18 PEOPLE WHO WILL DEFINE THE 2018 WORLD CUP
3. The Video Assistant Referee team
Video Assistant Referee (VAR) will be front and centre at the World Cup for the first time this summer. The VAR system has been used in MLS, Serie A, the Bundesliga and several other domestic leagues around the world. But the reviews from critics have been mixed, mostly because it slows up the game, and a lack of communication – fans in the stands and watching on TV are left guessing as to what’s going when VAR is reviewing a play.
How does it work? The referee on the pitch will continue to officiate the match as normal, while the video assistant referee team will watch the match from a centralized video operation room in Moscow. It is entirely up to the VAR team to tell the match official that a potential mistake has been made. Unlike in the NFL, where coaches can challenge plays, World Cup coaches have no such luxury. Once alerted by the VAR, the official on the field can either accept the recommendation, or watch the replay from a sideline monitor to decide for himself whether to overturn or uphold his original decision. Either way, the referee on the pitch has the final say, not the VAR.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
At 33, Ronaldo is likely going to be playing in his fourth and final World Cup in Russia. Ronaldo is riding high, fresh off a third consecutive UEFA Champions League title with Real Madrid, and still basking in the glory of Portugal’s Euro 2016 victory in which his team upset hosts France in the final.
Like Messi, Ronaldo has put his national team on his back on countless occasions in the past. And again, just like his great rival, Ronaldo hasn’t been able to lead his country to the ultimate prize. Portugal bowed out early in the last two World Cups, but there is a sense that the Selecao will be able to contend this time around, namely because of their captain, who was in outstanding form this season, scoring 44 goals for Real Madrid in all competitions. Messi and Salah will have something to say about it, but Ronaldo is already one of the leading contenders to win a third consecutive Ballon d’Or, the annual world player of the year award. A strong showing by Ronaldo in Russia, capped off with lifting the trophy, would almost certainly clinch it for him.
1. Lionel Messi
Messi turns 31 on June 24, which means this very well could be his last chance to win the World Cup. For all of his success at club level, the FC Barcelona star hasn’t hit similar heights with the national team. His strike rate is impressive, with 64 goals in 124 appearances, but he hasn’t done what Diego Maradona did – lead his country to World Cup glory. It’s just one of the reasons why Maradona is far more revered in Argentina than Messi, even to this day.
Not that he hasn’t come close. Messi was named World Cup MVP in 2014 after Argentina lost to Germany in extra time in the final. That was followed by a pair of losses in the final of the 2015 and 2016 Copa America. The loss in 2016 was especially bitter for Messi, who missed a penalty in the shootout, leading him to announcing his international retirement after the game. Thankfully, he reversed his decision, allowing us the opportunity to watch him on the sport’s biggest stage one last time. Messi doesn’t need to win the World Cup to cement his status as one of the greatest players of all time.
But there’s no doubt that the absence of a World Cup title on his impressive resumé of accomplishments rankles him. Look for the Argentine ace to pour every ounce of effort he can muster into guiding his country to its third World Cup this summer.