Shock and Bore
Reflections on a thrilling World Cup with an underwhelming champion
The best World Cup ever? Well, no, obviously, because that was 1982; you never forget your first and nothing ever quite surpasses it. But the best in a long time? Definitely, and certainly the best of the four you’ve covered (and given 2002 was manifestly terrible, the best since at least 1998).
Partly it’s you, of course. At last, you got the plan right. You didn’t follow England, which is what ruined 2006, trapped in the lavish paranoia of Baden-Baden, missing the actual tournament so you could speak to some reserve full-back for 10 minutes, unable ever to relax in case the pack, descending into its habitual Lord of the Flies backbiting, had made a decision you didn’t know about. You didn’t get stuck in Rustenburg watching a string of terrible games and eating every night in the one half-decent place in town, a chain fish restaurant in a mall. You didn’t just shuttle between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, wondering why so much Brazilian meat is cooked so badly, with the nagging sense that the real World Cup was happening elsewhere, where they’re less used to foreign visitors, in Cuiabá and Fortaleza and Manaus.
This time, you plot your route before the draw has even been made. It’s cheaper that way, obviously (at least until malevolent landlords start cancelling bookings and ramping up the price), and it means you don’t get distracted by trying to second-guess the draw. You don’t bother with the opening game (always packed with journalists and offers less of an insight into the mood of the nation than sitting in a bar somewhere else), and pick a venue on the second day: Yekaterinburg, because it’s the easternmost host city and because the couple of days before the tournament begins offer an opportunity for some sight-seeing and you want to see where the Romanovs were killed.
You fancy Kazan for the bulk of the tournament, because it has a quarter-final, you haven’t been there before and the trip out to Samara looks manageable, so trace a route to get you there: the train from Nizhny Novgorod isn’t overly daunting but to get there from Yekaterinburg takes you through Moscow, which means you can get to a match at the Spartak Stadium on the first Saturday. You book it – Yekaterinburg, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, then the two semis and the final.
You wait for the draw. It is very kind. You can plan all you want, but you still need good games, games that matter, and those are not always obvious. Who, after all, seriously predicted that Germany v South Korea at the end of the group would be so pivotal?
But there were plenty of good matches at this World Cup. The football was far less cautious than has become common in the international game. There were lots of great goals, lots of upsets (arguably a couple more than would be ideal; shocks are all very well, but you want at least six of the quarter-finalists to be among the best eight sides in the world), lots of controversy. It’s storylines, as much as the football, that make a World Cup and here we had Neymar, VAR, the German implosion and, kicking it all off, perhaps the biggest story of the month.
You land in Moscow. You are disoriented. You have had a cough for around a month, since the Europa League final, and have not been sleeping. Exhaustion has overtaken you and you have dozed for most of the flight.
You turn on your phone to see that Julen Lopetegui has been appointed manager of Real Madrid. You wonder if there will be time to add a line about that to the book you have just finished about the influence of Barcelona in the nineties; he was only a reserve keeper, but he is another of those touched by Johan Cruyff. The full impact of the news doesn’t really dawn on you as you shuffle through passport control at Sheremetyevo and negotiate the cramped domestic terminal.
You land in Yekaterinburg. It is almost 2am. You have a raft of new messages on your phone, asking for pieces on Spain. The Standard want something on Russia for the following morning. You know that means a maximum of four hours’ sleep.
Your bag is second off the carousel. The Lopetegui issue annoys you. What are they doing, two days before the World Cup? You get in a taxi and text your friend who has already checked in to the apartment – actually the apartments, because, distrusting Russian landlords, you booked two places the previous June assuming at least one would cancel. Elsewhere, your caution has proved justified; Yekaterinburg flat-owners, though, appear as good as their word. Happily, she is still awake and, when you are dropped in a bland car park off a bland street before a great thicket of apartment blocks, she is there to meet you.
You cough, a lot. You do not sleep.
You fulfil the paperwork requirements at the two apartments, one of which you are subletting to a colleague. Being a Russian property magnate turns out to involve a lot of paperwork. You go to the stadium and, after completing two circuits, find the discreet accreditation centre. You cough. As you are resolving a minor issue involving the fact that you did not use your middle name on your application, the rumour comes through that Spain will sack Lopetegui.
You return to the apartment. You cough. Lopetegui is sacked. You can’t decide whether this is a ludicrous overreaction from the head of the Spanish federation Luis Rubiales, or whether Lopetegui’s position, his capacity to mediate between Madrid and Barcelona factions in the squad, had been made untenable by him taking the job. You certainly think Madrid acted with great presumptuousness and arrogance in making the appointment when they did and, worse, by announcing the decision publicly five minutes after telling Rubiales.
You head out for dinner in a Georgian restaurant in a mall. Buying a cafetière, you see five Uruguayan fans in a hypermarket. Oddly, they are massed at the end of an aisle selling mate gourds on which the word ‘Argentina’ has been stamped. You wonder who the fuck drinks mate in Yekaterinburg. There are no Egyptians anywhere.
On the way back, you see a pharmacy. Initially you can’t be bothered to go in, but you realise you need change for the Metro. Using your friend’s Russian, Google translate and an elaborate pantomime, you explain you have a cough. The pharmacist nods sympathetically and mimes a temperature. You shake your head. She pretends to cough into her hand, looks at her right palm and draws a circle on it with her left index finger. How much mucus are you bringing up? You squeeze thumb and index finger together. Not much. She gives you a tube of ten soluble tablets on which there is a picture of a blue pair of lungs with red arrows pointing up and out.
You get back to see on Twitter that your cricket teammate, the historian Tom Holland, has been giving a lecture at Durham Cathedral and has said a prayer at the tomb of St Cuthbert asking the patron of the North-East to look after you in Kazan. You don’t believe in that sort of thing, but are nonetheless touched. You dissolve one of the tablets in water and drink it. It tastes mildly of raspberries. As you walk through a park that evening, you cough. A great bolus of phlegm comes shooting out of your mouth. A nearby policeman seems not to have noticed. You keep walking with an odd sense of your insides having been scoured clean.
You wake the following morning after your best sleep in weeks. Is it the medicine? Is it St Cuthbert? Was it St Cuthbert who made you realise you needed change and so guided you into the pharmacy? You feel much better.
About halfway between the zoo and the railway station stands the Church on the Blood, built on the site where the Romanovs were murdered in July 1918. It’s a strange place; a century on, surrounded by roads, drab parkland and drabber concrete blocks, it’s hard to understand why a royal family, even one under arrest, would ever have gone there. The church itself is unremarkable, but surrounding it are inflated black and white photographs of the family in their final days that are moving in their ordinariness. Through the back, to the left of the iconostasis, is a small, shambolic museum. In there, one picture stands out. It shows the basement room in which the Romanovs were killed, a section of wall blasted away by bullets. Each member of the firing squad, who had been brought in specially as the Bolsheviks guarding the family were deemed too close to them, was told which Romanov to aim at. When the order came to fire, though, they all shot the tsar, blowing his body to pieces as the rest of the family tried to make their escape. More shots were fired, but in the end, the executioners had to bayonet them, a brutally inefficient process complicated by the whalebone corsets the women were wearing. In the destruction of the wall was conveyed some sense of the savagery and horror of the murders.
After lunch, you go to the stadium. You listen to Héctor Cúper tell you Mohamed Salah is fit after the shoulder injury he sustained in the Champions League final then study him in the 15 minutes of training journalists are allowed to watch. He jogs merrily enough at the back of the group, smiling and joking, but then comes an exercise in which players have to windmill their arms. He is nowhere vertical; he is barely horizontal. Does it matter? Does it mean anything? Is Salah himself bluffing the many observers? Who knows? But this is a World Cup: the focus shifts and molehills become mountains.
And then, the opening game. The previous day you had seen the Dr Scotch Pub by the side of a grubby river and earmarked it as a venue likely to yielded colour for a potential article. Where most ‘Irish’ bars try to evoke a mythic Eire of leprechauns, peat and mournful pipes, from the outside at least this Scottish theme bar seems to have opted for the grittily realistic reproduction of a modern boozer on one of Edinburgh’s less salubrious estates. It is one storeyed, flat-roofed and between the faded photographs of Edinburgh Castle and bare knees beneath kilts the walls were smothered with graffiti. Where better to watch Russia v Saudi Arabia, a game about which you feel deep ambivalence?
