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C’est Fini: World Cup 2018 Review

And so here we are, the World Cup has ended-it was filled with moments that will be long-remembered. Croatia stood tall and then taller still, reaching the final via power of will. Germany went home after only three games, England won a shootout and home, football came. There were penalties, more penalties, then penalties again, grâce à VAR and benefiting one Harry Kane. Neymar tried for an Oscar and filled Twitter with gifs-but was not alone in his theatrics. All that aside, though, there were several great teams: Belgium counter-attacked like a well-oiled machine. But it would be France to relive 1998, raising the cup and gifting us all Mbappé. When all’s said and done, we say félications à les Bleus, who host the Women’s World Cup we can look forward to.

In the meantime, we writers (and Michael) have compiled a follow-up post to our earlier one on previous tournaments. This time we are reflecting on the 2018 iteration of the tournament. There was certainly a lot to talk about.

New Narratives

Ella Reilly

It’s been a big month. A month of dragging oneself out of bed too many times at very iffy times, laughing at the lack of Italy, and ‘rift’ becoming embedded in In the Back of the Net’s lexicon as a result.

Football loves a narrative, dunit. We began the World Cup apparently in the final stage of Messi and Ronaldo’s decade-long race to be the best bovid in the barnyard. Both sheepishly slipped out the sidegate, while Neymar rolled out of the race to be their heir apparent with PSG teammate Mbappé took his place, high-fiving Pussy Riot in the process.

Many narratives of individual players dominated the early stages of the cup. But as the group stages became the knockout rounds, we recalibrated our attention to those of the collective again. We glimpsed sides peak early and tumble out of the tournament,

Germany became the latest holders to slink out of the tournament in the group stage, continuing a trend from 2002, while England ended a decades-long trend of being absolutely godawful in penalty shootouts, and banished the Icelandic demons of 2016.

Enter the final, where the theme of exorcising recent demons saw France make up for letting the last Euros slip through their fingers by overriding Croatia’s destiny of a new nation etching its name on the world cup every time the tournament’s been held in a year ending in ‘8’, and seeing a national narrative of systematic football override the ‘chaos’ narrative of their foes.

France’s victory of course now directs attention to their hosting of the Under 20 Women’s World Cup next month, and the Women’s World Cup next year. What individual and collective narratives might embed and flourish between now and then?

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Ella watching the penalty shootout

The Grinch

Enzo Giordani

Well, the final is done and dusted and football has come home – to the birthplace of Jules Rimet and FIFA. And as I sit in my local café nursing a latte and pondering this vignette I have to write, one word keeps flashing across my mind – flat. I feel flat and numb and ‘meh’.

I have been labelled the Grinch of this World Cup by one or two people (named Ella) and I guess they’re (she’s) right.

I whined about England non-stop but the truth was the highlight of Russia 2018, for me, was hating on them. The only thing that really got me off my seat and screaming my lungs out was Columbia’s 93rd minute equaliser against them in the Round of 16. The rest has been yawn inducing at best.

I thought I would enjoy a final between the team I picked to win it since the beginning of the tournament against a Croatian team I have grown to like. But in watching it I found that I simply didn’t care. I didn’t love or hate either of them enough. In hindsight it would have been better if England had been there to give me something to cheer against.

I have seen a fair few Italy fans say it’s better to not qualify than to be knocked out early in a tournament.

In the long run I am glad that Italy didn’t qualify because it has forced some changes that will benefit my team in the future. But if Russia 2018 has taught me one thing it’s that it’s better to have loved and lost than to not love at all.

My contribution to the pre-World Cup equivalent of this post was on France 98 – exactly 20 years ago. Reflecting now on that identical outcome, of France winning the tournament, I remember the utter emotional devastation I felt. And do you know what? I prefer that to this.

His Name is Luka.

Rod de Lisle

A World Cup year is super for football aficionados, and not just for the intrigue of which country will win the thing. It lets us have a decent decko at the top players and speculate on who might win this year’s Ballon d’Or (the Golden ball). So I decided to drill down in to that rather than talk about the cup itself. And I have a news-flash for you. This year we might have a new Best-Player-in-the World winner. His name is Luka.

For me, it’s particularly interesting that no new players have emerged over the last 5 or 6 years to challenge Messrs Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the title of best player in the world. They’ve each won it 5 times, shutting out all contenders. Isn’t that odd? Is football not constantly throwing up new younger, fitter, faster players? Of course. But none seemingly better than the aging Messi and Ronaldo.

In a World Cup year, one at least can apply an extra filter to the process. A  La Liga player has won the award for 12 of the last 13 seasons. How boring. But hang on, there must be literally millions of players worldwide partaking in the beautiful game. Bruce Springsteen wrote about the best band in the world could be an unknown one, playing in a small town pub somewhere. Could the same thing apply to football? The world’s best football player might be a complete unknown.  Say, an African kid knocking the ball about with his mates on a dusty third world pitch or a Sunday league footballer in Greenland? A Waikato Unicol student doing the business in the WaiBop Federation league?

