marți, 31 iulie 2018

The Spectrum of Normality

Paul Wady - Guerilla Aspies (A Neurotypical Society Infiltration Manual), Free Autistic Press, 2014

Paul Wady is autistic, but what that means exactly is a raging debate in some circles. The regular reader would be unacquainted with a number of terms throughout this book and would most likely think of autism as a 'disease'. The short, simple definition of autism is that it's a 'developmental disability', though the autistic people I met would argue against the use of the term 'disability'. Frankly, I think the autistic people I met would argue against anything, but that's beside the point.

What is certain is that very little is known about autism at the level of the regular Joe, while my impression, after a few months of intense reading about autism, is that science doesn't really know what to make of it just yet.

While there seems to be a whole community of socially functioning individuals diagnosed as autistic who developed, in the UK at least, a real subculture of marginalized social groups, somewhat like the 'gay culture' of a few decades ago, there are also a lot of autistic individuals who struggle to integrate socially or indeed to function at all. They seem to be the main intended readership of this book, though I think the book is potentially even more valuable for young autistic individuals who are trying to understand, learn and mimic social behavior, as well as for neurotypical (or 'normal', if you will, though is a term I abhor) readers who have an interest in learning about autism. The value of this book comes mostly from the fact that it presents an inside point of view, it's an inside out look with no pretense of having any medical value, but potentially more valuable when it comes to understanding autism.

The book is largely based on personal experience, all the advice given fits into the writer's own journey and may or may not work for anyone else. But of this we get plenty of warning, unlike a lot of places within the book where the reader is actively and in all seriousness advised to break the law in ways that range up to violent homicide, only to reveal the joke later on. I take this as an indication that it is not actually an instruction manual, but rather an information manual: it provides a way of looking at the world that is potentially inaccessible to the reader, but without indicating what to do with this newly gained view.

Surprisingly, valuable as it might be, is not the informative aspect that I found the best about the book, but the emotional one: it starts off as a very funny read, almost a stand-up number in written form, but then Paul starts to gradually recount episodes of his life or episodes that autistic people encounter on a regular basis, and the tone shifts towards extreme sadness by the end of the book. In trying to describe what it is to be autistic, Paul Wady manages to describe what it is to be human: a hot mess of inconsistencies, irregularities, broken promises, peculiar social conventions and things said with no intention of acting upon them. We have long suspected that a conscious being would struggle to understand large swathes of the human behavior when given the opportunity to study it from outside. Well, Paul Wady is that conscious being. And despite some carelessness in editing or structure, this book is a very good mirror in which we can see ourselves. This is the image that's both funny and sad.

joi, 19 iulie 2018

Green Green Horse at Home

Simon Armitage - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Faber and Faber, 2007

Is this like... alien knight or smth?
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval poem, written around 1400 in Middle English, of which Simon Armitage's decade-old rendition into modern English is the latest one. The poem draws on the Arthurian legends, though it is not contemporary to them in any way: the themes, language and atmosphere of the poem are a lot closer to the 14th century than the 6th century in which the Tales of the Round table originated: not only is it filled with Christian symbolism, but the attitudes and behavior of characters is a lot more representative of the late Middle Ages. Of course, Arthur and his knights could not have been Christian, though latter writers have not only made them so, but have slowly overlayed upon them motif after motif of medieval Christian virtue.

Such is the case here, where the unknown medieval author anchors the Camelot crowd firmly into the Christian values, so much so that our hero's shield is built along the coordinates of the star of David and has the face of the Holy Virgin painted on. The antagonist, the Green Knight, is probably the remnant of the Pagan era, hence his casting as the bad guy. While the medieval poet does not delve into the Green Knight's origins, his unusual, unnatural green coloring is reminiscent of the worshiping of nature that druid-wizards like Merlin were practicing. In addition, the Green Knight reveals a direct connection to Merlin towards the end of the poem, while his dwelling place is a 'green church', 'a ghostly cathedral overgrown with grass' (2190). Might it be then that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an attempt from the medieval poet to recover the druidic myths and traditions, to draw the attention of his contemporaries to them? The equation of Christmas with Yuletide is another argument to that, but you will need a better prepared scholar than myself for a definite answer.

The synopsis is relatively simple: during the Christmas feast a weird-looking Green Knight shows up at King Arthur's palace and issues a strange challenge: he will take an axe blow to the neck in exchange for returning it a year later. As the most virtuous of Arthur's knights, Gawain raises to accept the challenge, which means his next year is spent in search of the mysterious Green Knight whose chopped head left only a vague clue as to his whereabouts. As it happens, Gawain does discover the location of the knight's Green Church just in time, though in true epic poem tradition, more tests need to be passed before Gawain manages to reach that which, on the face of it, will mean his earthly end. Of course, the resolution is favorable to our hero, though there is a twist at the end with an important moral signification.

The modern reader is, of course, required to suspend his belief in regards to a series of motifs, actions of motivations throughout: how can a man be green? who issues such an outlandish challenge and, furthermore, who's silly enough to accept it rather than dismissing it as useless or childish? how can a beheaded man speak or ride and, most importantly, how is it that it just so happens that Gawain finds the green church just in the nick of time? Oh, God directed his step? I see, it all makes sense now.

