Thursday, 27 September 2018

Belgium v Japan breaks 44 year record to live up to BBC's edge-of-the-seat half-time thriller

8:15pm. The missus was on a night shift, the kids were asleep and a World Cup last 16 tie was on my telly, almost live. I was a single man again, living it up.

By twenty to nine, I was falling asleep, a victim once more of life's daily pressing game. The glasses went off again, resting on top of the sofa and I curled into a ball, ready to wake when nature intended.

Twenty minutes later, I came round, the lucky recipient of a 'power nap', my whole evening still ahead of me, to be filled by one of the best matches at this World Cup and one notable for an occurrence that hadn't happened in any of the previous12 tournaments.

The action on the pitch delivered big, and yet it was hard pushed by half-time in the BBC studio, which produced a thriller.

In the first forty five minutes, Japan, Belgium's dubious trade-off for Brazil, had chased Roberto Martinez's team all over the pitch and went into the break 0-0. The BBC pundits, Rio Ferdinand, Jurgen Klinsmann and Alan Shearer (from left to right) had some points to make about that, but things started to hot up considerably when Lineker engaged discussion on a particular moment during Brazil-Mexico earlier in the day.

Perhaps guilty once more of following ITV's lead, friction was courted on the subject of Neymar, although it wasn't the merits of his goal here that was put up for aggravation, but instead his Rivaldo-esque play-acting down by the touchline, after being tapped on the boot by an opponent while minding his own business. Now, in terms of people about to have an opinion on the matter, I couldn't think of anyone better placed than Shearer or Klinsmann. For touchline controversy and diving, respectively, we had the dream team of observers. Only the addition of Drogba could have whetted the appetite more - an incredulous statement yes, but this was a unique development.

Shearer, single-minded in his pursuit of total hypocrisy, or merely a victim of amnesia, had the furrowed brow firmly in place when dealing with Neymar's exhausting theatrics.

 "What does he want to do that for?" he asked furiously, and to be fair to the lad of a sheet-metal worker, viewers born before or unaware of controversies in 1998 would probably have agreed without laughing. Shearer simply seemed to be suggesting that the antics of the Paris St Germain man should be stamped out, if not booted full on in the head. Not even Neil Lennon went down like that when he was properly hit by an opponent that time at Filbert Street.

Eyes narrowing in competition with the eyebrows, Shearer then took the the opportunity to reveal other areas of the game he was starting to tire of, in particular "surrounding the referee". This spontaneous, irony-laden, round of Room 101 reminded me of Jimmy Hill's reflections at the end of France 98, when he'd remarked "let's get rid of the divers and the hooligans". For me, that wish list carries a greater weight of credibility than Shearer's tonight, on the basis that the late Hill hadn't rallied against a growing number of players with big chins going on to become managers and chairmen of the PFA.

Having shrieked my incredulity at Shearer's fair-play standpoint, I recovered myself for the next treat, as Lineker turned to Klinsmann, arguably the greatest exponent of con-artistry the game has ever seen. Among many career highlights, his 1990 interpretation of a footballer in full flight developing an epileptic fit, is perhaps the standout moment, claiming as it did, the first red card in a World Cup Final, delivered to Argentina's Pedro Monzon, Klinsmann's 'assailant', by yet another hoodwinked ref. 

So Jurgen, you heard Alan: Neymar, what does he want to do that for? 

What a pleasure to experience this! A rare moment of something actually interesting coming from the BBC's World Cup studio. Like Jurgen's dramatics in the Stadio Olimpico, I hadn't seen the twist coming. 

Now that the big moment was deliciously here, which route would Klinnsy choose - Shearer's uneven road to desolved responsibility, or the smoother surface of humility? Perhaps ironically, he went for honesty, putting the blame on defenders for their constant fouling behind the ref's back, forcing the skilful players to illustrate their rough treatment when the right moment came. He spoke softly, and not as fluidly as usual, this a raw subject close to his heart. He seems like a nice chap, but you have to be tough to survive at the top, and up the front for so long. Pained encounters with hatchet men all over the globe have clearly left a mark, and the practice of his own, infamous, dark arts had often provided the payback.   I remember well, Klinsmann's revenge dive in the 1994 European Cup semi-final for Monaco that cost AC Milan defender, Alessandro Costacurta, his place in the Final. Visibly angered by another sly assault by the Italian, Klinsmann had sprung technik to manipulate further contact with Costacurta, resulting in the long mastered fall, and a fatal second yellow of the competition for his roughhouse shadow.

