Thursday 19 July 2018

World Cup 2018 Diary - second and third group games

Day 10: Saturday 23rd June
Belgium v Tunisia; South Korea v Mexixo; Germany v Sweden

Judging by the BBC pundits’ reaction to England’s win over Tunisia last Monday, Belgium must today be considered the greatest team the world has ever seen after they beat the Africans 5-2 with, as the sadly absent Andy Townsend might have put it, “genuine exhilarating football”.
In the evening, a ‘genuine sensation’ was building in Sochi, although I didn’t know about it until the next morning, waking up on the sofa and realising that my historically flawed power nap-plan had crumbled again. Once again watching on delay thanks to the kids, a late dinner, The Bridge (happy to watch a Swedish detective with the missus instead of her country' s football team, believing I could watch fictional drama and non-fictional drama in the same night) Germany showned no sign in the 20 minutes that I managed, of the vulnerability that would then infect them after my surrender to sleep. I woke, grubby and regretful, but senses intact to opt for the highlights. Shame, as I missed out on a live, thrilling end, Germany down to ten men at 1-1 but keeping their knockout stage hopes alive with a last minute free kick masterpiece from Toni Kroos.
Not sure what’s going on with Germany, though, they were ripped apart at times by Sweden and were lucky not to be down to ten, way before Jerome Boetang finally fulfilled his destiny by being red carded. Kroos was playing in a back three, which seemed daft. Low could surely have taken a chance on even Arsenal scapegoat Skhodran Mustafi to play in defence if it meant one of the most effective midfielders in the world could play in his actual position. The omission of Sane in the squad is still inexplicable, and the absence of a world class forward – which cost them in Euro 2016 and has been a problem since the retirement of all-time World Cup highest scorer, Miroslav Klose – has not been solved by the presence of Timo Werner. He was apparently their star at the Confederations Cup, but here in Russia the continuing game time of George McFly lookalike Mario Gomes says much for their forced faith in looking back and worries for the future.  

Day 11: Sunday 24thd June
England v Panama; Japan v Senegal; Poland v Colombia

I go to the supermarket when England play Panama, and find that extra yard of space, which is a sure sign of a world class shopper, even taking account for the lack of opposition trolleys. While the rest of the country bathes in happiness over a 6-1 win that breaks the World cup record for the quickest tally of goals scored (five) in one half, I get a free run at the falafel aisle, so who exactly is really winning, eh?! 
Day 12: Monday 25th June
Uruguay v Russia; Saudi Arabia Egypt; Spain v Morocco; Iran v Portugal

“Well, that was fun yesterday, wasn’t it?” somebody says to me at work in reference to the England game. I don’t explain, just agree submissively. It’s not like I’m going along with a racist remark or anything, I’m just pretending in that moment that I am happy my country won a football match. I feel unease, but to unburden myself seems so wearisome. This is in spite of my LGBTQ+ ally training from Stonewall, which touches upon the exhaustion LGBTQ+ people must feel when they invent everyday stories to keep their difference a secret. My place of work is a positive, inclusive environment, but I’m still choosing to live a lie.
In the comfort of my own kitchen, I watch Spain take on Morocco in the second half, aware they could potentially be England’s opponents in a semi final. I worry then, when Morocco, already out of contention for the second phase, take the lead with about 20 minutes left, a brilliant header in the top corner. This elevates Portugal, playing Iran in the synchronised third and final of the group games (West Germany and Austria way ahead of VAR in innovation), to the top spot in the table and potentially England’s last four opponents instead.  I’m reliant on the like of Spain to provide me with assurance that this World Cup isn’t so even that England could stumble all the way through it. I need the heavyweights, but now doubt that the successive European Champions and World Cup winners between 2008 and 2012 can ease my nagging concern. Morocco play with the energy and fight of a team with nothing to lose, while I curse the Spanish Football Federation for sacking their manager on the even of the tournament (Julen Lopetegui signed a contract with Real Madrid without his existing employers knowing) and bringing in the sporting director, Fernando Hierro, a figurehead symbol of his country’s mentally fragile, underachieving years. 
Then, in the late stages of the other game, Ronaldo misses a penalty, and while an injury was being treated in the one I was watching, I went to hang out some washing on the line. When I came back, all the men on the ipad were standing still, or at least not playing. A VAR check was happening, as BBC’s pictures showed that Aspas’ clever flick into the Morocco net did not show him in an offside position. This allowed commentator Steve Wilson and co-commentator Danny Murphy to judge that the goal would stand, while we waited for the official to reach that inevitable conclusion himself. The goal was indeed awarded, and meanwhile in Saransk, Iran equalised against Portugal, putting Spain in top spot again, where they qualify to play the hosts on Sunday. Portugal now face a seemingly far sterner test against Uruguay, who embarrassed the Russians 3-0 in front of their own fans in the afternoon (like the time Dad shouted at me in front of my best friend for coming home late from school after going overboard collecting conkers).

