2022 World Cup Diary: Days 13-19

11/12/2022

Henry Gee covers Week 3 of the tournament, charting the beginning of the end

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Image by Mehdi Merizad

By Henry Gee

Friday 2 December (Day 13)
Today marks the end of the group stage. A moment of silence for the best part of the tournament. We hardly knew ye, and yet our lives will forever remain changed by ye. The group stages are survived by their loving daughter, “round of 16”, their awkward middle child, “third place play-off”, and loudmouth trust fund son, “grand final”.

But before the number of games slows down, and the real world starts to creep back into our everyday lives, we have one more set of matches to discuss. And like most of the matches so far, they did not disappoint.

Finally, someone has beaten Portugal. South Korea’s dramatic winner in extra-time means that they have officially become my favourite team of this tournament. What’s even better; their equaliser came because of a Ronaldo mistake. A South Korean corner manages to miss everyone apart from Ronaldo’s back. The ball then squirts in front of Kim Young-Gwon, who smacks it into the net.

If I’m being reasonable, it’s not Ronaldo’s fault. The ball comes at him too quickly to do anything about it; wrong place, wrong time. But I don’t want to be reasonable, nor do I think I should be. I laughed out loud; a big, genuine, hearty laugh. Whenever it would die down, I’d remember the goal vividly, and would start up all over again.

What made it even more exciting (or excruciatingly nerve-wracking if you’re South Korean) was that despite winning, they had to wait until the result from Uruguay vs. Ghana came through. If Uruguay won by three goals or more, they would go through on goal difference. It was extra time, and Uruguay had two.

The stadium was silent. The tension was palpable. Then the result came in… the South Korean fans went wild. Everyone was in tears. Hell, even my eyes were getting a little moist. To see how much it means to everyone, how much everyone cares; yes the game is ridiculous and rife with structural issues, but it’s moments like this where it just makes sense. You realise why people love it.

And I’ve not even talked about the five goals in Serbia vs. Switzerland, and Cameroon’s last-minute victory over Brazil.

A perfect day of football, that caps off one of the best group stages in recent memory. Granted, I have a terrible memory. But I can’t see myself forgetting this one any time soon.



Saturday 3 December (Day 14)
And so, the knockout portion of the tournament begins in earnest with the round of 16. The tension merely ramps up from here. As fun as the group stage is, and even though it’s my favourite part, it can be quite overwhelming. The matches are more spread out now, meaning each one can be given the space and reverence needed to build anticipation.

That being said, neither of today’s games particularly grabbed me. I don’t think either the Netherlands or Argentina gave particularly inspiring performances. But, at the end of the day, tournament football is simply about getting through. Doesn’t matter how pretty you play, or how much you ‘deserved’ it, if you don’t score more goals than the opposition, you’ve lost (as you can see, my knowledge of football is second to none).

After the excitement and intensity of the group stage, this felt a little bit like a let-down. Yes there were goals, yes there were moments of excitement, but it felt a little too much like business as usual.

A stumble out of the gates for the knockout part of the tournament. Hopefully other days and matches will be more engaging.



Sunday 4 December (Day 15)
It’s interesting how much your surroundings can influence what it feels like to watch England play. With friends or family, beer in hand (and several in your bloodstream), you feel egged on. The highs are jubilant, the lows are devastating, and any decision by the ref that doesn’t go England’s way accompanied by a chorus of millions shouting “reeFFFeeeRREEE!”.

I, however, was watching mostly sober, curled up under a blanket with my girlfriend. We’d just got back from a nice pub dinner with her dad, and were experiencing an acute case of post-roast fatigue. The highs were more like warming smiles, the lows mild indigestion, and the referee an old friend who can do no wrong. I enjoyed the experience a lot; it felt rather dignified. The emphatic England victory helped, of course. But even during the first 30 minutes where England seemed rattled by the quick Senegalese press, I was un-bothered and laid back.



Monday 5 December (Day 16)
Why must Croatia always be the crusher of my World Cup dreams? First England in the semi-finals four years ago, now Japan in the round of 16.

I liked watching Japan during the group stage. Not only did they play really well, beat Spain, and finished top of their group, they seemed like really nice people whilst doing it. The players exhibited none of the play acting and negative aspects of the game that seemingly every other team goes in for nowadays, and apparently their dressing room was spotless after every match. Each one was boyfriend material and could charm any parent or guardian within a five-mile radius.

Their team spirit reminded me a lot of England under Southgate actually; the closest to altruistic socialism a group of millionaires can get. Such mentality and attitude flies in the face of the type of individualistic egotism exemplified by the likes of Ronaldo. I just like it. It’s a shame they’re no longer in the competition. The world seems a little duller for it.

As ever, Brazil were Brazil, and absolutely ran rings around the South Koreans. So dominant was their performance in the first half, they played the second half like they were a kid riding their bike downhill; feet off the pedals, chain clicking away, wind in their hair. Credit where credit is due though, the South Koreans never gave up, and fought hard for their singular goal.

I remember the only friend I have who knows anything about football telling me this was Brazil’s year. I was sceptical. He might just be proved right. He does know about football after all.



Tuesday 6 December (Day 17)
Don’t talk to me about it. Why do I have to talk about it? Can’t we all just move on? Portugal won… by a lot… they scored six goals… and looked really good. Damn it.

