Though the World Cup’s dissipating kaleidoscope may emancipate an oft-neglected prose, that of a pathologist’s diagnosis into the cause of each nation’s ailments, further objectivity is, inevitably, lost. Criticism of all 32, or, if so inclined, just the 31 sides that suffered defeat in Russia, is not unfounded, certainly, but often the temptation to obscure thought of all unqualified nations does exceed humility. Merely sparing a thought will not suffice – whether unbuttoning the mutilations of Dutch masters and Italian professori, circumnavigating American or Chilean humiliation, or dissecting the mystifying failures of the Marshall Islands, Madagascar or Timor-Leste, hosts when the cycle began in late March, 2015. The latter suffered the annulment of a 5-1 aggregate victory over Mongolia and the imposition of regulation 3-0 defeats after FIFA observed mass breaches of citizenship statues, if you had wondered.
No nation ranked lower than New Zealand (121st) extended their grasp quite as far, however. Accredited to the departure of Aboriginal playmates Australia from the Oceania Football Confederation, the All Whites, of course, qualify for Intercontinental Play-Offs by virtue of geography; now permanent occupants, since 2010 subject to pot luck in opponents. Last November, Peru propelled CONMEBOL decorum for another four years; following an Auckland stalemate, exasperated Andean intensity – disturbing the sleep of the Ferns from outside their Lima hotel – cast away all Oceanic mention.
Twice, they have defied logic. Before the 1982 World Cup’s expansion to 24 nations, only one OFC outfit had successfully secured passage to the finals (Australia, 1974) and the first match in a combined Oceanic-Asian Group 1 posed the Australasian duo in immediate antagonism; tribalism stoked. Birkenhead-born forward Steve Wooddin and 22-year-old midfielder Grant Turner had equalised in a frantic first-half, but captain, and moustachioed Lancastrian, Steve Sumner’s intervention was that which defied Australian brute force for the third time at a well-attended Auckland. Bemusing scheduling handed the New Zealanders three consecutive cross-continental trips before the Socceroos returned to action, hosting a replay in Sydney; in just nine days, inspiration translated in Suva, Taipei and Jakarta and striker Brian Turner, a relative veteran of the squad at 31, hailing originally from East Ham, bagged four en route to five further points. Wooddin’s ‘lethal’ left foot and a monumental header from G. Turner next secured an emphatic victory in their neighbour’s backyard, and historically enshrined belief had traded hands. The emasculated Aussies stuttered to slim victories elsewhere, but two days on from a 10-0 trouncing in Melbourne, Fiji – the Socceroos’ final hope – were thwacked 13-0 across the Tasman, Sumner bagging six.
Cast into a geopolitical melting pot with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and recently rehabilitated China to find two suitable qualifiers, inconspicuous Ferns were not out of their depth. The 60,000-capacity Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium, a bastion of propaganda amidst various anti-rightist and anti-corruption state campaigns under Chairman Mao, hosted New Zealand’s visit, and a dour 0-0. Auckland’s Mount Smart, humbly carved into a quarried dormant volcano and free of the grandstands future rugby internationals would demand, witnessed a 1-0 home victory in the reverse, with Tāmaki native Ricki Herbert’s finish to thank for a defiant advantage. Only four further Ferns points followed – two when securing draws with Kuwait and the Saudis, the latter via an 87th minute Herbert strike, but most vitally two further, along with five first-half goals, in Riyadh to finish level on both points and goal difference with the Chinese, hampered by a 1-0 defeat in Kuwait three weeks earlier. The heavily Anglicised voyagers – helmed by Fleetwood-born John Adshead and Rotherham’s own Kevin Fallon as assistant, with Liverpudlian Billy McClure in midfield alongside Duncan Cole and Maidstone-born Dave Bright partnering Londoner Bobby Almond in defence, bolstered further by Northern Irishman John Hill and Scots Sam Malcolmson, Adrian Elrick and Allan Boath – entered battle again with Chinese counterparts, this time in neutral Singapore, and, under heavy bombardment from a position of comfort, survived – 2-1, 19-year-old striker Wynton Rufer with the winning goal. Some, in the height of delirium, suggested that in footballing terms, ‘the smallest nation in the world had just beat the biggest’.
The tournament itself, after a then-record breaking 15-game, 55,000-mile qualification examination, was a subsidiary prize; drawn against the philosophically peerless, the geopolitically chastised and the downright repulsive in Brazil, the Soviet Union and Scotland. Continued perseverance – Grant Turner facing a tournament-curtailing injury before they even began – and technical excellence offered them a glimpse in their Malaga opener, against Jock Stein’s Scots, and despite trailing 3-0 at half-time efforts from Sumner and Wooddin had reduced the deficit to just one. That was as good as it ever got; John Robertson and Steve Archibald eased Scottish alarm before Oleh Blokhin and Zico-inspired outfits paid early deaths of Oceanic churlishness; the neurotic qualities securing formalities in 3-0 and 4-0 routs.
If nothing else, it was astounding that between an ideological titan of 270 million citizens, though a disillusioned and octogenarian-ruled rustbelt, and the cultural exporters famed on o jogo bonito and its oscillating proponents, scorched earth was not the lasting image across the near-magical part-Polynesian, part-tundra climate adopted by a smattering of endearing Brits. Other than the obvious economic subtexts to transglobal migration, those few early 20-somethings that did arrive on the islands had very few reliable excuses for their investment in the fervent ambition of a then-37-year-old Lancastrian, himself appointed after the best part of a decade spent coaching Western Australian provincial and state teams – the inevitable repercussion of any non-league playing career rescinded at 22 by debilitating injury. On the flight to Spain were 22 semi-professionals, only five at the time employed offshore. Sumner and Boath with West Adelaide Hellas, Wooddin with South Melbourne, goalkeeper Richard Wilson, famously ever-present in qualification but dropped in Spain, at Preston Macedonia and Glenn Dods with Adelaide City, the 1977 inception of the Australian National Soccer League (NSL) – an innovation in PR, steered initially by the signature of Dixie Deans and loans of two Brits on the crest of transfers to European Cup winners, Graeme Souness and Justin Fashanu – captured the imagination of administrators, exposure to marginally superior professional standards deemed an invaluable asset. Only Wilson and Dods lasted more than two sparsely-attended seasons, the odd frisson of top-four favour interspersing mid-table obscurity.