Day 13: Tuesday 26th June 

Denmark v France: Australia v Peru: Argentina v Nigeria: Iceland v Croatia

Listening to Talksport FM's summary of the first 0-0 of this World Cup, I became pleased that Denmark and France had just played out a dreadful, drab encounter befitting the scoreline's name, because it infuriates the station's main presenter, Adrian Durham. I can't bear his voice, and had to turn off after hearing his strained tones bleating "How stupid...!" but did so satisfied that radio sport's biggest wind-up merchant had been stitched up himself by 90 minutes of West Germany-Austrian-1982-type skulduggery (albeit without a victim - neither Peru or Australia could qualify no matter the outcome of their match in the same group). Durham is the Piers Morgan of the sports reporting airwaves, shit-stirring in the absence of anything better to do and priding himself on being disliked in his crusade to tell-it-like-it-is. How remiss of Denmark and France to conserve their energy for the next round and deprive Durham of his apparent right to be entertained with every passing match.  He is without doubt (no, hang yes, yes) my least favourite Adrian to have ever presented coverage of football, and that's quite a feat.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, Lionel Messi showed up today, or at least the ball showed up for him, courtesy of Sevilla's creative midfielder Ever Banega, who found him in the inside right position, from where a velvet touch, and then another out of the reach of a Nigerian defender enabled him to fizz a shot across the goalkeeper. 1-0 Argentina, and they were escaping with the last breath in the World Cup just as they'd gasped their way into it.   
But wait a minute, don't forget that defence of theirs, even with a new goalie, Amani, in ahead of Caballero. Two Argentines go for the same ball and concede a corner, and one of them, Javier Mascherano - reminiscent here of a Dad pulled in to a Sunday league game due to lack of numbers - gave away a penalty in equally rash terms. Victor Moses of Chelsea stroked the ball home calmly and then performed a somersault, probably confident in the knowledge that Antonio Conte won't be at Stamford Bridge after all this is over to tell him off.
Argentina step it up thrillingly in their search for the winner they need to get through (as long as Iceland don't beat Croatia) but get lucky twice when former Watford one-trick pony (and half-Prem season wonder) Odion Ighalo fluffs two great chances that would have put Nigeria into the knockout stages. BBC pundits later claim that Argentina got lucky a third time when Marcos Rojo got away with heading the ball onto his outstretched arm in the penalty area. Rio Ferdinand conceded that the action was accidental, and that the position of the arm wasn't elevated but countered by arguing that his bad positioning was responsible for the incident. Gary Neville, another past Manchester United defender, had presented the same view on ITV when discussing the VAR-led award of France's penalty against Australia.  Going to ground after losing Griezmann was justice enough in Red Nev's eyes to penalise the defender, even if no actual contact or interference was made. It should be remembered here that Red Nev's eyes had failed him during a mid noughties documentary on David Beckham when his efforts to host his friend for dinner were lengthily disrupted by his inability to find a wooden spoon anywhere in the kitchen. The desperate inspection of cupboards and drawers way exceeded the average time taken for a VAR check, and even years on, the frustration of falling below the high standards he sets himself, allows Red Nev to overlook a non-foul in favour of a definite dive.  
One pundit who doesn't think Rojo should have been penalised, is Pablo Zabaletta, but then he does have an Argentine passport!! If I was in the studio I would have added that, well, it's about time the Argentine's got away with a controversial handball in the World Cup!!!
As it turns out, Rojo is very much rewarded for his endeavours when he sweeps in Mercado's right wing centre with all the aplomb of a professional footballer. I shouted in delight, arms up in the air, and it's a stirring moment when the slow mo shows the full ecstasy etched on his face as he approached his glorious leader, Messi, to jump on in celebration, while the bare-chested, scarf-twirling maniacs in the stands go loco, to be fair.
Nigeria had looked good in the second half against Iceland, Musa showing Leicester fans what they didn't see last season, scoring as many goals in that match as he'd managed in his one season at the Not Filbert Street Stadium. And had another rejected Prem forward not displayed why initial 'interest' in prising him away from Vicarage Road had waned, they would probably have been through to face France instead. 
Instead, high up in the VIP area, Maradona was given carte blanche to present a double-finger address to, presumably, Nigeria fans. The 2010 manager's wild eyes was reminiscent of his goal celebration against Greece in USA 94,  while the disgrace that Lineker objected to (worse than some of Russia's evil deeds, Gary?) was coincidental in featuring Nigeria, who were beaten in Argentina's second game of that 94 World Cup, minutes before Maradona was led off for a random drug-test. Like Rio Ferdinand, a period of absence was the result.  