So then, are we to believe that most of Klinsmann's dives were in response to unpunished crimes upon his person? Was his dive between two Holland players in the 1988 European Championships semi-final to earn West Germany a penalty, (air)borne out of unseen brutality that some Dutchmen may well have naturally carried out on the host nation's countrymen? Was his stunned-gunned reaction to outstretched Czechoslovakian legs in the quarter final of Italia 90, simply a fuck-you for  their repeated fouling in that game, earning another pen for captain Lothar Matthaus (who'd also scored the one against Holland in 88)?

Sometimes there was, literally, a flip-side. After Denmark beat Germany in the 1992 European Championship Final in Gothenburg, the winning goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel revealed that his inspired performance - including two thrilling saves from Klinsmann efforts - was the result of his fury over the forward's play-acting in the match.      

By the time of Klinsmann's arrival at Tottenham in 1995, his reputation was such that he opened his first media address here by asking the assembled journalists if they knew of any diving schools. Rather than declare an affront to the cheating German mocking them, the media began a season-long love-in with the charming European. In Klinsmann's first game in the Premier League, he celebrated a goal against Sheffield Wednesday by diving dramatically to the turf in an homage to himself, joined by excitable English team mates, who'd probably been outraged at the part played by Klinsmann's German team-mate, Thomas Berthold, in removing Paul Gascoigne from a potential 1990 World Cup Final.

For me, Klinsmann's exposure to Lineker's questioning was a moment 12 years in the hoping. When Klinsmann was Germany's Head coach at the 2006 World Cup in his own country, I'd longed for his team to get knocked out by a diving injustice, and then to hear his views on it. The moral of this story then is patience, that if you watch enough World Cups, you will eventually get rewarded.

Staying quiet in this unforgettable interlude was forgotten guest, Ferdinand, and rightly so. Fortunately for him, his earlier comments on the Japanese went under the radar, thanks to the sensation on offer elsewhere. Shown footage of Japan's supporters in Russia clearing up litter in the stadiums after matches, Rio claimed that "Premier League fans should do that", which was an interesting view, and one I'd have liked to have seen him probed on, if only Lineker had had the time. Was Rio suggesting that fans in the Premier League pick up their own mess - which would seem a fair point - or does he want them to pick up everyone else's rubbish, on top of the £40-50 price of admission? Or are these simply the strained words of a man who is bringing up three kids by himself, and is sick to the back teeth of everyone else's shit lying everywhere?

So how on earth could the second half live up to that!

Well, two Japanese goals in the first ten minutes helped. The second was scored by Takashi Inui, a player I'd seen score twice against Barcelona for Eibar at the end of 2016-7 on Sky Sports Mix, a channel, I hasten to add, that was chucked in with our Virgin Media setup, somehow. This is me basically justifying what some might perceive as an act of compliance with Murdoch, and indeed Sugar (who proudly declares to anyone who'll listen that it was he who persuaded Sky - probably 'on the blower' to "blow 'em' out the water" and take free, live football on ITV away from the common man and woman). Sky Sports Mix was technically a free channel, and I'd argue that this in no way devalues my principled stance of 26 years. And yes, Ok, I have gone to the flats and houses of weaker-willed/couldn't give a shit, friends to watch live games courtesy of their evil dishes, and yes I have gone to pubs to do the same, even got out of bed at 3am to watch a few when I lived in Sydney, but I still haven't ever directly paid for any football other than what I have seen in a stadium, and indeed never been tempted to comply with football as a 'package' or a fucking 'bundle'. Derided though Elton Welsby may have been, I could hear Dad berate his comments for free, every Sunday afternoon. All Sky did was put in their own ITV man, Richard Keys, surround him with dead bodies filling airtime for an unnecessarily extended period and then show the match for £30 odd quid a month. Atmosphere-killing Monday Night Football followed, where the only excitement came from propaganda-driven commentators while the noise of the paying fan was directed sourly towards the Sky Strikers or the stupid pop band we had to listen to at half time. Although these particular sources of entertainment wilted away, viewers are now obliged to be in thrall by ex players delivering tactical insights, and magnifying errors or controversies linked to tabloid sales. The graphics look good, but who REALLY gives a shit? Give me Jurgen Klinsmann talking about diving any day.