Quite whether the NSL – finally disbanded in 2004, following two and half decades’ administrative flip-flopping, financial hardship and haemorrhage of any half-decent youth (half being the operative word, admiring Tony Popovic’s talents) – can be disparaged as a greater obstruct to Australian or New Zealander fortunes can be adjudged via a simple barometer, the perpetual fascination of each with the concept. If the Aboriginals and, less so, Māoris had suffered from the repossession of provincial responsibility by those the latter term the pākehā, the European population, in all other stratums of society, then the injustice against indigenous values was hereby unprecedented on the sporting field. Even if still a time of grand injustices in many sports – only two members of the winning squad of the inaugural Rugby World Cup, hosted in the nation in 1987, being of Māori heritage – the colonial undertones football certainly resonated at such a stage could have faced a significant social backlash, if not for the sympathy of the middle-classes. Football Kingz FC – named, evidently, with as much in the way of respect for royal lineage as the Sydney Kings dealt leniency in their initial accusations of copyright inflammation – were formed in 1999 as a hopeful speculation, one that did not relent when the NSL clattered down five years later, with A-League membership procured under the noble banner of the New Zealand Knights. Though Adshead returned as coach and future national team captain Danny Hay was enticed back from spells at Leeds and Walsall to skipper the squad, these servile chess pieces had an even shorter life span of just two 21-match seasons, fraught with neighbouring mockery and local apathy, Adshead resigning and Hay jumping ship within months. As a façade for the promotion of homegrown prodigies, it neither sustained a programme to fruition nor prospered with existing abilities, finishing rock bottom in both A-League editions, asphyxiated by the hovering executioner’s block offered by Football Federation Australia (FFA) authorities.
Yet the experiment lives on in spirit, if, fortunately, not by design. Wellington Phoenix are a known and esteemed quality in the A-League, external observers often even blissfully unaware of the roughly 2,000km that is added to an astounding 3,280km one-way commute to Sydney any time the Perth Glory squad come to visit. It has scarcely been easy, but at least Phoenix, once rising out of spiteful ashes, remain.
In keeping with its predecessors, Phoenix’s history persisted with the costly struggle that New Zealand Football – before the corporation came to its senses, then New Zealand Soccer – consider predestined, eliciting cynicism from Australian fans as administrators stressed patience and altruism. Not before Eleftherios ‘Terry’ Serepisos’ intervention did the franchise seem financially tenable, with the Greek-born property developer, renowned locally for his company’s development of the Wellington skyline and banking sector, investing an initial 1.2 million NZ dollars to raise the project off the ground, an eleventh-hour intervention. Serepisos, well-connected and idiomatic, with permanently frayed shirt collars and stubble adorning a tawdry grin, flung himself into the ownership role with audacity; welcoming David Beckham and LA Galaxy to the Westpac Stadium a month before their A-League debut. Saddled also with horse racing and basketball interests in the city, the 44-year-old had almost free rein as sole owner, the last-minute prop to NZS aspirations, yet found that the steed he projected as a worthwhile endeavour erred too often as a heaving, insurmountable white elephant. Admitting that the club was not profitable in its first two seasons, Serepisos pledged to court stability as performances progressed – the aforementioned Herbert combining his role as White Ferns boss with modest A-League ascendancy – and in the 2009-10 season entered high altars of Australasian sport, a lecherously masculine abode, by finishing fourth. Guaranteed of a berth in the post-season play-offs, used to determine a divisional ‘premier’, they cast Perth Glory and Newcastle Jets aside in the semi-finals and, with one match to decide if the emergent force of sides placed 3-6 can defy either of the top two, fell 4-2 to seasonal champions Sydney FC. Whether essential principles were compromised en route was for conscientious neutrals to adjudicate, as national team striker Shane Smeltz had departed to Gold Coast United, where he defended his title as top goalscorer, and Phoenix began the season with the maximum capacity of seven overseas players, equalled only by North Queensland Fury.
Serepisos’ business instincts likely advised unpopular measures. Squabbles over ethics were petty if ensuring the Westpac, a metallic monstrosity known locally as the ‘cake tin’, finally sold out to its 34,500 capacity, as achieved against the Jets. Neither did the measures drastically alter Herbert’s ability to ensure an acclaimed qualification for, nor a famously unbeaten run at, the 2010 World Cup.
Fortunately, the inception of the A-League had aligned, in a perceived new wave for Australian football, with the nation’s induction into the Asian Football Confederation. 2010 was the litmus test for how a post-op OFC would fare, and rather than be drawn against North Korea (automatic qualifiers), Saudi Arabia (defeated on away goals in an AFC play-off) or Iran (finishing fourth, behind the Saudis) from Group B in Asia, unheralded Bahrain were NZF’s intercontinental play-off opponents. Six days earlier, Phoenix had drawn 1-1 with Perth in front of fewer than 7,000. Having blanked the first leg in Riffa, Herbert’s White Ferns held the nation in suspense; the Westpac packed to the rafters, truly the ‘Ring of Fire’, for a floodlit decider, almost on the International Date Line. Rory Fallon, son of 1982 assistant coach Kevin, striker with Plymouth Argyle and only earning his third cap at the age of 27 after a three-year dispute with FIFA about the legality of changing nationality from earlier caps for England youth squads, headed in from a corner a minute from half-time, while Mark Paston swallowed up a 51st-minute Bahraini penalty. The greatest eruption was left for the final whistle, however – the bottleneck loose, each elated contributor was equal, from the six Phoenix players to a 17-year-old Chris Wood.