Day 14: South Korea v Germany: Mexico v Sweden: Serbia v Brazil: Switzerland v Costa Rica

North Korea started it. 
Don't worry, I'm not going all political again, I mean in terms of football World Cup shocks and the divided Koreans. The North shocked Italy and the world (including "an adoring crowd at Middlesbrough who loved them and called them "us" ") in 66, knocking out one of the tournament favourites 1-0 and even dashing into a 3-0 lead against Portugal in a quarter final before Eusebio put them in their place.  Twenty years later, in Mexico, their friendly neighbours from the South caused an even bigger shock when they escaped without a single red card in an assault-charged  tournament debut.  Sixteen years further, co-hosting in 2002 with Japan, they did for Italy again, the Golden Goal winner from their Perugia striker sufficient to get him the sack from his club. Their quarter final with Hierro's Spain is a real-life example of what you might have expected Russia to benefit from this year. With two Spanish goals wrongly disallowed in the 90 minutes, a penalty shoot out saw the South Korean goalkeeper allowed to make saves practically from the penalty spot itself. I went to a wedding that day, and remember people being outraged by he injustice who normally had no interest in football. Their luck ran out in the semi final, though, unable to find a way, any way, past an uninspired Germany who weren't quite as bad as in Euro 2000, or as vulnerable in their 5-1 home humbling by England six months earlier. 
Another sixteen years on, and the world is shocked again when, already eliminated, South Korea take Germany with them. The holders' last-gasp win over Sweden when a man short proves not to be a symbol of a resurgence. While the Swedes unexpectedly bashed up Mexico 3-0, a lumpen, tired-looking Germany watched time and again as the Koreans' Ighalo-like profligacy obliged them to trudge forward again in hope of a goal that would deprive the Mexicans of their route to the last 16. Their moment seemed to arrive when Bayern Munich's Mats Hummels found himself all alone in the Korean box, only for the centre half to shoulder the cross wide and invite similarities (if only by me) with Kevin Keegan's slice of infamy against Spain in 82. The Koreans finally got their act together, scoring twice in stoppage time, the first after a VAR hold-up, the second when Golden Glove winner of 2014, Manuel Neuer embarked on an escapade that will probably become the second most memorable act of a German goalkeeper found outside his box in a World Cup match. With players like scorer Heong Son Min of Tottenham and the all-action Ju-Se-Jongo, Korea's win isn't the seismic shock of the North over Italy, for instance, but Germany, any Germany, going out at the first possible stage - the first time it's happened since group stages were formed -  is the real jaw-dropper. But should it be? The holders of a World Cup have now gone out in the group stage in four of the last five tournaments, rivalling as tradition, the opening 1-0 defeat for defending champions. It's just that it's...Germany. Things that happen to others don't happen to them. They always 'find a way', it is said. Whether it's a back-header of the century from Uwe Zeeler in 1970 when 2-0 down to England in the quarter final, or an ailing Karl-Heinze Rummenigge leg 2-0 down in the 86 Final, or a right foot shot from Mesut Ozil at 0-0 and on 4 points in the final group game in 2010  with 20 minutes left or a last seconds free kick on the byline from Toni Kroos as they stared 1 point from two games in the face against Sweden last Friday, they always get there. They always 'find a way'. But not today. It's easy to crucify in hindsight, but when was leaving out Leroy Sane from the squad ever going to be accepted as masterstroke?  His omission was all the more glaring in light of Timo Werner being pushed out into his position in the second half today, and looking even more useless than at centre forward. The toying with Kroos at centre back seemed nearly as odd, as did dropping Ozil after the Mexico defeat and then putting him back in after they beat Sweden. 
In the BBC studio, Alan Shearer unleashed an attack on Germany's creativity and discipline, while never once mentioning that he'd tipped them to win the tournament. 

When a colleague at work told me last Friday that Brazil had just scored in the last minute to beat Costa Rica, I joked that the goal had probably come from a desperate hoof into the box and a knock down from the big man in the box. It turned that I wasn't far off, just the big men absent. This evening, against Serbia, they score with a header from a corner ( Neymar to Thiago Silva, a combination noteworthy of it's Paris St Germain connection and of both players being absent, and possibly responsible for, their country's 2014 semi-final  7-1 catastrophe by Germany in front of their own fans, recalling memoriues of me being berated by my dad in my own bedroom in front of my cousin because I'd been holding a cup of soup close to the closed door that he then barged through unannounced, but please, let's not get caught up in my childhood relationship with my father, we're talking about a game of football in Russia here, for heavens sake). To highlight this moment would be to suggest that I'm talking about Brazil pre 1990, when the thoery was that the men in yellow didn't often do things like use their head to divert the ball forward, or welly a clearance 60 yards downfield, or employ a destructive midfielder in the front of the back one for protection. "You score three and we'll score four", Alan Hansen would assume their philosophy even at recent World Cups, although I doubt that was ever really true of even the 1970 or 1982 teams. It was in 90 that the "European" influence of their now internationally scattered players could be seen in, well, the absence of Socrates, and every pass being a back heel, for instance. Interestingly, this apparent change if style saw them go out at the earliest stage since 1966 (losing 1-0 to Argentina), although they won the next one in USA, conceding only to Holland in the quarter final. Against Serbia they look to me like they could repeat that success. Not only do they score headers at corners, they produce chips like Coutinho's for the kpening goal, scored by Paulinho. They play the ball at a speed hat I couldn't help comparing to England's, and wonder what would be said by our delirious studio bums if we played like them. Perhaps most tellingly of all, they have a goalkeeper better than Ederson.  Roma's Allison actually dropped a routine cross during Serbia's best spell of the match at 1-0, although I'd be happy to see him keep his place  as part of the quality assurance theory in terms of stopping England, if it means not having to look at Ederson's terrible neck tattoo.