That being said, the poem is largely entertaining, and one must appreciate how, in the tradition of Arthurian legends, the resolution is not as straightforward as in the typical fairy-tale. The good example walks hand in hand with the cautionary tale. Not to mention, the abundance of detail regarding castles' layout, hunting or dining habits are not only very valuable for historians and scholars, but also highly atmospheric. Plus, I love how the medieval poet is not tied by the rigors of modern writing, pacing it as slow as he likes in places that have no bearing whatsoever to the main plot, such as the butchering of the game - shown in great detail - while a few months' worth of adventures are dismissed as they're 'too long to tell here'. Sure, why the hell not, nevermind what the hero did, tell me more about how to chop a deer leg. This sort of detail, regardless how valuable or atmospheric, can become overbearing for the average reader, but luckily this particular poem is of acceptable length and, at least in Simon Armitage's rendition, quite readable.

In regards to the this particular rendition, I think Simon Armitage has done a decent job, though there are places where modern language creeps in on top of medieval structures and it sounds as out of place as a scratched record. The story is entirely preserved, but there are places where the language is butchered. IMHO, a greater care should have been taken to ensure the language preserves the medieval atmosphere and, if something had to be sacrificed, then maybe the poetic structure should be the first victim.

So, is this poem teaching us anything? Well, nothing of huge relevance, but for nostalgics of Arthurian legends like myself, it's a good light reading for a summer afternoon in the park.


'Why should I shy away? If fate is kind or cruel man still must try.' (560)

luni, 16 iulie 2018

Finis coronat opus

France - Croatia 4-2

Six goals! A great World Cup crowned by a great final! Certainly the best World Cup final in my time, and if we are to judge by the number of goals, the best since 1958 (yes, England's 4-2 win in 1966 had six goals as well, but after extra time). It is absolutely incredible how open the game was, how well both teams played and how they went for it with all their might, not trying to stall the game or cheat football in any way.

An argument can be made for Croatia being a tad unlucky, what with the first two French goals coming on the back of refereeing decision, but that argument has shaky grounds. First off, Mandzukic's own goal, from a questionable foul on Griezmann. I've watched it many times from 3 angles and honestly can't make up my mind. It looks like he goes down really easy, but it's really hard to tell whether the fall was caused by Brozovic or not. Regardless, that was not the goal. The goal came from the ensuing free kick, which was poorly defended by the Croats, and it's really unfortunate that Mandzukic only pushed it into his own net. He's a great player and has enough experience to put this behind him quickly, but an own goal in a World Cup final will always be a stick to beat him with, so plenty of people will keep reminding him about it.

And, as fortunes would have it, it was going to be the other goalscorer to cause the penalty that put France ahead shortly before the break. Was it a handball against Perisic? Well, he certainly touched the ball with his hand, leaving the rest of the world to debate concepts like 'intent', 'natural position' and - to Heidegger's delight - the 'being towards the ball' or 'the ball being towards the hand'. The reality of it is, whenever there's contact between your hand and the ball in the box you're always risking a penalty, so you're better of keeping your hand to yourself. The example I always go back to is Baggio's penalty against Chile in 1998 (0:55 in the clip). All the other blabber works for sofa punditry but is useless on the pitch: a penalty was awarded and Griezmann put France ahead. Anyone who'd try to make this decision an argument against VAR are victims of a logical flaw: first off, the referee can watch a replay however many times he deems necessary and he's also the only man in charge of his own absolute certainties and reasonable doubts. Secondly, even if this decision was blatantly wrong, the purpose of VAR is not to make refereeing perfect - there is no such thing; it's purpose is to reduce the refereeing errors, and there's no denying throughout this World Cup it's done just that, and an important bit more: it has made the set piece battles in the box a lot cleaner. It came at the cost of a record 29 penalties, but it's an improvement on the game and it's here to stay.

It's one of football's little ironies that the two scorers for Croatia were the protagonists of the first two French goals. They're both brilliant players and have been excellent for their team, potentially not deserving to be involved in the two incidents, but no one can escape the caprices of fate.

Ivan Perisic - in my opinion the player of the tournament. He is the full package and his equalizer in the 28th minute is a confirmation of just how good he has been. Excellent placement, strength, superb shot, a summary of all the skills he displayed throughout the tournament. Renewed interest from Manchester United? I'd love this interest to materialize, though Inter might be rather reluctant to let him go.

As for the second Croatian goal, Hugo Lloris should count his blessings that it came at 4-1, because should that have been a decider, the French goalkeeper would have been on the receiving end of an unflattering stream of jokes and memes for some time. As it is, people forgot about it already, choosing instead to concentrate on exactly how black the French team is. Not only enraging, but mind-boggling how people can get so stuck in someone's skin color or birth place and not see what is in front of them: another human being.

Mbappe was born in France, calls no other country his own and knows no other culture, though he sure knows how to kick a football. He's been an absolute delight to watch this tournament, as was his goal for 4-1. I look forward to seeing a lot more moments of magic from the 19 year old in the years to come, though I do regret most of them will be in the PSG shirt, as I'm not sure who and for how much could get him away from Parc des Princes where he arrived with the immense 180M price tag.

And happily enough, Pogba put his name on the score sheet too, with just as good a shot as Mbappe's, prompting the choir of eternally complaining United fans to ask for him to put in the same kind of performances for United. As if his single-handed demolition of City never was.

4-2, a score maybe too harsh on Croatia, that deserve all praise heaped upon them and more. But France was the best team of the tournament and are deserving winners. It is a rare feat when two teams this good are pitted against each other and play this sort of superb, fluid, open football. And this final was a rare feat indeed, though I'd make a trilogy out of it, with France's games against Argentina and Uruguay next to it, and then we'll have the full perspective of what this wonderful team assembled by Deschamps is capable of.

