World Cup Diary Part One: Putin, Penalties and Partying Like a Russian.

For the duration of the 2018 World Cup we’ll be keeping a diary of all the happenings on and off the pitch, keeping abreast of the thunderbastards and the actual bastards, and casting our eye over the winners and losers at every stage. In Part One, we’re looking at the first four days of the tournament, as well as the unfolding drama a day before it all kicked off…

WEDNESDAY 13th JUNE 2018

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You’ve done all the hard work. You’ve whittled down the plethora of talent available at your disposal to the twenty-three best players from your nation. You’ve done all your homework on your group stage opponents, compiling dossiers and pinpointing each side’s strengths and weaknesses. You’ve meticulously designed training drills and game management plans to give your team the best chance of winning the most prestigious tournament in the game. Then, on the eve of the defining month of your career, you’ve agreed to take the top job at your country’s most divisive club and got yourself sacked. You also look like a young Chris Noth, so it’s not all bad. Yes, you are Julen Lopetegui, and you won’t be going to the World Cup. The Spanish Football Federation meted out that most severe of punishments after Real Madrid and Lopetegui went behind their back to secure the national team coach a new job after the World Cup, and were apparently notified just minutes before the announcement. In a fit of something between childish pique and masculine pride, President of the Spanish FA Luis Rubiales, the Lex Luther of the piece, announced at a hastily arranged press conference that Lopetegui’s contract (which had been extended weeks before the tournament) had been terminated. Hours later former Spain captain Fernando Hierro was announced as Lopetegui’s replacement. All before a ball had been kicked.

Oh, and at the FIFA Congress in Moscow, the joint bid from Canada, Mexico and the United States were awarded the 2026 World Cup, which is remarkably optimistic given the current strain in political relations between the three countries. At least the US will definitely qualify.

 

THURSDAY 14th JUNE 2018

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The World Cup has finally arrived, and even the most hardened cynics are giddy at the prospect of thirty-two days worth of international football. The Premier League, clearly desperate for attention having been sidelined for the past month, rush out the fixtures for the 2018/19 season, but not even the opening day ding-dong between Bournemouth and Cardiff City is enough to cure the planet of its collective World Cup fever. ITV’s coverage opens with some kind of Russian ballet motif, when really we all want Soviet brutalism and men in fur hats. Still, it’s nothing compared to the CGI rendering of a Russian Orthadox church in the ITV studio, in which Mark Pougatch is the priest and Ian Wright is the altar boy bringing the #bantz. While the opening ceremony doesn’t quite reach the heights of Diana Ross’ penalty miss in 1994, it does give us the frankly bizarre sight of Robbie Williams looking eerily like fascist vegan Morrissey, and banging out Let Me Entertain You and Angels like its 1998. Not for the last time, Russia 2018 feels like a timewarp. Having been outsung by native opera singer Aida Garifullina, Rob flips the bird to the camera and exits stage left to pick up his £350 appearance fee, leaving just enough time before kick-off for Vladimir Putin to get rinsed on social media for looking like a prudish burlesque dancer.

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When the host nation finally kick off the atmosphere is…surprisingly high-octane, particularly given the low profile opposition of Saudi Arabia, and in the opening stages Russia look convincingly like a competent football team. Then Alan Dzagoev goes down with a pulled hamstring, and those post-warm up speeches from Putin and Gianni Infantino look a little ill-advised. Still, the home side plough on, and by half-time they’re two goals to the good thanks to a header from Yury Gazinski, and a delightful finish from substitute Denis Cheryshev. The second half of the opening game feels a little flat, particularly because Saudi Arabia look awful. The centre-back pairing of Osama and Omar Hawsawi spend the game evading each other with passes, as if they’re trying to make the other look a right dick, and the Green Falcons struggle to put together a coherent move all game. Call it opening night nerves, call it intimidation by the lunatic despot in the stands (Putin, not Clive Tyldsley), call it a bad idea to go through three coaches in the run up to an international tournament. Still, it looked as though they might get away without embarrasment with twenty minutes left, but then Russia sent on Artem Dzyuba who headed in a third. As the clock ticked into stoppage time, Cheryshev scored his second of the game with an absolutely delightful finish, surpassing his only notable acheviement before the tournament of being the ineligible player that saw Real Madrid knocked out of the Copa Del Rey. There was still time for Aleksandr Golovin to add a fifth with a delightful free-kick which Saudi ‘keeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf waved into the net as if directing a Ford Focus into a particularly tight parking space. Russia looking better than many gave them credit for then, while Saudi Arabia have plenty to fear – if they show the same lack of application against Uruguay they could be in for a trouncing.