Silver lining, Ronaldo was benched and in doing so revealed his true colours. Not only did Portugal look a better side without him (less baggy, more cohesive), he sulked and whined the entire time. He literally cannot bring himself to revel in his team’s good fortune if he is not an integral part of it. Yet somehow, even when not playing, the attention is still on him. Every good play, the camera would cut to him. Every bad play, the camera would cut to him. Hell, even I’m talking about him and not the brilliant Bruno Fernandez or the literal hat-trick scored by his replacement!

Gomez is only 21, but already looks like the finished article, and played far better upfront than Ronaldo has this entire tournament. Is this the last we’ve seen of Ronaldo? The world is too unkind for such beautiful things to transpire.

But forget all that, because Morocco continued their extraordinary World Cup run by beating Spain in penalties. Were they similar to Croatia in that they played very defensively from the off, sure. Is it the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, no. Does any of that matter, absolutely not! Quite frankly, I don’t care how they play; I will be watching every match they have left as if it were an England game. That’s how invested I am in their continued success. They’re my new favourites. I need them to win. Croatia vs. Morocco as a potential final may not set the world on fire, but it’ll be a hell of a penalty shootout.



Wednesday 7 December (Day 17.1)
First day of no football in weeks.

I feel it might have reached its peak.

I’m tired and I’m drained,

excitement has waned;

the outlook is seeming quite bleak.



Friday 9 December (Day 18)
I’m reminded of that time a bird flew straight into my bedroom window. I’m sure it thought it would go through. It was confident nothing was in its way. What could possibly stop it? But something did. Something it hadn’t accounted for, something it didn’t even see.

Yet another knockout match that went to penalties. It’s fast becoming a fixture of Croatia’s World Cup strategy having taken all their knockout matches at this and the previous World Cup to penalties. It got them to the final that time, can they do it again? I really wouldn’t be surprised. They play a very blunt kind of football. Allegedly there are strikers on the pitch; could have fooled me. It’s very rare you see a side park the bus from the first minute, but to see a team do it for every knockout match at every tournament – it’s a work of art.

To put it kindly, Brazil did not play at their best. Yes, the Croatian defence is a well-oiled machine at this point, but they have more than enough skill and creativity to break it down. That simply wasn’t on display tonight. My dream of a Croatia vs. Morocco final is still alive and well, however.

I feel like everything that can be said about Netherlands vs. Argentina has already been said. A real odd duck of a match. Utterly dull for most of it, yet also contained some of the most exciting and controversial moments of the tournament so far. There was fighting, there was a literal last-minute goal, Messi showed his brilliance; but gosh it was boring for a lot of it.

Another one that went to penalties. I hear people complain about penalties. I don’t know, I find them tense regardless of who’s playing. That probably means I don’t actually like football. They level the playing field in a way that I think a lot of people find frustrating. Especially in tournament football where the aim isn’t to win, but simply not to lose, there is a proclivity for certain teams to look as if they’re playing for penalties from the start (Croatia, Morocco, I’m looking at you). It’s lower risk, and increases your odds of winning. I get it, but that can be dull to watch and doesn’t win you many fans.

I don’t know, I’m torn. But if Croatia continue in this tournament, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of them.



Saturday 10 December (Day 19)
What I would give to be neutral. What I would give not to care.

It felt like a final. Both England and France looked more than capable of beating any of the remaining teams (and I’m not just saying that as a sore loser or England fanatic). Regardless of what ITV’s Sam Matterface or Lee Dixon insisted on telling me; England played phenomenally well. Aside from a brilliant wonder goal in the first half, and a defensive mistake in the second, England were dominant for huge swathes of the match.

France seemed unable to deal with Saka. Every time he got the ball, he was consistently beating his man, making a probing pass, or drawing the foul. It felt at times like there was nothing that man could not do. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s King’s speech is just Saka explaining how he’s sorted out the cost-of-living crisis, averted strike action with a deal all parties could agree on, whilst doing 100 keepy-ups and nutmegging the Queen Consort.

Kudos to France though. They were not the better side, yet never felt like they were out of the game. Even though he didn’t do much, every time Mbappé gets the ball your heart-rate increases, in fear as much as in awe. Their midfield looked very strong too.

The thing that made the loss worse was how happy I was after today’s other match. Morocco became the first African nation through to a men’s World Cup semi-final. An amazing accomplishment in and of itself, but to make Ronaldo cry in the process; exquisite. Morocco face France next. They’re unlikely to win, but by gum, I want them to. Croatia/Morocco here we come!

Oh right, the refereeing. I’m not normally one to go on about a referee's performance. They have a thankless job. Every decision they make will anger someone, and are often first to receive the blame when matches don’t go a team’s way. That being said…I did not think he had a great match. Too many fouls against England players went ignored, especially those on Saka. It felt like the French were encouraging him to become a horticulturist the number of times they bundled him to the ground. And yet, very little went our way. You could tell it was frustrating the England players, and emboldening the French. Even England’s second penalty, a foul in anyone’s book, was very nearly not given.

Yes, Kane should have scored that second penalty. Yes, we could have been more clinical in front of goal. But I thought they did us proud. Questions will undoubtedly be raised by certain fans about Southgate as manager. I think they’re unwarranted. He’s got England playing their best football in years, fostered once-in-a-generation players, and nurtured an environment of love and support I don’t think any team has ever had before.

France were second best tonight. But I guess that’s what makes them the best team left at this tournament; they win regardless of how they play. They took the chances they had. We didn’t.



Sunday 11 December (Day 19.1)
My throat is sore, and I’ve lost my voice. The kettle whistles, the toaster pops, and the world moves on. It’s my mum’s birthday today. We gather on her bed to gift presents and sing. We smile. We laugh. We’re happy. Our minds are elsewhere…