Day 15: June 28th  Senegal v Colombia, Japan v Poland, England v Belgium, Panama v Tunisia 

The chap who sits behind me at work disagrees with my favourable assessment of Brazil and argues that if England were to face them in the quarter final (fingers crossed, should England get that far), you just have to "negate Neymar". 
"But what about Coutinho, Willian, Gabriel Jesus, Marcelo...?" I counter. 
If they negate Kane, who would be left to scare them? In fairness to England, Brazil have a population of roughly 210 million compared to the 60 million or so over here, so it should be expected that they are better than us and have won the most World Cups of any country. As someone who is forever banging on about Manchester City's Dubai-sponsored, petro-dollar wealth that has transformed an unthreatening, lower-middle Premier League club into regular title winners, I feel it's only fair I should say that. The Beeb never say that about City f course, not when it might call into question their weekend nights product. You'd think they had the same budget as Huddersfield Town, the way they don't go on about it. Alan Hansen did refer to it once, when he was pissed off that Liverpool's derailing in 2013-14 allowed City to sneek in and claim the title. "They should win it!" he harrumphed (when, in 2004-05 when the newly Abramovic-rich Chelsea won the league for the first time in 50 years ahead of Arsenal, he merely declared that the money was "relevant").
But let's not get into my bitterness about how the distortion of wealth is dictating that only City and Chelsea can win the league these days (with the notably beautiful exception of Leicester City ), we're celebrating the World Cup here, for goodness sake, no need for the black cloud. Come on...
  Kane didn't play against Belgium tonight, and was one of those rested for a game that would decide who avoided the Brazil tie in the quarter final. I'm being incredibly disrespectful to Mexico, who face Brazil in the last 16, but their fans have been chanting anti-gay rhetoric whenever the other goalie takes a goal kick, so I'm not that bothred by my conduct. FIFA have warned Mexico that that they could be handed a bonus of up to £6,000 if they continue to repeat the insulting language, or something. I didn't watch again, but was glad to see England get a defeat under their belt, albeit in a game that judging by the line ups, was probably like the proverbial 'on the beach' end of season Prem contest. Should the game have ended in a draw, which would have left both teams on same points and goal difference, the team with the best fair play record, or less yellow cards, would have secured top spot in the group.  In five a side tournaments as a kid, the number of corners won would decide drawn matches, rewarding positive play rather than relying on referee perfection.
My pleasure at seeing England settle for runners up is tempered by the surely favourable route that lies ahead. Although Belgium face Japan in the last 16, they get the likely tussle with Brazil, while England will face Colombia without their star player James Rodriguez of Real Madrid (loaned to Bayern Munich last season, scoring against Real in the Champions League semi final) and then Switzerland or Sweden in a quarter final, followed by in a semi by Spain, whose travails now infuriate me. This is supposed to be the World Cup I get to fully relax and enjoy (now that I'm watching it) with no England distraction to threaten me because of the poorest squad we've had in years! Before the tournament, one of my favourite writers said that England's "lack of star quality will do for them at some stage", but could he have foreseen such a carpet rolled path to the last four?
Adnan Januzai, this was no time to make your mark.

So, the top two from each group go through to the first knockout stage, while the bottom two drop through the trap door to Love Island. Early indications are that Serbia will look to couple up with Peru, while there are doubts that Senegal will fancy Dani Dyer on a balmy Thursday night in Mallorca.  


