Thursday, July 18, 2024

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World Cup Season

World Cup 2022 Logo

It’s world cup season, in the wrong season. Never mind the three week period post-champions league final of warm up games, tournament tree posters being blu-tacked onto bedroom walls, fevered speculation, overpriced FIFA World Cup video games being sold and traded in, highlight reels and Spain managers being sacked, never mind all that. This year players (well, those who play in Europe) barely just finished their post-game showers before jetplaning for the middle east. 




And everyone’s really upset about it all. It’s November. They’ve talked about boycotting the whole thing. This world cup isn’t canonical, it doesn’t count, it should be protested, and in a way more disruptive than still going and playing but wearing different coloured kits.



Football fans are made during world cups, during joyous, festive, hectic periods of dyed hair and silly goal celebrations, but this world cup will not make memories, it will be played with an undercurrent of tension and sadness.



But are we, just perhaps, in the western world, a little bit wildly misguided here? Complaining about our calendars and schedules being affected when the rest of the world has always fallen into line every four years regardless of how it affects them? Is it not a world cup? To some extent, just perhaps, but that doesn’t cover the stadium builders dying, the ambassador talking about “damage in the mind” of gay people, or players dropping like flies trying to play through a crammed schedule which is pushing them past their limits.



However, there’s something that FIFA knows. FIFA, the organisation who’ve agreed to expand the next World Cup into 48 teams, thus ensuring the maximisation of profits and minimisation of sporting entertainment and competition. They know that whatever they do, we’ll watch. We’ll do as they ask and “focus on the football.” Such is the narrative pull of the sport, we’ll watch if they play in a ring of fire, chased by lions, in stadiums built by orphans. We’ll always watch. We’ll give the perfunctory complaints about how it’s all corrupt, and then we’ll cheer and sing as they score. 



And I’m just the same. I’ll watch. I’ll complain while I’m watching, but I’ll watch. But I have, or I’m claiming to have, minor extenuating circumstances, the slightest of justifications, which is that for the first time in over sixty years, my country are actually there. Wales are in a World Cup, something which only my grandmother can claim to have witnessed before (not that she watched it.) 



Here’s an inexhaustive list of things that have happened since Wales last played in a World Cup: The Vietnam War, Watergate, Thatcher elected, the Hand of god, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany, I was born, 9:11, the global economic crash, Ferguson’s retirement, Trump, Brexit, climate change, global pandemic, I turned 30 years old. It’s a different World and a different World Cup now. Only two members of 1958 are still alive.



Watching the tense qualifier against Ukraine put me in a uniquely conflicted position: wanting Wales to win, and also not wanting them to win so  I don’t have to watch. Because, really, honestly, I totally would’ve boycotted it if Wales’d lost, really, definitely, I would have. But now they’re there, and I’ll be watching. Damn.



I’ve watched as my little agricultural nation, dependent for nearly a thousand years, disputed as to whether or not it actually is a country, took on the foremost superpower of the twenty-first century in the USA, with a population 350 times larger. I’ll be watching when they play one of the largest nations in the middle east in Iran, and as they take on those who claim they invented football and still feel they hold a lease over the entire sport, in England. I’ll be watching. Like everyone else, I’ll be watching.



I’m in a somewhat advantaged position here, as a Wales fan, because the achievement has already been made. Qualifying for the tournament is as good as winning it. We won’t have the relentless pressure, focus and criticism as other teams. If we get a throw in, we’ll be pleased. All I ask from this point is that we don’t embarrass ourselves. 



The squad is stronger now than in 2016. Even if Bale is semi-retired on a Californian golf course, something happens to him in a Wales shirt. He lifts the players around him, most of whom are mid-level Premiership at best, but one thing Wales truly do have, that not many teams around them can confidently say they also have, is a spirit. They have a bond that makes them greater as a whole than the sum of their parts. Just like 2020 (which was really 2021) they were given a tough group, but all they need is 4 points to get out of it, most likely, which seems very achievable. 



