Just about the last thing you want to hear on your final day at work before going on leave for the best part of a month is that your Performance Assessment is due. Back in the days when these things were called Staff Reports and were handwritten pieces of paper you could simply shrug your shoulders and say: ‘Looks like it’ll have to wait until I get back. ‘ And everybody was happy. Especially you. But now they are online electronic documents which have stubborn immovable due dates and constantly stalk you everywhere you go. Even if I had been travelling to the World Cup in Russia I still would have had to complete my Performance Assessment by July 12. But instead I did what any World Cup Baby would do in my situation, went home to watch the tournament in full and forget all about my Performance Assessment.
Day 5 began with Sweden and South Korea. I glared at those Swedish players as they began assembling in the tunnel. I was feeling a bit grumpy anyway, with the excitement of the early days having worn off and the toll of disrupted sleep patterns taking effect, and this early sighting of the Swedes did not help my mood. Sweden itself is fine. Even allowing for ABBA and Skoda. But these Swedish footballers of 2018 had robbed my World Cup of one of its most essential elements: The Azzurri.
Four things are guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of my neck during the opening week of any World Cup tournament: The first sighting of the trophy at the Opening Ceremony and the first sighting of the men wearing the shirts of Brazil, Germany and Italy. For these three nations are the Kings of international football. World Cup royalty. Collectively they have won 13 of the 20 World Cups previously contested, appeared in 56 out of 60 tournaments, and played 293 finals matches for 181 wins and just 54 losses. Brazil represents style and Germany efficiency, as Italy, meanwhile, drifts deftly between opulence and brutality in a manner that I personally find enthralling and intoxicating. The bi-polar Azzurri seem to best encapsulate everything that is so mesmerising and menacing about a sporting tournament that simply has no equal or peer, and therefore rank as my all-time World Cup favourite.
But thanks to Sweden’s qualifying play-off victory, the Italians are presently back in Rome conducting an inquiry; an inquiry that I imagine will feature a lot of raised voices and gesticulating hands. And thanks to the pauper Sweden, this is the first time in my World Cup lifetime that I will sit through a tournament without all three Kings in attendance.
Still, one of the great things about the World Cup is, regardless of who qualifies and who does not, there is always a game to watch. And another great thing about the World Cup is that it does not even matter who is involved in each game, because anything can happen. Even in a game between Sweden and South Korea.
But it soon became apparent that nothing was happening in this particular game between Sweden and South Korea. And the longer the game continued the more unlikely it seemed that anything would happen. And for the first time at Russia 2018, I felt a heavy sensation ebbing slowly down from my forehead towards my eyelids.
I knew this moment would arrive at some point. It always does. When I explain to people that I have watched every World Cup finals tournament in full since 1994 I usually get the same response that people who climb mountains probably get – a kind of puzzled stare, as they wonder to themselves whether this person is either demented or just plain silly. There is a kind of pointlessness to watching whole football tournaments and climbing mountains that most rational people, rather unsurprisingly, find difficult to quantify. I have never climbed a mountain. And I never will. But I would guess that every person who does reaches a point where, body splayed hard against some rock face, legs apart, freezing cold and wondering where the next step is coming from, suddenly ask themselves: What the fuck am I doing up here. My first rock face moment of Russia 2018 came about 32 minutes into Match 12, Sweden v. South Korea, Group F.
I don’t like drifting off to sleep during a game. I feel like a fraud. So if sleep begins to approach I always stand up and move around for a bit, maybe make a coffee or get something to eat. But none of this seemed to be working on this occasion, the hypnotic powers of Sweden v. South Korea proving far too persuasive. So I had to find an alternative to keep me awake. And eventually I did – I spent much of the second half doing my Performance Assessment.
Match 12 was eventually settled by an Andreas Granqvist penalty for Sweden. A shame really, because this game deserved to be the tournament’s first 0-0 draw.
The highly-anticipated Belgium appeared next and proceeded to play most of its first game against Panama as if beset by a massive hangover. But the quality was evident in the three goals produced. Nobody questions the level of talent but I question whether sufficient desire exists. Sure, Belgium should become more fluid with each match, but it is that burning desire to play for your country and the millions back home that drives teams through the insidious sapping swamp that is the knock-out stages.
England, on the other hand, looked to be lacking sufficient quality to go deep into the tournament. Which is what most suspected before its opening game against Tunisia. But at at least this Gareth Southgate-coached side displayed a lot of determination and courage to eventually overcome an obstructive opponent and a belligerent referee. And these qualities could actually carry them further than sides like Belgium. It was actually reassuring to see an England football team again playing with that famous old Bulldog spirit and giving its always magnificent and defiant support a performance that they deserved.
It is always helpful to start each new long night ahead with something cracking. And Day 6 provided this, courtesy of the hand of Colombia’s Carlos Sanchez in just the third minute against Japan. His sending off completely changed the expected trajectory of both this match and of Group H, eventually resulting in a Japanese victory that was Asia’s first-ever against South America. and pretty much rescuing Russia 2018 for Fifa’s most populated confederation.
The next two matches, numbers 16 and 17, marked that little turning point in every World Cup – where we see the last two teams for the first time and then the next two for a second time. When the last two teams appeared Senegal beat Poland, and this confirmed what many had predicted before the tournament – that Group H had the potential to be the most unpredictable of all. Most bookmakers would have marked first-up wins for Colombia and Poland, not Japan and Senegal.
Russia then re-appeared and just carried on against Egypt from where it had left off against the Saudis. There is always extra spice when the second round of the Group matches commences, because all of a sudden some teams can reach the second round while others are abruptly sent home. Russia effectively became the first team to reach the knock-out phase, something which, when even allowing for the obvious advantage of populating Group A, few would have predicted before the tournament.
Egypt – just – avoided the calamity of being the first team sent home. That dubious honour fell instead its North African neighbour, Morocco, thanks to an early Christano Ronaldo (who else) goal for Portugal in the opening game of Day 7.
It actually seems absurd when teams are eliminated so early. After years of attempting to qualify, followed by months of celebration, anticipation and preparation, to be going home inside the first week almost makes the whole draining exercise feel forlorn and wasted. Some teams I cannot wait to see the back of, especially those that bring little to the tournament in terms of attitude, but you really had to feel for the Moroccans. While they did not have the quality to produce a goal in either of their 1-0 losses, against Iran and Portugal, it was not for lack of trying. Put simply, they should have won both games. They had 63% of possession and 13 shots to 8 against Iran and 54% of possession and 16 shots to 10 against Portugal. And they were a lot of fun to watch as well.
Day 7 featured the favourites all eking out 1-0 wins against lesser opponents. And it made for hard watching at times. Portugal against Morocco, Uruguay against a vastly-improved Saudi Arabia and, the toughest watch of all, Spain against a red Iranian wall camped permanently on the edge of its own penalty box. Having said that, it was amazing just how exciting and inventive Iran suddenly became after Diego Costa had finally broken down its wall. Funny that.
I just wished Iran had come out of the tunnel an hour or so earlier with the same attitude it displayed after falling behind. If they had, this game could have been an absolute classic. But this is the football World Cup. And I have watched enough of it – far too much, in fact – to know that what we witnessed for most of Day 7 is what usually happens at this stage. Not always. But you do come to expect it.
But one of the great things about the World Cup is that there is always another game to watch. And you never know what might happen in that next game.
And that next game, between Australia and Denmark, regardless of what may or may not happen, will be a little bit special for me. It will be the 400th consecutive World Cup game that I have watched. Another mountain successfully climbed.
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