Which does beg the question: Giroud? There's no reason to end this review on any sort of a negative note, and there's no arguments against the strategy of a manager who's just won the World Cup, but come on, Didi, what's the catch? Did you put him on just to make all the others look good?
But guess who's the center of celebrations?

duminică, 15 iulie 2018

Too zero

Belgium - England 2-0

See you in 4 years?
Third place play-off is a much more appropriate name for such a game rather than the pompous 'small final' or 'little final' as it'd be called in Romanian. Both teams might've had a shot at the final, but the anti-climatic atmosphere surrounding the game bears nothing of the anticipation of one. It's no more than a consolation prize, and a very unwanted one most of the time.

That being said, however, it is disrespectful to approach it with no desire to win. Yes, protect yourself and yes, keep it a clean game, but as I said - funnily enough - before the first Belgium - England encounter of this tournament, if you're not going to want to win you might as well not show up.

Though in all honesty what England has done can hardly be called showing up. They were present on the pitch, not so much in the game. Not that Belgium played all that well, but they looked head and shoulder above the English. They deserved to win the game, but that means nothing. All in all, it had the look of a Premier League game in May, when the table has already been decided. 

There were moments of good football in it, specially from the Belgians, but in a skills showcase kind of way rather than a battle for a result. 

By losing 2-0 one could think that England has actually gotten worse throughout the tournament, as it's a step down from the 1-0 loss in the group stage, that one almost just as irrelevant.

Not much point in being too harsh with either of the teams though: they both punched above their weight, they were not the first two options for semi-finalists and will go home with a sense of achievement that will eventually shine through the disappointment of not being in the final. One might actually wonder about the purpose of this third place play-off, other than the obvious commercial one.

Not FIFA though. For FIFA the commercial purpose of an extra game is reason enough, though it might be a while until we see one that's actually interesting. Belgium goes home with a bronze medal, England returns home with the same disappointment felt after the Italy 1990 World Cup, but with the hope that this generation can repeat the performance that Gazza & co. could only achieve at the zenith of their careers.

And or the rest of us, the real final of this, after all, truly great World Cup, is starting in some half hour. I have no leanings, but I'm tempted by France. They are more deserving winners for a reason that's often overlooked in football allegiances: they played better.

Withdrawal starts tomorrow.

joi, 12 iulie 2018

The Torture of Hope

England - Croatia 1-2

Well well well... that was nice now, wasn't it?

Get to the hair-dresser!
I have experienced, in my life, moments when the world seems to come to a standstill for a football game. It's tense, it's beautiful, and I also know that, regardless of the final score, that moment of anticipation will remain forever. Win it, and it's paradise, lose it and it's hell, but the in-between, the unknown... that's sublime.

That is, in a nutshell, what London looked like today, though two things have been different from all of the big European games I lived through in Bucharest: 1. I never lived this feeling in England, not for Champions League final, not for FA Cup final, not for anything; and 2. I never lived it as an outsider, uninvolved.

Number one is quite normal: a club game, however big, belongs mainly to football followers. Whereas the World Cup, when those same eleven people you see on the telly week in week out are wearing your country's colors and singing the national anthem (the ones that can remember the lyrics at least), well, that's different. All of a sudden they become 'our boys', there is an intense feeling that the whole world is watching and no one wants to miss that, specially when you have the chance to be the center of attention. This World Cup is the 4th major national football tournament I live in this country, but the first to be made such a fuss about. Haven't lived here long enough for England to do well, I suppose. 

As for my uninvolvement with the English national team, I believe I explained time and time again: I might've been more supportive, should the national team be more supportive of United. It is 20 years now since the chants of 'Stand up if you hate Man U' began being heard at Wembley while figurines of David Beckham were hung outside, all this while the Neville brothers, Rooney, Beckham himself and many others were playing for England, never praised, always blamed. Such attitudes are not easy to forget. And who was it to say 'Fuck it, it's only England'? That's right, Carragher, the legend with more own goals than the whole of this tournament.

On the other hand, I did like how good the mood throughout the nation has become because of football. It is only for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics that I've seen such displays of optimistic, friendly, inclusive patriotism. I knew it wasn't going to last, England was on borrowed time ever since that penalty shoot-out against Columbia, but who will listen to the prophets of doom when Kane is banging them for fun against Panama?

I am now beginning to understand the disappointment the nation must've felt in 1990. But that was a good team! This time England was playing Kyle Walker ffs! And the best substitutes Southgate could come up with when in need of a goal were Dier and Jamie Vardy. Southgate did brilliantly to bring this team of nobodies up to this stage, and even this game hung in the balance for a long while. But once that Perisic equalizer went in, there was only one way. And it wasn't Essex.

Just like yesterday, the losing team controlled the first half. Trippier's shot was a good one, and the fact that Subasic got the placement horribly wrong don't make it any worse. 5th minute... 'Will they pull a Bayern Munich?' was my fist thought, echoes of that Mario Basler goal in Barcelona still resonating strongly. It wasn't exactly a Bayern Munich but...

'We need to kill the game. We need to score a second.' was the consensus at half-time between Gary Neville, Ian Wright and Lee Dixon in the BBC studio, with Roy Keane reluctantly following suit. And right they were, as England's firm dominance of the first half only came to that one Trippier strike. Another couple of chances, with Vrsaljko heading the ball off the line on one occasion, and Harry Kane barely missing the finishing from the close proximity of the post, but really not that many shots.

Nothing obvious changed in the second half, and England still came the fastest out of the starting blocks, but they dropped than tiny bit of space, under the illusionary cover of that solitary goal, and Croatia seemed to be suffering from the same chronic lack of ideas as in the first half. 