Tuesday 17 July 2018

World Cup Russia 2018 Day 1-8

Day 1: Thursday 14th June
Opening Ceremony
Russia v Saudia Arabia
 Before the host nation take on generous opening day opposition, Robbie Williams ‘entertains’ the Luzhniki Stadium residents during a 15 minute opening ceremony despite the former Take That man having apparently written a derogatory song about Russians in the recent past. Fortunately, even Putin’s crack KGB agents were unable to trace anything Williams has performed since 2006, so he was free to play in front of a president who too has enjoyed unfathomable popularity.
Russia defy pre-tournament intelligence that they are crap, by turning over the Saudis 5-0, in the biggest first day win in my living memory. There is though, the suspicion that Saudi Arabia are just more crap.
Day 2: Friday 15th June
Egypt v Uruguay
Morocco v Iran
Portugal v Spain
 A day off work today to clean the house from top to bottom. By 3 o’clock, the missus and I have managed to rearrange the big kitchen cupboard. In the minutes left before collecting the kids, I sit down to watch the tail end of Uruguay v Egypt. Cavani has two efforts on goal that nearly go in due to the lack of thought required, and the missus comes in to note one of the numerous shots of Mohammed Salah sitting on the bench.
“He’s like a scruffy Poldark” she observes. I love how she is completely ignorant to the 40-goal plus season the Liverpool player has enjoyed in his debut Premier League season in which he was crowned Footballer of the Year. Could be a chant: ‘You’re just a scruffy Poldark!’
Uruguay win it with a late header and Suarez wins a free kick by throwing himself into an opponent.
Portugal-Spain in the evening is a world away from the possession-based chess fixtures of World Cup 2010 and Euro ‘12. Ronaldo’s early penalty, won after he encouraged Real team mate Nacho to trip him over, helps, as does David De Gea’s unexpected gaffe from Ronaldo’s edge of the area shot, following Diego Costa’s muscular equaliser. At half time, Alan Shearer giggled that you “just can’t keep him out of the headlines!”, on the day that the Portugal player received a two year suspended jail term for tax evasion. Shearer added – annoyingly as it turned out – that he might have something else in store in this game (he scored a match saving free kick for 3-3 near the death) but also that “he has to improve his free kicks”. Ha!
Earlier in the day, Morocco and Iran also played.
Day 3: Saturday 16th June
France v Australia
Argentina v Iceland 
Peru v Denmark 
Croatia v Nigeria

