2022 World Cup Diary: Days 7-12


Henry Gee looks back on the exciting second week of the tournament

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Image by Ailura

By Henry Gee

Saturday 26 November (Day 7)
One of the things that has always fascinated me about football is a) the sheer amount of it, and b) the mountain of stats that sheer amount generates. Some of them make sense and provide useful context. Before today, Australia hadn’t won in seven World Cup matches. 12 years of qualification without a win. Beating Tunisia not only keeps their tournament hopes alive, but breaks a decades old tournament slump. Even if they don’t go any further, they at least come away from this tournament with something to be proud of.

Or take Poland’s Lewandowski. One of the most celebrated strikers of his era, has scored by far the most goals of any Polish player, and yet never at a World Cup. I mean, they’ve only ever qualified twice with him in the team but still, it would have felt odd for such a player to have never scored on such a stage.  That changed today when he scored Poland’s second against Saudi Arabia. Once again, the win not only keeps them in the running for qualification, but also secures a player’s legacy as one of their country’s greats.

But then there’s the kind of stats that are sort of interesting, I guess, maybe, but seem to exist solely to show you that they exist. I saw somewhere that in both scoring and getting an assist against Mexico, Messi became both the youngest and oldest player to do both in the same match at a World Cup. It’s a fun stat, and I suppose it shows not only how long Messi has been playing, but also how long he’s been very good. But is my life better for knowing that? Has it given context to the match being played? Do I know more about football than I did before?

Not really. But equally, does it matter? If these stats are given significance beyond mere intrigue, then sure, that’s a little odd. But as a bit of fun, something to say to your mates down the pub; a little “did you know” never hurt anyone.

Sunday 27 November (Day 8)
Once again, I was too busy to watch any of today’s matches. So instead of talking about the highs and lows inherent in football, I want to talk about the highs and lows inherent in long gestated sequels to popular films; in particular Disney+’s newly released Disenchanted.

Never before has a film been so full of contradictions. Cheap looking, yet full of expensive CGI. Simultaneously a labour of love and quick cash grab. A clever expansion of the world, and the laziest execution of its own ideas.

I really like the original. Amy Adams’ performance is great; somehow both mocking and sincere. The script follows the then overdone ‘fairy-tale making fun of fairy-tales’ trope revived by Shrek, yet manages to feel distinct in a way that others at the time didn’t. Also, James Marsden is fantastic and he can absolutely have all of my babies.

Frankly, I was disappointed, and expected more. Even my usually positive girlfriend, who adores this kind of film, only thought it was okay. For her, that’s the equivalent of a one-star review!

How can I link this to the World Cup? Belgium, a team that on paper should easily walk away with the trophy every time lost again. Expecting more and not fulfilling that promise? Sure. That’ll do.

Monday 28 November (Day 9)
Wwwhhhyyyyy? Why must Portugal keep winning? I thought you were supposed to be good Uruguay?! What happened? Two goals! Two goals? Two frickin’ goals. At least Ronaldo didn’t score though. In fact, the look on his face when he thought he had, only for VAR to award it to Bruno Fernandez, shows all you need to know about the man. What a beautiful moment. I believe the kids call it ‘mask off’. I don’t know if it quite works the same if you don’t have a mask and are just openly disdainful and selfish in the way you play and act.

But enough about him, the rest of the football today was really great, and showed once again why the group stages are the best thing about the World Cup. Two matches, four teams, and millions engrossed by players they didn’t even know the names of two weeks ago.

Six goals in Cameroon vs. Serbia. Serbia, 3-1 up after 50 minutes, having dominated for most of the match, and looking as if they had the skill to see it out that way. Cameroon substitute Aboubakar had other ideas, breaking free and chipping the Serbian keeper. Three minutes later, Choupo-Moting drew them level. Three minutes. That’s all it took for dominance to give way to a scramble for a draw.

Five in South Korea vs. Ghana. Ghana going ahead by two. South Korea pulled it back via two goals within three minutes. Three minutes again. Before Ghana score, take the lead, and defend valiantly to keep it that way.

How can you not be charmed? How can you not fall in love?

Tuesday 29 November (Day 10)
Today marks the start of my favourite part of the group stage; the final match. All matches in the same group are played simultaneously, so no shenanigans with collusion can occur. Obviously, it’s quite exciting. A lot of teams have a technical chance of going through, if they can only score enough goals and the other match finishes a certain way. Even if both teams know they’re going through, or have no chance, matches still matter because the outcome could influence the outcome of the entire group.