Qualification less a monumental feat than a display of capitalist potency, more was expected of the nation in South Africa than the semi-professionals of three decades prior. Yet reminiscence of former adversity was observed; the part-professional New Zealand Football Championship (NZFC), founded in 2004, holding strong influence. Sparingly used in his later years in the Dutch Eredivisie, 33-year-old defender Ivan Vicelich eased into retirement with Auckland City, while third-choice goalkeeper James Murdoch and midfielder Andy Barron plied their trade for Team Wellington, the uncapped Aaron Clapham emerged through Canterbury United ranks and free agents David Mulligan and Simon Elliott travelled opposite directions through the revolving doors of an increasingly erratic Phoenix. Barron gained notoriety as the only semi-professional to make an appearance at the tournament when introduced for a minute’s action against defending world champions Italy, yet for such a particular vision to consume a campaign was disingenuous; even if only scoring twice, repelling defeat from either chagrined Italians, stoic Slovaks or inventive Paraguayans encapsulated superb focus, tactical programming and cohesive priority from Herbert. Demoralised at the previous summer’s Confederations Cup (a 5-0 opening thrashing at Spanish hands a scathing assessment), and on the verge of capitulation at Phoenix, it was not only a performance of quirks and imponderable fortitude, but also of psychological adversity, central to New Zealand sport, that potentially cemented football’s position alongside naturally preferred codes.
The financial crash had enfeebled the nation, even if not to the extent of the Northern Hemisphere, creating hostility for businesses as banks struggled to access international markets and consumers faced the pinch. Serepisos may not have fallen into bankruptcy by the diminished demand for high-rises, but preoccupation with tenancy of Donald Trump’s chair in The Apprentice New Zealand and a failure to fulfil on $260,000 of Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) player levies by September 2010 had left the very future of Phoenix in turmoil, and his ability to transform the club into a profit-making business moribund. Whether the ACC debts were the result of a legal complication with being New Zealanders in Australian competition – A-League regulations stated private medical insurance had to be bought in Australia itself, with ACC demands effectively doubling demands – as Serepisos argued or not, further revelations only confirmed administrative incompetence; after ensuring sufficient payment to the ACC, $1.4m in ‘overdue rates and ground leases’ owed to Wellington City Council broke into public consciousness. A $900,000 loan from ASB Bank, sponsors of the NZFC, had been procured in April to ease immediate concerns, but now the statements of assurance were incapable of masking disorder.
Rather than abandon a third unscrupulous project, however, fans (the famed ‘Yellow Fever’), players and management – Herbert allegedly short of $100,000 in wages from the club in the twelve months that followed – banded together in defence of an entity that over the previous few seasons had become a family, not a franchise; Phoenix, a name originally selected by fans, resonated deeply still. If their support was evident, the business community could deliver the vital intervention, ensuring sense prevailed. And so, the nation – crippled by its third-deadliest natural disaster in history in the February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake – entered its fifth era of footballing affair; succeeding unease, inspiration, imitation and blind ambition, autonomy prevailed. Previous indignation characterised by social exclusivity, administrative righteousness, the limitation of benefactors and moral antipathy was replaced by a consortium of national investors under the portmanteau Welnix, many with well-worn emotional attachments to the club, or to the transcendent heroism of 1982 and 2010.
Only today they have run into what some elements consider disrepair. With Football Federation Australia (FFA) continuing to demand a four-to-five-year renewal of league licences, dependent on factors including attendances, competitive performance and financial security, an inevitable three-pronged insurgence gathers around the perfectly spherical Westpac fortification at the end of each season. Welnix’s economist flanks exerted omniscient influence amidst successive middling league finishes, with favour for free transfers unbroken while the monied gentry, particularly of City Group’s Melbourne City, formerly Melbourne Heat, fed on the ample advantage of the division’s marquee player policy – introduced in 2013-14. A trough gilded with splendiferous matchday attendances and membership figures – led by indomitable force Melbourne Victory, but pursued by Russian-owned Sydney FC, the once-FFA-propped Western Sydney Wanderers, wishful in their fan-first rhetoric, following a $10 million 2014 buyout, and fellow Victoria-based Emirati playthings City – allows the aforementioned to gorge. Given a four-year licence reprieve in 2016, Phoenix remain left with the scraps of the feast before them. A spark of hope flickers, however.
On the horizon, potentially, looms the redemptive possibility of an independent A-League, freed from FFA chains, as the Premier League was of the FA in 1992. While present hierarchies appear intent on shielding their pawn by exercising further conservatism within immovable abacuses and fanciful capitalist desires beyond majority Australasian means, fans are wrangling to be free – especially those threatened by external franchise proposals, at least one reportedly from Tasmania – and to live without constant fear. Admirable sentiment, but not for one fanbase or club to promote alone, especially if the smallest of the small fry, Wellington.
Fortunately, administrative uncertainty is not an unknown commodity to fans of New Zealand football. Post-2012 OFC Nations Cup mortification (finishing third to Tahiti and New Caledonia), 2014 World Cup qualification failure (to Mexico) and Herbert resignation, the Ferns were stewarded by 33-year-old American-born Brit Anthony Hudson across senior, under-23, U20 and U17 ranks. Chagrin first piqued when Olympic Qualification at the 2015 Pacific Games saw the ‘Oly Whites’ expelled at the semi-final stage after defeated opponents Vanuatu lodged a protest to FIFA on account of Deklan Wynne’s eligibility; South African-born and only recognised as a NZ citizen under FIFA’s eyes at the age of 19, not 18 as necessary for Olympic entrance, after emigration aged 14, Fiji qualified for the men’s tournament in Rio instead. Resultantly deprived of Wynne and others from his experimental selection, dropping Clayton Lewis over fears of doping violations and lacking preparation matches ahead of the 2016 OFC Nations Cup, Hudson nonetheless steered the vulnerable powerhouses to victory and Confederations Cup qualification. Enhancing the reputation of the national set-up at home and abroad, Hudson was praised as a coach who affirmed the White Ferns’ position in the globe – supporting Darren Beazley’s and Danny Hay’s under-20 and U17 squads in respective 2015 World Cups, both reaching knockout stages, the former when hosts of the tournament – finally delivering a realisation to New Zealand Football of the inefficiencies of their hypocritical faith in Phoenix – raiding club resources for personal means – and fixating his philosophy around the abundance of youth. Professional standards and untainted vivacity revived internal spirit, but even he was tempted away easily after widely foreseen defeat to Peru, demoralised even at the early stage of a long-term vision.