Enter Ivan Perisic. After Mandzukic's efforts didn't come to much in the first half, Croatia's left side became more and more prominent. And Perisic did waste a few good balls trying to connect with Modric on the other side of the field initially, but once the attacking mind-set got going, the game was Croatia's for the taking. I can't really remember any sort of English chance or dangerous attack after the Croatian equaliser, and I think penalties were on the Lions' minds as soon as the extra time started. Big mistake. Croatia didn't really go all out attack in the extra time either, but once Mandzukic saw the opportunity, he wasn't gonna let it go, was he? 

I thought Perisic's goal was really beautiful, jumping and raising his foot to connect so exacting with the ball above Walker. Mandzukic was a lot more opportunistic, but after the third consecutive game to last over two hours, who cares?

It's doom and gloom once again in the British Isles then, and an ironic battle for the bronze medal against Belgium on Saturday. But when the dust settles over the Panini sticker albums from this World Cup, England will realize this has actually been a huge achievement, one they would have taken with both hands a month ago. 

Croatia? Are you kidding me? They're in seven heaven right now and they'll stay there even after they'll lose the final to France on Sunday. How badly they'll lose is up to how much more energy they can muster. It's all a matter of how long you can keep the French away, because breaking that defense will be a completely different proposition than today. The French don't field Kyle Walker, they have real footballers.

miercuri, 11 iulie 2018

The Gaul Goal

France - Belgium 1-0 (Umtiti '51)

Belgium, the land of palm trees
So normally I'd dismiss Belgium as high profile under-achievers, a status they're very much used to it, but after their brushing aside of Brazil I had to think twice. I still thought France have one foot ahead, but the closer we got to the starting whistle the tougher the game became to call. But two hours later it has been proved, once again, that in such close call games pedigree can be an important factor.

For the first half I thought Belgium was the better team with, funnily enough, Fellaini their best player. Sure, Belgium has the attacking flair of Hazard, Lukaku and de Bruyne up front, but with Fellaini right behind them it meant United's controversial midfielder would be the one stop shop for all balls that went up from the Belgian defense, he'd stop most of the French interceptions and would be ever-present in the box for corners and crosses. And he's a hard one to stop Fellaini. The fact that an important part of United's support wants him out baffles me.

But the French defense was absolutely flawless. Wave after wave of Belgian attacks hit an extremely disciplined blue wall and they were left to resort to shots from a distance, with the notable exception of a shot from Alderweireld, 20 minutes in, 15 yards out, on the half turn, brilliantly blocked by Lloris.

So if at half time the prediction needle was leaning ever so slightly towards the red, 5 minutes from the break the French put it firmly in the blue with Umtiti's goal, which for some reason reminded me of another brilliant performance from a defender to put France in the final, 20 years ago. Yes, despite the huge attacking talent in both the 1998 team and this one, it would have to be a defender to get the goals. Somewhat normal, with the team being so evenly match, it's easier to lose sight of the odd defender that's come up for a corner. Umtiti's goal was not the most elaborate, but the execution was brilliant. And once it went in, in their heart of hearts, every player on the pitch knew it was over.

I was disappointed in a way that the Belgians didn't show just a bit more ambition. It's true, it's a lot harder to come back from 0-2 than 0-1 and Mbappe is a huge threat on the counter-attack with his speed, but it's very hard to break down a defense that good if you're not giving it your best. And the closest the Red Devils came to a goal in the second half was Witsel's shot from a distance in the 81st minute. In all honesty, I thought Fellaini's substitution, just before that, marked the capitulation of Roberto Martinez. It is true that Belgium have reached a stage that they can be happy with and they will be hailed as heroes at home, but conceding defeat before leaving the pitch is by no means the mark of a team capable of winning trophies.

It is also true that, in the end, the French beat Belgium physically. In the last 20 minutes of the game both Griezmann and Mbappe run riot through a depleted Belgian defense, both in numbers and in physical resources. There was a lot more space and a lot more French chances, and Les Bleus were unlucky not to score more. Well, unlucky or marred by the presence of Giroud, who seems so out of place in between the other two strikers and I cannot for the life of me understand how he can be in the starting 11 for this team. He's slow, can't take a man out by himself and doesn't even provide that much of a threat with his headers as he's supposed to. But it's hard to argue with a manager that keeps winning. Water carrier or not, Didi Deschamps is about to enter history as only the third man to win the World Cup both as a player and manager.

And because I want my review of the game to be as balanced as the game itself, I will end on a critique of Lukaku. Something I very rarely do, as he's one of our own, but there's something about Lukaku that doesn't quite convince me. It's not that he doesn't show up in the big games, or that he's got a heavy first touch; it's just that a lot of the time he looks disconnected from his team, somehow not on the same wavelength with the other attackers. Whenever you need a goal, it doesn't look like it's gonna come from Lukaku. That being said, however, he's got 4 in 5 in this World Cup and finished the season with 27 goals in 51 games for United, and I'll take that. After all, I'm the one who wasn't liking van Nistelrooy.

duminică, 8 iulie 2018

Pride of Lions

England - Sweden 2-0
Russia - Croatia 2-2 (3-4 penalties)

Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden! I have been very vocal against a country with a great football tradition, but with a squad that's a far cry from the days of Thomas Brolin, Henrik Larsson or Zlatan (in whose time it was, of course, called Zweden). And rightly so. I don't think Sweden deserved to get to the quarter-finals, I don't think they deserved to qualify from the group, I think - despite having not seen the games, they didn't even deserve to qualify for the World Cup and thus deprive us of Italy's presence. But here they were, facing an England team that has just squeezed past Colombia and ignited the hopes of a nation in dire need of pretenses for self-respect.