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The opening game left the watching world wanting more, but amidst the feel good factor of a successful start to the tournament, footage later emerged of a bear being driven around Moscow in the back of a truck playing a vuvuzela and giving fascist salutes. From 1998 to the nineteenth century in one afternoon.

 

FRIDAY 15th JUNE 2018

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After an opening match that was, let’s be honest, far more enjoyable than we were all expecting, the first full day of the tournament arrived on the plate of a salivating audience. The BBC’s coverage began with Friday’s lunchtime kick-off, as Egypt faced Uruguay in their first World Cup game for 28 years, and gave us our first glimpse at perhaps the most bizarre stadium in World Cup history. The Ekaterinburg Arena, the stadium furthest east in Russia, was renovated ahead of the tournament to meet FIFA’s capacity requirements by adding two stands that reach outside of the stadium, making it look like the shittest theme park ride of all time. Still, there were more people in those seats than at pitchside, suggesting the locals aren’t all that fussed about dicing with death at a football match.

All the talk leading up to the match was centered around the fitness of Mohamed Salah, but Hector Cuper wisely decided on keeping his talisman on the bench for the opener, not wanting to risk aggravating the shoulder injury picked up in the Champions League final. Without their star man, Egypt’s game plan was to stifle Uruguay’s dangerous frontline, and in a lacklustre first half they did the job, with Luis Suarez’s shot against the side netting the closest the South American’s came to a goal – though if you ask Jonathan Pearce, it was definitely in, as the erstwhile Robot Wars commentator followed up his 2014 World Cup meltdown over goal-line technology with a basic lack of understanding surrounding those big white metal posts. La Celeste came into the game more and more as the second-half wore on, and Edinson Cavani was unlucky not to open the scoring when his free-kick bounced back off the post. Just as it looked like Egypt were about to secure a precious point, Uruguay full-back Jose Gimenez headed a last-minute winner to send Oscar Tabarez’s team bezerk, and make Salah look very sad indeed. Egypt will surely now have to unleash their main man against Russia in order to stay in the competition.

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The second game of the day hardly promised goals, as two sides that conceded just two goals between them in qualifying met in the Group B opener in St Petersburg, with Morocco an outside tip to somehow make their way out of the group. Led by the sensual Herve Renard, Morocco made a bright start but struggled to break down Carlos Queiroz’s Iran. Unsurprisingly, Team Melli were more than happy for the game to descend into an attritional battle, but perhaps wouldn’t have expected to take all three points with a late own goal from Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz. The only thing worse than a tight, defensive game between two of the poorer sides in the competition was the revival of the dreaded vuvuzela – from the nineteenth century to a hellish reminder of 2010.

Thankfully the perfect antidote to that afternoon siesta arrived an hour later with the standout fixture of the group stages, as crisis-hit Spain met Portugal in Sochi. As if any added spice was needed for an Iberian derby, news emerged earlier in the day that Cristiano Ronaldo had received a two-year suspended prison sentence for tax evasion, and had been fined €16m by the Spanish authorities. Would that affect his performance? In a way, yes, as three minutes in the Real Madrid forward won and converted a penalty to give Portugal an early lead. So often the opening games are cagey and conservative, with the ‘interesting tactical battle’ label having been invented for this kind of fixture, but in a departure from the norm both sides went at each other from the first whistle, and in the 24th minute Diego Costa forefully brought Spain back into the game, palming off the attentions of Pepe before arrowing an effort into the bottom corner to level the scores. With Spain having played themselves into the game, and showing no ill-effects of having lost their coach two days earlier, it looked only a matter of time before they edged into the lead, but a minute before half-time an uncharacteristic rick from David De Gea allowed Portugal to regain the lead. Ronaldo’s daisy-cutter from the edge of the box arrived just as the Manchester United stopper was deciding between tangerines or satsumas as his half-time snack, and a weak wrist from De Gea saw the ball spill over the line, in scenes reminiscent of Rob Green against the US in 2010. That time warp must be on the blink.

