Well, what a two weeks that was. Right up until the last knockings of the group stages the World Cup has kept us pinned to our seats.
Even England’s weird encounter with Belgium had its own peculiar tension as we worked through the ramifications of winning and losing.
For some of an England persuasion the idea that defeat might be a good thing was anathema, unleashing at a rush those old feelings of doom and negativity all too commonly associated with English sides of the past. This reaction tells us how shallow is the trust in Gareth Southgate’s ability to transform the England experience. Optimists, however, saw in Southgate’s raft of changes a willingness to sacrifice a result in order to prosper later. Not necessarily in a kinder half of the draw, but with a squad fully involved with every outfield player having had his hand in the fire. Surely this is a sign of confidence, that a young coach is prepared to back his players no matter what the last 16 and beyond might hold.
After all, none can control the destiny of other teams and what the past fortnight has shown us is that no outcome is a given at this tournament.
From the moment Robbie Williams left the stage at the opening ceremony, this World Cup has been a rocket in flight. What was conceived as one big geopolitical selfie for the Russian state has evolved in a way few imagined, beginning with the unexpected bicep flex of the Russian team itself. Five unanswered goals against Saudi Arabia set horns blaring beyond the Urals, enthusing a home population that had nil expectation of the national team.
Twenty-four hours later Cristiano Ronaldo hitched up his shorts and showed his class, as it were, curling the ball past David de Gea to seal a draw for Portugal against Spain with an astonishing hat-trick. That climactic strike with the seconds ebbing away was for all of us, not just the Portuguese, a real wow moment that exerted a magnetic-like pull on the global audience.
The atmosphere in downtown Moscow was full-on carnival, not a scene that the locals are used to but one they were thrilled to embrace. In a sense they had no choice. In the space where order and conservative civility once stood, hundreds if not thousands of foreign nationals in football shirts were whooping it up in a spectacular demonstration of spontaneous combustion.
Though this was part of the Kremlin’s calculation, the tolerance and encouragement of post-midnight gaiety around Red Square to show that what goes down in Moscow is no different to Friday nights in Manchester or Margate, it is harder to micro-manage the interaction between individuals from disparate parts of the world. And if the Muscovites I met were pleasantly surprised by the de-demonised version of the foreigners in their midst, then so were we encouraged by the sentiment on the street which was at odds with the stakhanovites in the Kremlin busy annexing nation states and fiddling in the cyberspace of other great powers. In other words, if we were to exile the politicians, ours as well as theirs, on a Love Island for Dear Leaders, we’d all get on just fine since our interests are more or less aligned. Another beer, Yuri? Of course, my shout.
After the Ronaldo show came, in successive 24-hour chunks of unremitting drama, the no-shows of Leo Messi, pictured inset, and Argentina followed by Germany. The struggles of the 2014 World Cup finalists were the code red representation of a widespread theme, namely that the bottom of the football pile is not so far from the top as was once the case. Messi missed a penalty as Argentina drew with Iceland and Germany missed the signs walking into a Mexican ambush.
Messi bounced back, if only just, with a goal to inspire Argentina to a late victory over Nigeria in their final group game in St Petersburg. After some last-gasp histrionics of their own against Sweden, the unthinkable happened in Kazan where the world champions lost to South Korea, both goals coming in added time. Germany gone at the group stage for the first time. And don’t mention the VAR.
The rolling out of technology in the service of officials at this World Cup has filled the football chat rooms full of laughter, mostly the ironic, ‘if-I-didn’t-laugh-I’d-cry’ type issuing from Luddites lost in a Burkian reverie, believing that getting decisions wrong is a good thing, a part of the essential rhythms of the game. There is no need to defend VAR’s use since the benefits of increased rectitude are obvious. It is not perfect. But then that was never the point. It will never be able to untangle illegal contact in the way it can decide offsides and goals. But if it gives referees a better chance of determining what’s what when players come together, how can that hurt? Of course refinement is needed to bring football into line with the way VAR is deployed in rugby and cricket with the full engagement of the audience. Bring it on.
There are two more weeks of this, and for a few days at least, England remain at the centre of things. Whatever happens next, the World Cup and international football have experienced something a rebirth in Russia, reintroducing old staples like unpredictability, unknown faces, giant slaying and 45-year-old goalkeepers who save penalties.
Egypt might have been denied their very best Mo Salah but they had Essem El Hadary, who at the age of 45 and 161 days dived to his right to save Fahad Al Muwallad’s spot-kick and give us one of the highlights of this or any World Cup.