Inside, though, it turns out to be fine, provided you can tolerate flock wallpaper, tartan curtains and Jack Vettriano prints. The menu comprises some contorted efforts at branding – who knew an Aberdeen Salad included pine nuts, or that James Bond was so fond of fried cheese balls with spicy sauce? – but there are two largish screens and the beer is decent. So too is the atmosphere: a small band of Uruguayans and rather more Russians, who become increasingly raucous as the night wears on. They begin by standing – it seems sarcastically – for the national anthem, laugh delightedly every time Vladimir Putin shrugs at Mohammed bin Salman with mock embarrassment at another goal, and by the time you’ve become involved with other journalists in an impromptu quiz about the former Port Vale manager John Rudge, they are bouncing about repeating “5-0, 5-0” at anybody who happens to be passing.
And that’s why you feel the ambivalence. There are those on social media who protest at every sentence written about the Russia World Cup that doesn’t include a reference to Putin’s oppressive regime, or the racism and homophobia that are rife in Russia; and there are also those, some of them perhaps not even bots, who complain at every incursion of politics. It’s clearly not enough to shrug, say, “Now is the time for football,” and forget about everything else, but equally it would be absurd to pretend the backdrop is the only story. Sport and politics cannot be separated, but sometimes it’s possible to admire the way a team plays in a game of football without instantly wondering about the political implications. Of course, Russia’s 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia is a tremendous and unexpected propaganda coup for Putin, but it also brings great joy to the enormous and very drunk Russian who shakes you warmly by the hand as you leave the pub and, wildly mistaking your nationality, wishes Uruguay good luck. It’s entirely possible to enjoy the World Cup is enjoyable while acknowledging the regime that paid for it is monstrous.
And when Denis Cheryshev, on as a substitute for the luckless Alan Dzagoev, arcs in his second and Russia’s fourth with a casual swipe of the outside of his left foot, and you hear the collective gasp of admiration, from Russians, Uruguayans and British journalists alike, you even begin to let yourself believe some of the old nonsense about football bringing the world together.
Salah was not fit; your instincts were correct. Without him, Egypt are flat and, slowly pushed back by a Uruguay side that never finds any fluency but scores late on with a José Giménez header from a corner.
You go to an Italian restaurant for dinner, intending to return to your apartment straight afterwards to watch Spain against Portugal and have a brief sleep before an early taxi to the airport for the flight to Moscow. But dinner overruns, one beer leads to another, you get involved watching an utterly thrilling 3-3 draw, there is limoncello and vodka and soon you’re scrambling back to the flat to pick up your bag and leave. The details are hazy, but there is some issue with your phone losing battery and you not being able to summon a taxi and you have to break back in to the complex, scaling a 10-foot high fence. At one point you remember sitting desolate by the locked door of the block, unable to work out how you can possibly leave, only to hear a buzz and a click as the door mysteriously opens. There is nobody about. Somehow you navigate the chaos of the airport and wake up in Moscow. You resolve never to drink again.
Finding your hotel, on the first floor of a nondescript block somewhere near the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, is difficult. You traipse around the block at least twice, and poke around a courtyard, before finally you see a small plaque on a wall next to some men unloading a van into the office on the ground floor. You have not been to bed for 26 hours and need a shower but is too early to check in. You leave your suitcase with a spectacularly grumpy receptionist and head to the Metro. It is a beautiful day but rather too bright.
You struggle to stay awake as France beat Australia 2-1 with the first VAR decision of the tournament as a penalty is awarded when Antoine Griezmann is clipped by Josh Risdon. It feels vaguely unsatisfactory but it probably is a penalty. France, as they had been at the Euros, are poor, a collection of superb individuals with little cohesion or fluency.
By the time Argentina’s game against Iceland begins, you have almost recovered. You had been excited by the possibility of Jorge Sampaoli’s attempt to reconcile his hard-pressing principles with a sluggish back line, a 2-3-3-2, even if it did sound a lot like a 4-4-2-diamond with very attacking full-backs. But Lucas Biglia is selected ahead of Éver Banega, and the resulting lack of creativity in midfield means that Argentina are, yet again, heavily dependent on Lionel Messi, with the added issue of being extremely vulnerable down the flanks. Sergio Agüero scores an excellent opportunist opener, but Alfreð Finnbogason soon equalises after Argentina three times fail to clear crosses. The second half is an all-too-familiar story of Argentinian possession without any sense of penetration. Messi misses a penalty and it finishes 1-1, the hordes of fans clad in blue-and-white reduced by the end to an irritated grumble.
Peru, whose fans have travelled in extraordinary numbers, are unfortunate against Denmark. Christian Cueva misses a penalty and Yussuf Poulsen scores on the break. You take a Metro into town and end up with a couple of other journalists watching Croatia grind down Nigeria in a Pizza Express, which in Moscow also serves Japanese food. You return to your hotel at half-time and spend another 20 minutes circling the block trying to find it. You are asleep before full-time.
You arrive at the Kurskaya station in Moscow more than an hour before the train leaves. You are reminded that the Russian for station is ‘voksal’ because when a Russian delegation came to London to investigate the underground network in the nineteenth century, they were taken to Vauxhall station, saw the sign and thought that’s what all stations were called. You sit in a café on the corner of the concourse and order a coffee and a doughnut. At the next table is a group of South Korean fans: a smartly dressed, immaculately made-up matriarch, a boy of about six or seven in a neat, button-down pink shirt, and three lads in their twenties, wearing Korea shirts, scarves and flags. You cannot work out the dynamic of their relationship, but later you see the matriarch directing an old Russian man with a hearing aid and a drunk in rearranging luggage on the rack on the train.
The train is dominated by Swedish fans, who spend the four-hour journey south to Nizhny Novgorod being just the right level of boisterous. They are clearly having fun, and this is clearly more than a normal commute, but they manage not really to disturb anybody. You chat to three fans in their fifties or sixties, Ingvar, Pelle and Jan. Ingvar has plotted Sweden’s route to the final, booking seven tickets on the assumption they will come second in the group – “I don’t think we can beat Germany twice,” he says. They are scornful of Zlatan Ibrahimović, adamant that Sweden have improved since his retirement but then get sidetracked into a lengthy debate about Jonas Thern’s red card in the 1994 World Cup semi-final.
Nizhny Novgorod was a closed city for much of the Soviet period, when it was called Gorky and was home to military research and production facilities. It is, though, a striking city, built where the Oka, flowing through a steep-sided valley, empties into the Volga. The stadium is built on the corner where the rivers meet, beside an old church, giving an extraordinary view from the kremlin which, for the duration of the tournament, has become merged into the Fan Park. The game itself is anti-climactic, settled by a second-half penalty from Andreas Granqvist, who then seems to make a point about the post-Zlatan word by talking about how much of a team Sweden now are.
But the group, anyway, is alive, thanks to what had happened the previous evening as Mexico had not merely beaten Germany, but had ripped them apart. The 1-0 scoreline was no reflection of just how dominant Mexico, just how bad Germany, had been. Again and again Mexico broke and found themselves charging through vast empty meadows towards Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, with Sami Khedira unable to offer even the most token protection at the back of midfield. Hirving Lozano eventually got the goal, but it’s no exaggeration to say that with more composure and better finishing, it could have been 4- or 5-0.
Germany weren’t the only giant struggling. Brazil, having looked in control against Switzerland, conceded a soft goal to a set-play and ended up drawing 1-1 in a game the last 10 minutes of which seemed to consist entirely of Neymar running into Swiss players and falling over. Serbia had gone top of that group as Aleksandr Kolarov’s free-kick gave them a 1-0 win over a limited Costa Rica.
You return to the hotel only vaguely aware of Belgium sweeping Panama aside. Having seen Tunisia repeatedly at Cups of Nations, you assume England will struggle to break them down, but they actually begin exceptionally well and should already be ahead when Harry Kane fires them ahead from an 11th-minute corner. But more chances are missed, Kyle Walker gives away a stupid penalty which Ferjani Sassi converts and the game you expected ensues. England falter, but then recover, keep playing and, although the widespread opinion at home seems to be they lost their way, you are impressed by their patience against a team who are masters at killing games and running down the clock. Kane nods in an injury-time winner.