Anyway, where was I, oh yes, Belgium 0 Japan 2, 40 minutes from the apparent prize catch of Group G going through to a quarter-final with Brazil. Bloody Adnan Januzai and that dopy, well-taken goal of his. This could have been England losing to Japan. Admittedly, England would have played more high balls into the box, a traditional gameplan directed by their apparently modern, down-with-the-kids manager. I have been writing World Cup memoirs since 2006, and in 2010 I stated to myself (as now) that the history of England goals from set-pieces in every World cup they've qualified for must be unprecedented in a 'leading nation'. Six out of their eight this year is a reflection of that history.

Inui's goal leads me to a personal moment of intrigue. The goal, indeed, goals I watched him score against Barcelona on that bonus Virgin Media channel, came on 21st May, which happens to be the missus' birthday. Was I really watching live La Liga football on the evening of such an event? Perhaps I just watched a bit of it whilst she dried her hair in between courses of the gourmet dinner I undoubtedly served up, although looking back, I am pretty sure I watched the whole thing. Maybe I recorded it, and watched it the next day. Though actually, looking further into this, I haven't always sacrificed myself on this significant date of my significant other. Her birthday falls dangerously within a period of climactic end-of-season activity, and this can make fixture-checking a tense affair. The 2004, 2005 and 2016 FA Cup Finals fell on her birthday, as did 2008's all-English Champions League Final. I have to confess I watched all of these, though in 2004 I did pass her the hairdryer as she got ready to go out with me and friends, while in 2005 I was good enough to take her and her parents with me to the pub when Arsenal played Manchester United. There had been a family dinner planned in 2008, but it coincided with her exhaustion at handing in an assignment, or completing a degree, so that the whole thing sadly fell through. In 2016, I didn't see the match until the next morning, therefore missing a live Cup Final for the first time. Some people give away their last Rolo, I record the match.

So Belgium were staring at a return home ducking rotten tomatoes at the airport, and Danny Murphy began to doubt his own wisdom.

"Well, we've been praising Martinez, but he needs to make substitutions to help his team turn the game", he said, not word for word, but along those lines, probably. Wise not-words-for-words as it turned out, but the catalyst for the comeback came from an almost certain fluke when Jan Vertonghen's apparent header back across goal, looped over the Japanese goalie for 2-1. There are some cases in football when for example, only Nayim or Ronaldinho really know if they meant that to happen, and the serious look on Vertonghen's face as he ran back to the touchline, didn't offer up any clues to his intention of a few seconds earlier. Some more helpfully make it obvious, like Stan Collymore holding his head in bemusement at Ewood Park in 1995-96, telling us that the then Liverpool striker hadn't deliberately struck a 25 yarder onto a divot right in front of Tim Flowers' that took the ball over the goalkeeper's head and into the net.

Following on from the Tottenham defender's goal, the Premier League then dominated the show. Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku, seemingly inspired by his goalscoring colleague, also tried not to score from a header, but sadly succeeded, six yards from goal. His fellow United man, Marouane Fellaini, then showed both how to do it by nodding in an equaliser from Eden Hazard's cross - vindication for former Liverpool, Fulham, Tottenham and Blackburn Rovers man, Murphy, with Fellaini being one of the subs Martinez used.

Japan held firm right up to injury time, only for their most experienced player, Keisuke Honda - a sub - to foolishly send in a cross above 5 foot 7 height. Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois claimed easily, rolled the ball out quickly and the well-oiled Manchester City midfielder, Kevin De Bruyne, surged down the field. He played in Thomas Meunier, who put the ball across goal from the right, where Lukaku sensibly opted against shooting to allow West Bromwich Albion's Nacer Chadli - sub - to tap in.

While the Belgians cavorted, I felt sorry for Japan, the first team to lose from a 2-0 lead  in a World Cup knockout match since England in the 1970 quarter final Final against West Germany. Uwe Seeler's remarkable back-headed goal in that game in Leon appears more a deliberate effort at scoring that Vertonghen's, but again only he will know for sure. That game is also notable for a manager's substitution choice, with Alf Ramsey being blamed for taking Bobby Charlton off with England 2-1 up.
                         

 

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