Spain 0 Chile 2
After comfortably surviving the early game, fatigue sets in during the one hour wait until the next game. TV is more moribund than usual at this hour: ads for vacuum cleaners, ads for better abs, ads for the Army without any evidence of guns – are they going to engage the enemy armed only with library books and smiles? A replay of Port Melbourne vs Footscray in the VFL is the best thing on and I leave it there until the old man changes the channel for some reason, leaving me without closure – sure I can look up the score on the net, but that’s not the point, is it? Though half dazed when the soccer starts, being in that state arguably puts me in a better position to empathise with the Spanish team, which tries hard and looks a little more dangerous than in their last outing, but soon concedes one goal, and then another, and on both occasions you feel that they could have done better to prevent that happening, but if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, oh, I forget how the rest goes, and besides all good things come to an end, and this thing all things devours: birds, beasts, trees, flowers; molds iron, bites steel; grinds hard stones to meal; slays king, ruins town, and beats the highest mountain down, so who are Spain to resist? On and off the field the Chileans come across as the most cynical of sides. From the first whistle the overwhelmingly Chilean crowd whistle and howl whenever Spain have possession. As the game creeps closer to its inevitable result, the Chilean players fall over and roll around on the ground at the merest hint of contact, a culturally acceptable act perhaps, maybe even excusable on a professional win at all costs and make sure of it level, but it nevertheless cheapens the experience. Still, one can’t help but admire the Chileans’ efficacy. At one point during the second half after a futile Spanish flurry of activity, Chile reasserts its position in the game and plays around with the ball, quick pass after quick pass to the chants of ‘olé!’ from the crowd, matadors in white taunting a wounded red bull, but no one said the end, if this is indeed the end, would be pretty. So, after an already difficult season tiki-taka suffers another blow and this great Spanish team is dead or dying or at least in need of a transplant or two. Schadenfreude at this moment is understandable, what with Spain’s international dominance over a six year period having been so maddeningly thorough, and so out of synch with their prior reputation, with the only obstacle to their success being their frivolous finishing – remember how they finished the 2010 tournament with four 1-0 wins in a row? – that we, the football watching public have begun to resent it, thinking that their mode of possession-heavy play will be the only way all successful teams will play in the future, until we realise once more that we have been fooled, indeed we have fooled ourselves, forgetting that great players tire, the game moves on, and there is always someone scheming to overturn the status quo.
Cameroon 0 Croatia 4
Twenty-four years ago Cameroon broke down all sorts of barriers for African football; but having broken those doors down they have seldom bothered to walk through since, watching on as Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Ivory Coast have dabbled with moderate and inconsistent greatness; and if no African nation has taken the next step and won the whole damn thing, then that is not necessarily the fault of any individual African nation, let alone Cameroon, or even Pele and one of his more infamous predictions – after all, how many different teams have won the World Cup anyway? Not many, and how many who haven’t won it yet are even close apart from the Dutch who should have already ready won it? Still, if you want to at least put in a respectable performance on the big stage, embroiling yourselves in a bitter dispute about financial bonuses won’t likely help; neither will the most awful display of shooting I’ve seen for a long time. The Algerian player Antar Yahia, who scored the famous goal in neutral Sudan to help his nation beat Egypt 1-0 and qualify for South Africa said of his goal, ‘I aimed low, he caught it, I shot it up high, he caught it… I hit it where the devil couldn’t catch it’; the least Cameroon could have tried to do was hit any of their shots on target, as they put in a half respectable opening to this game, before capitulating meekly to Croatia, who were smarter, sharper and at least put shots on target, even that one that was saved from point blank range, being created from of all things a groin thrust assist. Keeping all your players on the field also helps, as Alex Song snipes his opponent from behind and gets sent off. Any and all hopes the Indomitable Lions have of getting back into the game are dashed just after half time, after goalkeeper Charles Itandje clears straight to Ivan Perisic, who dashes right back at him from the halfway line – Itandje doesn’t bother to come off his line, doesn’t protect his near post and the story is clear to see that not everyone wants to be here. Cameroon can’t even get their on-field feuds right, as two defenders threaten to start tearing strips off each other but fail to take it up to Dyer-Bowyer levels of self-destruction. Meanwhile Croatia, with a couple of players who can sing the Brazilian national anthem better than the Croatian one, and one bloke with a haircut which looks like someone ran over his head with a motorbike, are mere bystanders despite their four goals.