Not doubting that England's going to win, I decided to sacrifice the first half in favor of enjoying a bit of the London Pride Parade.This is important. Traditionally, the mainstream attitudes of the LGBT and the football supporters communities have been to fear and avoid each other with violent clashes happening if crowds from both of them would meet. A lot of irrational beliefs and outdated or simply untrue stereotypes persist within each of the communities in relation to the other, and even though relationships are improving, today was important as it occasioned massive crowds of LGBT to encounter crowds of England football fans just as massive in probably the most harmonious and friendly get-together of the two in history. First off, it was a very beautiful Pride, aided by great weather and a massive involvement from the allies, businesses and the local authorities. I'm still not entirely comfortable participating in full at a Pride parade because although I fully support inclusiveness, equal rights and opportunities for all and protection of minorities of any kind, I also understand I can at most be a guest, and I haven't even been invited in. Any other mindset going into a Pride as a cisgender raises the danger of cultural appropriation, and I would become the very thing I militate against.

As for the Three Lions, well, in Carragher's undying words, 'fuck it, it's only England'. While I became a supporter of England while I was losing interest in Romania's team, in the early 00s, I had grown out of it after seeing the poor treatment United players get when playing for country, having a palpable feeling of perennial incompetence and under-achievement from the various generations of players but most of all because of the sentiment of entitlement emanating from all the support of the England team, an extension of the entitlement I feel comes with the British passport and sharing with this the set of irrational beliefs in the superiority of all things Saxon with the only basis in reality happening too long ago to matter. Case in point, the cheesy (though relatively catchy) 'It's coming home' tune, implying that somehow the World Cup naturally belongs to England because they won it once 50 years ago. I can't get on board with that. Which makes me very ambivalent towards England's trajectory: I do like the enthusiasm that ripples to various social layers, I like the atmosphere of national celebration around the games and it is very good for football to gain support and popularity; but on the other hand, whenever anything good happens in relation to the England team it immediately gets endlessly repeated and blown out of proportion that a voice inside my head shouts loudly: 'Pull the cork out of your ass!'

For today though, not only did I want England to win, I thought they would, though I wasn't exactly sure how. With Sweden's unmovable 8-man defense, I estimated it will be a scruffy affair sorted wither by a lucky blow (or two, depending if Sweden got a look in or not) or it will go to penalties. Credit to Southgate and his boys though, they got the game by the scruff of the neck and sorted it before half-time. No credit to Sterling, however. Raheem Sterling is a selfish prick who's been given more chances that he deserves and only know how to waste balls, even in a 1-on-1 situation with the keeper. So a goal either side of the break within the hour spelt a comfortable final 30 minutes for the Three Lions, despite some convulsions of the Swedish hopes while dying. So England in the semifinals for the first time since 1990, though this time for dislocating the unmovable object of Sweden rather than bringing to a half the unstoppable force of Cameroon.

And to complete the final four Russia had to fight Croatia in a game during which I realized I want the Croatians to win more than I knew. Which made me rather fearful after Russia broke the deadlock via Cheryshev's wonder strike and once again when the game went to penalties which I wasn't able to watch live. I still think that overall Croatia was the better team and deserving to win, though I shall adjust my previous position in regard to them: while in the group stage Croatia recorded 3 wins, 7 goals scored and 1 conceded with a hammering of Argentina in the process, since then they haven't managed to win against inferior opposition, dropped their goal/game ration from 2.33 to 1.50 and needed penalties on both occasions. Which makes me think England actually has a chance. Not a big one, Croatia is still the better team, but they have lost speed and look like they might be running out of gas, while England are clicking into gear at the business end of the tournament.

Believe it or not, once the game was over I was actually sorry for Russia. The host played under suspicions of foul play ever since the World Cup started, yet we've seen no indication of that and the Putin and VAR memes only surfaced once, over a weak penalty claim by an otherwise poor Spanish team. What we have seen instead was a very well-organised team with players striving to do their best and with a few of them shining. None of the Russian players will make it to much of a better career than the one they have now, but the names of Dzyuba, Golovin, Cheryshev, Ignashevich or Dzagoev are now heard all over the world and this is giving Russia a good platfom on which to build a new, competitive generation. And beyond all of that, Smolov took my request: he attempted a panenka. It was a failed, poor attempt - a half-panenka of sorts - and it has ended up costing his country the qualification, but the guts required to attempt that - specially knowing ridicule is the obligatory consequence of failure - that's something to admire. As is Subasic, the Croatian keeper who saved Smolov's penalty and sat in goal through pain and muscle strains that appeared already towards the end of the 90 minutes. And it's not like he had nothing to do in extra-time. Half the goals have been scored in extra-time. But how does Croatia's tiredness bode for the game against England? We'll find out on Wednesday evening.

sâmbătă, 7 iulie 2018


France - Uruguay 2-0
Belgium - Brazil 2-1

The path of defeat is a lonely one
Once again, this world cup lavishes upon us some wonderful, wonderful football. France - Uruguay, the first quarter-final, reaffirmed my opinion that France is the best team of the tournament. One of the games in which you're sorry one of the teams has to lose, specially when you think teams like Sweden are still in the competition. I expected France to edge it out, but despite the game being fairly balanced, the French were much more in control than I thought. Comfortable in possession, comfortable attacking, always finding spaces, great at taking a defender out, excellent understanding between the attacking players, Pogba, Giroud, Griezmann and Mbappe always knew exactly where each other was. Uruguay didn't play bad at all, but had a bit of a harder time to get into finishing situations. They missed the monster Cavani big time, and even though the 2-0 is harsh and not reflective of how close the game actually was, I'm left with the feeling that Uruguay played to their limit, whereas France was a gear or two below their top speed.

