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Does the man make the job or the job make the man?
Though a natural team player, Eden Hazard never aspired to the Belgium team captain’s armband entrusted to him by Marc Wilmots in June 2015, an appointment approved by Roberto Martinez when he took over as coach in September 2016. The skilful forward nevertheless took the job on with a mixture of detachment and responsibility, which also happens to be the way he approaches life.
“He never really enjoys addressing the team on the pitch or in the changing room,” explained his younger brother Thorgan. “His feet are still his favourite way of expressing himself, though his new role means he has to have an even closer relationship with the team.”
Though the older Hazard has taken time to grow into the role, the change in him is apparent. No longer content just to bring his good humour, jokes and talent to the team, his goal now is to ensure the Red Devils are as tightly knit as they can be and to make himself heard if the occasion demands, objectives that have been brought into even sharper focus since the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ got underway.
An example of that came in the match against Panama. Disappointed at Romelu Lukaku’s lack of involvement in the first half, Hazard made sure he got the message across to the striker. “I didn’t want to say that I was well within my rights to confront him, because I’m not always right, but I think we saw a different Romelu in the second half with his three goals,” said the skipper with a smile.
“I don’t tend to talk a lot, but if I have to then I’ll do it,” continued Hazard, who is as at ease with the ball at his feet as he is with his team-mates. Though outwardly a carefree character, the Belgium captain has great emotional intelligence and knows every member of the squad inside out. “There are some players you can be a little more direct with and others you have to approach in a different way,” explained the Chelsea player.
A father of three at the age of 27, he continues to nurture his inner child. Leading by example, Hazard encapsulates perhaps better than anyone the ability of this Belgium side to have fun on and off the pitch, while continuing to achieve high levels of performance. Since he pulled on the armband, they have lost just four games and won 26, scoring a total of 102 goals along the way.
“My football has always been about playing, and I think that shows,” he explained. “That’s one of my strengths and I’ve built my career on that. My wife sometimes feels she has four children in the house,” he added with a laugh. The Red Devils have shown that sense of fun and joy since the start of Russia 2018, much to the satisfaction of Martinez, who often says that his players need to enjoy themselves on the pitch to be at their best.
[Japan](https://fr.fifa.com/worldcup/teams/team/43819/) have made it clear they intend to attack rather than thwart the Belgians when the two sides meet in the [Round of 16](https://fr.fifa.com/worldcup/matches/match/300331551/#match-liveblog) on Monday, which may well allow the men in red the kind of space they revel in. If so, it would provide their skipper with the perfect opportunity to lead by example again.
Cristiano Ronaldo made a supercharged start to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and was widely expected to kick on and be the star of the tournament.
Four goals in Portugal’s opening two matches put him out front as the highest scorer in the competition, until, that is, he missed a penalty against Iran, at which point his chances of returning to the top of the scoring charts began to wane.
“I’m happy, and I’m leaving here content because things went pretty well in general,” said Ronaldo after his side’s last-16 defeat to Uruguay. “We’re going out with heads held high and the Portugal team will continue to win things.”
Now 33, the Portugal captain set a string of new records and milestones at Russia 2018. Aside from winning his 150th cap, he also briefly became his country’s oldest goalscorer – a record that Quaresma and then Pepe eclipsed.
He also scored the fastest goal at the tournament so far, struck its first hat-trick, and, just for good measure, has now scored more goals in national team football than any other player.
Despite all those records, the skipper preferred to focus on the team: “It’s not the time to talk about the future of the players, the coaches, and the position the side is in. I’m absolutely convinced that the national team will continue to be one of the best in the world.”
The question now is, will Ronaldo be running out at Qatar 2022, when he will be 37? Whatever the future may bring, there can be no doubting the legacy he has created in the national team.
“We’ve got some great players and a tremendous squad, a young group of players with real ambition to go out and succeed,” he said. “That’s why I’m confident and happy, because I know that the national team will always be as strong as it
As he took his leave of the tournament, Cristiano was in no doubt that Portugal had done the very best they could: “Generally speaking, we can be proud of our efforts.
“We gave it our best shot and the team played well. As the captain, I’m proud of the players, the coaching team, the staff, and all the people who worked with the group to make sure everything went well.”
The defeat to Uruguay meant Portugal repeated their last-16 exit at South Africa 2010, a performance well short of their fourth place at Germany 2006 and their best ever finish of third at England 1966.
Anything can happen in a knockout match, and though Portugal performed well against the Uruguayans and could have emerged winners, Ronaldo was in sporting mood: “I’d like to congratulate Uruguay, who scored twice, but I’d also like to praise Portugal for what they did.
“To my mind, Portugal played better than Uruguay. We had chances but that’s football for you: the team that scores more goals wins, which is why Uruguay are celebrating.”
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For some people, playing football completes them. Just ask 16-year-old Abu Sesey from Freetown who tragically lost his right leg when he was five years old during a conflict in his native Sierra Leone: “Football is what I love. When I’m playing, I feel complete. I feel like I have no amputation. I feel like we are all equal.”
Sesey is one of the many young people from around the world taking part in the FIFA Foundation Festival in Moscow this week, capped off with a football tournament in Red Square on Friday.