Uruguay 2 England 1
Wake up at 4:57am which is sensational timing, and have a Wagon Wheel to celebrate, the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none concoction of chocolate, biscuit, ‘jam’ and marshmallow somehow becoming far greater than the sum of its parts; but if the English national team thinks that they can use that as an omen, then they are mistaken, for football is not a biscuit, the weakest link always ready to be exposed and when you’re England you have so many weak links it’s a wonder the whole thing manages to stay together for as long as it does. So despite being in this game as much as England is in any game against any half-reputable opponent, Suarez manages to lose the attention of four defenders simultaneously – and fuck you George Orwell, it’s my choice not yours on whether I want to use the Latin word over the Anglo-Saxon, especially as it fits with the general theme here – and connects with a delightful Cavani cross, craning his neck just so to steer the ball out of Joe Hart’s reach, and then just for fun Uruguay decide they’re not so much interested in trying to score again, coercing the game into a foul and stoppage riddled mess until Rooney gets tenth World Cup match lucky and equalises after some fortuitous play on the right. The match now level again, Uruguay decide that enough is enough, and start venturing forward once more, and again look like the team most likely to score, and they do, and it’s Suarez again with the winning goal with the most British of efforts, a long ball from the keeper slipping off Steven Gerrard’s head and straight to Suarez who has so much time that he can’t miss, he won’t miss, he doesn’t miss. Martin Tyler begins to outwardly and obviously rationalise and bargain with another impending premature English World Cup exit, by falling into the trap of playing hypothetical mathematics: if this result goes with that result and England do this they (we) can still make it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Ante Jukic has pointed out, but the slipping of the professional mask provides an insight into a different Tyler than the one we are told by many Australian soccer fans exists, especially those who admonish Craig Foster for his parochialism and use Tyler as his counterpoint, neither acknowledging Tyler the Woking fan’s ability to be human, nor the way Foster’s moaning, yelling, whistling, encouraging, exasperated style is actually part of an established Aussie sporting commentary continuum; Foster being the Australian soccer variant of John Newcombe extolling the virtues of an Australian Wimbledon wildcard’s odd good shot, or the Channel Nine cricket commentary booth filled with ex-players and mates of the current squad, or any Australian Olympic Games coverage ever where every Aussie competitor has a heart the size of Phar Lap. But back to England, who at this stage of the tournament have only their own inadequate selves to blame, not referee mistakes, not opposition cheating, not missed penalties – and who have the undeserved fortune of still being a chance at the time of writing to qualify for the next round, and bow out there instead [Ed: Not as of Costa Rica beating Italy, so that’s that for England.]
Japan 0 Greece 0
By both accidental and deliberate manipulation of the facts of my existence, I am this close to being exactly the kind of Greek I want to be; a product of the Diaspora with little connection to any official part of it. So at best my feelings these days, or let’s be honest perhaps the last fifteen years or so, for the Greek national team are of benign ambivalence, though I admit it wasn’t always this way. Back in 1993, when Greece beat Russia 1-0 at home to qualify for USA ’94 and the stadium lit up like an old-fashioned fire hazard Christmas tree, I was ecstatic; when they crashed and burned at next year’s World Cup thanks to a cocaine-inspired Diego Maradona, a super Bulgarian side, and a decent Nigeria, I was shattered. But that was the high point of my love affair with Greek football of all kinds (as distinct from Greek-Australian football), those pre-pay television and widespread internet days when it took real commitment to follow a national team of minimal relevance and perennial obscurity, where broadcasts would have to be heard on static-filled radios, results and analysis filtered through via Neos Kosmos, and replays of Greek league matches watched on dodgy videos from Greek-owned video rental stores. Any and all pretence to take interest in such things, by nominally supporting PAOK (and to a much lesser extent Panserraikos, the main team representing my dad’s home province) were always a sham, done for the sake of ritual and inclusiveness. But soon enough I was so off the bandwagon that when Euro 2004 came along I felt close to nothing – and while being right in the middle of a probably undiagnosed depression caused by having failed at the one thing I was supposedly good at didn’t help – the nationalist bug that I had been infected by, and which had caused me to spew forth adolescent rants on the NSL at Carlton SC fan Jud the Blue on the original SBS soccer forums under the name Hellatzis circa 1999/2000 had long gone. To prove my point, and in spite of the Heavy Sleeper title of this column, if I’d cared enough I would have made an effort to either stay up or wake up for Greece’s first game at this World Cup, an unlucky or incompetent depending on who you ask 3-0 loss to Colombia. But to the game at hand, which Japan will dominate against an at first largely incoherent Greece, and then later one which finds its narrow groove again only after having its captain Katsouranis sent off in the first half, and therefore justifiably sitting back and absorbing attack after attack from the Japanese, while launching mostly anaemic counter-attacks in return. The person who said that Asian sides can’t finish may have been right after all, as Japan fail to put away their good chances, but even before that they mostly fail at even getting the proper passes in to set up decent shots in the first place. At the end of all that, while I’m eating substandard commercial pastizzi and drinking substandard orange juice, neither Greece nor Japan are out of the running for a second round place, despite having managed only one point each so far, and having scored just one goal between them, the momentum of the thrilling opening week starting to wane. Being dependent on other Greeks to make sense of what Greece is doing in this tournament has only made things more confusing – is the squad’s apparent indifference to success a canny ploy of some sort? Is the Greek national character obliged to only pull its finger out when things are at their lowest point? Maybe I’ll try and watch their game against Ivory Coast.
Image by Nuria taken from Flickr.