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.

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