With another whirlwind week at Sunderland as the Donaldcoaster swept through the loops of openness and financial queries, it’s nice to bask in the sunshine and turn our attentions to that little trophy happening in Russia.
These pre-season tournaments are always good value for keeping the minds occupied during the summer, but we have been distracted a little this close season by the news from the Sol. I’m sure some signings are on their way and I’m Sure some exits are on the cards. So as the famous song goes, what will be will be. Time to kick back, get the charcoals fired up, beers in the fridge and languish in a mini heat wave.
World Cups are a bit special. Strip away all the corporate nonsense and you have a showcase of the world’s best talents playing it out on a stage in a foreign land. Camera shots of fans from all walks of life congregating in town squares and posing with local bobbies. Faces painted. Flags waving. Horns blowing. Tremendous.
There are a few staples in any World Cup. You always start them with the belief that maybe this year an African team will dent the old guard. With Egypt, Mo Salah provided us with an opportunity to wonder again. Sadly, one man does not make a team. Senegal beating Poland has set up an interesting picture for the next opponents for England. Nigeria have been their usual unknown quantity. Limp against Croatia before turning up the heat to melt Icelandic hearts. Kazhri displayed all the vim of his average days at the SOL which means England have a solid chance of progressing, especially with Panama looming. My biggest disappointment so far has been the lack of men from Del Monte at Panama’s match.
In the South Americans there has been a slow start from Brazil but a late flurry against a very spirited Costa Rica has them back on course. I expect Brazil to go far. They have the quality and experience. They also have what most teams lack which is that piece of individual genius. Argentina have it too, but like so many teams before them, that little genius cannot do it alone. Messi carries the weight of a country on his shoulders and the pressure is telling. Uruguay look strong without blowing anyone away. Sweeping through their group games with professionalism and minimal effort. Nothing flash. Nothing headline grabbing, but six points in the bag and progression secured.
For the Europeans it has truly been a mixed bag. England won in the last minute against a Tunisian team which is nowhere near as bad so as to merit the criticism of England’s narrow victory. Newspaper writers hastily rewrote the inevitable onslaught of negativity when Harry Kane popped that late goal in. The polarity between “here we go again” and “it’s coming home” is stark and it only takes a second to change. Germany laboured in their opener and another bad result could see them struggle. They won’t get a bad result though. With ruthless efficiency they will come through. Spain and Portugal displayed the best entertainment available but both walked away with just a point before slogging our fairly dull 1-0s in their next game. They will both qualify but I doubt Portugal’s strength beyond the mercurial poster boy of European football.
Spain have a lot more to offer. The dark horses have been Switzerland and Croatia. That may be slightly unfair. Croatia in particular have a wealth of talent at their disposal. Modric does not have the platform of Messi or Ronaldo but his comfort on the ball and vision match his energy. Croatia are a very good team. Switzerland have some individual brilliance in the pocket hulk of Shaquiri. They are very organised and very determined. Belgium were lacklustre at first but went through the gears to comfortably beat Panama. The big test for them came against Tunisia. At the time of writing they are passing with flying colours which fires a marker into the England camp. Which leaves us with one other contender from Europe. Well kind of. Russia are not a great team packed full of great players. However, they have qualified. Comfortably. You could argue they had the weakest group to work their way through but a convincing win against Egypt raised my eyebrows.
The others are much of a muchness. The try hards and the also rans. One team who have genuinely surprised me has been Iran. It’s easy to patronise the lesser known footballing nations by calling them plucky or brave. Iran have been neither. They have been genuinely impressive and in a different group could easily have gone further. As it stands though they look likely to exit at an early stage. It’s a real shame but it does demonstrate that football is changing. Look at Japan. A great opening win against Columbia. Several world cups ago that would have been unthinkable. Pele famously predicted an African country winning the World Cup. Sadly, the progress in African nations has been slower than expected. What he didn’t predict was the rise in standards in Asia. This year is still too early but with money pouring into the Chinese leagues and Korean and Japanese players gracing the top leagues in Europe there is potential for an Asian country to push on.
For now though we sit and wait. England dares to dream. We expect them to beat Panama comfortably and of course they should. We can watch the two Jordans fly the red and white flag. They will face Belgium in the final group game to decide who finishes on top and play against Japan, Senegal, Columbia or Poland. Sit back. Enjoy the sunshine. If it comes home, it comes home. If not, it’s not long until Charlton at home on 4th August.