NZF chief executive Andy Martin was forced, just last month, to resign – and “retire”, aged 51 – from his role amidst the mounting controversy of aforementioned administrative miscommunications and an internal investigation into allegations of bullying, intimidation and a culture of fear created by women’s coach and national technical director Andreas Heraf. Swiss coach Fritz Schmid – formerly a well-travelled aide of Christian Gross at Grasshopper, Tottenham and Basel – has stepped into toxic confines in Hudson’s wake, but was at least fortunate his competitive debut was at a distance from the embers of angst; a 1-0 friendly defeat to Canada in San Pedro del Pinatar, a Spanish coastal resort, in March. At the Intercontinental Cup, a squad of much-anticipated under-21s secured creditable victories over Chinese Taipei and hosts India after suffering defeat to Kenya – only the fifth and sixth victories against non-Oceanic opposition in the 2010s after friendlies against Serbia (2010), Honduras (2012) and Oman (2015) and the 2013 OSN Cup in Saudi Arabia. They now have youth pursuing aspirations in England, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark and coast-to-coast America, with Hudson taking Wynne and Kip Colvey to Colorado Rapids alongside Tommy Wright. Some still remain on pathways set in the 1990s, enrolling on US Collegiate programmes before breaking into the MLS, with the NZFC in rude health after the 2016 addition of Auckland’s Eastern Suburbs and the Hamilton Wanderers, headed by Herbert in an overdue national return. Though Auckland City have the last five regular season championships and featured in the previous seven consecutive FIFA Club World Cup tournaments, Team Wellington broke their dominance in the OFC Champions League this season by eliminating their perpetual rivals at the semi-final stage and swarming to a pulsating final victory over Fijians Lautoka; former Guernsey FC striker Ross Allen scoring in both legs, 10-4 on aggregate, to secure a place at December’s latest Club World Cup instalment.
As FIFA reveal plans to remodel both the Confederations Cup and Club World Cup, however, where do conflicting interests leave the nation at the corner of the globe – the ostracised oddity, victims of the record number of Confederations Cup defeats (11) and producers of the most wooden spoon claimants in Club World Cup history (nine, six of those going to Auckland City)? Confed Cup 2021 already generally accepted as posing undue logistical complication, what with searing Qatari summer heats, and a revamped 24-team CWC, introduced in the international tournament’s absence, courting favour amongst FIFA officials keen to cash in on the mounting fortunes of club football - $25 billion allegedly pledged from investors to see a four-year cycle’s UEFA Champions League winners, finalists, Europa League victors, etc., vie for global dominance above the faux honour currently available – the OFC expect marginalisation, if not total eradication, from the international scene. The edict hails from the very top; Gianni Infantino an eternal European, hubristic with the pretence of astute judgement, severing ties from Sepp Blatter not only in refuting corruption claims, but in halting subsidies and interventions on part of the internationally inconspicuous. Quite whether billions leached from Arab-hosted summits of club elites and a three-way, 48-team World Cup would be poured into remunerations for evicted working classes or not, media sycophancy and public apathy towards this administration should elicit concern. Do not be dazzled by stardom, nor solicit sodomy as the global body splinter confederations on pre-existent socio-economic grounds. A productive diaspora aside, all football may see of New Zealand is an attendant of 2026 – when the OFC will be graced to one whole qualification place – by technicality alone, a minnow lost amongst the cacophony of politics and dissent. Yet if even their closest, conceited neighbours desert them, graciousness is not a commodity upon which the nation can rely in any vacuum.
Realistically, though internal professionalism may prove paramount, they will never possess the capabilities of counterparts ingrained in provincial culture. Transfixed youth are occupied by rugby in winter and cricket in summer, able to progress under the wing of prestige generations of yore have carved out, and to extend this legacy; shades of Richard Hadlee in Trent Boult, Kane Williamson inheriting from Brendon McCullum, George Nepia, Colin Meads and Jonah Lomu laying the foundations for the success of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams. Traditions are changing – football now the third most popular sport in secondary schools for both genders, and futsal on the rise. Translating such impish ascendancy will resonate throughout a reformed NZF, idolising reprisal in 2022 qualification. The nation’s destiny has never been so ably carried by its own sons and daughters, but the goalposts, equally, refuse to settle. Even for a modicum of success, the trial is unerring. Nostalgia is no evil, while few would begrudge preoccupation with a stable future – seldom have the two islands been granted merriment in the present, however. Some things never change, but hope never dies.
The sightscreens entering, the perspective narrowed. 16 nations departed – the defending heavyweight champions felled – and with wheat came chaff, with the whey the curd. Much was more palatable than in vintage events, with Peru’s reprisal emotional, Senegal’s fortune mislaid, Iceland unbounded, and Iran and Morocco harassing Iberian partners to the brink of indignity; few had reason to be crestfallen, but condemnation smothered debate.
The remaining forces, encamped in various logistically anguished positions across this vast battleground state, would not relinquish their berths lightly. Swathes of footballing woodland had been cleared to make route for Europe’s elite, and for appealing prospects from the Americas, the most evident of which were unfortunately drawn together. Now the blows were truly set to land.
Round of 16
While the final round of group games had moot welcome, and even smaller acclaim – England and Belgium rendered base, Senegal suffocated against Colombia, Japan and Poland, after France and Denmark, exchanging farcical conservatism – a chlorinated tonic frazzled the eyes of the onlooker as we progressed. France met Argentina and all normality was released. Antoine Griezmann’s early penalty was a formality, threatening to castigate all Albiceleste dignity and establish a rout; instead, Lionel Messi’s underlings crawled further from the incredulity of Jorge Sampaoli’s management. Angel Di Maria rifled home the equaliser, Gabriel Mercado registered the second, but still, even with Messi as an unbridled marksman, the CONMEBOL outfit buckled, with Christian Pavón’s action ill-fitting, Javier Mascherano exposed as irregular midfield partners were drawn wide and Franco Armani reasserting his inexperience by conceding a decisive third, a first for Kylian Mbappé.
The Argentines were not brought just to entertain – though they did achieve just that. Prone to calamity and hardwired to inconsistency, seldom sufficiently panning to their icon, and also idolising history, they wear their badge with pride; beyond even the Germans, the poorest performers in this tournament.