I like it because as a neutral you have to make a choice of which match to watch. I’m stubborn, and like to stick with my choice throughout the entire match. Which is excruciating if you’ve picked the ‘wrong one’ as broadcasters will show the goals in the other match during the one you’re watching; the fun you could be having rubbed mockingly in your face. But incredibly satisfying if you pick the right one. Makes you feel like you actually know what you’re doing.

Of course, all anyone cared about today was England vs. Wales (sorry Ecuador and Senegal, your match was actually really exciting and I enjoyed watching it a lot). For the record I think nationalism is stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I think you can be proud of where you’re from, but to believe that you’re inherently better than someone else because of which part of a space rock you happened to be born on is stupid. But when it comes to sporting events between the home nations, I can’t help it. Certain things crawl their way up from my stomach, prise my mouth open, and hurl themselves at the nearest TV screen.

That aside, Wales did not play well. Embarrassingly so. I still celebrated wildly when England scored, but it did feel a little like celebrating an adult beating a child.

England play Senegal in the round of 16. It’s a shame I’m not neutral because I think it’ll be a really tight, tense match. I can already tell my fingernails are going to be chewed to bits, and my thighs fatigued from hovering just above the sofa in anticipation. I can’t wait.

Wednesday 30 November (Day 11)
Even when you lose, things can sometimes go your way. Poland played decidedly not very well against Argentina, losing 2-0, yet managed to get through to the next round because of possibly my favourite rule.

If two teams end up with the same number of points and same goal difference, it usually goes to goals scored, meaning if you scored more goals, you go through. However, Poland and Mexico scored exactly the same number of goals. So, who goes through was instead determined by the ‘fair play rule’; whoever received fewer yellow cards was deemed worthy enough to progress. Or as I like to put it, the less naughty team got given gold stickers.

I can’t tell if a technicality being the most exciting thing to happen today is a sign of a good tournament or a bad one. Personally, I think it’s the former. A nose to tail kind of tournament. Every possible part is being used. Every tiny morsel of the game exploited for our viewing pleasure.

Unless you’re France, in which case you already know you’ve qualified top of the group, so barely even try to act as if today’s match mattered. Which does feel out of touch with the spirit of the game, but somehow feels very in touch with the spirit of Frenchness.

Thursday 1 December (Day 12)
Holy frickin’ moly. I know I sound like a broken record, but today’s football was just…no words. No. Words. Now watch me struggle to amend that.

Not to sound as if I’m biting the hand that feeds, but for a brief moment, today could have been even better. For three beautiful minutes, both Spain and Germany were out. Japan had been leading Spain since the beginning of the second half, and Germany’s keeper had just pushed the ball into his own net, meaning Costa Rica were a goal up. Three minutes where the unthinkable became clearer in our collective minds. If this was possible, anything was possible. All those betting ads were right. I knew I could trust you, Ray. I knew it!

This feeling didn’t last of course. Germany scored three in the final 15 minutes in an oddly cruel display that ensured both Costa Rica’s, and their own, demise. I’ve been thinking about those three minutes ever since. Why did they feel so good? There’s the obvious underdog, David and Goliath, feeling of satisfaction. They’ve overcome something nobody thought we could; I also think that’s the kind of thing it’s equally as thrilling to watch as it is to participate in. Perhaps there’s also a bit of schadenfreude in seeing big teams go out knowing they’ll have to wait another four years to try again.

But I think at this World Cup especially, it feels right that a smaller team should triumph. Not only would it be the perfect topper and follow through promised by the myriad of major upsets, it’s the kick in the teeth the tournament deserves. In a World Cup that has felt at times like the façade of one, to have a team like Argentina, or France, or Spain win, it would seem like business as usual. This World Cup has been anything but business as usual, however hard Qatar might try to suggest otherwise.

A Messi or a Ronaldo, without meaning to, legitimise the sports-washing of this World Cup. They’re the faces of football; they represent the establishment, the accepted norms. When pictures circulate of them holding the trophy aloft, people see that and nothing else. But someone like Maya Yoshida, Japan’s captain, robs Qatar of this recognition. It inherently destabilises passive normality. Not only would it be a triumph against complacency (a little like when Leicester won the Premier League), but feels like the ultimate symbol of rebellion against the footballing establishment. It would be about as punk rock as football can get.

Costa Rica unfortunately didn’t qualify; Spain did. But plenty of other smaller teams have gotten through. Could this be the year? Maybe. Probably not. But hopefully.