John Duggan's World Cup Diary
There is an exhibition and cultural park called VDNKh or (Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva - try pronouncing it, go on) in the Northern part of Moscow city which was a Stalinist inspired tribute to the great and good of the Soviet era, be it Space or Agriculture.
If there's one thing I have learned about Moscow it is that it has some breathtaking buildings, historical and classical. Above is the 'Friendship of Nations Fountain' in the aforementioned park, which was unveiled in 1954 to pay homage to the Soviet Republics, such as Lithuania and Latvia, which are now independent nation states following the collapse of Communism. The beautiful fountain remains.
It got me thinking though. When I think of the words 'Friendship of Nations' - what is the World Cup meant to achieve? Why is it the Greatest Show? And is my 32 year old television perception of it being realised, two weeks in?
The first lens and most important criteria I am looking through as a journalist here is whether the World Cup acts as a positive touchstone for humanity. I have instinctively believed that from day one in Russia, observing a kaleidoscope of colour and culture around Red Square, from Colombians to Croatians, from Mexicans to Moroccans, watching Russians slowly warming to the party, meeting people from around the World with smiles on their faces that I will probably never see again. When I walked into the Fan Fest (below) in Nizhny Novgorod on Saturday night, that visceral sense continued as I found myself in the middle of Panamanian fans at their first World Cup having one hell of a party. This in a city that used to be closed off to the rest of the planet.
How was your evening? “Quiet enough.” 😂 GO PANAMA! (How do I end up in these situations). pic.twitter.com/JkSCMmtSd3— John Duggan (@JohnDugganSport) June 23, 2018
That was just brilliant, and from a football perspective, around 45 minutes later, what Germany's Toni Kroos conjured, burying a free kick to beat Sweden in the 95th minute, with a World Cup on the line, was my moment of the competition so far.
The second criteria of course in journalistic analysis is international football itself and the quality of it at its quadrennial feast. The defending champions, facing an exit at the opening stage for the first time since 1938, had a player that defined what it is to be a winner, to never give up, to execute when there is still time. Toni Kroos is that champion. Germany will be very dangerous adversaries from here on in.
On Sunday it was Sunny England all over, as The Lightning Seeds' song 'Football's Coming Home' permeated every pore of the baking Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. England breezed past Panama 6-1, but in ways, their World Cup hasn't started yet. What astute manager Gareth Southgate has fostered is a great team spirit, a structure, an ethos to allow players to be comfortable on the ball and the sum of all of that is an injection of confidence. The press are even smiling. It's a honeymoon right now. Having watched France possibly waste 90 minutes against Denmark in Moscow today, it might be wise for Southgate to go all out and try to beat Belgium in Kaliningrad on Thursday. George HW Bush called momentum 'Big Mo' and it is needed in all types of campaigns.
As I write this, Argentina have just booked their place in the last 16 with a 2-1 win over Nigeria in Saint Petersburg. La Albiceleste, as they are known, with their tremendous fans (below) are the story of this World Cup, and will be until they get knocked out. Yes, they are a bigger story than VAR!
Against Iceland, the world's best, Lionel Messi missed a penalty and they were held to a frustrating draw. Against Croatia, manager Jorge Sampaoli lost his tactical composure and Willy Cabellero lit the fuse for a 3-0 capitulation. Tonight, Messi produced a moment of genius to open the scoring, but with Victor Moses' penalty placing Nigeria on the cusp of the last 16, it fell to Manchester United defender Marcus Rojo to nonchalantly sweep the ball home on 86 minutes and book Messi and company a trip to Kazan and a meeting with France on Saturday. This World Cup is now boiling with excitement. Fantastic.
When I walked past the Kremlin Palace yesterday, I saw the statue to Prince Vladimir, the ruler of this region 1000 years ago. I think the other Vladimir will be happy with how the World Cup is progressing so far. Mr. Putin, who is more a disciple of Judo than Football, said before the tournament that the winners will be the organisers. Right now he is being proved correct. Perhaps to the surprise of a few. Tomorrow I see Brazil, my tip to win the tournament, for the first time.