Wednesday 21 November 2018

The pain of other people's joy continues - Sweden v England, July 7th

I thought about wearing my Sweden shirt to the kids' school summer fayre this afternoon, but then couldn't decide whether that would be funny or childish.

In the end, it was perhaps fitting that the realities of being a 43 year old adult prevented me from turning up to the school with location-appropriate mentality. Late morning, after picking daughter up from dance class, we noticed our car exhaust was hanging a bit low, so popped in to the garage. There, I was invited to look under the hoisted car to have the problem pointed out to me in fluent mechanic. I nodded and looked serious to show that I had a decent grasp of the language, hoping that this deception would lower my chances of being ripped off. Ha! My turn to pull the wool over your eyes, mate/pal/guv!

Yet, I was left doubting my understanding of basic English when the fix time of "within the hour" turned out to be over two and a half hours. The combination of boiling heat and restlessness of our three year old ensured that the garage waiting room didn't score highly on the list of impromptu family days out. The staff apologised for the delayed delivery of the missing part, and we were told in an assured tone that "I've just given them {the suppliers}hell over the phone".

Our own hell survived for a good while longer, me taking particular annoyance over random, pre-match shouts of "Come on England!" that bellowed out through the work yard. That's right, I'm not even allowing you to express support for your/my nation.

When the car was finally ready, the VAT was taken off as a goodwill gesture, but by then, the summer fayre had been in full swing, and there was no time to change out of my t shit and into my probably musty-smelling yellow symbol of defiance. The three year old crashed out in the pushchair as we entered the school gates, which was a shame for him but did mean some of the garage costs were soon offset when I only needed to buy only two ice creams rather than three.

While the kids watched the talent show on the field, I noted the inevitable range of England shirts on display, including the away top worn by the dad of our daughter's friend, who'd passed me on his way to the pub for the Tunisia match. One chap wore a 1982 England shirt, which I don't think was an original, but nonetheless might have provided an opening for a nice chat between us, should I have been wearing mine.

Soon, the national shirt-wearers and others would be going inside the school assembly hall where the first half of the match was going to be projected. I realised that this 'big-screening' - and also the presence of a 'licenced bar' (stall selling cans of lager in buckets of ice) - led me dangerously close to the inner workings of the Enger-land zone. Fortunately for me, my kids have little interest in football (the older ones not inflicted by the football bug, despite their appearance at a 3rd Round Carabao Cup tie between a second string Arsenal team and Norwich City last season) and were merrily leaping about on an enclosed activity bouncy castle as the match kicked off.

Unfortunately for me, during the mass exodus of parents and kids from the field to inside, I still couldn't escape live commentary of  the match, as the sound of the summer fayre MC gave way to the radio. I was trapped, forced to confront live football, the anxiety smothering me like the scorching heat.

Faced with this trauma, I hoped at least to get through to half-time unscathed; the fayre was finishing  at 4pm when the second half would start, leaving me free to ignore the match at home.

Stuart Pearce, my not exactly full name sake but a hero from a previous World Cup (1990, obviously) held out some hope in his co-commentary, expressing disharmony with the England performance (finally, someone). If only their travails in the peak afternoon sun could have been met by the reliable Portugal's and Brazil's of quarter-finals old, though. England's only other match at this World Cup in these conditions was against Panama, and it seemed that Sweden had little more capacity to harm. If I had worn my Sweden shirt today, I'd have been far braver than those Tottenham fans wearing Barcelona shirts in pubs on the night of the 2006 Champions League Final.

Sterling had already fluffed a couple of opportunities by the time England  finally remembered their true path to righteousness. All three previous tournament encounters with Sweden had involved a headed goal from a cross (Beckham to Campbell in Saitama, 2002; Joe Cole to Gerrard in Cologne, 2006; Gerrard to Carroll in Kiev, 2012), and because all three games had happened in the 21st century, preparation time would have been boosted by not having to go through the arduous process of getting hold of both a VHS recorder and VHS tape. Most club and national teams are equipped with DVD machines these days, while young bucks like Gareth Southgate have even heard of You Tube, enabling him to gain a vital edge over his older, less informed rivals. Yet, for all of the technical expertise available, Southgate didn't need to study the patterns and trends of those past matches to put a plan in place.What was the point? Headed goals from crosses have been England's priority tactic from the outset. No need to waste time trawling through the archives, when you can be putting your feet up in Club Tropicana, or getting your head up for another cross.

England got their first corner of the match after half an hour, and I stood outside the sealed bouncy castle with all the trepidation that a Rory Delap throw in used to bring when Tony Pulis-era Stoke played post-Highbury Arsenal at The post-Potteries ground. Ashley Young, signed by Manchester United in 2011 when Sir Alex Ferguson finally found someone who could replace the default snarling of Paul Ince, swung in the corner so said Jim Proudfoot, and seconds later, the commentator was describing the act of the ball finding the net. This news didn't appear to sink in straightaway, as if only I'd heard it and that it needed a quick VAR-type confirmation in the assembly hall for those remaining outside. For a second or two, it was like I was listening to another radio that was slightly ahead in it's live feed, like happens when you have two big screens showing the same event, but then came the belated, horribly joyous cheers of the mixed sexes. One bloke aimed his delight in the direction of the radio, as if thanking it for the update.