VAR’s first test comes in the France-Australia Group C morning match. Griezmann goes down in the box, seemingly in instalments, at 0-0 in the second half. The ref motions a nice square with his fingers, as if prompting an unexpected game of charades during a World Cup match (preferable to the ‘Mexican waves’, I’d say) and goes off to examine an HD Ready monitor off the pitch. The days of consulting the Russian linesman are dead, even if the Russian assistant refs are officiating the Russia games.
Penalty, declares the clarity-infused whistler, though I was unconvinced that the contact was worthy of bringing Griezmann down. Griezmann scores the penalty but disappointingly doesn’t perform any of his customary Fortnite dance celebrations that I could have shown Barney later. Kill and dance, that’s the moral of my 10 year old son’s favourite computer game (Where did we go so wrong?) The Atletico Madrid striker had executed the ‘What the L’ routine when equalising at Arsenal in the Europa League in April, jigging on Arsene’s grave.
Mark ‘Lawro’ Lawrenson shares out pithy remarks between VAR (“that works then!”) and Paul Pogba (“more and more of an enigma, I’m afraid”; “he needs to concentrate on his football” [instead of having a hairstyle]), but it was the tall, strutting (like a French cockerel, perhaps?) Manchester United midfielder who declared greater evidence of technical credentials than Lawro’s other bugbear, laying on the pass for Griezmann’s eventual penalty, and pressuring a defender to restore France’s lead after Australia scored their own VAR checked pen.  Bit lucky though, France, I thought, so often drab in these early stages of a tournament. France-Switzerland in 2006 remains one of the most tedious games I’ve seen.     
Argentina v Iceland. That national anthem and Messi.  A hat trick from the captain against Bolivia in the last round of South American qualifying had dragged them to Russia in the last of the available places. They play Iceland at 2pm our time, but I end up watching hours later, so late that I’m forced to pause the match after 20 minutes to rest my eyes. Aguero had just scored for Argentina – his first World Cup goal – when I’d ditched the glasses and laid my head back on the sofa cushions. I didn’t know what it was that roused me some time later – the beep of the washing machine? a forgotten errand? Duplo up the backside? – but I resumed play, and a few minutes in Iceland scored. For about five minutes I thought the score was 1-0 to Iceland, until the commentator reminded me of events pre-sleep. Argentina’s defenders and goalie, Caballero (the Chelsea No.2 deputising for the Man United No.2 Sergio Romero) looked in a similarly comatose state.        
Day 4: Sunday 17th June
Costa Rica v Serbia
Germany v Mexico
Brazil v Switzerland
I watched the Mexican player on the highlights score the penalty winner against Germany, noted his dark, good looks and heard the praise from Matthew Upson in the BBC studio, but didn’t immediately recognise him as the man I’d watched score a hat trick for Arsenal against Wigan in the League Cup 10 years ago. Carlos Vela comes out on top against Mesut Ozil, a triumph for the Emirates austerity years over the Emirates less austerity years.
A 1-0 defeat in the opening game for holders, in this instance Germany, is something I’ve grown up with. In the first World Cup I watched, in 1982, Argentina lost 1-0 to Belgium, and in 1990 Argentina again lost by this score line to Cameroon. In 2002 in Japan and Korea it happened again, France losing to a single goal against Senegal. It wasn’t actually until my 4th World Cup that the holders won, which happened to be Germany, 1-0 against Bolivia.
Day 5: Monday 18th June
Sweden v South Korea
Belgium v Panama
Tunisia v England
I’m an Englishman, born in England, raised in England, football addiction developed in England, but I don’t support the England football team. Haven’t since the 1986 World Cup. Our boys just don’t interest me. I think it’s club prejudice, stopping me from supporting players I don’t like, from other teams I don’t like. There are five Spurs players in the squad this year, three who started against Tunisia tonight, and for me, an Arsenal fan, that’s a natural barrier.
And yet, there hasn’t always been a proliferation of Tottenham boys in England’s tournament squads, as it’s only in the last few years, since I was that uncorrupted, pre-teenager watching Mexico 86, that their has been any good. In Mexico, Glenn Hoddle, Lord of the Lane, was the centrepiece of the team, and I was a big fan of his, even modelled myself on his game when I played in the same central midfield position as him at that time. I loved his combination with another Spurs player that summer, Gary Stevens (no, not the Everton right back) to set up Gary Lineker for England’s third goal against Paraguay in the 2nd phase at the Azteca Stadium. I was like any normal kid back then, bouncing up and down as the national team went through to meet Diego Maradona’s Argentina. I’d almost forgotten about Arsenal and the Canon League and, when Bobby Robson's team eventually went out to the hand and genius of Maradona in that quarter final, I felt as bereft as the next wide-eyed soon-to-be 11 year old.
I’m not sure what happened after that, but I do recall that during England’s early-evening, crucial match against Holland in the 1988 European Championships in West Germany that would effectively decide who still stood a chance of qualifying for the knockout stage, I found myself switching over to watch Neighbours. In fairness, Neighbours contained its own addictive powers at the time, watched by ‘everyone’ in the country, and its popularity spawning a glut of short-lived pop careers. I don’t recall what happened in that episode I watched, but do know that England lost 3-1 to Holland, and that Arsenal’s 21 year old defender Tony Adams was vilified in the tabloids for the crime of being outfoxed by one of the game’s all-time great strikers, Marco Van Basten, for one of the goals. The tabloid reaction led to the ‘donkey’ taunts that followed Adams’ career for years after. Maybe the apathy that was perhaps creeping in for me, turned into bitterness as a result.
I wasn’t behind Bobby Robson’s Italia 90 squad at all, with Adams, now hearing “ee-aw, ee-aw!” at every ground he played at (a kind of forerunner to the booing David Beckham would receive after France 98)  and Paul Gascoigne of Spurs, heralded. I did feel for Gascoigne when he got booked in the semi-final against West Germany, but I was relieved when it turned out that it would only be a 3rd/4th place play off and not a Final he would be missing. I couldn’t identify with my national team, and I certainly struggled with the outpouring of love for Gascoigne after the tournament, marketed as ‘Gazzamania’ (with another regrettable blink-and-you-miss-it pop intrusion as part of the package). I wondered what levels of hysteria would greet an actual World Cup Final triumph.
My disengagement with England continued apace. In 98 in France, even with Adams back in the team and the Arsenal goalie, David Seaman, I didn’t go to the pub with my mates for the Argentina second phase match and instead stayed at home to watch with my mum, who was very cross at my unpatriotic response to David Batty’s penalty failure that sent the team, now managed by Hoddle, home. In 2002 in Japan and Korea, I watched the quarter final against Brazil with work colleagues in the canteen, and afterwards went off to the loo to secretly throw my fists in the air and scream noiselessly but joyously. In Germany in 2006, I found a new appreciation for Cristiano Ronaldo while everyone else got in a lather about a wink, and in 2010 I thought it served pundits like Alan Shearer right that Germany knocked us out when before the game, apparently only two of their players could have got in our team and they were scared of us, assumptions somehow built from a group endeavour that saw England draw with USA and Algeria and then scrape past the League One quality of Slovenia. In Brazil in 14, lovely Roy Hodgson ensured that I didn’t even have to suffer a knockout stage round, as England went out in a tough pool of Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica.
Not supporting England isn’t something I am proud of, nor aspire to, but it’s just the way it is. It’s a shame really, I don’t get to board the journey of hope and delusion with everyone else, and I’ve got a beautiful England original top from 1980 that the missus got me off ebay, worn by Mark Hateley in the youth team. I had the 82 kit as a kid and had looked for a replica for years to no avail. It’s a waste that I won’t wear it to support England.
On my walk home up the hill from work tonight, I saw my daughter’s friend’s dad coming down in the opposite direction, England kit under jacket.
“Pub’s that way!” he said.
Up ahead though was the road to cooking dinner for the kids, and then doing homework with the kids. 7pm isn’t really a parent-friendly kick off time. My return allowed the missus’ mum to pack up her childcare day and head home for the match, where like most people who don’t watch football normally and hang on to the nuggets of punditry wisdom, she must have thought she was watching the future World Cup winners.
“Best team in the tournament so far”; “exhilarating football”, the BBC cried, including Shearer, who was wearing that shirt of his that is quite tight around the collar but unfortunately not enough to restrict his speech. “You never know what that could do for morale”, commentator Guy Mowbray enthused at the end, right at the end, when England secured a 2-1 win over Tunisia.
In the studio, Frank Lampard predicted “another positive performance against Panama”.
 And I’d expected that the Russians, and Putin, would be hogging the propaganda stakes.
Day 6: Tuesday 19th June
Colombia v Japan
Poland v Senegal
Russia v Egypt