I’d like to be able to say similar things for another team I’ll watch as slightly more than a neutral, Wales’ land neighbours and historical oppressors. Now I’m not like many Wales fans who wear t-shirts saying things like: “I support two teams, Wales and whoever England are playing”. And the grammatical error is not the reason I don’t wear it. I’m not anti-England. My hopes aren’t tied up with theirs.



Perhaps, back in the days of John Terry and Ashley Cole and Capello and Rooney constant negativity and hostility, I would’ve enjoyed an England defeat (I certainly did chuckle during the biblically doomed last 16 of ’10 against Germany, of which more later) but this England team is quieter, humbler, less attracted to tabloid headlines and hubris. Rashford, Sterling, they’re rare examples of football players trying to be good people. The closest thing they have to a villain figure now is Harry Maguire, and he’s more comedic than villainous. 



They’ve done surprisingly well over the last two tournaments they’ve played in, which has led to enhanced expectations, but expectations which are a little different to the hopeful, misguided expectations of previous years. This is a team who can get results in high pressure situations. 



The Euros campaign proved this, a campaign which was interesting to me in two contrasting ways. As far as the actual football went, I can honestly say, in the 25 years or so I’ve been watching football, it was one of the best international campaigns I can remember. They did exactly what previous England teams didn’t do, in hushing out all the noise, all the distractions, keeping their focus, isolating and managing games professionally, doing just what they needed to win, progressing at the pace they needed to maintain levels to the very end.



The final was a close, fraught game in which the only marginal differences were the slightly superior Jorginho and Veratti in midfield, and Rashford or Saka missing penalties by an inch. That was all that was in it.



The contrast here was that the England fans during the tournament conducted themselves in a way that, in my 25 years or so of watching football, was one of the worst I’ve seen. Despite their team reaching the final, many fans (whose conversations I either saw online, or overheard from people I play with) were outraged that Grealish wasn’t starting every game, that they weren’t winning by five goal margins, and such was their outrage at their team’s measured performance at their best tournament in sixty years that Gareth Southgate was routinely referred to as a c*** or piece of s**t.



Above all, English football is filled with rage.

And then there was the booing of opponents’ national anthems, shining laser pens in Schmeichel’s eyes during the semi-final penalty, and, to top it off, storming Wembley on the day of the final, stealing wheelchairs from people to get into the disabled entrance. It’s for these reasons that I did have to smile a little bit when Bonucci looked dead into the camera and shouted “It’s coming to Rome."



This time, I expect England to achieve something a little more in line with the old England. A few underwhelming performances, a quarter final, some unfair decision to blame it on. This is mostly because of the heat they’ll be playing in, and the fact that their squad is made up of players who’ve played 20 or so games already this season. (This same fact may be true of other teams, and it will be tough for all. It’s a tournament more likely to be won by the one that stays free of injury and navigates the climate and schedule the most shrewdly. Or luckily.)


I’d like to say, forget this world cup, the next one will be the real one. But the next one will have around 20% of all the nations in the world competing in it, with teams who finish 3rd out of 4 progressing from the group stage.



The World Cup is dead.



You might accuse me of being melodramatic here to make a more compelling article (and maybe you’d be right) but it’s over. Russia ’18 was the last real one. There’ll be no more football fans made during celebratory atmospheres, where even people who don’t like football are watching. There will be no watching 2pm group games between, say, Bulgaria and Paraguay, just because it’s on. There will be no dark horses. There will be no surprise player of the tournaments.



So if the World Cup is dead, and I’ve experienced six of them, for pure nostalgia purposes, I’m going to look back at my/the most memorable moments from the ones I’ve seen. 



’98 World Cup

This was the first for me, and as a result one of the moments I’m considering here mightn’t be the most memorable to others, but for me it was the first: Beckham’s free kick against Columbia. This was the first game of football I watched, just because it happened to be on TV.



It all started here. But perhaps there are better moments to nominate as the most memorable: Berkgamp’s goal against Argentina and the subsequent nervous breakdown the commentator went through, Michael Owen’s solo goal against Argentina (or Beckham’s sending off in the same game) Croatia reaching a semi-final as a nascent nation. 