France taking the lead shortly before half time also didn't help much. Great corner, and great execution from Varane. The second goal... is a bit trickier. I'm very very sorry for Muslera, the predominant opinion seems to be he made a mistake, but Griezmann's shot was too powerful and the ball had too much of a spin to attempt a straight catch. It's a huge shame for his last contribution of note to the World Cup story to be this very weird goal, as at 32 I doubt Muslera will be called-up for the trip to Qatar in 2022. I would however, like to see everyone laughing at him attempting to stop that shot.

Pure class from Griezmann, choosing not to celebrate the goal, he understood perfectly how no one would like to be in that situation. And it was not an easy save, getting to the ball in the first place is an achievement.

My bet for the game was both teams to score, but unfortunately Tavarez's boys didn't even manage a thoroughly deserved consolation goal. France is in the semi-final where they will meet Belgium, weirdly enough.

Belgium beating Brazil is to me the biggest shock in the knock-out stages, a lot bigger than Russia beating Spain. And, if I said 2-0 was harsh for Uruguay, well, 2-1 is a very mild result for Brasil given how firmly out-classed they were. Belgium was incredibly well-organized and super-fast on the counter-attack, with Fellaini doing a great job in the middle and Lukaku being a constant source of danger for the Selecao defense. Silly own goal by Fernandinho and a super-strike by De Bruyne settled it, but Belgium could have scored a fair few more judging by the chances they got. Brazil didn't know what hit them, and they woke up really late to take the initiative in the game. The last half hour, specifically. Having not seen the last 20 minutes of the game or Renato Augusto's goal, I don't know how intense this pressure was going towards the final whistle, but obviously it didn't bear much fruit. Belgium is in the semi-final, and rightly so. They have been the best team in every game they played, whether the led from the start, struggled to break a defense or had to come back from two-goals down. Brazil didn't manage that.

joi, 5 iulie 2018

Not coming home

Sweden - Switzerland 1-1
England - Colombia 1-1 (4-3 penalties)

Sweden - Switzerland was the battle of the undeserving, neither team having played well enough to reach the knock-out stage. I saw the game as going slightly Switzerland's way, as they seemed the better team, had a star player (Shaqiri) and a marginally better evolution in their group, drawing Brazil and beating an underachieving Serbia, albeit by a lucky shot in the last minute. Sweden, on the other hand, looked like a team almost incapable to score, and I still don't understand the miracle through which they beat Mexico 3-0 and topped their group. So I called the game for Switzerland, and I was wrong. Sweden was the team in charge of the proceedings, showing a lot more initiative going forward. The Swiss might've been the most talented bunch, but they hit a brick wall running into a very compact and rigid Swedish defense, made up of 8-9 people for the most part. While the Swiss didn't manage to pose much of a danger throughout, even after they fell behind, the Swedes did create chances in front of goal, but their finishers were so laughably incompetent that the shots went in any and all directions but the opposition goal. It was meant to be therefore a drag of a game, punctuated by the odd Shaqiri shot from distance and Swedish chance finalized with a shot gone horribly wrong, both teams looking very happy with a 0-0 that would keep them in the world cup 30 minutes more. Unless an accident happens, of course. And the accident did happen, a very weak, down the middle, on the keeper shot being deviated in his own goal by the unfortunate Akanji. For the remaining 30 minutes the Swiss did try and pull one back, but only halfheartedly. Or maybe this is all they can, sad as that might be for a team in the knock-out stages of the world cup. Either way, there was more drama in the last minute of the injury time than in the preceding 30, when Sweden almost got a penalty, cancelled correctly by VAR, as the contact was outside the box. I say 'contact', though what it was was a gentle push by Lang on substitute Thelin, another sample of Sunday League football, where the defender is unable to make a tackle and the forward would rather fall down than attempt a shot from an ideal position with just the keeper in front of him. Lang got a red card and everybody acted as if it matters. Sweden is in the quarter-finals and everyone wonders how.

They both reached for the ball
They will face England, another team that proved me wrong, as I thought they'd be taken out by Colombia. And to be fair, it wasn't far off. And yet, England did seem to be the more positive team, the one who, as the old cliche goes, wanted it more. Despite the absence of Jamie Rodriguez Colombia still poses the greater attacking threat and is the more organised team, but it doesn't feel like they trusted themselves to really go for it. They were the louder team, for sure, but fell prey to the unspectacular efficiency of Harry Kane. Clear penalty, and the Spurs forward moves to 6 goals for the tournament with his spot-kick that reverberated in all the pubs across the land. It was almost enough for England, almost being the key word, as Yerry Mina proved once again a key man for Colombia, scoring his third of the tournament in injury time. I absolutely loved Mina, one of my favorite players in this World Cup, all his goals coming in at crucial times. So to penalties it went, and the aforementioned noise in the pubs was reduced to a quiet murmur of resignation, specially after Henderson's miss, which I welcomed. It was Southgate and his boys who proved the more composed in the end though, with unlikely hero Jordan Pickford managing to keep out the last two penalties and become a folk hero in the process. I dismissed England's chances so far, but credit goes where credit is due - Southgate has done an excellent job with the material at his disposal.