Few could gorge further that evening, but Uruguay and Portugal demanded investment; to impress upon all the value of tactics, if the previous event had forgotten all rules. The adage was that of attrition – both nations gradually eroding on Atlantic coastlines, both rich in culture that near-neighbours mock – and at least on one side, those present were willing to provide it. Oscar Tabárez, hauled out of a touchline stoop at any necessary call, eked every ounce out of a collective founded, if not pursued, on diasporic perspiration; Fernando Santos, withering when statuesque in immediate view of disciple Ronaldo, did not. Instead, Real Madrid’s bygone talisman assumed the chalice of Judas Iscariot. Distracted and troubled, he could not penetrate the smokescreen cast by Atletico Madrid’s defensive heart as he had routinely done so before. Essentially, this was the same opposition; a 4-4-2, albeit formed in a midfield diamond and requiring more lateral movement from striking centrefolds, intent on disrupting opposition before themselves counter-attacking to fruition.
And what made the Portuguese task even harder was the formulation of what will remain unsurpassed as the greatest team performance in the entire tournament. Edinson Cavani’s opening finish would have proven a feat of agility incapable of any other striker in the entire competition, firstly. The pass that created it, from the boot of Luis Suarez, could not have been provided by any other strike partner. There are no other strikers of their calibre, yet they sacrifice their club inclinations to create a ten-man defensive bloc – one that only offered a chink in its armour from a well-taken set-piece, an equal dead-ball situation. Portugal did not offer vast lapses themselves, but did not exceed capacity – European champions, all they had at centre-back was a duo that resigned from English and Spanish divisions once their use was expended, all they had to support Ronaldo was a misfiring big-money forward at a misfiring, big-spending club. Toil as they may, but the nation of navigators – so reinforced by their rare nickname – could not fracture the inhabitants and bastions of a nation never usurped, falling not to indignity, but to a familiar void.
Jostling independently now of their Iberian counterparts, Fernando Hierro’s Spain entered the realm of the indigenous, unfancied by few. Many suspected the pragmatism evident in ties with Iran and Morocco to be rescinded, and Russia’s realistic capabilities demonstrated more in defeat to Uruguay than victories of alternative foundations against Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Alas, the tie revealed far more than the statistics at first available. Andres Iniesta was absent from a Spanish starting XI in the first instance since injury removed him from contention in their second group game – against Honduras, as Vicente Del Bosque had to rework his entire tactical philosophy – in 2010. Hierro showed immense courage to enact the evergreen Castilian’s withdrawal. Yet recompense did not show; Koke, his replacement, was lacklustre throughout, and carried doubts into his penalty responsibilities. When the moment was due, the Atletico captain’s glaring miss was inevitable.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s incorruptible demeanour was translated, unperturbed, by every individual bestowed with the sceptre of political expectation, let alone social optimism, lurking in one’s shadow. Dopers – as accused by some international elements – or not, how fixated their focus was on perpetual Spanish frustration deserved great acclaim. The sole instance in which this extended itself to illegality was punished, but fortune also transpired in the form of Artem Dzyuba’s penalty.
As the ramparts were drawn, rather than a Spanish inquisition, futile midfield interchange emerged. 78.9% possession – only marginally exceeding the 78% Argentina smothered noble challengers Iceland with, as Hierro’s side also did Iran, to claim the title of greatest single share in this tournament – would not be constructive if dominated overwhelmingly on the half-way line, nor an astounding 1115 passes in 120 minutes, if only 16 of them had a recipient in the opposition 18-yard box. Diego Costa only managed three shots, the three attack-minded players behind him three altogether. As efforts mounted in extra-time, with Russian legions floundering, Igor Akinfeev offered all the energy a goalkeeper stores in reserve – while David De Gea did not make a save in open play or from a quintet of penalties, the CSKA Moscow skipper only surpassed himself in a decisive shoot-out. 110 international appearances had only brought the Muscovite four prior penalty saves – the most recent from Qatar’s Ibrahim Majid in a November 2016 friendly – but from Iago Aspas, his intervention, his flailing left foot, vanquished another presumed pining champion. Vindication for Russia’s hosting, if not earlier evident, now had arisen.
Boxsets of monumental defensive fortitude do not fly off the shelves, however. For a tactical stalemate, primarily dictated in midfield, between Denmark and Croatia not to ensue that evening, individual brilliance would have to impart its perspective. Few such signs had, earlier in this knockout round – Mbappé aside. Or, if to seize an advantage by the 30-second mark, a centre-back’s weak back-post slice from a deep throw-in. 1-0 Denmark. Or, if equalising by the fourth minute, a free six-yard strike laced with the fortune of a defensive deflection. 1-1.
Otherwise perfectly counterbalanced – the Balkans more offensively-orientated, the Danes reliant on physicality and aerial threat – each made attempts at victory in 90, and indeed 120, minutes, but above their individual constraints, Kasper Schmeichel – mentally conquering Luka Modrić from 12 yards – and the substantial Croatian defensive ballasts of Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida repelled disorder. For either nation’s historic attacking remembrance – the forms of Davor Šuker, Robert Prosinečki, Zvonimir Boban, the Laudrup brothers and Jon Dahl Tomasson cast in iron and bronze, overlooking the training halls of today’s heroes – modern chapters would be etched in the image of stubborn rearguards. More so, Danijel Subasic and Schmeichel would enter alone, and though one departed a victor, both stood, if for a brief glimmer, as equals; elevating personal performance to standards impenetrable against commodities valued as epoch-defining. As far as either was accountable for the length of the farcical shoot-out, Nicolai Jørgensen was the first to twitch before even stepping up and sent his nation home. Positivity paid, but only narrowly.
Ambling to victory over Costa Rica and Serbia, would-be, almost self-coronated champions Brazil had poured on marginally sufficient pressure to escape the group stage. Qualification had been an ease, last-minute winners seldom required, but evidently the psychologically scarring of four years earlier wore heavy on many frozen souls in prior eventing. Tite was forced into monotonous alterations by injury and desperation – Roberto Firmino, Douglas Costa, Casemiro, on. Where qualification, the first task of the internationally unbridled helmsman, afforded liberal innovation, they had not surpassed all overbearing expectation. As passage was guaranteed, the Seleção faced consecutive draws in Colombia and Bolivia, while the average time of their opening goal had slipped back from (roughly) 28 minutes before qualification was assured to the 65th in the four latter outings. Forgivable then, but not now.