I watch the footage today of ITV’s Patrice Evra ‘applauding’ Eni Aluko’s detailed analysis of Costa Rica on Sunday, and it sounded to me that the other pundit in the studio, Henrik Larsson, said “very good!” when Aluko had finished, with a sincerity that suggested  the patronising act was all his. Perhaps Evra’s spontaneous burst of clapping was to mock Larsson’s ignorance. I have never sought to defend Evra before, I just think the direction of the social media “backlash” might need a VAR check.
ITV’s stance on such social graces is always interesting: they forced the sacking of Big Ron after his off-air racist tirade in 2005, yet employ Hoddle despite his on-the-record analysis of ‘them disableds’ in 1998. Perhaps it’s because he was working for somebody else at the time. Hopefully Evra wasn’t being chauvinistic to Aluko and will stay on to provide some analysis himself on, say, a Uruguay match involving Luis Suarez, who received an eight game Premier League ban in 2014 for racially abusing him.  Would certainly be a lot better than his dreary thread of not saying anything against France because of not wanting to lose his French passport.      
Day 7: Wednesday 20th June
Portugal v Morocco
Uruguay v Saudi Arabia
Iran v Spain

Back-to-back goal highlights of Portugal 1 Morocco 0 and Uruguay 1 Saudi Arabia 0 allows the respective commentators, Vicky Sparks and Alastair Bruce-Ball to inform us that the goals were scored by “And wouldn’t you just know it?” and “You know who”.
Iran-Spain serves as a revelation. Going into this World Cup, I hadn’t considered that I would only have the BBC open to me as a televisual live option, and not ITV at all on the big screen due to our cost-cutting exercise at the start of the year that, among other things, dispensed with Virgin Media and took away all the associated channels. ITV was now merely a hub, programmes on that channel offered on a recorded basis only. Before the last World Cup we had only recently upgraded to a Tivo box, back in the days when we had just the two kids and time and energy and dreams. The reality now is that I can only watch ITV’s Champions League or Europa League highlights via the 'net' before the stated 24 hour availability elapsed. This I don’t actually understand, being able to watch ITV football from this App, but not getting it at all on the Smart TV option. I suppose if I had the time and energy and dreams I would look into this, but just like the weak water-flow from the kitchen tap and the inaccessible patio doors, it will doubtlessly be left untreated for many lifetimes.
But this evening I find that the App has usurped the ‘Smart’ TV again, offering Spain-Iran live. The only downside is – and this is a very 21st century gripe – the action can’t be paused and resumed from that point. You can activate ‘pause’ but by the time you press ‘play’, the game has moved on to normal time. This is again where 7pm kicks off are a challenge, because the kids aren’t ready for bed, the missus is on Nights and I have to rely on them not killing themselves or, worse, damage the house while I focus on a portable rectangle.
The mature thing to do would be to wait for the highlights later, which is just a statement I’ve made.                               
Day 8: Thursday 21st June
Denmark v Australia
France v Peru
Argentina v Croatia

During the mad, thrilling, infectious Argentine national anthem before their match with Croatia buoyantly projected by mad, thrilling, infectious fans unperturbed by a flat 1-1 opening draw against Iceland in which Messi had a penalty saved by a part-timer, the camera scanned along to the captain himself, who rubbed his forehead intently like a man who suddenly felt the full weight of expectation on his shoulders.
Players are vulnerable at these times. Italy’s Marco Matterazzi, for instance, was head-butted in the chest by Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 Final as the pressure mounted on the Frenchman to find the moment, in his ageing years, to return the trophy he brought to his country 8 years before. In the Iceland game, Messi had run the least of all the other outfield players in this years’ competition – fewer even than two goalkeepers – and the energy-saving strategy that has served him so well against Barcelona bought only that penalty failure. Defeat to Croatia would leave his country’s progress to the knockout stages out of their hands (an accidental pun, in reference to Argentina). Their Chilean manager Jorge Sampaoli rocked up in Joachim Low’s 2014 black v-neck short sleeve top and suit jacket, like a man at a wedding who’d spilt soup all down his front and had to make do with the nearest top to hand (accidental, again). When the top was removed, tattoo arms were revealed - a rare sight in a coach/manager. He looked a cross between Inspector Montalbano and Phil Mitchell, pacing up and down the technical area furiously, wrestling with empathy for the tortured accused and alternating with anguished indecision between necking the bottle or chucking it down the bleeding sink.
“I bet he’s done his 10,000 steps” Mark Lawrenson observed. Sampaoli certainly covered more ground than Messi, whose accrued reserves were again not exploited like they are at FC Barcelona, where the likes of Ivan Rakitic can be relied on to supply the most skilful player in the world with the ball. On this night, though, Rakitic shone brighter, scoring the third goal in Croatia’s opportunistic win. While Messi stood on centre stage without a microphone as the backing singers played to the crowd instead, goalkeeper Caballero, who Gary Neville had highlighted as a danger to his own team, fulfilled his destiny after a prolonged flirtation with self-destruction, chipping the ball insufficiently to a defender and allowing Croat midfielder Rebic, who should have been sent off in the first half for a calculated stamp on a shin (As Delia Smith would ask: “VAR, where are you?”), to smash a volley past him for 1-0. Caballero reacted with all the fist-banging anger of someone who could never take away the shame of what had just happened in front of so many billions of people.