You head into town the following day. It is hot, humid and a little unpleasant. As rain begins to spot down, you take refuge in a Georgian café near the kremlin. It is underground, so twice you venture upstairs to check the weather. The first time the rain is merely steady, the second it is pelting down, but by the time you emerge after lunch the pavements are already beginning to dry. You return to the hotel to find recovery vehicles taking away cars. There has been a flood and the car park has been submerged. An AP journalist later shows you photographs of the nearby crossroads under about two feet of water. The flooding is localised and so temporary you never actually saw any standing water, but it is enough to provoke a minor social media panic: England play there next. Could their game be called off?
You sit down in the lobby to watch Japan against Colombia and after three minutes Carlos Sánchez is sent off for blocking a goal-bound shot with his arm, an incident that shapes not just the game but the entire group. Shinji Kagawa scores from the spot. Colombia are brave enough to keep attacking and Juan Quintero levels with a clever low free-kick six minutes before half-time.
Then comes the moment you’ve been dreading as you ring booking.com to try to sort out your apartment in Kazan. You had originally booked a flat the previous June, but it fell through in May and, while your new place is conveniently located over the road from the stadium, there have been problems with getting the deposit from your bank to the owner’s, not helped by the owner’s bizarre impatience and repeated threats to cancel the booking even after acknowledging the deposit has been paid. Your conversations with booking.com assistants always follow a familiar path: a lengthy period on hold while they read the file, bewilderment, a promise to sort it out, a period on hold while a Russian speaker rings the flat-owner, and then an assurance everything will be fine. The assistants are, for the most part, extremely helpful, but they have clearly been overwhelmed by the number of problems thrown up by the World Cup, most of them caused by landlords cancelling a few weeks before the tournament in order to price gouge. You return just in time to see Yuya Osako head the winner.
You watch the first half of Senegal against Poland in an excellent pelmeni restaurant a mile or so up the hill from the hotel. A large group of Peruvian fans sits at a nearby table. Peru don’t have a game in Nizhny Novgorod or anywhere near, but they seem to be everywhere in Russia, determined to make the most of their first qualification in 36 years. Poland are poor and are deservedly beaten 2-1.
You head to the station to catch the night train to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. In the next section, a group of Russians are watching their game against Egypt on a phone so you join them until the signal cuts out at half-time. You take to your bunk and are half-reading, half-dozing when one of the Russians comes and bangs on your foot to tell you Russia are 3-1 up.
You arrive in Kazan and take a taxi to the hotel you have booked for six hours until your apartment is ready. The taxi driver is friendly and conducts a conversation through Google Translate. “Kazan is one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” the voice in his app tells you emotionlessly. “There are many things to see and do here.” You nod enthusiastically, seeing to your left the huge model of a cooking pot – for which ‘Kazan’ is the Tatar word – that looms over the Fan Park.
“Only the best people live in Russia.” Well, certainly some good people do and pretty much everybody you’ve met has been very pleasant. “Only the grandmothers are looking after the children.” Right. Just as you’re wondering what on earth that may mean – there are many jobs so everybody works, but the family unit remains strong? – you see the Kremlin gleaming on a low hill above the river. It is an awe-inspiring collecting of buildings and the topography somehow gives a hint of what it must have been like for travellers who had ridden for days across the steppe suddenly to be presented with a stronghold simultaneously so beautiful and so seemingly impregnable.
Hotel reception turns out to be just as impregnable and nothing like as beautiful. After a week and a half of enjoying the modern Russia, this was a reminder of what it used to be like: grim-faced staff, inexplicable bureaucracy, inedible breakfast and 15-minute queues to use the lift. Checking out was even more difficult, not helped by a large group of voluble Iranians who seem furious about something. You toss your key card on the desk and leave.
The apartment is so close to the stadium that the living room is lit up by the light from the frontage, the largest media façade in the world. That night, after yawning through Uruguay’s 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia and Portugal’s 1-0 win over Morocco, you sit through Spain’s 1-0 win over Iran.
Iran, as you’d expect from a Carlos Queiroz side, are very compact and well-organised, but Spain nonetheless seem a little anaemic, winning thanks to an incisive pass from Andrés Iniesta and a lucky finish off Diego Costa. The most striking aspect of the game, in fact, is the Iranian reaction. The fans seem almost deliriously gleeful, parping vuvuzelas, clapping together inflatable sticks and performing Mexican waves throughout, and raucously cheering every catch by their goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand. His remarkable career began by walking out on his nomadic shepherding family aged 12 to escape a father who was so opposed to him pursuing football that he would cut up his kit, and sleeping rough for several periods before finding a club prepared to take a chance on him. The only sour note comes from journalists who, despite repeated diving, timewasting and feigning injury, seemed convinced their side has been cheated, accusing Spain of having not put the ball out when they had players down (but why should they?) and Diego Costa of “provoking” their players.
Costa, who has scowled since he arrived in the press-conference room to answer his mandatory two questions as man of the match, is magnificently scornful. “What game were you watching?” he asks. “It was them who were provoking us, and we were on the grass all the time. You have to watch the game properly. You cannot just say that because it is your national team.”
You go for a run around the stadium. It is hot and there is a dry wind that carries a fine dust. You are not fit. The cough has gone but the after-effects linger and you find the run difficult. It is almost exactly 2km around the stadium perimeter. You drag yourself round and as you turn the final corner so the wind is coming over your right shoulder, you kick. You have decided an imaginary line between a lamppost and a sign is the finish. Twenty, thirty yards short of it, there is a tight band around your chest, your legs are numb and you sense you may vomit. A group of Colombian fans posing for a photograph with a flag look at you with a clear distaste. You drive on, dip through the line, stop your watch and fall into a crouch. Sweat drips onto the concrete. Your breathing lurches through a series of wheezes and squawks. Two soldiers approach. You realise you have left your passport in the flat. With a sense of irritation you prepare to explain to them, despite being broadly unable to speak, that they’ll have to come with you across the road. They talk to each other. One draws out his phone and types something. He shows you the screen. It displays the Google-translated message, “Are you requiring medical attention?”
The tournament rumbles on. A little over a week in, it has already reached that slightly heady stage when it seems unimaginable there was ever a time without three matches a day, ever a world outside Russia. France beat a plucky Peru and Australia draw with Denmark, then Argentina, having inexplicably picked a back three, collapse and lose 3-0 to a Croatia side that had needed a play-off even to get to Russia. Under Ante Čačić there had been a distinct sense of drift that, as Iceland stormed through qualifying, left Croatia in danger of failing even to finish second in the group. With one game to go, Čačić, who seemed to have been appointed largely because he could be trusted to follow the football federation’s line, was dismissed and Zlatko Dalić, who had won the Arabian Gulf League with Al-Ain, was appointed. He secured the win over Ukraine Croatia needed to reach the play-offs, where they were emphatic winners over Greece. Against Argentina, they had finally begun to look like the sort of side their midfield suggests they ought to be. A lifeline is handed to Argentina the following day, though, as Ahmed Musa scores both goals in Nigeria’s 2-0 victory over Iceland.
Brazil struggle against Costa Rica and although they finally score twice in extra-time, the predominant memory is of the brattish behaviour of Neymar. He dives, he feigns injury, he abuses opponents and on more than one occasion is told to shut up by the Dutch referee Björn Kuipers. Finally, after Costa Rica’s resistance has been broken, he flicks the ball over the head of a defender, for no other reason other than that he can. In context, it is an extraordinarily disrespectful gesture. Switzerland’s 2-1 victory over Serbia, which you watch in an Uzbek restaurant as Polish and Colombian fans chant at each other, is a minor classic that further eases the pressure on Brazil.