Arduous viewing was guaranteed with this Brazilian outfit – a stereotype broken. Even Juan Carlos Osorio’s once-majestic Mexicans stood, almost, in stupor, uninspired by the profligacy of a nation emblazoned with insufferable possession-recyclers, but unable to elevate them to anything more. Even Fagner, excruciatingly inept, did not face grand harassment as the North Americans opted to reel in their net despite the long-range threat of Philippe Coutinho’s marksmanship. An opportunity bypassed, respect overawing. Each goal saw the deep defensive formation pierced; Neymar and Firmino prodding home at the far post, and neither drew major offence. So on went Brazil.
Initially, in limbo between the blemished groups and the hope-smattered knockouts, England fans gazed only on Belgium v Japan as the match they may have played, their undecided assailants against eminently beatable opposition. Eyesight quickly cleared. Essentially pitting two three-man defences against one another, though considerably flexible in the latter instance, each would pick at more inflectional faults in the other’s interpretation; not facetious to argue Belgium’s lack of a true wing-back partnership or defensive midfielder did them harm in Genki Haraguchi’s opener and Takashi Inui’s follow-up, respectively, nor that the lack of towering height paid dues to Japan’s chances in the event of Marouane Fellaini’s convenient introduction. Samurai Blue were simply unfortunate that their final opportunity immolated in the form of a set-piece; a corner, no less, that, while misjudged in the context, sparked a breakaway through Kevin De Bruyne. Once Thomas Meunier gained a wide crossing sight, Romelu Lukaku found his berth and all seemed over, but the opportunity passed over. Nacer Chadli tucked in and all was indeed over – the glimpse of greatness all had hoped for from the Red Devils in 2014 and 2016, now heralded. It had demanded introspection and an afroed 6ft 4in totem pole to even reach the necessary position, but they had indeed survived with dignity intact. Few dared conceive the future.
Diplomatically unbiased, socio-economically comfortable and seldom, since the immediate post-war period, acclaimed on such a pedestal, Sweden and Switzerland drew little such equal respect. Abridged, geographically, by Germany and outflanked by France, Italy and the Netherlands; regarded, similarly, as havens of the intelligentsia; even in peace time, the paradox did not fit. Conservatism and liberalism has abetted, noble patriotism cradled – after the largely unaffected Brazil in 1950, the first World Cup hosts in an ideologically divided Europe. 1948 Olympic Gold had celebrated Swedish offensive talents, the soon-to-be AC Milan Gre-No-Li trifecta starring. Hosting responsibilities inherited subcultural advantages; the quarter-finals, and final, reached; the Swiss defeated 7-5 by their Austrian neighbours before four years later Sweden fell 5-2 to Brazilian prodigies. The former had not reached even the last eight since. The Swedish had, only twice – 1974 pragmatic, 1994 fraught with geopolitical fortune, while also rich in quality. This event was not. The loss of Stephan Liechtsteiner and Fabian Schaer led an otherwise unperturbed Alpine backline not to launch into full avalanche, but for the peaks to clear as Swedish sun bore down; a 20-yard strike pinging around the box and beating Yann Sommer. Applying their crampons, scaling the peak. Josip Drmić typified the disturbance Vladimir Petkovic’s outfit have suffered in converting, for all exertions little tangible opportunity. Emil Forsberg, the pressure valve, released when necessary, never beyond. Of the physiques on display, his flickered under and between notice – his has conquered the mountain, even before extra-time.
The final stand arrived, intent on unifying a nation. Others may have designs on the quarter-finals, but even their attention was suspended as perennial kneelers, destabilised after defeat, met bipolar defending quarter-finalists, shivering with James Rodríguez absent. Personally, I arrived to a hotel room in Tallinn – local time around 10:00PM – as the second half progressed; another half that may have not amounted to great drama, but a chapter of mounting intensity. Evidently, the South American challengers to an upstart England were intent on disrupting these invigorating tactics by means legal or otherwise. Ultimately, it proved the latter – Kane winning and scoring what seemed, as the minutes passed, a pivotal penalty.
Inevitable conservatism crept in; the multi-pronged attack of Messrs Bacca, Muriel and Falcao scything into what now became a five-man defensive arc, width in scarce supply for a fatiguing England. Survive, survive. But fortitude drew rewards, ramparts were stormed; Yerry Mina drove through Anglican hearts and consigned another 30 minutes. Reset your watches.
Where psychology was once the preserve of a qualified few, now it is elevated and prophesised to common commodity. All onlookers understood he who ended this period the stronger would be handed the shoot-out advantage, one that in itself was seldom questioned, even if Colombian castigation descended on Jordan Pickford’s penalty area. Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford would not have been introduced together if Southgate had not had anticipated penalties; it would be derided a wild miscalculation if a South American sight had been finished. Instead, two goalkeepers without reputation, David Ospina the mitigated, Pickford the relative fledgling – albeit with under-21 shootout heroics to his accreditation – held scrutiny. The former’s sole save was from a mentally uncertain Jordan Henderson, the latter similarly reading the eyes of Bacca. Matias Uribe’s misjudgement the differential, the simplest of penalties from the most flatlined man on the pitch, Eric ‘dead-behind-the-eyes’ Dier, crept under Ospina’s custom wing. England were through on penalties, and we loved every moment of it.
For all exits, evident forefathers still stood. Brazil would be present at the semi-final stage, at least. Although Belgium did have an appeal. Uruguay, outstanding ethos intact, were deserving of further progression. But France’s wide-ranging individual quality could outmanoeuvre any temporarily static trial. We did not have a single 21st century World Cup semi-finalist on the other half of the draw – what a dilemma.
Each logarithmic equation was calculated without the need for surplus time, discourteously. CONMEBOL wildfires were trampled before even setting ablaze; Raphaël Varane chief saboteur as Antoine Griezmann stalled a wide free-kick, while Fernandinho was bestowed dishonour when beating Alisson with a defensive header lacking all means of communication. Self-implosion was not the entire tale, with overwhelmingly streetwise North-Western Europeans, the profiteers of decades of internal investment where South Americans have remained ad-hoc, emphatic. Belgium’s backline, the preserve of Premier League royalty, did not creak under examination beyond Renato Augusto’s free header, while Griezmann disguised some curve when shooting from distance at Fernando Muslera. An avoidable error, yes, and one that would sacrifice his nation’s final chance at equity – capitulating under external expectation. Neither great victor even had a glimmer of recuperation, such was the strangulation and determination of each European entity, helmed by the younger – attuned to refreshment, inclined to encourage responsibility on part of their unadorned superstars.
