Wednesday 8 August 2018

Last 16 - June 30th

Day 16: June 30th

France v Argentina: Uruguay v Portugal

My birthday today, and I'm rewarded by not having to take my daughter to her ballet class in the morning.  Don't even have to suffer her usual manipulation tactics in trying to secure some overpriced magazine about ponies in the newsagents' afterwards. The original idea was to pop in after class and get a post-class chocolate bar, but this was quickly upgraded.

Instead I am indulged, beer, crisps and two cracking opening knockout games. The peace and quiet is only disturbed by the respective commentaries - and there's much to get excited about.

But first, let's talk about Didier Drogba's analysis...

Ex Chelsea hero, Drogba is BBC's African representative here, a role occupied by many before, none more memorably than Nigerian-born England international, John Fashanu, at USA 94, when he not only co-commentated on group matches involving African teams, but also presented information films during the 90 minutes. "That's called a 'nutmeg" he explained in one of these broadcasts, presumably expecting that the tv audience included a host of new observers. Yeah great, thanks for that John, now tell us something we all want to know, like, what the fuck does "Awooga" mean?

Drog doesn't do the detail like Fash. Rather, his answers to Lineker's questions are so short that there's a  kind of awkward dead air existing in the space between his last word and Lineker's next question, as if the presenter is still expecting the end of the point, like Sanjeev Bhakar in The Kumars at Number 42, waiting for the strange grandad to deliver his punchline. Consequently, when Drog does produce the 'goods', his studio pals go overboard in their response (not for the first time, in my opinion). When the teams were filmed lining up in the tunnel this afternoon, Drog was asked who he thought would win. Here, a one word answer may actually have sufficed, but instead he opted to steal Patrice Evra's best passport control line; 'I have a French passport, so I'm going for France!!' The studio pals practically wet themselves laughing, like sycophantic employees greeting a hitherto lighter side of a previously over-strict boss.
When mercifully the match begins, Marcos Rojo goes from last-game hero to villiain when he derails the express train known as Kylian Mbappe in the penalty area and concedes an early penalty to France. I call Barney over in case Griezmann scores and does the Fortnite dance. The missus and her brother enter the front room too, hopeful and expectant. Thrillingly, Griezmann rolls the ball in and performs the routine to much mirth.

But Argentina aren't losers just yet and Angel De Maria swings a beauty past Hugo Lloris from outside the area.
"Probably the best goal of the tournament...or one of the best" proffers Danny Murphy, reigning in wild abandon to the tune of a Danish beer commercial.
I'd have liked main commentator Guy Mowbray to hold back on some of his own urges. After Argentine defender Mercado deflected in a speculative Messi ball to put his team ahead in the second half, Mowbray engaged in some puns relating to the scorer's surname and the similar-sounding Meccano toys that were popular in the 80's. "Super Mercado" came one remark, and then later one about a "collapse" the defender staged when trying to win a free kick.
"Oh right, I see what you've done there!" Murphy humoured the grown professional.

My problem with Mowbray is that he thinks he's a footballer, like the ref Graham Poll - also an embarrassment on the World Cup stage (2006) - used to think he was a footballer. Where Poll used to sprint out of the tunnel and indulge in matey banter with the lads, Mowbray sees himself as part of England's 1998 World Cup squad, getting song titles into interviews. In this year of Barry Davies retiring from commentating (though he stopped working on top level football in 2004), it is a shame that we now have sixth form comics providing voices to the action.

France equalise with a stunning, outside of the foot and outside of the box strike by stand-in right back Parvard, which is similar to the goal Spain's equivalent, Nacho, executed against Portugal and is probably one of the best goals of the tournament...or at least one of them...almost certainly one of the best goals in the match. Mbappe then fires in a third to restore France's early lead, his shot going through Amani with suspicious ease (reminiscent, to my dubious mind, of opening game 1990 when then Argentine goalie, Nery Pumpido, allowed the header of another player whose surname began with Mb, Cameroon's Mbiyek, to squirm through him).

France appear to put the game out of Argentina's reach with a fourth in the 80th minute. In a move evoking memories of Brazil's final goal against Italy in the 1970 Final but with less piss-taking, Olivier Giroud plays the Pele role to set up the onrushing Mbappe to slide the ball past Amani.

Messi's World Cup dream for another year seemed over, but in the last couple of minutes, he picks out the ripped shirt of Aguero to guide in another late symbol of hope for the brink-teetering Argentines. Sub Aguero had actually come on to the pitch with ripped shirt, the v neck more of a plunging neckline, as if he'd been showing the manager his wares in an attempt to get on the field.
There was time for Argentina to build another quick raid down the left, with the ball looping in to the box, but their luck, and time, had run out. At least they'd avoided the group stage exit trapdoor to Love Island, even if the scantily-clad Aguero might have gone deep into the show.

7pm, and it's another Euro 2016 Finalist, Portugal, against another two-time World Champion from South America, Uruguay. This is a match-up of the overachievers, one country of only 10 million but with a history in the last 20 years of two major Finals and three semi-finals, up against a nation of 3 million but who'd achieved a semi-final and a Final in the last eight. That's what you might call 'exceeding expectations'.

Having a Ronaldo or a Suarez in your team helps of course, and it was a cross from 'you know who' as part of a brutal cross-field one-two with Cavani that enables the PSG man to open the scoring off his stunning cheekbones (no need here for any of Aguero's cheap tricks to blind the Portuguese goalie, Rui Patricio).

Somewhat surprisingly (to me, at least), the rugged discipline of the Uruguyans, overseen by 71 year old manager Oscar Tabarez who is uanble to walk unaided due to an illness he keeps close to his chest like a Drogba insight, is breached in the second half, Portugal centre half, Pepe, an anti-hero in the Uruguay mould, equalising with a header from a set-piece. I appreciated his defiant, shouty celebration. Before this goal, I'd wished he'd retired from international football on a high after Euro 16, where his collosal performances had turned my opinion around of him. In Portugal's opening game against Spain 15 days ago he was back to the worst of himself, trying to con a free kick out of the ref rather than defend against Diego Costa, who ended up equalising for the first time in that match. Sadly tonight, his redemption is short-lived. He's pulled out of position, allowing Cavani to pick out the bottom corner from just outside the box to win Uruguay the match. The two-goal hero may not make the quarter final against France in six days, a sore-looking injury forcing him off before the end. The omens otherwise look good for his team. In 2010, when Uruguay went to the semi-final, they'd drawn 0-0 in the first match and won 3-0 and 1-0 in the other two. Then in the last 16, they won 2-1 against South Korea with one of the two star strikers (Suarez, on this occasion) scoring twice. Their record in Russia is identical, other than the opening goalless draw, which this time they turned into a 1-0 win right at the end.  

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