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Spain emerged for the second half with the bit between their teeth and were level again ten minutes after the break with a slick set-piece routine that left Costa with a tap-in. Three minutes later, they were in front. An early goal of the tournament contender saw Nacho arrive late on the edge of the box to smash a volley into the bottom corner, and any preconceptions about Spain struggling under new stewardship were swiftly put to bed. The former world champions were exquisite in the opening stages of the second half, with Andres Iniesta rolling back the years in a deeper midfield role, dictating the play and allowing the magnificent Isco to run at Portugal’s creaking defence. With Ronaldo cutting a forlorn figure up front it seemed only a matter of time before Spain put the game to bed, but out of nowhere Portugal won a free-kick with full-time in sight, and the script we’d all read but hadn’t dared to believe was about to reach its incredible conclusion. Cheeks puffed out, calm personified, Ronaldo picked his spot and fired an inch-perfect thunderbolt into the top corner, single-handedly earning Portugal a point against their fierce rivals, in a performance of Maradona-esque magnitude. Love him or loathe him, what he may lack in humility he more than makes up for in ability. He is unquestionably one of the greatest players to have graced the game, and this may be remembered as one of his most iconic performances.

 

SATURDAY 16th JUNE 2018

 

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The day earmaked by every football pervert after the draw in December had finally arrived. The only day of the tournament with four separate games, kicking off at 11am BST and going on and on and on until 10pm BST. An absolute orgy of football, and one that started off with fixture that many predicted would turn into a snuff film. France’s attacking options certainly haven’t been understated, and in a bid to get off to an explosive start in Russia, coach Didier Deschamps opted for a 4-3-3, cramming as much forward momentum into his line-up as possible and straying from the 4-4-2 that served Les Blues so well in qualifying. Unfortunately, Australia’s Bert van Marwijk was wise to his opposite number’s plans, and what followed was 45 minutes of Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe being masterfully marshalled by the Socceroos backline. The game looked to turn just shy of the hour mark, as Griezmann went steaming in on goal and Aussie fullback Josh Ridson took both man and ball. After a short delay for a VAR decision, France were awarded a penalty and Griezmann stepped up to open the deadlock. France’s goalscorer-in-chief cut a frustrated figure throughout the match, perhaps because the previous evening he’d made a complete tit out of himself by releasing an announcement video confirming that he’d be staying at Atletico Madrid next season, the self-aggrandizing tosspot. And we thought the Halloween costume would be the most embarrassing thing he did this season. Minutes later Australia were level as Samuel Umtiti had a brain fart of his own and streched a hand at Aaron Mooy’s inswinging free-kick to gift van Marwijk’s side a route back into the game – Mile Jedinak with the cool finish. As the match drifted into its final quarter, Deschamps pressed the panic button and unleashed Olivier Giroud into the fray, the Chelsea man entering the field sporting a bandage on his bonce, presumably to cover his bruised ego. It was Paul Pogba, however, who forced the decisive moment of the game, as his pressure on Aziz Benich forced the Aussie defender to loop the ball over his own goalkeeper and in off the crossbar to hand France the victory with ten minutes remaining. A little less than convincing from Deschamps and co, while van Marwijk has clearly distilled the ‘spirit’ of his 2010 Dutch side, with Australia unafraid of getting physical with their opponents.

