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Five things we learned from the first round of World Cup matches   

By Sportswriter Paul Giblin MOSCOW Russia (Xinhua) -- Tuesday saw the end of the first round of group games in the 2018 World Cup finals. Here are some things we have learned from the first five days of competition.

·         The World Cup is a football party and all the world is invited

The World Cup kicked off with doubts (at least among some) about Russia’s ability to host the tournament amid fears of hooliganism, security and poor organization following teething problems exposed in the 2017 Confederations Cup.

So far all of those have proved to be unfounded, as fans from all over the world have mixed in what at times has seemed to be one international party. The security is tight and visible, but so not imposing and although the fact most journeys are routed through Moscow means some long trips with stopovers for fans, that has turned Moscow into a meeting place for supporters from all over the world.

·         Ticketing needs to be looked at

Although the supporters who have come to Russia are clearly enjoying themselves, the sight of empty seats in so many grounds is frustrating. It could be that pre-tournament fears have kept fans away, (for example around 17,000 fewer England fans will be in Russia than travelled to Brazil four years ago), but FIFA should act to ensure there are no empty seats. When it was clear there would be unsold tickets, perhaps they could have acted to make it easier for local fans to get hold of them. It’s something that will have to be addressed for the future.

·         Don’t be surprised by surprises

The first round of games saw more than its fair share of upsets: Iceland drew with Argentina, Japan beat Colombia, Mexico defeated the reigning Champions, Germany and the Swiss drew with Brazil. The Swiss will argue that with their FIFA ranking, the 1-1 draw in Rostov-on-Don wasn’t such a shocker, but that it served to highlight the unpredictability of the first round where only 3 games were decided by 2 goals or more. Football is evolving, coaching techniques are being adopted.

·         South American struggles

Uruguay’s 1-0 win against Egypt was the only win by a South American side in the first round of games, and even that came thanks to a 90th minute header from Jose Gimenez. Although it is still too early to talk about a crisis in the South American game, and many players from their region play their football here, the fact is no South American side has ever won when the World Cup has been played in Europe; so far that statistic looks as if it could be maintained in Russia.

·         Penalties galore…

The first round of matches produced a record 9 penalties, with referees pointing to the spot more often than in any other opening round of matches in the group stage of the World Cup finals. While its true the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system has played a role in some of the decisions; for example in France against Australia and Sweden against South Korea, the feeling is that referees are more willing to give penalties for the lightest of contacts than in the past. Is this because they believe the VAR will correct their errors, or is it simply because the criteria for what is considered a foul in the penalty area is changing?

If it’s the latter, we can expect to see many more penalties before this tournament is over.

The first round of games has merely served to wet our appetites for what is to come: the second round should make things a bit clearer, with some sides booking their place in the last 16 and others getting an early ticket home, while others will have to wait for what promises to be a nervous third round of matches starting on June 25th. What is certain is that there will be plenty more to digest and talk about between now and July 15th.

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