Janne Andersson’s Sweden had matched up against three 4-2-3-1’s this tournament, one 4-3-3 (South Korea). Each had to be tweaked even to disturb Scandinavian security, but Gareth Southgate was certain. A three-man defence is harder to reinvent mid-match, yet England’s set-pieces provided a useful outsource if matters went askew. Harry Maguire went untested from a corner; the result was methodical. Energy elapsed, the silent Forsberg establishing no precedent, no other stepped up. Cast forward, space opened; Dele Alli netted from point-blank range. The Swedish, gathered from 14 different divisions but shallow on starring quality, surrendered the stage without response. Perhaps a new identity is not yet discovered.
Russia, ominously, were just one step from their pre-tournament target. Chastised earlier, a nation without icons verged on the casting of innumerable busts – not least of comrades Akinfeev, Golovin and Ignashevich. Dzyuba would require industrial quantities. Denis Cheryshev looped a wondrous effort when Croatia, respectful but ragged, entered momentary limbo. Hope is no substitute for nous, however, and the equaliser arrived – Andrej Kramarić squirming home. We waited for more, both sides more offensive than in previous outings, but dictator Luka Modrić could not carry all burden. They exchanged set-piece goals in extra-time, Russia’s the latter, seemingly riding the crest of a wave into penalties. Their tails were too high, efforts blazed high and wide into the impending dusk, and an unfamiliar emptiness descended over south-coast Sochi. Very well, their stand drew acclaim and now came their bow. Losing to Slavic cousins was no indignity, and a familiar passage for the Croats was most pleasurable.
A modicum of time, and permutations were not just halved this time – they will be dissected, a lobotomy inspecting all logical explanation for each. Each spent force had scant argument, where all who remained had slices of fortune – Muslera’s error, Brazil’s egotistical void, Swedish injury and Spain’s earlier demise to Russia – but each equally overcame misfortune; Blaise Matuidi’s suspension, Kane, et al., bruised after Colombian cross-examination, Croatia forced to extra time again and Belgium to cope without distinguishable litmus Thomas Meunier. On they went, to defy reason in depths unknown to most and unprecedented to all.
Four clamouring nations survived; four Europeans, each with individual ideals. More so, the weight of history differed. The oldest champions, obscured from a respectable tournament for so long, in England held a united society on its cusp of revived self-confidence; 1966 tangible in word and sight, yet more so 1990. France, the final victors of the 20th century, had suffered character conflict since and had failed to exceed gracious hopes. There were of course two sides as yet uncrowned – 1986 and 1998 their own apexes, each defied by eventual champions at the semi-final stage. Croatia, the latter, held a best finish of 3rd, however, not just 4th. Every exchange had mattered to the post-conflict state then; each and all would be imperative, more so now than ever.
Hubristic, unbounded by history and liberating in part, long-bereft fanbases – perceived objectively by media – typified their corners. No nation reaches so deep without conviction, whether placed in management, players, or hopefully both – better still if consistent in administrators, but seldom relevant at this stage. In any eventuality, the triumphant helmsman would be the youngest since the early 1990s in this competition; Zlatko Dalić a relative veteran at 51, the same age Carlos Alberto Parreira was in another tournament of shocks, the much-touted 1994. In that instance, the Brazilian, having began not as a player but a fitness coach, was at his third World Cup after tenures in Kuwait and the UAE, had already lifted the Série A with Fluminense and was in his second spell with his home nation. He had not been lifted from an Emirati homestead, seven years since his last undistinguished role in the confines of the national FA, eight months prior to a tournament he was not guaranteed of yet reaching; put it that way.
Roberto Martínez was never himself an international player, either – with only a single La Liga appearance to his name, a 19-year-old’s substitute appearance for nearby outfit Real Zaragoza, never in the same hemisphere. Gareth Southgate and Didier Deschamps, of course, were, and mainstays of international tournaments for that matter. As they studied from personal experience, each offered a multitude of parallels and modernisations through presence practice; Southgate’s unrequited love under the campaigns of Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle, whose respective conflicts with FA hierarchies and national media had engineered the demise of what possibly remains the nation’s most abundant era of talent, and Deschamps’ fairy-tale era of captaincy, with both the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship titles. Each had endured, dare I say ravaged, psychological conflict to emerge onto this stage – as aforementioned, the Englishman’s more at the height of his powers, the Frenchman’s prior to Aimé Jacquet’s appointment, even while gliding from all-encompassing glory at Marseille to Juventus – and had personalities, let alone philosophies, shaped by these capitulations and moments of national reckoning. The latter would forever be an icon amongst home fans, the former a testimony to the unfulfilled promise perpetuating throughout Anglo-FIFA relations since Alf Ramsey’s time.
(Disclaimer: I didn’t see France vs Belgium, what with being on a flight at the time, and as this review is a delayed upload already, I’m not about to delve into two nations who have totally defied my reckoning for them in this tournament. Hope that’s alright x)
Speaking of Ramsey, dare consider what he may have made of Southgate’s tactics this summer – not only in-game, but placating fans and media alike to the tune of other successful British, and indeed international, sporting projects. Famously stubborn, yet cerebral, the Essex native pledged he would ‘never change a winning team’ – a man after his own heart, plainly, inherited his position today. Where his contemporaries had indulged in the depth of their respective squads, Gareth was bound to those with the smallest scope for ineptitude; Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones and Nick Pope hardly spoke of the vision, chiefly Dan Ashworth’s responsibility, to further national achievement by failsafe means. Psychologically, as harmonious as the rhythm was from Repino, such a burden on the Harry Kane’s, John Stones’ and Raheem Sterling’s of this group was unforgiving. It may have explained the forthcoming errors of each; the Three Lions captain laborious, and even though not the most creative runner in any event definitely off-kilter, the Manchester City defender miscalculating Ivan Perišić’s decisive pass to Mario Mandžukić and the latter still the scapegoat for many fans after finishing with just a single attacking return for the tournament. As a summit, the most prestigious match for both nations involved for at least two decades, fatigue did not entail the full tale; Kieran Trippier solidified his position as amongst the elite attacking full-backs present before contributing to the late comedy of errors; Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli starred on the front foot and were exposed, both by a lack of midfield width and their own defensive naivety, as the match wore on; Luka Modrić, once subdued, dictated without once looking overworked. It was a talent many Croats displayed here, maintaining the psychological framing to excel after earlier being suppressed. Once an unseasoned England were challenged, they retreated, individually and collectively.