The lunchtime kick-off saw the opening fixture of Group C, with two-time winners Argentina facing debutantes Iceland. As expected, the Nordic side set out to frustrate Argentina and keep Messi quiet, having three men marking him at all times, but when Sergio Aguero lashed Jorge Sampaoli’s team ahead in the 19th minute it looked like being a long afternoon for Iceland. And yet, four minutes later Alfred Finnbogason scored the tiny nation’s first ever World Cup goal after Willy Caballero could only palm Hordur Magnusson’s effort into the path of the Augsburg striker. From that point on it became Argentina vs Hannes Halldorsson, and regardless of what the South Americans threw at the full-time music video director, Iceland’s number one was equal to it, including Lionel Messi’s 65th minute penalty. In truth it was one of the easier saves Halldorsson had to make, with the irritating side effect of stoking the ‘Ronaldo v Messi’ debate all over again. With 78% possession and 27 shots on goal, Argentina can’t afford to be this wasteful if they’re hoping to get anywhere in this tournament. Iceland, meanwhile, continue to confound expectations.

Saturday’s tea-time kick-off gave the world their first look at Peru since 1982, as the shortest team in the tournament faced off against the tallest, Denmark. That low centre of gravity certainly worked in La Blanquirroja’s favour, as they flew out of the traps early on and pinned the Danes back into their own half. Christian Cueva in particular was proving himself a nuisance to Simon Kjaer and Andreas Christensen, while veteren Jefferson Farfan wowed the fans who’d travelled from afar. A dominant first-half display from Ricardo Gareca’s men looked as though it would reap its rewards on the stroke of half-time, as the fourth penalty of the day was awarded for a strikers tackle from Yussuf Poulsen on Cueva. After a lengthy delay, the Sao Paolo stepped up for the penalty and channeled two iconic penalty missed by the absent Italians, first with a ludicrous stuttered run-up akin to Simone Zaza’s at Euro 2016, then with a shot that ballooned over the bar, shadowing Roberto Baggio’s failure in the 1994 final. As the half-time whistle went, Cueva was inconsolable.

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Despite that disappointment, Peru maintained the attacking onslaught in the second half, finding Kasper Schmeichel in inspired form. With the Peruvians throwing everyone forward, it was only a matter of time before they were caught on the break, and a slide-rule pass from Christian Eriksen found Poulsen racing clear on goal, and the RB Leipzig striker had the simple job of bending his shot round the onrushing Pedro Gallesse. That goal prompted Gareca into action, and main man Paolo Guerrero was introduced from the bench, having lacked the requisite match fitness to start the game. The red sashed shirts continued to attack in waves, but Schmeichel continued to thwart them, and Guerrero’s deft backheel effort that rolled past the post was the closest Peru came to breaching the Danish defence. Denmark’s celebrations at the full time whistle reflected the magnitude of the result – with plenty of football yet to play, this game nevertheless represented something of a second-place playoff, given the relative quality of France and Australia. For Peru, its looking like they’ll need two wins from their remaining games to have a chance of progressing – it’s a tall order, and it’ll be a shame to see such a fluid, exciting side exit the tournament early.

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Given events earlier in the day, the final leg of Saturday’s football marathon took on a greater level of importance, as both Croatia and Nigeria knew that a win would take them top of Group D and put them in a commanding position. Those who came into the tournament supporting a shirt rather than a team would have to wait to see Nigeria step out in their dazzling chevrons, as the forest green away shirt was worn to prevent a clash with Croatia’s classic ‘Family Run Trattoria Tablecloth’ shirt. Beyond their kits, Nigeria had little to shout about on an evening where those that build up the Super Eagles’ chances pre-tournament were left with golden eggs on their faces. A blunt and one-dimensional forward line for Gernot Rohr’s team caused Croatia little trouble, and an own goal from Oghenekaro Etebo in the first half, followed by ANOTHER penalty, this time from Luka Modric, in the second half saw the The Blazers home and dry with little fuss.

