GAMES 12, 13 & 14


Sweden 1-0 South Korea

Without wanting to turn this into a TED talk about the power of marketing, the World Cup can tell us a lot about the importance of branding. Each World Cup has its own story, its own narrative arc, and the sponsors are all over it like fox shit on a garden slide. For Russia, it’s been all about the fonts and the visuals. Curves and curls replacing the straight, constructivist lines of Rodchenko to present a modern take on Cyrillic heritage. 

Today, however, the influence of branding became even more obvious as Sweden took on South Korea. Every time I saw the blue and yellow surge forward, power and size bossing the play, all I could think was, “I need another two by four kallax shelving unit and some picture frames”. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ikea FC. I hope they’re getting a commission, they’d be minted from Bluewater sales alone.

With a flat-pack four (sorry, couldn’t resist), the Swedes were always going to trouble South Korea for height and strength playing off a solid base, but hey-ho, no easy games at this level, and so it seemed.

As it turned out, VAR was the key factor, awarding a penalty to Sweden after a short delay. It was the right decision as Claesson was clearly caught, and Granqvist’s strike led to nuetrals everywhere feeling that justice had been done at the end of 90 mnutes. In the end, South Korea simply weren’t up to much. Other than Hwang Hee-chan’s wasteful header right in front of goal in the dying embers of the game, they looked about as likely to hit the target as their near neighbours in the north.

This was the game that South Korea needed to win to stand a chance and one can’t help but feel they will be run ragged by Mexico and dominated by an, admittedly under-par, Germany who sit above them in the table due to nothing other than alphabetic advantage. Actually, on the basis of yesterday’s match, Germany are probably Korea’s best chance of a result. Now that’s a sentence I didn’t anticipate writing.


Belgium 3-0 Panama

Now, I love an underdog as much as the next man, but Panama are a bit different. There's a lovely report showing how former Millwall outreach officer Gary Stempel has made a massive impact on the national game since he moved back to Panama (he was born there and currently manages the national U-17 team). His pastoral care and humanity has helped to grow this team and make a genuine impact on the lives of players in this tiny country. It’s about as feelgood as it gets.

The second smallest country after Iceland, no one has given them a chance – former England striker and BBC anchor Gary Lineker has agreed to strip naked if they win the World Cup. To be fair, he’s got form after Leicester’s unlikely Premier League win, but even so, you just know it’s not going to happen. The most they could realistically hope for going into this was an avoidance of the
6-0 drubbing they got from Switzerland last March.

The good news is that they halved the scoreline. The bad news is that Gary’s trousers will stay on this time. Belgium extended their unbeaten World Cup group game run to 10 while frustrated Panama amassed yellow cards rather than goals – five of them, which is almost impressive in an odd kind of way.

In fairness, it took Belgium until the second half to break Panama’s defences, Dries Mertens’ spectacular volley opening the floodgates for Lukaku to get a brace. They were great goals and a shots across the bows for England, who were preparing for their tumble with Tunisia…

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England 2-1 Tunisia

OK, so… here it is. I’m invested in this one. I’m partial. I am Partisan bloody Belgrade. I am absolutely behind my team, all of whom I could have biologically fathered, given their age. Even Ashley Young. Seriously – England is not a country short on 13-year-old fathers. Despite that, I ask you this… WHAT IS THE POINT OF HAVING VAR IF YOU REFUSE TO USE IT?

I am referring to, of course, the penalty that gifted, wrapped and bow-fucking-tied a goal to the Tunisians, from a referee who at times appeared to be as biased as me. There have been several instances of diving and overreaction that have been wilfully ignored by those at the VAR controls (or the referees who don’t fancy their call being overturned) and it’s ludicrous. Consider if you will, the lilies in the field, blowing this way and that. Look on, if you can, as a Tunisian player wrestles an English striker to the ground like a brisk wind lays a dandelion flat, and then ask yourself the question… “Can they not see over the enormous bank of monitors? Isn’t VAR supposed to stop EXACTLY this kind of thing?"

I suppose, in the name of balance, I should concentrate on the positives that Tunisia brought to the match. There were none. They were terrible. Good grooming, I’ll give them that – some very sharp lines on the fades, but generally? They were bodies on the field. They were content.

That’s not to say England were great. Wasted chances, timing issues, passing that went to the body rather than the space, but overall it was OK. Let’s not forget, after all, that Tunisia are the highest ranking African team in the tournament. No, I know… ridiculous isn’t it? I'm telling you, they make them up.

There were times (not many, but some) where England looked imperious, but the finishing isn’t there. They looked like a team who’ll be good to go in four years’ time, but – of course – they’ll have had to undergo some pretty extensive genetic mutations to deal with the heat – not to mention the stupifying moral fallout from the Qatar finals having been built on slave labour and dubious money.

I was involved in a fairly fruity text exchange with my father, brother and nephew during the match. Most of the words wouldn’t have won a game of scrabble, but the ferocity of opinion and feeling led me to a heartening conclusion: although a young squad, this is a side we can care about; a side that can play; a side that could win games; a team whose captain can lead by example – and be played by Ryan Gosling in a biopic.  

Speaking of Kane, his last-ditch, victory-clinching header was great, but one has to ask why he was given so much space. I’ll tell you again then. It’s because Tunisia are really, really, really poor.