The autopsy was almost too simple; failing to punish chances, fundamental errors leading to defeat. Far more complex self-assessment will be made at FA HQ, this being stage one of a long-term process. Patience will at least be afforded from fans immediately afterwards; previous mentors did not have such a commodity. Where there was scope for criticism, the margins were minimal, and alternated depending on previous heartbreak. This squad exceeded themselves, their personal pedigrees, their upbringings, their managerial inexperience – but not alarmingly so, at least in the immediate fallout. Individually, the sides of 2002 and ’06 may have achieved similar success the way this draw unfurled, but with Lampard or Gerrard dropped, and Terry and Ferdinand (where once allies, now pragmatically distant) returning to patriarchs Ferguson and Mourinho, the atmosphere would certainly have been fractious. Southgate could not have helmed those sides. If Eriksson, or later Capello, thought he could recover the shattered crystals of tournaments that descended into such naïve self-combustion, now the opposite is true; England must look forward, notwithstanding internal damage, and seek further redemption. Perhaps it required a defined hiatus from competitive reckoning to rediscover the necessary perception; Roy Hodgson offered us that, neither the realism of Scott Parker, Andy Carroll and Joleon Lescott in 2012, nor the ineptitude of a vacuous and laboured 2014, disappointing.
The Balkans warned humility in their obliged post-semi-final utterances –Modrić spoke of disrespect, Lovren of underestimation, beyond that we can only consider the pre-match motivation to have seared. Hell hath no fury like a post-Communist nation, only escaping oppression after four years of poverty-stricken conflict, scorned, it seemed. The greatest lesson of all these players’ lives was posed by their nation’s War of Independence, and Dalić was fortunate to avoid much of the duress while playing for Varteks at the time, a side on the Slovenian border, not the Serbian. Two decades earlier, their predecessors had habilitated a society on the global stage through sporting endeavour; now the gauntlet fell to empower successors and secure a victory that truly defied all socio-economic odds.
Stood in their way, the cosy French. Afforded liberal, centrist leadership, a multicultural populace at peace with itself and only the very ilk of military incorruptibility a Western European nation can gain while entrenched in Syrian meddling, their world view would not alter if here defeated. Not that such eventualities were considered. Their winning experience at least equalled that of their highly-acclaimed rivals, pervading throughout resources, even if tainted by moral culpabilities. Having a paternal pragmatist at the helm would not have aided England as it did this squad; Deschamps pursuing with Evra, Gignac and Sissoko at Euro 2016 and only reneging this time as a result of injury and old age. Selecting Olivier Giroud to spearhead the likes of Griezmann, Mbappé or either Fekir or Thauvin was not the move of an optimist, but rather an individual with glimmers of reactionary astuteness. Not the speculation of a tactical visionary, not a selecting particularly nouveau; nothing that marks him out ahead of his players as the mastermind of an unbeaten run. Just Didier, just victory.
What was perhaps the most noticeable element of this final’s dynamic, the lack of internally-housed talent, was paradoxically the unseen; nine of Deschamps’ 23 based in Ligue 1, two of Dalić’s in the Prva Liga, but only one such player relevant to this final exchange; Kylian Mbappé. Breezing onto the Luzhniki colosseum floor as he had Kazan, Ekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Saint Petersburg, the teenage wonder defied reason yet again in the overall fresco. Initially, however, he was displaced as a comfortable order without stern earlier trial received violent cross-examination. Battery by Croatian hands ensured this final to be like few before it; intent on engaging full operations, not the fourth consecutive event to head to extra-time.
The half-time score was still misrepresentative, regardless. A fortuitous flick-on and a penalty by very default of the occasion and the official guidelines had seen the French into the lead, with starring figure Perisic only one goal deep into personal accreditation. Dalić had attempted to expose the naivety, and possible tactical incongruity, of full-backs Pavard and Hernández as no opponent had previously dared, and to a certain extent had succeeded. Complicating his designs was a centre-back partnership of incomparable present stature and an exceptional early performance from a reignited Hugo Lloris – all components of Deschamps’ gradually moulded outfit attentive to responsibilities, shouldering teammates if necessary. In a second half of absolute decision, all remaining individuals would hope to claim such accountability.
And these 45 minutes signified, in truest form, the raising of new orders. When some – including myself – entered into this affair expected a dour stalemate, two 4-2-3-1’s counteracting, the thought of pulsating reverse counter-attacks, each leaving a backline more exposed than the last, would have been scoffed at. As Antoine Griezmann relinquished more of his offensive role and N’Golo Kante was sacrificed for Steven N’Zonzi, from his Sevilla service more inclined to the present formation and duties, the French seized the game and not under Lloris’ blundering error deferred. Mbappé shone as the situation allowed – all others had vacated to allow it. Disorder did not suit Croatia; after England, Modric said they had played the best game of their tournament. Thrashing a primal Argentina was long forgotten – they had become consumed by engrossing conflicts after three all-UEFA knockout ties. Subašić made a misjudgement of his own for Paul Pogba’s goal, but the trophy was already beyond reach. This was the final capitulation, not to be followed by anything greater than mere bloopers. When the instance did arrive, it provided a playful analogy for the tournament, one in which little was languid. The proverb ‘to err is human’ sprang to mind. At a World Cup in the depths of geopolitical depravity, of suspected corruption and confirmed state-sponsored doping, of ominously shrouded hooligan threats, humanity has been restored. Titans fell, individual brilliance was overtaken by collective fortitude and fans saw far more of warmth from their hosts than consumerism or barbarity. One nation may have won – another politically – but a sporting bastion’s redemption was confirmed, if temporarily. Qatar 2022 will be much different, but until then Russia 2018 will be held in high regard by all. The ticker-tape and showered beverages may have been swept up so swiftly that inbound visitors may be shocked by the knowledge a grand sporting event took place here at all, but we’ll all hold the memories of this World Cup. And I for one would like to believe it – characterised by organisers, local or on tour from Zurich, promoters, construction teams, volunteers, political powers – would of us. It would only take a little humanity, after all.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!