His is a unique story, but it illustrates a common theme around what all of the participants can teach us – that football has the power to unite, inspire and change lives.
“Football is much more than a game. It’s a fantastic tool to make sure this world becomes a better place,” stressed FIFA’s Head of Sustainability and Diversity Federico Addiechi speaking at the festival, which brings together 48 non-governmental organisations from 38 countries not only for the football tournament, but also a leadership programme held prior.
Several FIFA Legends attended the ten-day FIFA Foundation Festival, including Karina LeBlanc (Canada), Roberto Carlos (Brazil), Christian Karembeu (France), Stipe Pletikosa (Croatia) and Dimitry Sennikov (Russia).
“This is an opportunity for FIFA to highlight organisations that are supporting us day in and day out, over many years, using football to tackle social issues. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for the young people who have been chosen because of their leadership potential and commitment to drive positive change,” added Addiechi.
Breaking down barriers
Kenyan lawyer and peace activist Fatuma Adan, who led a delegation from the Horn of Africa Development Initiative, knows all about the transformative power of football. After experiencing tribal conflict in her childhood, she introduced the programme “Shoot to score, not to kill” to help break the vicious cycle of violence in northern Kenya.
“It’s about taking away the AK47 and replacing it with a ball,” explained Adan.
“There’s a curriculum that goes along with the league. After the games, we have a dialogue on issues around violence and gender. Football makes it easier to get through to young people, and it has the power to connect beyond colour, tribe, race, religion.”
Adan has been instrumental in paving the way for girls to play football while also raising awareness about taboo topics such as female genital mutilation (FGM).
“It’s very rare to see Muslim women playing football. Growing up, because of culture and religion, no girl was allowed to play sport. As a Muslim woman, I wanted to open doors for others. We are also working to break the silence on issues we’re not allowed to talk about. FGM is illegal, but it’s still happening, it’s hidden. We can bring this issue out through football. We’ve broken the silence, then hopefully we will get to the point where we will stop it,” said Adan.
A dream come true
Like many of the young players, Amreen Taj had never been outside her country before the festival. She travelled from Bangalore, India, with the Dream a Dream Foundation, which empowers young people from vulnerable backgrounds to overcome adversity and flourish.
“It’s the first time I went on a plane. I can’t believe I’m in Russia, I’m so happy to be here,” said Taj.
“Teamwork, equality and celebration,” is how she summed up football3 – the methodology dreamt up by streetfootballworld that the teams followed during the festival. In football3, mixed teams decide the rules before they play and then come together at the final whistle to reflect on their behaviour, with goals and fair play points counting towards the final score. It is helping to change lives around the world.
Can it be said that behind every great attack there is a great midfielder? While that may not be a hard and fast rule, Casemiro is doing everything he can to prove that, in the case of this Brazil side at least, the answer to the question is: yes.
The midfielder is the first to say that he is not playing a lone hand. Yet there can be no doubting that he is a steadying presence for A Seleção, just as he is for Real Madrid.
“I’m ready and willing. I always say that the boss [Tite] asks me to do more or less the same thing I do for my club,” he told FIFA. “If there’s a reason why I’m here then it’s because I’ve done a good job there and because he has faith in me. Obviously, he changes a thing or two but he always tries to get us doing what we usually do. I have to give him credit for that.”
With an enterprising Mexico side providing the opposition in Samara on Monday, Casemiro will have an even more important role to perform than he usually does. The kind of player who seems to be everywhere at once, he offers vital support to the team’s star acts up front.
“He has an amazing command of his role. I admire the way he occupies space and his level of concentration,” said an approving Tite. “Even in the dressing room he’s got peripheral vision.”
An admiring audience
Casemiro is not at all bothered by the fact that in football it is the front men who usually attract all the headlines. The midfielder has gifts that usually go unnoticed by the fans but which arouse nothing but admiration from a very specific audience: coaches.
“When it comes to Real Madrid’s balance, he’s their most important player,” said Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone on analysing their great rivals. “The team has changed a lot since he won a starting place,” said another high-profile coach, Massimiliano Allegri of Juventus.
If Casemiro can draw those kind of comments from opposing coaches, it is not hard to imagine what Zinedine Zidane, one of those responsible for his rise at the Bernabeu, has to say about him: “He provides balance between defence and attack. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. He’s full of confidence and he’s improving with every passing year.”
Working with the greats
Casemiro admitted to being too embarrassed to even speak to Zidane at the start of his working relationship. His rapid development ended up bringing that barrier down, and though the player might be shy off the pitch, when the conversation turns to football and tactics, he loosens up.
Tite has even said that his conversations with the midfielder gave him some ideas that proved valuable in the qualifying wins over Uruguay and Colombia.
His vision aside, given the journey Casemiro has made in coming from a poor background to reach the top, he has no reason to feel embarrassed when talking to the greats of the game. Abandoned at a very early age by his father, and the eldest of his siblings, he helped his mother Magda look after his two brothers.
Then, at the age of 14, he left his hometown of Sao Jose dos Campos for Sao Paulo to join the youth ranks of the club that bears the city’s name. With the allowance that he received, he was able to cover virtually all his family’s bills back home.