But actually I’m going for the moment before the final, when Ronaldo, the most feared player in the world, mysteriously suffered a pre-match seizure.



It was something Hollywood, something Avant-Garde. Many, including the France team, thought it was a hoax, a last minute tactical mind game. But it wasn’t. And it’s still not really known what it was; perhaps some mental episode, an attack in the mind of a player holding the hopes of the world’s foremost footballing nation, the OGs. It’s a good thing it wasn’t a tactical trick, because it definitely didn’t work. Ronaldo managed to start, but was clearly not himself, and France went on to win 3-0, with Ronaldo’s future teammate Zidane winning the game for the last team to win as host nations.



’02 World Cup

A clear potential here for narrative fluency, following on from ’98, would be Ronaldo completing his redemption arc, overcoming injuries to not just not have a seizure before the final but to play in it, score two goals and win the tournament. But that would be too easy. I could also have gone for Rivaldo pretending to be hit in the face by the ball and falling over and getting someone sent off, or Korea beating Spain and Italy and making it to the semi-finals, or I might even have gone with another redemption arc carrying from four years before, with Beckham’s group stage penalty against Argentina and his primal scream celebration. 



But I’m going for the moment my all-time favourite player produced in the quarter final, against England, the looping free kick which made David Seaman flap from foot to foot before falling over, thus winning the game and sending Brazil into the semis. No one made football as performative as Ronaldinho. No one made it more joyful, more like one big carnival. He did things no one ever did before, and it’s fitting that he only managed a few years at the summit.



He wasn’t like Messi or Ronaldo, relentlessly hitting numbers for over a decade. He was a supernova, bright and burning, then fading. His was a genius that couldn’t be sustainable. His career had to die young. It’s the only way. His game wasn’t about statistics and achievements like Ronaldo’s has become. It was about happiness. And Ronaldo will never be happy, because his game is based on numbers which have no ending.



Anyway, that’s my moment. It’s still debatable if he meant it or not. Any other player might not get the benefit of the doubt, but Ronaldinho does.



’06 World Cup

Now the obvious thing to go for here is the headbutt. The world cup final, his last ever game, Zidane shoving his forehead into Materazzi’s chest, after an apparent insult about his mother (just one theory I heard.) Another obvious one might’ve been earlier in that same game, when the same player, Zidane, hit a panenka penalty off the underside of the bar against Buffon (but did he actually mean to get it that high?).



Or what about Rooney stamping all over Portuguese players, getting sent off, and Ronaldo winking conspiratorially, and consequentially England going on to lose their fourth tournament penalty shoot-out? No? Not even Maxi Rodriguez’s goal against Mexico? 



Maybe I’m deliberately going for the non-obvious choice here, but something I genuinely hadn’t seen before and haven’t seen since happened in that World Cup, in the group stage game between Croatia and Australia. It was a tense final group game, and in the closing stages referee Graham Poll booked Šimunić once, then shortly after booked him again, forgot about the first yellow, and didn’t pull out the red.



You might’ve thought Šimunić could’ve done the honourable thing and taken his cue and left, assuming the referee wouldn’t forget to go through the motions of pulling out the yellow, but, not seeing the red, he stayed on the pitch, until he got himself booked again. Meaning: three yellow cards to one player in one game. Graham poll hasn’t refereed since. I’ve seen all sorts of ridiculous goals, fouls, incidents, but I’ve genuinely never seen anything like that.

It was hilarious. 



’10 World Cup

Due to this year being a summer in between university years, in which I was at home, bored, I watched almost every game of this World Cup. The sound of the vuvuzelas played in my dreams, and I could’ve picked the endless drone itself as the memorable thing. I could’ve picked Spain losing in their opening game to Serbia, Lampard’s goal not being given and the inevitable following cries of injustice from England fans as their team were then mauled 4-1 by a young German team and a young Ozil playing the part of something between clown and devil, or maybe Van Bronckhorst’s semi-final goal of the tournament.