Got this last quarter-final completely wrong, though I did pretty well on the other three. So here's how I think the last 8 will pan out: France-Uruguay is the tie with the most promise, and I think France will edge it, while Brazil will easily sail past Belgium. Croatia-Russia is where home advantage of any kind might prove decisive, but I'd still trust the Croatian team to go through, they're far superior to Russians. England will struggle, but I think they'll pass Sweden, only to lose to a Croatia that will reach a World Cup final for the first time. There, they'll face the winner, which will be decided from a mouth-watering, breath-taking semifinal: France-Brazil. I'm tipping France to win it as they have a more measured approach to their game, while matching the Brazilian in quality, both individual and as a team. Not particularly my favorites, but deserving champions.

marți, 3 iulie 2018

Devil's diner

Brazil - Mexico 2-0
Belgium - Japan 3-2

Oh wow! What a beautiful day of football today, with the second half of Belgium - Japan the stuff of legends. Belgium tried to snooze their way through at cruise speed and almost got punished for it. In the first half Japan looked more like the attacking team, the team who actually wants to win the game. They had their chances too, with Courtois barely believing his luck when a ball slipped through his hands but no Japanese striker chased it. All in all though, the first half was... dynamic, yes, but nothing to write home about. It is immediately after the break that the show started, with Japan striking twice within five minutes. First goal, huge defensive mistake, Vertonghen failed to mark his man and Courtois jumped late after the goal. The second was just a beautiful strike, on a par with Modric's against Argentina and a candidate for the best goal of the tournament. No chance for any keeper against that shot. But the two goals did awake the Belgians, with Hazard hitting the post immediately after.

The devil was awake and looking for prey. Believe it or not, but even at 2-0 for Japan I thought the game is very much in the balance, but I knew Belgium needs to wake up fast if they are to win it. And I did not think they'll actually win it without extra time. I thought the Japanese legs will start to tire and the Red Devils will push and push. Well, the latter did happen, Lukaku also missing a good chance after an hour of play. But the Japanese held their own and they did carry on attacking up until the last minute, with the new boy Honda proving himself dangerous on a couple of occasions. It was going to be their undoing.

What they brought in stamina and enthusiasm though they lost in maturity and experience. Not sure they could've closed the game at 2-0, but they never gave it a shot. While the Japanese keeper gave a decent account of himself throughout, including a double save from Chadli and Lukaku in quick succession, his naivete got the better of him on the first Belgian goal. Vertonghen never meant to score and an experienced keeper would've chased that ball outside, but he lost his footing trying too hard to cover the short angle, when the biggest danger wasn't there. A beautiful goal, but one that the Samurai could've done without. 

The second Belgian goal, they couldn't have done much about. Two defenders jump with Fellaini for the cross. They reach to somewhere around his chest. Many people are doubting Fellaini's usefulness and ability, but those people don't understand the game of football very well. Today he completely revitalized the Belgian attack, together with the unlikely hero Chadli, from whom I would not have expected such heroics. Meanwhile, Alex Witsel was an illustrious nobody and De Bruyne struggled to find the magic touch. 

And the last goal, the one who broke the Japanese hearts, was a piece of beauty. Goal to goal in three passes, defense caught completely out of balance, easy tap in from, yes, Chadli. It mattered not which side of the final whistle the goal would've come. With the Belgians unleashed, the Japanese would not have lasted another 30 minutes of pressure, so penalties were out of the question. But just like Belgium didn't see the signs in the first half, when Japan came running out of the block-starters, the Japanese didn't see the warning to switch to cautious mode once the first Belgian goal got in.

Japan go home, but they do so along a huge cheers from the neutral and with a renewed capital of sympathy that is their usual lot at World Cups. And they can take this as a lesson, so that in 2022 they'll come prepared to qualify out of the group stage - maybe on a stronger claim than the fair-play rule - and be prepared to launch a more serious assault on the knock-out rounds, with a with to go one step further. Their horrible approach to the game against Poland is largely forgotten, though I have a feeling that the people of Senegal are also celebrating tonight.

Belgium meanwhile are getting ready to get their asses kicked by Brazil, who are sort of a Japan on steroids: same positive intent, but with a lot more efficiency, a lot more maturity and the quality and experience to at least match the likes of Lukaku, Hazard or De Bruyne.

All of that said, however, Brazil also struggled to get past Mexico today, a lot more than the scoreline suggests. It was a very well balanced game, with both sides looking for the killer blow the second they stepped on the pitch, both sides finding spaces and the keepers being kept busy for 90 minutes. Mexico were really unlucky to meet Brazil so early in the competition, they could've easily done aside with 11 out of the other 14 teams in this round (France, Uruguay and Croatia the troublemakers). They gave it a go, we saw a good game and they had their chances, but despite his primadonna shenanigans, that Neymar dude is fast. Chicarito and Carlos Vela are good players, but a class below Neymar or Jesus. They too return home on a Mexican wave (see what I did there?) of sympathy, but knowing they should've stayed that little bit longer. 

So who will beat Brazil? Not Belgium, that's for sure. 

luni, 2 iulie 2018

Shoot out

Russia - Spain 1-1 (4-3 penalties)
Croatia - Denmark 1-1 (3-2 penalties)

'Shock' was the most common word I've seen used to describe Russia's elimination of Spain, and it leaves me baffled. Russia had two very good games, scoring 8 and conceding one, looked like a vary in-form team and came to a pitch they know well with a full and vocal backing of the whole stadium and the country behind it. Yes, they lost to a very good Uruguayan team a game that didn't matter. But Spain was completely unconvincing after being dominated by Portugal, squeezing out a rather undeserved win against Iran and incapable of beating Morocco, in front of who they've fallen behind twice. Most pundits and onlookers are probably still talking about the Spanish team that won a World Cup and two European Championships in quick succession. But the last of those was six years ago and that team is long gone, and the Iniesta you see now is far from the Iniesta of 2010. Instead, what's left is a team of valuable under-achievers still trying to play according to a method that was never efficient, passing the ball on the width of the pitch but without the pace, velocity or efficiency of the team that had 80 percent possession against Germany in the semifinal 8 years ago. When you think Spain, think the days of Butragueno and Zubizareta rather than Xavi and Puyol. A lot more accurate.