Within four years, he had turned professional and was playing for Brazil’s youth teams, and was well on the road to financial security. “When I made my World Cup debut, I had this little film playing in my head,” added Casemiro, Brazil’s pivotal presence. “It was like watching a dream come true. I’m also thinking about another world title to go with that dream. I want to win.”
Brazil’s mission to rectify their disappointing 2014 FIFA World Cup™ campaign is still on course after they navigated their way to the summit of Group E at Russia 2018. Brazil’s journey to the Round of 16 has been anything but smooth: After drawing 1-1 with Switzerland in their opener and leaving it late to claim a 2-0 win over Costa Rica, they beat Serbia 2-0 to ultimately move on as expected group winners.
One of the questions that Mexico will need to answer is: has their momentum gone? After starting their Russia 2018 journey off with two solid wins, most notably a 1-0 victory over 2014 champions Germany, they followed that up with a 3-0 defeat to Sweden. El Tri may take confidence from their most recent World Cup meeting with Brazil in 2014, a goalless draw in Fortaleza on 17 June, the only of the four encounters between the two sides that did not end in a Brazil victory.
Team reporter analysis
Giancarlo Giampietro with Brazil [Follow: Twitter | Facebook]
Brazil has been gradually improving, following the coaching staff’s plans. The team enters the knockout stage with plenty of confidence, and it feels like those first 180 minutes of tension are way behind them. The expectation around the players is that Mexico will go for a full-pitch press. This may put pressure on the defensive line to make plays, but could also open up spaces for A Seleção’s stars to shine.
Martin Langer with Mexico [Follow: Twitter | Facebook]
Mexico will try to break their Round of 16 hoodoo by defeating the most difficult team possible, but one whom they have fared pretty well against in recent times. The team will also have the motivation of bouncing back from their disappointing performance in the last group match against Sweden, and will have to do so without suspended central defender Hector Moreno, one of its most important players.
Did you know?
In their four previous World Cup matches with Mexico, Brazil have never conceded a goal against El Tri, outscoring them 11-0 in those encounters.
Brazil: Alisson; Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Filipe Luis; Casemiro, Paulinho; Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Neymar, Gabriel Jesus
Mexico: Guillermo Ochoa; Miguel Layun, Hugo Ayala, Carlos Salcedo, Jesus Gallardo; Hector Herrera, Jonathan Dos Santos, Andres Guardado; Carlos Vela, Javier Hernandez, Hirving Lozano
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Two of football’s biggest stars exited the FIFA World Cup™ in the space of just four hours as the knockout stages kicked off with an almighty bang.
First, Lionel Messi’s Argentina departed following an incredible goal-fest with France, before Uruguay edged out Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. The result is that these modern-day icons, who have dominated the game’s individual accolades for the last decade, will be watching the rest of of the tournament from home.
Expectations were high for both to perform, with Ronaldo arriving off the back of yet another UEFA Champions League win and Messi having starred in Barcelona’s La Liga triumph. But although both have made it to the final weekend in the past – Ronaldo having finished fourth in 2006, Messi second in 2014 – the last 16 was where their journey ended this time.
With both now into their 30’s, this could well have been their last chance to win the World Cup – almost certainly while still at the peak of their powers. Fans will now watch with intrigue to see who will follow Messi as the latest adidas Golden Ball winner, having seen the Argentinian scoop the prize four years ago.
As they both head for home, we take a look at how their time in Russia will be remembered.
Having missed a penalty against Iceland in their opening game, and with Argentina in disarray against Croatia, it looked like the tournament might be denied a bit of premium Messi magic. However, the magical No10 delivered in spectacular style with La Albiceleste’s backs against the wall. In one instinctive, flowing movement in the match against Nigeria, Messi took the ball on his thigh, caressed it into his path and fired into the net, wheeling away in a celebration of purest catharsis.
4 – Lionel Messi is the only player to have provided an assist at each of the last four World Cups, with his brace today also meaning he is the first Argentinian player to lay on two goals in the same game since Diego Maradona.
“We have the best player in the world and we had to try to create collective situations to really use that player, who can have many brilliant moments. We tried many different tactics to allow him to do what he can do. Sometimes we managed it, sometimes we didn’t.”
Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina coach
After the sensational 5-0 win for hosts the night before, day two of the tournament was really going to need something special to top it. Ronaldo delivered. As the clash with neighbours Spain looked set to end as a five-goal thriller, the Portugal captain had other ideas. His stoppage-time free-kick, arrowed into the top corner to complete his hat-trick, was a true box-office showstopper.
45 – Having never scored from a free-kick at a major international tournament, Ronaldo finally got it right at the perfect and most spectacular time. After 44 misses, 45 turned out to be his lucky number.
“Cristiano still has a lot to give to football and I hope he will stay to help the young players grow and develop. We have a team with many young players and of course we all want him there with us.”
Fernando Santos, Portugal coach
With success at the World Cup so often playing a pivotal part in how votes are cast for individual awards, will the The Best FIFA Men’s Player award still be won by one of these two? Or will it go to a new face? We will find out in London on 24 September!