So that was that, all over. Although Sweden had recovered from a goal down in each of the past tournament matches to pull level (going ahead in two of them), they no longer had the players to back up the heart. When at half-time (still 1-0, though England went close to getting another), my daughter's friends' dad joked to family and friends that "they always concede in the second half - 'we're going home, we're going home'!" - I was fully aware that he'd become a fan and shirt-wearer for this tournament alone, so couldn't be comforted by ingrained history.

By the time we walked home from the fayre, the second half was under way, and about halfway back, simultaneous sounds of impassioned cheers came flying out of living room windows. Either Piers Morgan had just announced his retirement from public life or England had scored a second. Sadly, I knew what was more likely.

Miserable was coming home.        


Wednesday 7 November 2018

I need to talk nicely about Kevin now - Belgium 2 Brazil 1

I saw all of his brilliance last season and resented every second of it, but now I get to enjoy him for a while.

Kevin De Bruyne showed up every week on Match of the Day with performances even more breathtaking than the last, producing incredible touches that the most sycophantic of pundits would refer to as "ridiculous", or "frightening". Conor McNamara, BBC's answer to Peter Drury, was even forced to suspend all golf swing bantz with "Claridge" to laugh unabashedly at the outrageousness of it all. Martin Keown, meanwhile, mis-took De Bruyne's feet for paintbrushes during one of his less embarrassing analysis nights (love you anyway, Martin).

De Bruyne's x-ray vision combined with next level delivery, made even Raheem Sterling into a 20+ goals forward, and here was a playmaker looking under-priced at the £55 million he cost from Wolfsburg two years before, when such a fee captured attention. Only the dazzling adventures of Liverpool's Salah deprived him of adding the Footballer of The Year prize to the league and Carabao Cup winners medals last season.

So like everyone else, I saw it all from him, but because he was doing it all for Manchester City, or Mansour City, I couldn't get excited about it.

This summer though, he is helping Belgium in the World Cup, and I find that this allows me to appreciate him.  Belgium's progress in Russia isn't being funded by oil, nor is it run by people whose laws treat women like criminals when, to right-thinking people, they are victims. Belgium doesn't imprison journalists for doing their job, or LGBT+ for engaging in sexual activity. Belgium is a country of just 11 million, owing it's footballing achievements this summer to a self-made production line of players, which may turn out to be freakish in it's timing but is rightly celebrated.

So Kevin De Bruyne, it's nice to enjoy you for the first time! Nice to be free of the man-marking shackles of conscience and bitterness normally preventing me from adding my gushing voice to all the others'. Admittedly, the introduction to this World Cup blog a few weeks ago shows that my principles can be breached, and that, in De Bruyne's position, faced with the prospect of a quarter of a million weekly wage, I may also turn a blind eye to the barbaric rule of Abu Dhabi (that makes such a mockery of Pep Guardiola's yellow ribbon support of incarcerated Catalonians). Unable to progress beyond District trials as a boy, I was luckily never burdened with pondering the ethics behind a seven-figure annual take-home, so, without evidence to the contrary, I can claim the moral high ground on this subject. Everything happens for a reason, they say.

De Bruyne was involved to varying degrees in both of Belgium's goals tonight as they sprang a 2-0 lead on Brazil, every bit as surprising, at least to me, as Japan's identical cushion over the Belgians in the last round. In the 13th minute, De Bruyne set up Felliani, who won a corner that was then deflected past Alisson by the combined body parts of Fernandinho and Gabriel Jesus (actions I haven't seen enough of in their Manchester City shirts). Just under twenty minutes later, De Bruyne took the ball from Lukaku and unleashed a 20 yarder past Alisson. Danny Murphy said he could "watch this goal all day", and there was certainly an aesthetic beauty to the strike, all the more satisfying for it not contributing to the Etihad brand.

For all that, I was a little worried. Brazil going out of a World Cup was taking away a very warm and cosy security blanket and letting in the icy breeze of concern that England would still be there without them. I'd watched Martinez and his staff celebrating the last-gasp Japan win, amused that they obviously hadn't remembered who they'd be playing next, but here they were, asking the five times champions to repeat the 44 year history-breaking feat they'd themselves achieved against Japan.

Brazil did give themselves a chance, sub Renato Augusto heading in a clipped Coutinho pass with just under 15 minutes of normal time left, and they were denied a penalty that Alan Shearer blamed on the  diving reputation of Neymar, even though it was Gabriel Jesus who'd been challenged. It was an interesting comment from Shearer (yes), I thought.  Glenn Hoddle had made Shearer England captain in 1996 partly because of the number of free kicks he would win in and around the penalty area as a big-name skipper (a less than purist theory, I'd say, and perhaps at odds with Hoddle's threat to quit the game in 1994 if a proposal to replace throw-ins with kick-ins was successfully lobbied) and yet here was the armband-less Neymar, arguably one of the top three famous players in the world, as good as disallowing goals for his own team thanks, perversely, to his own standing (pun intended, otherwise I'd have edited it out). At least Portugal's manager, Fernando Santos, had the good sense to promote Cristiano Ronaldo as captain, his main man winning two spot kicks at this tournament as well as that free kick against Spain. Indeed, Ronaldo's second goal in that match suggests that even goalkeepers can be affected by the hypnotic armband, the normally flawless David De Gea succumbing to it's powers in Kazan. No longer can we assume that De Gea was guilty of a "gross error of misjudgement", which was the explanation Hoddle used for another of his reasonings in 1998.