At that stage, the first dissenting voices began. It always seems to happen a week to 10 days into a tournament. Perhaps it’s simply the surfeit of football – it’s very easy to consume too much and end up feeling nauseated – or the glum realisation that all the wallcharts and sticker albums in the world cannot disguise the fact that if you have 32 teams at the tournament, some of them are not going to be very good. At that point there had been a touch under 2.3 goals per game, not quite down to the levels of 1990, but not far off, and a majority of them had come from set-plays. Giving the sort of yawn and shrug international football so often provokes, you write 1200 words for the Observer explaining why the lack of time available to international coaches and the mismatches that often occur inevitably leads to negative football. At which the World Cup decides to make you look a fool. In the 48 hours before the piece is published, Belgium beat Tunisia 5-2, Mexico beat South Korea 2-1 and Germany battle back to beat Sweden 2-1 with a brilliant late goal from Toni Kroos. Then England hammer Panama 6-1, Senegal draw 2-2 with Japan and Colombia put Poland out of the tournament with a 3-0 win.
You are in Kazan for Colombia’s win and watch the England game on the televisions in the stadium media centre. For the first time since the 90s, you feel a strange concern for England. When Harry Kane steps up to take a long-delayed penalty, you actually have a slight knot of worry in your stomach. You do not want this admirable young man to miss. You are furious at the gamesmanship that has provoked the nerve-inducing wait. But Kane hammers the penalty home. A Russian journalist sitting opposite congratulates you on being English. For perhaps the first time since the 2005 Ashes, you feel a warm glow of patriotism.
After the goals, the drama. After the final round of group fixtures, nobody was suggesting this was anything other than an excellent World Cup. Uruguay beat Russia 3-0 to claim top spot in Group A. Then comes the VAR-fuelled denouement to Group B. Morocco, who had played relatively well without being able to score, were already out, but victory over Portugal would have sent Iran through. You watch the game on television in your apartment. For much of the first half, not a lot happens but then Ricardo Quaresma finishes off a fluent passing move with a trademark finish with the outside of his boot. Spain are drawing 1-1. All seems calm.
But the second halves explode into controversy you struggle to follow on Russian TV as the Paraguayan referee Enrique Cáceres loses control. First, after wild appeals, he consults VAR and, reversing his original decision, gives a penalty for a collision involving Cristiano Ronaldo. Iran are furious. Their manager Carlos Queiroz takes off his jacket, tosses it aside and storms off down the tunnel. But Beiranvand saves Ronaldo’s penalty. Queiroz suddenly is back. Iran are inspired and pour forward. At every incident, they demand VAR. Ronaldo, bafflingly, is yellow-carded for an elbow on Morteza Pouraliganji when he should surely have been sent off. Iran are even more incensed. Morocco take the lead against Spain. A header down from Sardar Azmoun brushes the arm of Cédric Soares. Cáceres is persuaded to consult VAR and, as though broken by 45 minutes of almost constant haranguing, gives the penalty. Karim Ansarifard converts, at which it begins to seem possible that Spain might somehow go out. But almost immediately news comes through that Iago Aspas has equalised with a goal that had initially been ruled out for offside before VAR intervened. Spain top the group, Portugal are second and Iran go home with a sense of both pride and injustice.
But the drama is only just beginning. France and Denmark play out a drab 0-0 draw that sees both through. Then comes Argentina’s chance of redemption. Essentially, they need to beat Nigeria to go through. Jorge Sampaoli, if he is still selecting the team, at last does what he had promised to do before the tournament, and picks Éver Banega to offer some creativity beyond Lionel Messi. For the first half, it works. Banega plays a ball over the top for Messi who cushions the ball on his left thigh, nudges the ball on with his left foot and then clips the ball home with his right. He also hits the post and almost lays in Gonzalo Higuaín who has returned to the side as Sergio Agüero, as so often, is scapegoated for the team’s failure.
But early in the second half, Javier Mascherano concedes a needless corner and then concedes an even more needless penalty. Victor Moses converts and Argentina suddenly are in trouble. In their desperation, they come oddly to resemble England at their worst, all running and energy and very little thought. Too many players try to do too much. Everybody tries to win it single-handedly. Crosses go astray. Overambitious shots are attempted. Mascherano, who has in many ways had an awful game, keeps driving Argentina forward, still a great leader even if he is no longer much of a player. And then, implausibly, after 86 minutes, there comes a winner. Gabriel Mercado, finally, delivers a decent cross and, of all people, Marcos Rojo is there, just inside the box, to lash in a volley with his wrong foot. Croatia score a last-minute winner in the other game to top the group and leave Iceland bottom.
But the greatest drama came the following day, the third in a row of astonishing football and astonishing stories. Germany hadn’t gone out in the first round for 80 years. All they have to do to be sure of making it through here was to beat South Korea by two goals. But the goals never come. They are never really threatened. News comes though that Sweden are beating Mexico. Any win will take Germany through. But there is no urgency about them. Time ticks by. The goal isn’t coming. Slowly, the realisation begins to dawn: they aren’t going to do it.
South Korea win a corner. The ball bobbles about and is turned in by Kim Young-gwon who is, seemingly, obviously offside. But the referee, Mark Geiger, checks VAR. In the press box, writing your match report, you only half pay attention to the replay. But suddenly you and the rest of the press box realise the ball has been poked to Kim by Toni Kroos. There is a collective intake of breath as the implications are worked out. He is onside. It is a goal. Germany are going out. Their exit is confirmed when Manuel Neuer, on a typical sally from his goal, is dispossessed in the South Korea half. A long ball over the top and for several seconds before he rolled it over the line it is obvious that Son Heung-min is going to score.
In retrospect, you realise, the warning signs have been there. It’s just they are Germany, so nobody was minded to see them. The South Korea game is the eighth in a row in which Germany had failed to keep a clean sheet. Getting the balance between attack and defence right has been an issue for Jogi Löw almost throughout his career as Germany manager. Even in 2014, there had been problems early on before the introduction of Miroslav Klose gave them an attacking focus. Against Mexico and in the first half against Sweden, the defence had been overrun on the counter, a point Mats Hummels had apparently made to Löw even before the tournament began.
Then there was talk of splits in the squad. Germany’s success in the Confederations Cup the previous summer with what was effectively a reserve squad had been regarded at the time as evidence of the success of the prodigious German youth development industry, the endless conveyor-belt of talent coming out of the rebooted academies. But it created problems as Löw, when it came to the main event, fell back on old favourites, even though many of them were out of form. There was also the case of everybody’s favourite scapegoat, Mesut Özil, the usual criticism given additional edge by the fact he and İlkay Gündoğan had posed for a photograph with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the weeks before the tournament, something that outraged both right-wingers who felt it showed he still considered himself Turkish and left-wingers opposed to Erdoğan. Özil clearly felt let down by the German football federation and in particular its president Reinhard Grindel. “In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose,” he said after the tournament, saying he would not play for the national team while feeling himself the victim of “racism and disrespect”.
With the prospect of facing Germany in the round of 16 removed, Brazil ease through that evening with a 2-0 win over Serbia, while Switzerland draw 2-2 with Costa Rica to go through in second.
The tournament takes a breath. Colombia, after a disappointing first half against Senegal, go through thanks to Yerry Mina’s second headed goal in successive games, while Aliou Cissé’s team go out on fair play, having finished level on points, goal difference and goals scored with Japan, who lose 1-0 to Poland in a game that finishes at walking pace, with both sides satisfied with the result. That evening, a reserve England side loses 1-0 to a reserve Belgium, prompting a flurry of debate about whether Gareth Southgate was right effectively to invite defeat so as to go into the supposedly easier side of the draw.
You stay in Kazan, where the round of 16 brings France against Argentina. After the win over Nigeria, there has been talk of calm in the Argentina camp, of differences settled over an asado. Messi, it is revealed, had been given a red “Kabbalah” thread by the mother of one of the Argentinian journalists and wore it around his right calf against Nigeria. All, supposedly, is well. But the truth is that Argentina are a shambles. It is as though they have never seen Kylian Mbappé before, again and again leaving him with space to tear into. 13 minutes in, Banega gives the ball away 30 yards from the France goal, leaving Mbappé to go on a charge. He surges forwards, defenders unable to get near him until a panicking Rojo bundles him over. Griezmann converts the penalty.
