Robert Lewandowski, Sadio Mane, James Rodriguez and Mo Salah endure one-star team limitations
MOSCOW -- About five minutes after half-time on Tuesday, during a fairly unremarkable World Cup game between two less-heralded teams, Poland's Robert Lewandowski seized the ball near midfield and motored toward the Senegal goal, a sparkling sports car suddenly kicking into gear. A throaty sound came from the crowd at Spartak Stadium, a murmur that turned into a buzz that turned into a roar.
The sound peaked as Lewandowski neared the penalty area, where he was hacked to the ground by an opposing midfielder, Salif Sane. The referee blew his whistle, the fans exhaled and then sat back, resting until the next moment when, inevitably, one of the two biggest stars on the field would give off a flash in the night.
To most casual fans, the World Cup is about the glamorous teams -- Germany, Spain, Brazil, Argentina -- doing battle with one another on the biggest stage in sports. In those matches, the list of famous names on the field is endless, with every touch being one that could, potentially, produce brilliance.
The reality, however, is that many (if not most) World Cup games, particularly during the group stage, are like this one: Two squads, solid if not spectacular, who have designs on pulling off a surprise at this tournament but generally rely on their most special player to make it happen.
Tuesday was full of these big-star-smaller-team situations and, for three of them, thing did not go well.
Egypt and global phenom Mo Salah took on host nation Russia and, despite a goal from their main man, playing his first game for three-and-a-half weeks, was beaten 3-1. Colombia, meanwhile, also had a hobbled star; James Rodriguez was limited to a substitute cameo by a leg injury and could not prevent a surprise defeat vs. Japan.
And then there was Sadio Mane, spry and spindly and the only four of the quartet to emerge smiling as he helped push Senegal past Lewandowski and Poland 2-1.
Everyone knows the situation, too. This is no secret. Lewandowski, a club player for Bayern Munich, has said that he often feels opposing teams shadow him when he is playing for Poland, essentially forcing his teammates who play for teams like West Brom and Hull City and Lokomotiv Moscow to step to the fore. It is, to be sure, the same for Liverpool's Mane, whose teammates are on Wolves and Bordeaux and Stoke and Eupen.
When asked about the importance of Mane to his team, Senegal coach Aliou Cisse said he already believes that Mane is one of the best players in the game and fully recognizes how crucial he is to Senegal's success.
"He plays for an emblematic club, Liverpool, one of the best clubs in Europe," Cisse said. "Sadio has something unique, because he's unpredictable, so nobody is able to mark him. At any point he can make a difference -- with a dribble, a pass, anything."
Admittedly, it can be a little jarring to see players like Lewandowski and Mane, who generally are surrounded by stars of their stature or even bigger, zipping among slightly inferior colleagues. Mane usually runs with Salah (among others) at Anfield, while Lewandowski is part of the unending legion that is Bayern. On those weekends, they shine, but not quite like this.
Here, it is different. Even on a night where they're not at their best -- and this was one of those nights for both, especially Mane, who couldn't quite click -- they still provide that something, that jolt, that boost whenever they arrive on the ball. It's that throaty buzz that comes only when a big name suddenly rises above the rest. For a neutral watching the game, it is something -- often the only thing -- that perpetually begs attention.
There will be more of this, too. A 48-team World Cup is in the offing, certainly by 2026 and perhaps even four years from now. When that happens, there will be more one-name shows, more of these games where the two captains -- like Lewandowski and Mane -- will meet at midfield for the coin toss, pose for pictures together and then wage a duel, spotlight against spotlight, with 20 other players dancing around them.
The depth of quality is always the question when it comes to discussion about expansion of the World Cup, and there is no doubt that the bigger the field gets, the more the level of play will drop. It is simply a reality.
But is that worth what we get? For decades, stars from countries like Wales -- Ryan Giggs and Ian Rush, to name two -- or Northern Ireland (George Best) never played in the biggest tournament. George Weah, perhaps the greatest African player of all time (and one of the best in history, period) never showcased his remarkable skills for Liberia on the biggest stage, either.
With an expanded field, the chance of such a star never making it -- or, at least, never really having a chance to make it -- drops considerably. And that, on balance, might be a trade worth making.
Yes, there will be duds. But there will be duds from those glamour teams too, sometimes, and having the opportunity to sit and watch Salah or Mane, Lewandowski or James is part of the fabric of the World Cup as much as those knockout-round showdowns.
It is, and always has been, a tournament for teams and stars of all sizes.
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.