Neymar himself fired in a shot at the death, but Belgian goalie, Courtois, noting the lack of a 'C' on the striker's upper arm, was empowered to tip it over the bar. Courtois celebrated as if he'd scored, which is a habit goalkeepers have developed in recent times, and unnerves me as much as the scorer who doesn't celebrate against his old team because of some phoney show of respect (when I scored against my former team in Division 5 of the Berkhamsted Sunday League I restrained myself to running only half the length of the field).

So the Brazilians go out of the tournament at the same venue as other past winners, Germany and Argentina. So too, do we see the end of the remaining non-European contenders.

"Belgium are now the team to beat", said Rio Ferdinand after the match, while shaking his head disapprovingly at the number of cardboard cups littered around the stadium    

Friday 2 November 2018

Uruguay v France, July 6th 2018

Nearing the end of this match, with France leading 2-0, Kylian Mbappe played a showboating back heel pass that, to many flustered opponents, not least Uruguay, would have charged up an even more palpable sense of rage than the one that had clambered all over Ally McCoist when confronted by a dismissive John Champion.

True enough, Mbappe was cleaned out seconds later, Uruguay's muscular Sean Penn lookalike reacting to a perceived lack of respect by clattering in to the teenager. One can only imagine Penn's  flared nostrils and heaving diaphragm, should he ever be shown footage of Leeds United's merciless baiting of Southampton in 1970.

I considered whether Mbappe's actions were naïve or callous?  Was this arrogance of youth or someone wise beyond his years, schooled impeccably at Paris St Germain, learning all the time from his chum, Neymar? Drawing this foul won a useful free kick, and further dispirited opponents who'd been on the wrong end of two decisive moments for each goalkeeper. I strongly believe that Mbappe was playing the role of the Provacateur, and I also choose to presume that this hip, young gunslinger, who probably wears those earphones without wires, researched the role using VHS footage of official FIFA World Cup films that consistently stereotype Uruguay as a nation with a suspect temperament.

We read these days that some coaches encourage their players to watch "videos" to study the enemy, and it is natural to assume that prior to this match, Mbappe was prepped with clear instructions on how to insert a cassette tape into a video recording machine. By doing so, he would have been equipped with vital information from 'Goal!' the official FIFA film of the 1966 World Cup, which features Uruguay's group game against West Germany at Hillsborough. Reading from Brian Granville's script, the narrator helpfully contrasts the attitude of both nations on the day:

"In Sheffield, the Germans with their flags and banners - the Uruguayans with their inflammable tempers".

During the subsequent evidence, Mbappe would have noted both the hunting down of German striker Helmut Haller, and the role, or rolls Haller played in reacting to it.

 "Tunnis is sent from the field while Haller writhes in convincing agony".

Bottom lip turned out and head nodding in appreciation, Mbappe would likely have ejected the cassette tape - upon which encountering a degree of impatience, the like of which no doubt would have seen a Uruguyan punch a hole through the television screen - before slotting in 'Hero' the official FIFA film of the 1986 World Cup, narrated by Michael Caine ("not a lot of people...") To a damning soundtrack, Caine puts sly words to sly images of the Uruguay team's committed fouling on Denmark ("the dazzling Danes").

"The foul is taken to a new level as Buross delivers a knee nudge to Laudrup's thigh".

Michael Laudrup's seemingly genuine writhing was similar to that of Scotland's Gordan Strachan during Uruguay's next and final group game of that tournament, when Batista became the quickest man in history to be sent off at just 61 seconds (one minute one second). Footage of this record breaking event on Strachan isn't documented on Hero, although there are clips of their players failing to hack Maradona down in their 2nd phase exit to Argentina (Uruguay somehow qualified for the knockout stage with 2 points after draws with West Germany and the Scots).

By this point, Mbappe would have gathered sufficient data to chisel away at Uruguays' trouble spot, and after Raphael Varane and Griezmann had put France into a commanding position, (curiously, Griezmann didn't do the Take The L celebration as customary, even though Muslera's dreadful spilling of his speculative shot actually provided an appropriate opportunity to perform it), either side of Hugo Lloris' spectacular save from Martin Caceres, Kylian picked his moment smartly, waited for Penn to strike and then set upon illustrating pain in a manner that would have made Alan Shearer very cross if he'd been paid to comment.  

But the job was done, and Mbappe must now wait for tonight's outcome of Brazil-Belgium to see which cassettes to dust off or even untangle with a pencil to assist him and his team in the semi-final.  


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

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