No, because of the capitalist nature of football.  Top clubs send scouts to every corner of the world to plunder the talent. Those talents, almost without exception, are induced to where the money is, and that is Europe. The Bundesliga, the English Premiership, Serie A.  But the Spanish La Liga seems to have tied up the Ballon winners. Why? La Liga has a unique combination of money, great weather and cannon fodder lower teams. The Ballon peacocks gravitate to big pay packets, warm weather and great food. And those lower teams let them smash in lots of goals. Scoring about 500 goals a season has become de rigueur for a Ballon d’Or winner.

But adding a World Cup lens at last gives us a couple of decent contenders to finally change the Mes-aldo stranglehold. Ronaldo scored a hat trick in his first game but his team, Portugal,  went out early as did Messi’s Argentina.

So who stepped up? No, not Harry Kane. He scored some penalties and a goal that hit his heel and went on to win the golden boot. But he just wasn’t that good: there was no X factor. N’golo Kante, the French whirlwind could be the best player in the world right now, mainly as his work-rate actually makes him two players.  But he’s a defensive midfielder and doesn’t play in Spain. Scratch him out. Mo Salah was simply outstanding at Liverpool last season, but his side didn’t win the Big Euro cup, his country are not very good at soccer and he was careless enough to injure himself. So count him out as well. Neymar literally rolled himself out of contention, why am I even mentioning him?

So enter stage left,  youngster Kylian Mbappe who had a very good tournament, scored in the final and won the young player award. But he is only a teenager and you have to be able to shave to win this, it’s in the rules. And he doesn’t play in Spain. Yet.

Eclipsing him was Croatia’s Luka Modric who was simply excellent. He is actually in his 30’s, like Ronaldo and Messi, so there goes my young emerging talent hope. But he shares my birthday, a vital advantage if I was a judge. He won the Europeans Champions league this season and  in the World cup he snared Player of the Tournament (also called the ‘Golden Ball”) despite Croatia not actually winning the final. What else? Well he covered the most ground of any player and knocked in a couple of goals.  So unless the name “Ronaldo” is already engraved on the 2018 trophy and God knows, it well might be, Luka will be this year’s winner. And of course, he plays in Spain.

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The Joys of Being a Bum

Michael Welsh

For the third world cup in a row, I’m isomorphically equivalent to unemployed.

Back in 2010, I had just learnt how horrible secret-sharing problems are, so said “I’m taking a month off to watch some football”. I then proceeded to move to South Africa time, right in my house, and stream the lot (I even managed to get jet lag on the return ‘journey’).

In 2014, I had just submitted my doctoral thesis and so had a month or so to muck around and wait for the examiners’ reports. This time, I physically moved to Palmerston North and watched every game on my in-laws’ couch.

Fast forward to 2018 when, back in April, I sent an email that simply said “I quit.” to my boss. And then I gouged out an eye and moved to Christchurch. After a little research, I decided that the best way to watch this version of the World Cup is using Sky’s Fanpass, particularly the ‘playback’ feature. So I’ve watched very little of this cup live, yet have not missed a game.

This does have some downsides, however. For one, Fanpass is charged in 31-day increments, and the World Cup is ever so slightly longer than 31 days, so if the final goes past 0553, I’ll miss the end (in theory). Secondly, there’s the issue of spoilers. I’ve been good at avoiding Facebook and Stuff, but Snapchat ruined a game for me. Also, people seem to want to come and visit us at the moment. What is wrong with them?

Oh yeah, the football. It doesn’t seem as exciting overall as four years ago, though there has yet to be a game as dire as that New Zealand Paraguay one. The ‘big’ teams not hanging around for very long has been nice (especially Holland not even making it) and I’m quite liking Croatia again (though Vida really, really needs a haircut).

He Thinks It Isn’t All Over, But It Is.

Phil Clayton

Dear Helena, why have you set a deadline for the World Cup Review piece, when from my perspective the tournament experience hasn’t been completed? I’ve yet to watch the 3rd / 4th place playoff, Belgium v England, which I’ve time-shifted via MySky. I’m putting off watching it as I don’t want the World Cup to end. I’ve been enraptured, so far.

The timing of my travel to Christchurch to see the Kate Sheppard Cup Quarter-Final meant I couldn’t fit the 3 /4 playoff into my schedule. The lack of on-demand full-match replays on SkyGo meant I couldn’t catch-up while away from home. Yes, in hindsight, I wish that the Coastal Spirit v Dunedin Tech match had been abandoned or postponed, as a very good Dunedin side beat a depleted and tired Coastal Spirit team. Yomcat was also there; you can see his photos via facebook.

I chose to see Coastal Spirit’s only loss of the season so far. Maybe I should have waited a week and seen the women clinch the league title. But I did get to see Coastal Spirit’s Sunday League men’s team put in a stunning performance including a hat-trick from Ekow Quainoo, and a spectacular outside of the foot volley goal from Tom Marsh, in a 5-0 win v Lyttelton.

