FRIDAY’S BIG STORIES
Bye Bye Bobby
That’s your lot. Roberto Martínez is no longer the manager of Belgium. He walks off into the sunset with his brown shoes twinkling, as the dream of the golden generation fades into darkness. A full and total assessment of the whole adventure will come with time, but for now we can safely say that the ending was a complete and total mess.
Two messes, in fact; two completely different flavours of mess. In the first half, Belgium looked like a side desperate to reassure the world, and themselves, that everything was ok. That rumours of inter-squad friction had been greatly exaggerated. And so nothing happened, quite slowly. This suited Croatia, of course, who were quite happy to ride that nothing through to the next round. But Belgium needed something more.
So on came Romelu Lukaku, and so began one of the most agonising cameos in recent football history. Half-fit, almost entirely out of form, and sent out to be the hero in circumstances perfectly calibrated to make him the fall guy.
The ball bounced off his head. The ball bounced off his feet. The ball bounced off his midriff. The ball bounced everywhere except where it was meant to bounce, and Lukaku emerged doubly cursed: by his ability to get into exactly the right place, and by his inability to do precisely the right thing. It was faintly appalling to watch it all unfold, to watch a man’s nightmares being written in real time.
It would of course be grossly unfair to place the weight of this elimination onto Lukaku’s shoulders, and hopefully somebody is able to persuade him of that. Belgium had to try and cram three games’ worth of chance creation into 45 minutes of desperation, and that’s a failure that goes beyond any one striker. They arrived in Qatar unbalanced and unsharpened; they leave in ruins, facing up to a rebuild that should have started months ago.
But that’s international football for you – it moves in cycles, and often each cycle ends with the thought that maybe the real end came a year ago and everybody pretended not to notice. Pre-tournament sureties – of course a player of Eden Hazard’s importance and class has one more race in him – are exposed in the cold light of hindsight. It was all just hope, and a thin hope at that.
Footballing generations are golden in comparison to what has come before, not necessarily to what is going on around them. Perhaps Martínez really did make the least of a side that could and should have won in Russia. Or perhaps it’s unfortunate that Belgium’s bumper crop of good and very good footballers arrived at the same time as some excellent Frenchmen, and third place at a World Cup makes sense as a high point. Going on this evidence, they’ve some work to do before they get anywhere near that again.
Liquid World Cup
For a few glorious minutes, Group E was beautiful, perfect and entirely upside down. Japan and Costa Rica going through. Spain and Germany going out. Maximum chaos achieved. Maximum football achieved.
Obviously that was too good to last, so we just had to settle for Germany crashing out. But crash out they did, after taking the lead against Costa Rica, briefly falling behind and then recovering to record history’s most futile 4-2 win. According to some models, Germany amassed the most expected goals of any side in the group stage. That’ll be some comfort on the boat home.
The question seems to be one of control. In 2018, Germany lost two games that they were never leading, getting caught cold by first Mexico and then South Korea. This time around, Germany threw away a one-goal lead against Japan, then did the same against Costa Rica. They were able to win that latter game in the end, but Spain’s win against Costa Rica was bigger and better, and that was ultimately decisive.
At one end of the pitch they made chance after chance and failed to take them; at the other they wobbled hard every time the opposition advanced over the half-way line. There is no greater problem, for a serious national team trying to win serious trophies in a serious fashion, than that of being entertaining for the neutral. And Germany have been appointment viewing, from Jamal Musiala’s dancing feet to Manuel Neuer’s flapping arms. “Wow! What? Wow! What?!” You don’t get that kind of fun with Didier Deschamps.
But a group is made up of more than one team, and perhaps we need to recognise Spain’s eye for the moment in that first game against Costa Rica. They sensed the possibility of a hammering and they took it, effectively picking up a fourth point for that win. At the time it looked like a statement of intent and a warning to the rest of the competition; now, it looks like canny insurance against whatever nonsense might be coming.
Or perhaps the two big teams are a distraction here, and we should really be talking about topsy-turvy Japan. Come from behind to beat Germany, lose to Costa Rica, come from behind to beat Spain. It’s strange to think that any other group would have been theoretically easier for Japan, and yet might not have suited this bizarre and magnificent ability to change shape and to scrap back into games that ought to be gone.
Spain will go into their game against Morocco as nervous favourites, but Japan will go up against Croatia hoping to concede early. One team craves the ball, the other craves drama. It doesn’t make a scrap of sense, but we just have to roll with it.
The Worst Person You Know
They may not have been much cop on the pitch thus far, but Uruguay’s football team can still read a moment. Game against Ghana coming up? Ill-feeling bubbling and seething in the background? Really, there’s no option but to send Luis Suarez up to do media duties.
He was asked about it, obviously. And he refused to apologise, correctly.
“I did the handball, but the Ghana player missed the penalty, not me. Maybe I would apologise if I did a tackle, injured a player and took a red card. But in this situation… it’s not my fault. I didn’t miss the penalty. The player who missed the penalty, he would do the same. It’s not my responsibility how he shot the penalty.”
It was and remains oddity of the rules: that in those circumstances it is better, smarter, and totally correct to exchange a deliberate handball for a red card and a penalty. The goal was certain, but now it is not, and there isn’t enough time for the red card to matter. Ghana went from certain winners to a team under immense pressure, and Asamoah Gyan cracked.
But to frame this as a question of right or wrong is to miss the point, because you don’t have to be wrong to be the villain of the piece. (Suárez has done plenty of that elsewhere.) All you have to do is embody a momentous and perceived unfairness. The handball was a foul, and he got his punishment. The celebration wasn’t, and warranted no punishment. And yet taken altogether it amounts to a grand act of disrespect, of grievous moral burglary, made somehow worse by being entirely by the book.
He won’t apologise, because he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. And he can’t apologise, because this isn’t the kind of wrong that requires an apology. It requires bitterness. It requires the long nursing of grudges over generations. And it requires, first and foremost, revenge.
IN OTHER NEWS
Congratulations on winning Player of the Match, Kai! Now, give us a smile. A smile. Oh… oh right.
You know what, let’s go back and have a look at it.
We’d forgotten that both keepers, for both goals, wrongfoot themselves with an unnecessary step to their right. Forgotten, too, the funniest part of Suárez’s mischief: the innocent “who, me?” face he pulls when the red card comes out. And also the ice-cool Panenka that rounds the whole thing off. What a game.
“The more living, breathing elements of the World Cup environment are all becoming forcibly assimilated, too: the immaculate pitches have had one, unerring shade of green since 2014 (dictated in part by FIFA’s ludicrous, 81-page guidance for “pitch illuminance systems”), every game is now broadcast from what feels like a precisely specified FIFA-sanctioned angle and each piece of penalty-area action is now captured by the most recent World Cup trend of all: the vertigo-inducing, top-down photography previously only seen when your character got WASTED! in GTA: Vice City.”
It’s quite interesting reading this after watching the highlights from 2010, when there was one major aesthetic difference from all other World Cups: the vuvuzelas. They were widely derided at the time, and some broadcasters even searched for ways to cancel the noise out. But watch the highlights, and it immediately takes you right back to the moment. Well done, that drone.
Let’s finish off these groups, then. Ghana vs. Uruguay isn’t just an exercise in explosive narrative: a win will see Uruguay through. Unless, that is, South Korea beat Portugal in the other game. Later on, Serbia need to beat Switzerland to have any chance of qualifying, although a win for Cameroon against (a presumably quite heavily rotated) Brazil could make everything more complicated.
And we’ll be back tomorrow to look at Luis Suárez’s latest offences against the natural order of things.
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