronaldo, and Messi, it was proven that one star player, no matter how talented, could not lift an entire team.

READ: 2018 World Cup: Year of the underdogs as advertisers scratch their heads

Arab teams losers at heart?

We pondered the reason why Arab teams do nothing but lose every 4 years. While a lack of funds, expert training, facilities and more served to put most of these players at a handicap, it was ultimately one trait that held them back the greatest: a defeatist mentality.

Social media chatter mirrored this perfectly. Some were discussing how Arab teams were only expecting to break even with a draw at least or were just glad to have made it that far, with no hopes or aspirations of progressing any further. It was a self-inflicted sense of inferiority in comparison with the international teams.

Other online users quipped a rather bleak and cynical acronym: “FIFA: Football Isn’t For Arabs.”

Salah proves with his achievements that once Arabs leave this unhealthy attitude behind, they can accomplish as much as he has.

READ: Will the 2026 World Cup disqualify countries subject to US’s Muslim ban?

Surprises: The underdogs

Who would have ever foreseen that Croatia, a country famous for tourism and everything else but football, would make it to the World Cup final? The highest they’ve ever made it was to 3rd place, and that was in 1998. They’ve had a lackluster showing ever since.

Russia, who had been ranked by FIFA as the least likely to win the World Cup, actually made it to the quarter-finals, shattering all expectations.

England, who had not qualified for a World Cup final since 1966, almost came through in the semi-finals, a major success in and of itself.

A mythic finale

The final played out like a tale from an ancient legend, with the underdog going up against the giant, or the knight facing the dragon. Croatia was to try and triumph over the renowned French team, and in the end the favorites won but not before a few scares here and there.

At least the theatrics were down to the minimum, but the memories of pitch hugging in apparent agony will live in infamy until Qatar WC 2022.

READ: Arab teams’ World Cup exit is killing their fans, literally