I thought of writing a blog post on my Sunday in Christchurch, but it would’ve had to wait until after the World Cup is over.

I did, of course, see the World Cup Final live on Sky. Funnily enough, Lloris’ goalkeeping blunder wasn’t the worst error by a custodian that I saw in the 24 hours.

I must get around to watching the 3 / 4 playoff soon, so that I can scribble a review for you.

England

John Palethorpe

 It wasn’t supposed to happen. Not with this side. I mean Gareth’s a good bloke and all that, but this England squad is too inexperienced, it’s too soon for them. He’s a steady manager but seriously, basically we need to wait for some of our players to mature into PROPER international players. We’ve got no Rooney, no Beckham, no Gerrard, Lampard, Ferdinand. Hell, we haven’t even got a well run in goalkeeper. Quarter finals would be amazing. Yeah, the lads can go out with their heads held high then. Proud of them. But 2020, that’ll be the real tournament for us.

Come on then. We win the first game. In injury time. Harry Kane, well he’s got the right quality. Only, that Trippier lad isn’t bad either, amazing really – he’s been Spurs’ second choice until Manchester City bought Walker. We didn’t really give them any chances either. Nice work lads.

In with a chance. On we go.

Now then. Bloody hell. Well, yeah it’s Panama. That third Kane goal was spawny as thought. Gave another goal up though. Still, whoever put money on John Stones scoring goals – I’ll have whatever they’re drinking with their winnings.

Here, that’s more like it. Losing to a single goal to one of the teams with real proper players in. Only their second string. And ours. And if Rashford could finish, it’d have been a nailed on draw. Mind you, to like this 3 – 5 – 2 thing – extra defenders and width on the attack. Reminds me of Euro ‘96. Now that was a team that should have won things. Proper players. Not like this lot. They are pretty good though.

Colombia though. Proper team. Last World Cup they were amazing. Yeah, they lost to Japan but they’ve been great playing with 11 men. Rodriguez, injured? They’ve still got Cuadrado, Falcao and more. This will be a test of this defence. If we’re lucky it’ll be a draw. Then penalties. Then the usual. Good effort boys. Bit beyond us this one.

FUCKING HELL. FUCK. ING. HELL.

I literally cracked a tooth during the shootout before terrifying and amusing my workmates by running around yelling and jumping and punching and giving it the full beans in celebration.

Sweden then. Alright. Not actually that flash. But solid. We’ve got a poor record against them lately. That 3 – 2 in Euro 2012 was decent. Andy Carroll scored. Bloody hell, so did Welbeck and Walcott. We have come a long way. It’s almost like we’re decent compared to that lot.

Right.

I have no idea what will happen next. I was 5 in 1990. I don’t remember that. Let’s see, shall we?

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On Rifts, Reconciliation and Revolutions

Helena Wiseman

As Ella mentioned, we here at In the Back of the Net have been using the word ‘rift’ a lot lately. Over the course of Russia 2018, there were many rifts. Most were football related, some pertained to the correct way to make tea, but there is one that provides me with my angle to discuss the tournament just gone.

As the draw became clearer, Ella and I realised that her team, England, and my team, Croatia, were on a collision course. Provided both teams could get through matches that, on paper, they were favourites for, they would meet in the semi-final. A semi-final that would be momentous, historical, unimaginable two years ago, for both nations. Croatia took the slightly scenic route-and England added some drama for their part too, somehow winning a penalty shootout-but eventually we landed the foreseen match up and the ultimate rift.

We were rifting because we found ourselves supporting a side that did much better than we had dared to imagine (especially Ella). Both teams had analogous stories of odds overcome. England had a myriad of psychological obstacles and a young team with a very different background to the Three Lions of old. The Croatian team grew up during the wars that ravaged former Yugoslavia and represented a nation of 4 million. Both sides had mythologised former glory days: 1998 for the Croats and of course, 1966 for England. Both had consistently failed to return to such heights ever since. And yet here they were, at the doorstep of a World Cup Final. So, Ella and I rifted because for the first time in a long time, we were watching a semi-final that we really cared about. And we were truly proud.

But the thing about the rift was how quickly it closed. How easily we were able to recognise the achievements of the opposition and support them again. France won this tournament and I’d argue that they should have won, given their squad. But then, the proportion of players of African heritage in that team means even there, there is a story to be told about teams that took harder paths. About new teams that tested what football in their country, and culture in their country, has always been. That’s what made this World Cup so amazing: its newness. The sense of a revolution. All the old jokes didn’t play out. England were still there right till the final weekend. The Germans didn’t manage to win after 22 men chased a ball around for 90 minutes-they packed their bags after the groups. And whilst the result was not a shock, in many other ways, this tournament was something new. It let us rift because we could finally truly support, and it let us connect because this time, we could see some change for the good.

 

 

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Helena Wiseman

A lover of the game since the age of 4. Living and playing for club and school in Auckland and loving every second on the pitch (apart from the end of a losing match).

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