In the first ever battle between the 2 nations in a World Cup, 2014-quarter finalists Costa Rica could not contain Serbia, falling to a 1-nil defeat courtesy of a stunning long-range Aleksandar Kolarov top corner free kick.
In a game with high stakes with football giant Brazil also lurking in Group E, Serbia were out to prove a point on the back of their failed qualification in 2014, whilst Costa Rica come in with some confidence having won 3 of their past 4 World Cup openers.
Many of the opening half chances came courtesy of Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic, known for his big figure presence and ability to put his body on the line, causing Costa Rica to consider playing their tallest defence in order to shield Mitrovic’s aerial threats. Costa Rica’s chances were few and far between, with many of their closest shots drawing the off-side flag rendering them void if they had found the back of the net.
The second half eventually saw the moment that sparked interest for neutral viewers: a 28-yard free kick from Kolarov sweeping into the right side of the net despite the diving efforts of Real Madrid’s Navas, granted through Guzman’s yellow-card challenge on Mitrovic.
Costa Rica immediately changed their game plan to play higher up the pitch, but did not have enough attacking power or ingenuity to create chances in what was a pretty quiet day for Serbia keeper Vladimir Stojkovic.
Much of the action and controversy came from the sidelines courtesy of VAR intervention (or lack there of). Senegalese referee Malang Diedhiou has come into the 2018 World Cup with the reputation as the most statistically lenient official, with the least amount of player names getting a place in his book. Despite the introduction of VAR this Cup, Diedhiou managed to maintain this philosophy with multiple injury-time incidences going relatively unpunished much to the annoyance of fans who have felt the wrath of very soft VAR calls in previous matches.
The 93rdminute saw a sideline melee starting with Serbia’s Matic getting into it with a member of the Costa Rican coaching staff in a situation not too dissimilar to Michael Marrone vs. ball boy scenes in the 2017 FFA Cup final (Author note: yes I am an Adelaide United supporter who was present at that game, it still hurts). In contrast to the FFA cup final, despite players from both teams coming together in a scuffle, not a single player name went into the book.
The VAR again stopped play in the 98thto review what appeared to be a stray hand of Aleksandar Prijovic striking the cheek of Costa Rican Johnny Acosta. In what would have been a straight send off had the player been wearing an Australian strip, Prijovic escaped with merely a yellow. The card choice has possibly been explained through rumours surfacing post game that the VAR had reviewed the “wrong incident”.
The blow of the final whistle saw Serbia break their hoodoo of opening World Cup losses since becoming an independent nation, much to the relief of coach Mladen Krstajic in his first competitive appearance in charge.
The opening weekend of competition again sees the same talking points amongst Australian viewers each night. VAR: despite the multiple camera views, television screens, and the presence of an entire VAR team, the subjective definition of “clear and obvious error” continues to taint its use and indicates that the technology is not ready for the 2018 World Cup in its current form.
And of course, Optus: despite a personal promise from Optus’ CEO to fix the problem leading into the evening, for many the service completely flopped just prior to the team anthems. Given the Socceroo’s opener had a peak audience of 2.7 million, it’s a wonder how Optus’ complaints call centre can handle this level of traffic but their streaming service can’t.
By Hayley Leedham