That should have been it but France, for a side so focused on defending, are weirdly sloppy. Nobody gets out to close down Ángel Di María and he spanks the ball into the top corner from 35 yards to level the scores before half-time. When a Messi cross is deflected in off Gabriel Mercado early in the second, it briefly seems Argentina might be about to pull off an implausible win.
But this side is not the 1990 team. It does not have the organisation or the will. Just nine minutes have passed when Lucas Hernandez’s cross from the left scoots across a bafflingly empty box and comes to an unmarked Benjamin Pavard, who has got forward from right-back. He cuts across a first-time shot and, whether by accident or design, sends the ball arcing into the top corner. Instantly the game seems done. Mbappé scores twice, once with a sharp turn and finish in the box, once via a one-on-one, and although Agüero makes it 4-3 late on, there is never really a prospect of Argentina getting back into the game. L’Équipe hails the game as one of the five craziest in French history but, despite the scoreline, the fact is that there was only ever a window of around quarter of an hour when anything other than a France win seemed possible.
That evening Uruguay win the right to face France in the quarter-final by beating Portugal 2-1. A game that many had anticipated as the shithouse derby never lives up to its billing, in part because Uruguay aren’t that sort of team any more. When Óscar Tabárez became national manager for the 1990 World Cup, it was with a brief to clean up their reputation after the disgrace of 1986, when they became a byword for thuggishness. He made some progress with that, but it is since taking charge of not only the national side but also all of Uruguay’s youth development in 2006 that he has really been able to impose his vision.
Tabárez has not only taken his side to the 2011 Copa América and the semi-final of the 2010 World Cup, but has revised what it is to be a Uruguayan footballer. There is still a toughness about the new breed of player emerging from the programmes he has instituted, but there is also great technical quality. The likes of Lucas Torreira and Rodrigo Bentancur are a world away from Egidio Arévalo Ríos and Diego Pérez. Tabárez, forced now to walk with sticks because of a “chronic neuropathy”, keeps asking journalists at the World Cup how many fouls Uruguay committed in 1950 when they beat Brazil at the Maracanã to win the World Cup. The answer, he delights in telling anybody who would listen, was 11. In other words they had not kicked Brazil off the park. The courage and resilience they had shown that day did not manifest in violence; rather they defended well, and that meant not conceding needless free-kicks. For Tabárez, the whole notion of garra charrúa, that quasi-mystical quality of determination (literally ‘claw’) supposedly inherent in Uruguayans, had been misinterpreted. Restoring the 1950 meaning became his mission.
To a large extent, he has succeeded. The esteem in which he is held by his players is obvious and remarkable; there is something slightly disconcerting about the sight of Luís Suárez looking on with rapt attention while Tabárez takes an incident from the 1954 World Cup and uses it as a lengthy parable to explain how players should treat each other. Uruguay picked up only 0.6 yellow cards per game over the course of the tournament (it should perhaps be acknowledged that this new spirit was not quite so readily evident at the 2010 World Cup, when Uruguay picked up 11 yellow cards and two reds in seven games, or in 2014, when they collected eight yellows and a red in four games, as well as having Suárez suspended for biting Giorgio Chiellini).
Their performance against Portugal fits the new pattern perfectly. Uruguay take a seventh-minute lead following a long-distance one-two between Cavani and Suárez, the latter’s cross directed over the line by the pronounced cheek bone of the former. Portugal come back, level through Pepe eight minutes after half-time, the first goal Uruguay have conceded in the tournament. Just as it seems they will not be able to hold out, though, there comes another break and a graceful first-time finish from Cavani. Uruguay win 2-1, but Cavani is forced off with a hamstring injury.
You leave early the next day for Samara, seven journalists sharing a people carrier the 230 miles south. It’s a journey that takes six hours, including a half-hour stop for breakfast, and another 10 minutes to buy a plastic pint-glass of tiny wild strawberries from two women by the side of the road. A camper van pulls in behind you and disgorges three Germans who have driven from Thuringia. Before everybody moves on, they give the baffled women a French flag.
Samara was also once a closed city, the centre of Soviet space research. There is a Gagarin Park and a Gagarin Street and a rocket on a plinth outside the cosmology museum. The apartment you’re staying in turns out to have been built to house those who worked in space research, their names listed on a huge board outside. Each doorway is adorned with peeling photographs of space dignitaries.
That afternoon, Russia play Spain in Moscow. Their manager, Stanislav Cherchesov, causes consternation by dropping Denis Cheryshev, who has scored three goals since coming off the bench for the injured Alan Dzagoev 24 minutes into the opening game. Much is made of the fact that Cheryshev’s father has said his son received some sort of growth hormone in the build-up to the World Cup – quotes later denied – but for all the suspicion about Russia’s running stats, it seems it was a straightforward tactical decision as Russia switched to a back three.
Xavi had explained before Spain’s defeat to Italy at Euro 2016 why a team that likes to press high up the pitch, as Hierro’s side still just about did, found it difficult to combat 3-5-2. “When Italy want to bring the ball up, they have three at the back and two on the wings, for a total of five potential receivers of the ball,” he said. “Pressing the way that Spain like to do becomes really difficult. And playing with two strikers makes things difficult for us up-front, too, because both of our central defenders are engaged and one of the full-backs, Juanfran or Jordi Alba, has to push up to close on [Antonio] Candreva or [Alessandro] Florenzi. It leaves us with a three-man defence. It forces us to change our system to adapt to the opponent, which just makes it all more complicated.”
Cherchesov simply applies the same principle – and it works, even though Spain takes an early lead through Sergei Ignashevich’s own-goal. A daft handball by Gerard Piqué offers Russia a route back into the game from the penalty spot, one that is gleefully taken by Artem Dzyuba.
A year earlier, it had seemed highly unlikely that Dzyuba would be anywhere near the squad after he posted a photograph on Instagram of himself making a moustache under his nose with his finger, fairly obviously mocking Cherchesov, who had criticised him for withdrawing from the squad for the Confederations Cup with injury.
But with injuries ravaging already limited resources, Cherchesov opted to forgive. Dzyuba has always been a controversial figure, his whole career a series of gaffes followed by attempts to make up for them. He was born in Moscow in 1998 to a Ukrainian father, who worked as a policeman, and a Russian mother, who worked in a grocery shop. He joined Spartak as a boy, but his early promise was effectively undermined by an accusation in 2009 from his team-mate Vladimir Bystrov that he had stolen money from the dressing room. Dzyuba protested his innocence but was sent on loan to Tomsk.
Just as he began to establish himself back at Spartak, they lost 5-1 at home to city rivals Dinamo. When the media asked for an explanation, he replied: “Ask our trenerishka” – literally “our little coach”, but that does not quite give the sense of contempt expressed for the then-Spartak manager, Unai Emery.
Spartak loaned him out again, and again he scored goals: 17 of them, this time for Rostov. After a second loan spell there, Dzyuba gave up on Spartak, rejecting an improved contract to take even more money at their bitter rivals Zenit. That made him a hate figure for Spartak fans and so, in typical fashion, Dzyuba responded by scoring in four consecutive games against them.
The first two seasons at Zenit went well, with 28 goals in 55 starts, but nothing ever runs smoothly for long with Dzyuba. In summer 2017, he fell out with Zenit boss Roberto Mancini and started just seven games in the first half of the season. Furious, he asked for a move and was granted a loan to Siberian club Arsenal Tula, which felt rather like Zenit were making a point.
Dzyuba made a better one: Zenit asked Arsenal for £100,000 to field Dzyuba against them. The forward offered to pay half of it himself and then scored the equaliser in a 3-3 draw that effectively scuppered Zenit’s hopes of Champions League qualification and led to Mancini leaving in May. Dzyuba, meanwhile, had done what he had promised to do, and, scoring six goals in 10 games, played his way into World Cup contention. By the time he scores against Spain, he has become a cult figure, his trademark celebration of saluting with one hand while making a hat with his other (for no Russian soldier, apparently, should ever salute bare-headed) enthusiastically copied by fans.