Monday 16 July 2018

World Cup 2018 - To watch or not to watch

Wednesday 13th July 2018 - 1 day before the World Cup

A few days ago, I sang along to a Bobby Brown track on the radio. A couple of days after that, I enjoyed a Big Mac meal. So it figures that I would accept a World Cup staged in Russia. Don’t think, don’t act, just comply.
But I did give it a go, the boycott thing. I said to myself during Brazil 2014 that this would be my last World Cup for eight years (Qatar, with its anti-gay laws and pile-up of dead, migrant bodies outside the stadiums, follow Russia as hosts in 2022, with similar accusations of bribery in securing the tournament) and up until yesterday afternoon, my rejection of FIFA’s alliance with Putin stood firm as I continued to strongly impersonate a principled human being (save for the unofficial collaboration with an alleged drug-pushing ‘bad boy’ of pop and the feasting on corporate cow). With a couple of weeks until kick off, my missus had asked me in the Co-op whether I would be watching the football. I said I would probably only watch Argentina, France, Spain, Germany…maybe Brazil (not England, more on that later) She then reminded me of my clearly forgotten statements of disapproval, the ones citing Russia’s own anti-gay culture, the Salisbury poisonings, the alleged hoisting of Trump into ultimate power, the invasion of Ukraine. I immediately amended my new statement of intent and resumed the boycott agenda.

People like Gary Lineker have dismissed the idea of challenging Russia’s right as hosts of the World Cup, like you might if your big job in the summer was presenting on it. Easier for me to take a stance, I supposed, yet I couldn’t find any allies. A sweepstake and predictions challenge were organised at work, but I didn’t take part in either, committing wholeheartedly to my amnesty.  I didn’t explain to anyone, this was just personal choice, no need to ram my feelings down other people’s throats. I still joined in the chat, expressing surprise at Leroy Sane not making Germany’s squad and Spain’s manager being sacked a day before the tournament. I was a secret outsider, sacrificing myself to do the right thing. I knew that my action, or non-action, wouldn’t change a thing in Russia, but at least I wouldn’t be complicit. Maybe I’d give myself a day off on my birthday, watch the two quarter finals scheduled for that day, but I was convinced that on the whole, my morals wouldn’t be compromised.
What saved me, ironically, was the missus.

“So, are you going to watch the football?” she asked in the kitchen yesterday.
I mumbled my resistance, but then suddenly she was saying that I should watch it if I wanted to, that maybe the thing being in such a place would highlight the sad and terrible issues taking place, and that it could even be a platform for LGBT+ people, for instance, to wave their flags and, with all other humans in the stadiums, bring colour and difference to a country that might, even in the tiniest of percentages, change perceptions. She told me about a couple of programmes she’d watched to this effect.

“You shouldn’t have to secretly boycott it”, she added.
There was by now, a pull on two sides; there was the sense of unease at the thought of tuning in to the matches, but also a thought for the Russian gays, those that don’t exist according to one patriot (and Putin admirer) on Frankie Boyle’s recent visit to the country, shown on BBC as part of the build-up, and indeed don’t exist to the majority of the country, or at best are recognised in the same way as tax avoiders – lawful but immoral. Maybe I couldn’t get the marginalised out of the country and in to a better world, and nor could I influence the state of a nation by pointing a remote control at the telly (or not), but pretending that the World Cup in 2018 didn’t exist somehow seemed as if I was turning my back on the right-thinking, fighting for a good cause Russians.

So I was back in the World Cup, when for a while I really did seem convinced that I was going to reject the arrival in my lifetime of a 9th Christmas Day summer. When it came to the proverbial crunch, I couldn’t see it through it to the end, or even the start. And in truth, if I really am going to do everything that my girlfriend tells me to do, then maybe I didn’t really ever have the best credentials to take a stance against a brainwashing dictatorship. If that sounds like I’m comparing the mother of my three children to Putin, then that's purely unintentional and definitely not a cry for help. See, she’s just bought me a nice, cold drink while I write this. How lovely! My, what an interesting looking colour in the glass. “Give it a try”, she says. Woah! Weird taste. Oh look, I haven’t loaded the dishwasher for a while, kitchen’s bit of a mess…blimey, what is in that drink? Feeling hot…sweating.                  


End of season Premier League review club by club Part 2: 11-20

11th: Brighton & Hove Albion (48 points) Finishing one point behind your made up rivals must sting. A bit. It’s Millwall who hate Crysta...