 

SUNDAY 17th JUNE 2018

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If Saturday’s four courses of football left us all feeling a little bloated, then an all-star cast on Sunday would surely act as a palate cleanser. First, though, we had to get Costa Rica v Serbia out of the way. On paper it looked the archetypal Sunday afternoon snooze in the Samara sunshine, but once the game kicked off there was a frantic pace from both sides, with Aleksander Mitrovic doing what Aleksander Mitrovic does best and putting himself about a bit, while Costa Rica showed they weren’t in Russia to make up the numbers as Michael Urena tested Vladimir Stojković. Goalless at half-time, Serbia stepped up a gear in the opening stages of the second half, and should have taken the lead when Sergej Milinkovic-Savic played in Mitrovic, only for the Newcastle man to see his effort bounce off Keylor Navas and away for a corner. Before they had the opportunity to wonder if that chance would come back to haunt them, Aleksander Kolarov’s inch-perfect free-kick rocketed into the top corner to give them the lead, with Navas grasping at thin air. Sinisa Mihajlovic would have been proud of that one. Costa Rica came into the game a little late on, with Schrodinger’s Footballer Joel Campbell making a nuisance of himself. Serbia, though, used a little ‘professional wisdom’ to break-up play, which mainly consisted of attempting to start a fight by the touchline as the clock ticked into injury time, and holding on for the win.

The World Cup holders finally got their defence underway in Moscow with what looked like the trickiest fixture in their group. Mexico topped the CONCACAF qualifiers, and coach Juan Carlos Osorio had allegedly been working on his gameplan to beat Germany ever since the draw had been made. Early signs were good, as Mexico refused to be cowed by their illustrious opponents, and Hirving Lozano in particular found a great deal of joy running at Joshua Kimmich, while second-choice left-back Marvin Plattenhardt on the other flank had a busy afternoon looking after Carlos Vela. Perhaps it was confidence, perhaps it was arrogance, but Joachim Low’s insisting on pushing his midfield into the final third and playing an extremely high-line would prove foolish time and time again, as Mexico broke at speed, with only some last minute challenges from Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng preventing a shot on Manuel Neuer’s goal. A breakthrough was inevitable however, and it came from the feet of Mexico’s brightest star. Receiving a pass from Javier Hernandez, Lozano, nicknamed ‘Chucky’ after the demonic doll from the horror films, cut inside Kimmich and fired a shot into Neuer’s near-post; like Child’s Play.

Early in the second half Mexico should have had the game wrapped up, as once again they broke quickly with two-on-one, but Hernandez’s final ball was poor, and Germany were able to come straight back at them. Mexico’s hero four years ago Guillermo Ochoa provided an encore of goalkeeping heroics to keep the champions at bay in the second half, and at the final whistle the seismic nature of the result was clear to see on the faces of Mexico’s players, as well as the earthquake sensors in Mexico City. The first big shock of Russia 2018 had arrived, and my word it was a biggun’.

That left bookies favourites Brazil to close the weekend against favourite neutrals Switzerland, with the Selecao boasting a devastating forward line of Willian, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar, and Neymar’s new hairstyle, which he apparently calls ‘Trump Goes to Wagamamas’. In the opening stages Brazil were all slick passing, direct movement, pace and skill, and Switzerland looked like lambs to the slaughter, but having survived the opening ten minutes,  Vladimir Petković’s team started to grow into the game, and the influence of Neymar in particular began to wane. But then, if one of Brazil’s world class players can’t hurt you, another one will, and it was left to Philippe Coutinho to produce a luscious curling effort from the edge of the box, kissing the post on the way in. Supporters clad in yellow and green could have been forgiven for expecting an onslaught, but with no further scoring by half-time, it looked like a low-key victory would be the best result for Tite and his team.

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That looked even more enticing five minutes in the second half, as Switzerland winger Steven Zuber engineered a yard of space in the Brazil box and headed Xherdan Shaqiri’s corner past Alisson to bring the Swiss level. That setback prompted Tite into action, and Brazil once again looked to find their rhythm in the face of staunch defending – Valon Behrami in particular keeping Neymar quiet. It took until the 77th minute for Brazil to have a shot on target in the second half, however, and the introduction of Roberto Firmino did nothing to enhance their goal threat, with Yann Sommer equal to each and every desperate Brazilian effort on goal. A disappointing start to the tournament for one of its most hyped sides.

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So its so far, so good, and while there’s perhaps only been one truly great game in the opening four days, there’s been plenty of narrative and intrigue to emerge from the performances of the so-called favourites, with France the only side to pick up a win in their opening game. Will we see a more disappointing performance than either Germany or Brazil’s?

England: ‘Hold our beers’.

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