At 1-1, Spain still seem in control. But there is a lack of urgency about them. They pass and pass and pass and get nowhere. Ignashevich, at 38, is magnificent. Russia resist. Spain have 79% possession. The Russian substitute Vladimir Granat comes on at half time and in the second half plus two periods of extra-time completes none of the five passes he attempts. This is a performance of heroic resistance, and very little else. And of course, as so often happens when one team has run into brick walls over and over again, when it has begun to lose faith in its method – a situation almost certainly exacerbated by Fernando Hierro’s unfamiliarity with his role, the absence of the sort of detailed knowledge of his side’s internal rhythms that would allow him to make meaningful changes, his lack of instinct for substitutions – it is unable to lift itself for the penalty shoot-out.
Russia’s penalties aren’t great, but Spain’s are worse. Hierro seemingly hasn’t prepared at all for a shoot-out and simply asks for five volunteers. Television cameras pick up Koke agreeing, tight-lipped, to take one and Diego Costa, who has been substituted, urging Hierro not to let him. When his weak shot is beaten away by Igor Akinfeev, Costa nods and mutters, “Told you.” And Akinfeev, for so long defined by the early promise on which he never quite delivered, known across Europe as the keeper who went 43 games over 11 years without keeping a clean sheet in the Champions League, is at last the hero, securing the win by turning away Iago Aspas’s kick with his trailing leg.
Spain’s exit, following so quickly from Germany’s, prompts much excited chatter on social media about possession football being over, which misses the point on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. To begin with, it’s the World Cup: it’s international football, which is far more random than club football and is almost entirely irrelevant in terms of leading the evolution of tactics. Given the lack of time available to national managers and the fact they are always having to react to strengths and weaknesses in their squad rather than proactively shape the squad to their own specifications, how could it be otherwise?
This is not 1958 when Brazil could suddenly spring the back four on the world and change how the game was played. It’s not even 1974 when the wider public suddenly woke up to Total Football. And even then, Brazil and the Netherlands were practising a mode of football that had been current in the club game in their countries for at least five years. Clubs are where innovation happens, and the World Cup used to be a showcase for that. Now, in an environment in which everything is televised and the vast majority of the best players and coaches have gravitated to a handful of clubs in western Europe, it is not.
The post-Cruyffian press-and-possess ideals that underpin Spain and Germany (and it’s not even as though this Spain presses anything like the World Cup-winning 2010 iteration) are still the guiding principles behind the league champions of Spain, Germany and England. They haven’t gone away, let alone been superseded.
Football is in a state of constant evolution. Teams have worked out how to play against possession-based sides. There is no longer the stigma there was a decade ago about having only a quarter of possession; that’s accepted as a way to frustrate an opponent who wants the ball. Pep Guardiola’s juego de posición is no longer a hegemonic mode, and hasn’t been for five years or so, but it remains a dominant form. “In 2008, 2010 and 2012 we had the players we had and we played at a level and in a style that nobody had done before,” said Hierro. “Now we’re in 2018 and many things have changed. Other teams are playing with a [defensive] line of five, which had been forgotten. There are also a lot of direct balls and quick transitions. Everything is changing.” All that is true, but Germany and Spain went out fundamentally because they played badly.
You go out to a Balkan restaurant recommended by a colleague to watch Denmark v Croatia. It is the worst night of the tournament. Only one of the televisions in the restaurant works and by the time they’ve worked out which channel the game is on, the score is already 1-1. For the next two and a bit hours, almost nothing happens. No food turns up, and the screen you can just about see across the fly-infested courtyard shows very little action. Kasper Schmeichel saves a penalty from Luka Modrić late in extra-time, but Modrić recovers, just about, to convert in the shoot-out which his side wins as three Danes miss from the spot. The drama, sadly, is ruined by the fact that the screen at the Fan Park down the road is ahead of the restaurant TV so you know in advance from the crowd reaction whether the penalty has been converted or not. As Samara celebrates Russia’s win, local infrastructure has gone into meltdown. It takes you an hour and half to walk home through a city so sprawling it makes Argentina’s midfield look compact.
The stadium in Samara is to the north of the city and surrounded by the biggest exclusion zone of any World Cup venue. Unless you fancied a half-hour trudge in 38°C heat, the only way for journalists to get there was by shuttle from one of the two Fifa hotels. Even getting there turns out to be a challenge given how security around the fan park has created a series of bottle-necks. When your taxi eventually turns up, the driver is raging. A car cuts him up at the first corner and so, as you whimper in the passenger seat, he sets about making his point, hurtling down tram lanes to try to get back in front of the offender. There is an icon stuck to the glove box, but even Christ seems to turn away, suggesting there is only so much He can do. When you come upon an accident blocking the road 200 yards from the hotel, the driver simply mounts the pavement. When you emerge, legs shaking, soaked in sweat, you are, frankly, amazed. St Cuthbert has done an extraordinary job.
For 20 minutes or so, it looks as though Mexico may trouble Brazil. Fagner, the third-choice right-back, struggles against Carlos Vela. But, as against Germany, they lack the cutting edge to turn promising positions into chances and chances into goals. Brazil look increasingly comfortable. In the second half, they switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2. Neymar begins to make an impact and, after a clever backheel releases Willian, he turns in the cross. This is good Neymar, using his ability for the benefit of the team. Almost immediately, though, comes bad Neymar, diving and writhing and feigning injury. So extreme is his reaction after he has been trodden on by Miguel Layún that sympathy is with the aggressor.
Roberto Firmino eventually turns in a Neymar shot that was drifting wide to seal the win, but the aftertaste is mixed. On the one hand Brazil were very good, holding Mexico at arm’s length, drawing their sting, but on the other Neymar was ridiculous, ruining the game as a spectacle and, perhaps, preventing Brazil capitalising on their superiority by breaking the rhythm of the game. That Neymar is a profoundly gifted player is not in doubt, but his insistence on seeing the world as a biopic of his own life means teams he plays for – unless they have the sort of stars and mentality of Barcelona – will inevitably become dependent upon him. This is a Brazil side packed with top-class players, not Liberia with George Weah; they have Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, Willian, Roberto Firmino, Marcelo… a host of great attacking players. Neymar should be the extra on top, but instead his solipsism means that despite Tite’s best efforts – and he is the most eloquent and impressive coach at the tournament – every game becomes about him.
You watch the first half of Belgium against Japan on another journalist’s phone on the shuttle back into town. You watch the second half on a screen in the lobby of the media hotel. You hadn’t expected much, but it turns into a classic. Japan score twice. It is exhilarating, but at the same time you feel a sense of concern. You will be back in Kazan for the quarter-final and you suspect Belgium will put up a much better fight against Brazil than Japan. Social media endlessly harps on about journalistic bias, but the truth is that there are only two things most journalists care about: being proved right and getting to write the pieces they want to write. That and getting home at a reasonable hour. Nobody likes extra-time.
Roberto Martínez throws on Marouane Fellaini and Belgium go long. They pull one back, then equalise and then, as Japan, recognising that they will not last extra-time, throw everything into one final attack, Belgium counter. Romelu Lukaku makes a brilliant decoy run and then dummies the cross and by not touching the ball manages to be the key players in Nacer Chadli’s winner.
You watch Sweden’s drab win over Switzerland in a bar down by the Volga, where sand has been added to the river bank to create a beach, then return to your apartment for England against Colombia. You have spent years not really caring about England, but this side has begun to stir something in you, perhaps because of its apparent humility, perhaps because of the presence of the two Jordans from Sunderland.
Colombia are weirdly dreadful, the loss of James Rodríguez and England’s vague competence tipping them into a frenzy of shithousery that should see Wílmar Barrios sent off for a headbutt on Jordan Henderson (two headbutts, in fact, one to the chest and one to the underside of the chin). Henderson’s reaction is embarrassingly exaggerated, not the sort of thing you want to see from a fellow Wearsider, but on the other hand he was clearly headbutted. As the referee Mark Geiger loses control, utterly out of his depth, England begin to take the law into their own hands and Colombia lose all sense of proportion.
By the time England win yet another penalty for grappling from a corner early in the second half, Geiger has been obviously waiting to give one. England have made clear wrestling is going on, he has lost patience with Colombia and Carlos Sánchez is foolish enough to haul Kane back right in front of him.