Yes, of course they dominated Russia, but they needed a very awkward own goal to open scoring and they looked confused and without a plan once Russia equalized. It was a penalty on Pique's high above the head hand and no, it was not a penalty in the 115th minute for Spain, the tackle was very much on the ball. The Putin VAR jokes are funny, but completely missing the mark. 

The Croatia game was a lot more surprising to me. I called Croatia to win in 90 minutes, and I'm very surprised they didn't. Potentially the Croatians under-estimated their opposition?

When you score a goal in the first few minutes of a game, most of the time luck is involved, and luck was fully involved in the Danes scoring just before the first minute of play was up. But greatness often becomes evident in adversity, and it took the Croatians just 3 minutes to pull level. From then on it was more or less one direction, with just Ericksen missing a half-chance for Denmark towards the end of the 90 minutes. I really like a good few of the danish players, and I believe they have a fair amount of talent in their squad, but as a team they're not working. They were poor in the group stage and when the keeper is your best man you usually have a problem. I feel for Schmeichel, of course I do, and of course this is on account of his father, 'cause I see no reason to care about a blonde prick who played for City and Leicester otherwise, but it's way to little to warrant Denmark a pass against a very good team. Croatia's attacking talent is downright scary, and if anything in this game was a steal, I feel that was Modric missing the penalty in extra time. poor shot, but it shows the experience of the Madrid midfielder that he was able to keep cool-blooded and composted enough to score in the shootout. A very spectacular shootout otherwise (both of them have been spectacular), but it should've never gotten that far. Credit to Schmeichel for a very good game, but the better team won. I can see Croatia reaching the final.

duminică, 1 iulie 2018

GOAT on Earth

France - Argentina 4-3
Uruguay - Portugal 2-1

So here I am, in the avant-garde, after the picture on my post yesterday got replicated in various forms AFTER the games that sealed the return home of the two most over-hyped footballers of our time (yeah, sorry Neymar).

But my God, what games! If these two are an indication of what the knock-out rounds are going to be like, this might be arguably the most spectacular World Cup I have seen. 

Due to work constraints I could only watch the first half of France-Argentina. As in, the one with 2 out of 7 goals, one of them penalty. But as anticipated, France always looked like the better team. What I had no idea about was Mbappe. I mean, sure, people say he's a great player but wow! That pace, strength and vision, unstoppable. That 60 yards sprint to get the first penalty was out of this world. So was, if I'm honest, Di Maria's goal, but while France did show a clear game plan, it is just as clear that Sampaoli is in over his head, with not much of a technique to his managing than 'give it to Messi'. Oh, by the way, did you notice Messi played yesterday? 

Oh, sorry, I'm being mean. There was no way you couldn't have noticed. After all, it's all the cameras were pointing at. And of course, the endless chorus of 'But the goal against Nigeria...' is bound to start every time you point out that the greatest players of the game are expected to perform on the greatest stages, and that Maradona will always have this:
Pictured: not Messi

While I had little doubt about France, Uruguay - Portugal was a much closer call. Portugal is a good team, full of flair and playing spectacularly and maybe deserving of better results throughout the three group games. Uruguay have somewhat dragged their feet throughout an otherwise easy group, but always in control, never in danger of not qualifying. It looks like somehow they did just enough to win, but it was obvious there's more in the tank. Similar to France, in a way, except when they saw Ronaldo in front of their eyes, Cavani and co wasted no time and went straight at it. The first goal is a real masterpiece. Not only the final execution, brilliant as it was, but the whole build-up, with two crosses over the whole width of the pitch, both of them absolutely pin-pointed. The Portugese defense was absolutely stunned by the precision of Suarez's ball, that's why Cavani was completely undistrurbed. Hell, so beautiful is this Uruguayan team, even Suarez looks like a nice guy in a blue shirt.
Credit to Portugal, they did contribute to making it a good game, and they had a fair bit of the initiative coming out for the second half, which materialized in the equalizer after 10 minutes. Like Argentina, Portugal do seem to be over-reliant on the star player, but unlike Argentina, Fernando Santos has also put some back-up plans in place. Not enough to outsmart Tabarez, who might not be able to walk properly, but has a very functional football brain. As soon as they were equalized, Uruguay got back into pressuring the Portugese and they got back in the lead, and in control of the game just like in the first half, after 7 minutes of play. Another beautiful Cavani execution, this time an individual effort with a trajectory drawn as beautiful as a renaissance painting.

The last minutes of the game looked a bit like the final rounds of a heavyweight boxing bout, with both teams dropping the guard and looking for the finishing punch. Portugal was the more desperate, obviously, so Uruguay had to absorb some of the pressure, but their counter-attacking was as dangerous as the bite of a venomous snake. Rui Patricio, the Portugese keeper, played as a second striker for the last few minutes of the game, and Quaresma ran his heart off, which is a bit ironic when you realize how out of habit it is. Still, not enough to yield anything material, so it is the good South American team that advances to the quarter-finals.

Uruguay - France? Too tough to call, but it's a finger-licking game for the neutrals.