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.

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