England at that stage seem comfortable, Colombia more concerned with bickering about Geiger than playing. But then Eric Dier is brought on and England drop deeper, inviting pressure. Colombia suddenly remember how good they are. Juan Cuadrado fires over after a Kyle Walker mistake, and then Jordan Pickford makes a stunning save from Mateus Uribe, hopping to his left and flinging himself up while extending his right hand to divert the ball wide. It may have been just drifting away anyway, but Pickford, surely, was right not to take the risk. From the corner, though, Yerry Mina scores for the third time in three games. Colombia are not only level, but Southgate’s attempt to protect the lead has left England unbalanced for extra-time.
England cling on, but gradually stabilise. They cannot score, though, and so face their fourth World Cup penalty shoot-out. They have lost the previous three. But this time it’s different. Southgate’s management has been characterised by good sense, and part of that has been actually to prepare for penalties. All five England kicks are good, even if there is a sense of inevitability about Henderson missing after he’d done keepie-uppies before planting the ball on the spot. At least, though, he forces David Ospina into a good save low to his left. Uribe hits the bar to cancel out Henderson’s error, then one Wearside Jordan bails out another by saving from Carlos Bacca. England win and Southgate, after a brief double fist-clench of celebration, confirms the general impression of his decency by making for Uribe to console him.
You head back to Kazan by minibus and at a breakfast stop get chatting to a family selling chickens and geese in the car park. The Mail’s Ian Herbert is desperate for content for his “Russian Around” column, but they are masterly at shutting down anything that might give him something to aim at.
“Have you watched the World Cup?” he asks the mother.
“No. Ask my son.”
A boy in his mid-teens wanders over. “Have you watched the World Cup?”
“But are people more interested in football now, with Russia doing well?”
“No. Russia has always been a football country.”
Sometimes, media training is simply innate.
You go to the stadium to watch Uruguay play France before the Brazil v Belgium game that you’re covering. Without Cavani, Uruguay lack the same threat they had demonstrated in their first four games and France go back to their group-stage mode, strangling the game. Lloris makes one outstanding save and Diego Godín mystifyingly misses the target from three yards, but France are comfortable and win 2-0. It’s all a little anti-climactic.
Your game, though, is spectacular, probably the best of the tournament. Martínez, so derided by the end of his time at Everton, pulls a tactical masterstroke. You spend the first 10 minutes of the game trying to work out what is going on. Brazil are playing their usual 4-3-3, but Belgium are doing something most unexpected. When you’d seen the team sheet, you’d assumed Nacer Chadli was playing at left-wing-back, but it soon becomes apparent this is a back four, with Jan Vertonghen at left-back and Thomas Meunier given licence to get forward on the right. But what’s the shape in midfield? Chadli is on the left of midfield with Eden Hazard ahead of him. Axel Witsel is in the middle with Marouane Fellaini alongside him, a little to the right. But what’s Romelu Lukaku doing? And where’s Kevin De Bruyne? Slowly, you realise he is operating as a false nine, while Lukaku is operating from a position on the right, cutting infield.
In the time it takes you to work out what is going on, Thiago Silva heads against the post from a corner and Paulinho misses his kick when well-placed at the edge of the box. But then, on 13 minutes, the wisdom of what Martínez has done becomes clear. De Bruyne drops deep from that centre-forward position untended, turns and slides a perfect pass through for Fellaini, clanking on a diagonal from the right. He is clean through and, although he never really looks like scoring, he wins a corner. Vincent Kompany jumps at the near post with Gabriel Jesus and Fernandinho, and it is the last of those three Manchester City players who gets the touch, deflecting Chadli’s delivery into his own net.
Brazil panic. Their passing goes awry. The left side, with Philippe Coutinho forced into a huge amount of work to cover for both Neymar and Marcelo, looks vulnerable as Meunier surges forward to link with Fellaini and Lukaku, whose movement, attacking the space left by De Bruyne, causes Brazil repeated problems. Then, just after the half hour, a second: Lukaku is the architect, picking the ball up deep in his own half and surging forward, going by Fernandinho and Paulinho before playing the ball to De Bruyne. He has time to measure his shot and, as he had done so often at City the previous season, he generates remarkable power from little apparent effort and the ball flashes past Allison’s right hand.
Tite rejigs at half-time. Roberto Firmino comes on for Willian. The shape, as it had in the second half against Mexico, changes to 4-4-2. Douglas Costa replaces Gabriel Jesus on the right after 53 minutes. Slowly, Brazil begin to impose themselves. The arrival, after 73 minutes, of Renato Augusto for Paulinho gives them a runner from midfield, and it is from precisely one of those surges that he heads in three minutes after coming on.
Belgium look like they’re rocking. Renato drives another good chance wide. Belgium dig in but they cannot entirely staunch the Brazilian flow. Neymar, who had had a quiet game, cuts the ball back and Coutinho fires wide. And then, in injury-time, comes Neymar’s chance, a clear shot from just outside the box. He doesn’t do much wrong, striking the ball cleanly and towards the top corner, but Thibaut Courtois makes an outstanding save. There is still a corner to defend, but Brazil almost visibly deflated at that save.
Tite is characteristically sensible afterwards, dampening the call for scapegoats. “It was a great game with two teams of incredible technical qualities,” he said. “Even with all the pain I feel now and the bitterness, I say that if you like football, you have to watch this game and you will have pleasure if you are not emotionally involved. Triangulations, transitions, saves, what a beautiful game!”
Had Belgium been lucky? “I don’t like to talk about luck,” he said. “It’s an educated manner of putting down people’s skills. They were skilful. They finished well. There was no luck. There was Courtois. Was he lucky? No, he did well.”
Martínez speaks of his pride in his side, how they won the game in two ways: first through the implementation of his tactical plan and then through their determination. Worryingly, though, he also says that whatever happens from then on, this will be the game of the tournament, that Brazil is something Belgium will always remember. He is right, of course, but it does seem to deflect from the semi-final, if not quite suggesting that that is an afterthought, at least implying that the biggest part of Belgium’s job is done.
You watch England’s game against Sweden in the apartment. It is a surprisingly simple win, and yet at the same time perhaps not quite so simple as it appears, given Pickford is called into three excellent saves. Once again, though, set-play delivery and aerial power prove key: Southgate, by focusing on passing the ball out from the back and a possession-based game, has somehow accentuated the most English of footballing virtues. Harry Maguire heads the first from a corner and Dele Alli nods a second from Jesse Lingard’s cross. Pickford’s saves mean England are weirdly untroubled.
You have a theory that the best round for a host to exit in is the quarter-final. Before that, and everything feels a bit flat; afterwards, everything becomes too fraught as the whole nation begins to obsess about their side. Russia do go out in the last eight, but only just. It’s another slightly strange performance from Croatia in which they don’t play especially well, but somehow manage to stay in the game long enough to turn it their way.
Denis Cheryshev puts Russia ahead with a strike that looks spectacular on first viewing. It remains so subsequently, but with the proviso that Danijel Subašić is out of position. Andrej Kramarić nods an equaliser from Mario Mandžukić’s cross before half-time and, as the game goes into extra-time, Domagoj Vida heads Croatia in front. But with three minutes to go, a huge roar rises up from the courtyard in the centre of your block of flats and enters through the kitchen window. A few second later, on your television, Russia’s Brazil-born full-back Mario Fernandes also heads in from a set-piece. You hastily close all the windows and shut all the doors so you can try to enjoy the penalty shoot-out without others watching on a channel with a shorter time delay ruining the suspense. Subašić is one of a number of Croatians who are clearly carrying injuries, but he does enough and his side becomes only the second in World Cup history – after Argentina in 1990 – to win two shoot-outs at the same tournament.
For journalists, the final week of a tournament is always the hardest. It’s not just because it’s the end, or because you’re weary after a month away from home; it’s because the games dry up, meaning there are more blank days in which there is nothing to react to at precisely the time when you’ve run out of new things to say. If you had an idea about how Croatia deploy their full-backs, or about why Paul Pogba looks so much better playing for France than he does for Manchester United, you’ve already used it. It should, in theory, be a period when there’s some down-time, when you can actually go and see a city rather than simply bouncing from training ground to press conference to stadium, but the truth is that you’re usually so mentally numb by then that you have no energy for tourism.
