As World Cups go, Russia 2018 will be regarded as one of the better tournaments; perhaps not the best of all time, but certainly better than a lot of people would have given it credit for before it kicked off. Prior to the competition, I had my misgivings. Fears of unrest at the tournament (football in Russia has a reputation for terrace violence and racism) and the underwhelming performances of the England national team at recent tournaments were just two of them. The poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer and double agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March this year (regardless of who was actually to blame) and the ensuing exchanges that saw Russian diplomats expelled from the UK, and British diplomats banished from Moscow, led to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office urging travelling fans to be wary of “anti-British sentiment”.
But from what the media reported, it seems that there was little, if any trouble in Russia this year, and it does seem that the 2018 World Cup was a remarkably fan-friendly tournament. Footage from inside the stadiums seems to support the view that the fans were extremely well behaved and the organisation efficient (apart from the presentation of the trophy to France after the final which, to put it politely, was a bit of a shambles).
Overall the standard of refereeing at these finals seemed pretty decent as well, albeit that in the early group games it appeared that all of the officials had developed a total inability to spot the adoption of all-in wrestling by teams when defending corner kicks. Serbia were denied what most observers considered to be the most blatant penalty in the history of the game when Aleksandar Mitrovic was pulled to the ground by not one, but two Swiss defenders, while in England's opener against Tunisia, Harry Kane was repeatedly tugged to the floor without the reward of a spot kick. And it isn't as though the referees were not seeing these incidents - they clearly were - but equally clearly were choosing not to penalise the offences. Fortunately, this subsequently changed with later games seeing defenders rightly penalised for holding and rugby tackling forwards.
The use of the Video Assistant Referee system (VAR) in this World Cup opened a whole new Pandora's Box of problems. The principle of VAR is pretty sound, and while in the past I've felt that the Laws of The Game ought not to differentiate between a World Cup Final and a game on Hackney Marshes, I'll now accept that VAR has its place in the game at its highest levels. But the problem with VAR is neither the idea nor the technology, but the people who administer it, either in the booth or on the pitch. Once VAR has been invoked and offered the referee a chance to review their decision, there must always be an element of doubt creeping into their mind such that it is more likely than not that they will reverse their original decision regardless of whether they were right first time (and often, they were); it's human nature to let doubts creep in once you've been told to look at something again.
|Referee Enrique Caceres studies the monitor as VAR comes into play in the Portugal v Iran game. Photo:Maja Hitij/FIFA via Getty Images|
The normal tub-thumping jingoism that accompanies England at major tournaments was mercifully absent this year. Optimism surged once the Quarter-Finals were reached and won, and understandably so, after all, England won two knock-out matches in Russia, their best return for many a year. Before this competition England had been victorious in just six knock-out matches at major tournaments since 1966; the last time England triumphed in a game beyond the group stages was against Ecuador in 1996.
I was as cynical as anyone when 'England's DNA' - a sort of footballing methodology and consistency of style and approach across the national side at all age levels - was announced in 2014, but it seems to be bearing fruit, since in June 2017 England's Under-20’s won both the Toulon Tournament and the World Cup and with different squads at each tournament. Later that same month the Under-21s reached the semi-finals of the European Championships before losing on penalties to Germany. In July, the Under-19s won the European Championships after beating Portugal in the final, and then in October, the Under-17 side won the World Cup, coming from 2-0 down to beat Spain 5-2 in the Final. Maybe, if players advance through the ranks to the full England side, playing a similar style of football throughout their progression, the national side will start to perform more consistently and more importantly, more effectively.
Sam Allardyce losing the England manager's job for allegedly giving advice on how to circumvent the FA’s rules on third-party ownership may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. One can imagine that Sam's squad would have relied heavily on the usual suspects - Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, Jack Wilshere et al, whereas Gareth Southgate was prepared to give younger players a chance, and to a large degree, was vindicated for doing so.
|Gareth Southgate's team selection and air of calm professionalism won him many fans at the World Cup.|
In recent years my interest in World Cups has waned somewhat, but I watched more of this tournament than I anticipated - viewer friendly kick-off times helped. I especially enjoyed the Portugal - Spain, France - Argentina, and Belgium - Japan games, and managed to see most of England's games. The Quarter-Final against Sweden proved a challenge, however, as Val and I had tickets for BBC World Book Club with Hilary Mantel (author of Wolf Hall) on the same day, and with me being slated to ask a question (as it happens, it was cut because time ran out) it was difficult not to attend. BBC World Book Club over-ran slightly, so the game had been going for fifteen minutes by the time we emerged from the event. Fortunately, the wi-fi at The Southbank Centre came to the rescue and we watched the game on my iPad.
|Hilary Mantel at BBC World Book Club...|
But the Semi-Final against Croatia presented me with a big, big dilemma. Back in January, I booked a ticket to see one of my favourite bands, Big Big Train in concert on 11th July, not realising that it was the date of one of the Semi-Finals. Frankly, even had I known that I would probably still have booked a ticket, after all, what were the chances that England would be playing? As the competition unfolded, it was clear that I could have a choice to make, and after the Sweden game that I definitely had a choice to make. With the gig being in Basingstoke (a two-and-a-bit hour drive from home) while England were featuring in the last four of the World Cup for only the third time in my lifetime, you could say that I was conflicted. In the end, I chose Big Big Train and was glad I did as they were brilliant. Staying at home to watch the game would have been frustrating, stressful and inevitably made me wish I'd gone to Basingstoke.
|Big Big Train in Basingstoke proved to be a wise choice.|
One swallow doesn't make a summer, and hopes for England's chances in Euro 2020, and the 2022 World Cup need to be tempered with a sense of realism, but it seems only reasonable for the optimist to believe that for once, England's glass is half-full.