But I’m going for the heartbreak moment, which is actually a series of mini, connected moments. The first was when Luis Suárez stopped a certain last minute winner from Ghana with his hand and got sent off. The second was when Asamoah Gyan took the resulting penalty and missed. The third was when Suárez, on the side-line, distraught, looked up and saw the ball hit the bar, then started laughing and celebrating like a demon. The fourth was when the game went to a shootout and Gyan had the nerve to take a penalty again, and placed one in the top corner, in one of the best penalties I can remember.



And the fifth, and final, was when Ghana lost the game and went out.

Suárez has committed a lot of sinful football acts, but this one is one that people find the most painful. Which is a little weird. The times he’s bitten players (all three of them) or incited racial incidents (one, documented) have all gone relatively unpunished. In this instance, Suárez blocked the ball, but justice was served. He was sent off. Gyan missed the penalty, but he didn’t have to. He could easily have scored, and the hatred of Suárez wouldn’t have been half as intense. But there you go.



’14 World Cup

Now this was hosted in a proper football nation. What a shame it was arguably one of the worst ever Brazil teams. Again, many I could’ve chosen here; Marcelo’s own goal in the opening game against Croatia and the look on his face; James’s goal, which was about half an inch off the floor when he hit it, having followed all the way down with his eye; or Robben’s redemption against Spain in the 5-1 battering of the then world champions and one of the greatest ever.



Perhaps England starting their opening game against Italy, with young players Sturridge and Sterling looking sharp and menacing and intentful, and me thinking, hey, this England team looks different, they look unafraid, they look like they could hurt someone here, but then Italy scored, England lost that game, and then a few days later they lost their next game against Uruguay and went out, and that was that; or Suárez biting Chiellini, and then pretending to have hurt his teeth on the man’s shoulder (maybe it did hurt?); or Klose beating Ronaldo’s goalscoring record, but, I’ll go again for a series of moments, these ones spread out over half an hour or so, in the semi-finals.



Germany met Brazil, the hopeful host nation, who didn’t have players like Ronaldo or Ronaldinho or Zico or Pelé. They didn’t even have Neymar, who got injured in the quarter final. They also had David Luiz. Germany were favourites, logically, but Brazil had heart and hope. They could do it, if they kept it tight and stayed in the game until the late periods.



Well, pretty much the opposite of that happened. After half an hour, Germany had casually strolled in five goals. Brazilians were crying in the crowd. Germany seemed to take some sort of pity on Brazil from that point, and just passed the ball around, knowing the game was won and the last hour was to just keep things dignified. It was the biggest margin of defeat in any semi-final. It felt to me like redemption for Germany, who were beaten finalists in 2002, semi-finalists in 2006, finalists in 2008, semi-finalists in 2010, semi-finalists in 2012. This time it was theirs.



’18 World Cup

Ah, the last World Cup. Not one that many expected to be joyful, being in Russia, but the Robbie Williams opening song, and his weird, spontaneous middle finger to the camera during it, (which might’ve been the most memorable moment in itself) set the tone.



Again, many moments I might’ve gone for here. Southgate’s meme starting waistcoat. Ronaldo’s free kick against Spain in the group stages which completed his hattrick (remember when he was good?). All seven goals in the last sixteen game between Argentina and France, (which was best? Di Maria’s? Mbappe’s? Definitely Pavard’s?). Trippier’s free kick against Croatia?



I think here I’ll have to go for the group stage game, in which Germany maintained the world champions’ habit of getting eliminated in the group stage. South Korea had gone 1-0 up after a VAR awarded goal, and Germany, badly needing a win after losing against Mexico earlier, sent Neuer upfield to see if he could make something happen. Unfortunately for him, the thing he made happen was losing possession, and within a second the ball had been smashed back into the other half, where Son was all alone, left to chase the ball and tap it in, sealing an historic victory for South Korea.



You know what would actually be nice? For my doomsdayish predictions to be proven wrong here, and for this World Cup to be the joyous festival it should be. I would like that. If the World Cup isn’t dead.


Maybe I will be.

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