You bid farewell to Kazan. It has been a great World Cup venue, a distinctive and welcoming city that was fortunate enough to host, back-to-back, three dramatic and significant games, claiming the scalps of Germany, Argentina and Brazil. The train journey to St Petersburg will take 22 hours and 30 minutes, so you are understandably overjoyed to be joined in your compartment by a four year old who, for the first nine hours, is lively. Eventually he sleeps, and so do you: for 11 blissful hours.
When you wake up, it is your birthday. You celebrate with good coffee (you have brought a cafetière with you and there’s a water heater at the end of the carriage) and macarons. Your birthday falls in the final week of the tournament, by which stage everybody is always ready for a piss-up, so you book an Italian restaurant. It’s always a slightly fraught business, reserving a table for journalists: events always crop up; people are always being called away for press conferences or to write unexpected pieces; others suddenly arrive in town.
But roughly half an hour after everybody was supposed to arrive, 11 of the 12 seats are filled. The only person missing is the Guardian’s Barney Ronay. Eventually he sends a message. He is in a restaurant of the right name, but in Moscow, not St Petersburg. This is particularly problematic as he has been deputed to buy the embarrassing surprise cake, which he ends up sharing with his Guardian colleague Stuart James. They pronounce it “ordinary”. This, it turns out, is roughly the plot of the popular Brezhnev-era rom-com The Irony of Fate, in which a man gets drunk at New Year’s Eve and wakes up in an apartment that has the same address as his own in every respect other than the city.
The first semi-final is a little anti-climactic, which seems to be a theme with France. Belgium put them under some pressure early on and Chadli, operating at right-back in the absence of the suspended Meunier, briefly has the run of the right flank, thanks to the way Blaise Matuidi tucks in to balance Kylian Mbappé’s surges on the other wing. Lloris makes a number of useful saves, including one excellent one from Toby Alderweireld, but the only goal goes to France comes four minutes into the second half, Samuel Umtiti glancing in a right-wing corner. Umtiti and Varane both excel and, after their ploy of trying to exploit the aerial ability of Lukaku and Fellaini fails to yield reward, they rather run out of ideas.
You have anticipated that the journey to Moscow for the second semi-final will be chaotic and so have booked a business-class rail ticket. The station, though, is such a mess that you are mystifyingly prevented from boarding the carriage indicated on your ticket and directed to a different carriage where, in the general confusion, you sit down and hope for the best. A few minutes later you are evicted by Ray Houghton and Ronnie Whelan, who have actually booked those seats. The conductor directs you elsewhere but when you find the new seat occupied by a Chinese family who are – understandably – reluctant to move, a manager takes you back to the carriage where you had first tried to get on and sits you in the seat indicated on your ticket. In business class.
You head to the stadium. It doesn’t feel quite real that England are in a World Cup semi-final. You have seen the footage from home, the beer-throwing crowds, the bloke jumping off a double-decker through the roof of a bus shelter by Clapham Junction station (the last time you saw that camera angle was on CNN in 2011 when, covering the Under-21 World Cup, you were sitting in a hotel room in Medellín, praying the rioters didn’t turn west along York Road towards your flat). And you have seen the reams of comment the success has generated, teasing significance out of the nation’s apparent love of a group of multi-ethnic players who are, by comparison to their predecessors, seemingly modest and likeable, led by their quietly intelligent manager, Gareth Southgate. It all, frankly, seems a little hysterical.
You aren’t there of course – and you are reminded of the Irish columnist Con Houlihan’s line that he missed Italia 90 by being in Italy at the time – but your suspicion is that the reaction and the significance is massively overblown. In a heatwave, people like drinking in the street (it was also a cause of the 2011 riots). People like a team that wins. Of course, 28 years after England’s last World Cup semi-final, everybody’s going to make the most of it.
That said, the fact it’s all set against the backdrop of the political chaos of the collapsing Brexit negotiations, the resignation of a self-serving and malevolent clown of a foreign secretary and the imbecilic and lazy minister for exiting the European Union, and the visit of Donald Trump invests England’s World Cup run with the sort of ersatz importance often attributed to successful football teams of failing nations, a sense that in two or three decades we’ll all be watching documentaries about Seven Days in July, called something like When It All Came Home. And for those of us of an age to remember “Three Lions” first time round, there’s an undeniable frisson in remembering the Euro semi-final summer of 1996 when Britain was bright and confident and optimistic, contemplating not only the end of history but the end of a shambolic and decadent Tory government that had seemingly been in power for ever, and particularly the unspeakable poignancy of the line “England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away.” They certainly did that.
They throw it away on the pitch as well. Without playing especially well, England dominate the first half, taking the lead through Kieran Trippier’s free-kick but then failing to take advantage of their dominance. Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard both miss clear chances, but England are also unable to turn a number of promising positions into opportunities. Kane seems oddly sluggish while Raheem Sterling goes through his familiar World Cup ritual of working an opening with his pace and the intelligence of his movement before fluffing the final pass or shot. Worse, England gradually become over-reliant on Sterling as an outlet, as though seeing how the policy of hitting him early with long balls had unsettled Croatia, they decide to do it every time. The patience of the earlier rounds has gone and, as Croatia begin to apply pressure after the break, England become bad England again, unable to hold possession, unable to staunch the flow of Croatia attacks.
There seem two obvious solutions. Southgate could bring on Ruben Loftus-Cheek, a figure more likely to hold the ball than either Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard, or he could shift Sterling wide and play a 5-4-1 to prevent the Croatian full-backs advancing and creating two-on-ones against England’s wing-backs. He could even do both. But he does neither. Ivan Perišić gets in front of Kyle Walker to convert a cross from the right-back Šime Vrsaljko to level and Mario Mandžukić capitalises on a moment of doziness from John Stones to claim the winner in extra-time.
Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić both insist afterwards that they have been given extra-motivation by the “arrogance” of England which frankly seems a little odd, indicative, perhaps, of a Croatian inferiority complex, unable quite to believe that others aren’t looking down on them. There is something toxic about the England media bubble, and you feel your own enthusiasm for this England waning as you are thrust began into it, but there is in truth something toxic about most countries’ media bubbles. One of the weirder sights of the tournament was a group of French radio journalists, including Alain Giresse, arriving in a crowded press room before the semi-final and demanding six seats together be made available for them at the end of a table. Perhaps a polite request would have been met sympathetically (probably not; it’s a World Cup semi-final – if you want to get good seats, get there before it gets busy), but one simply stood over a bewildered journalist from the Wall Street Journal shouting “Radio Française” until he moved.
It’s hard to believe that players as experienced and successful as Modrić and Rakitić can really have been upset by a couple of former player pundits saying they thought England would win or missing the ironic self-deprecation of the lyric ‘It’s coming home…’. If Zlatko Dalić were able to spin that into something that would drag an extra ounce of effort from players who were clearly exhausted by the end, though, then he deserves credit.
And so to the final. Three stagnant days, feeling the pressure of Moscow, demanding to be visited, but feeling also a great lethargy compounded by the heat and humidity. You go for a couple of wanders. You visit the cathedral of Christ the Saviour and do the parkrun in Gorky Park which, like the one you had done in Kazan, comprises a large contingent of British tourists. You write your previews but your energy has gone and all you can think of is getting home and sleeping properly, living on a cycle that doesn’t involve going to bed at 2am.
You can’t really believe that a Croatia side apparently on its last legs can trouble a France side that seems barely to have stirred itself over the course of the tournament but for 17 minutes they come close. Then a soft free-kick leads to Mario Mandžukić heading into his own net and France are ahead before they’ve had a shot. Perišić pulls one back but a ludicrous penalty given for handball after a VAR review restores France’s lead. At half-time they lead 2-1 and, other than the penalty, still haven’t had a shot. They do score excellent goals through Pogba and Mbappé before Mandžukić capitalises on a Lloris mistake to make it 4-2.
But if the 4-3 against Argentina wasn’t quite as exciting as the scoreline made it sound, this was about as workaday as 4-2 wins get. And that was France all over. Clearly gifted, rarely in trouble, but somehow just not that impressive. Perhaps, as with 1998, subsequent events will cast a rosier glow on their World Cup triumph.
Great tournament? Yes. Great champions? Perhaps.