OTB World Cup Diary: Flying saucers, flying dinners, mad roads and England...
I am writing this from Kazan before I travel to Saint Petersburg tonight ahead of France v Belgium. The Samara Arena, where I was yesterday, resembles a flying saucer, and England's World Cup might become '2018: A Space Odyssey', the way their dream is beginning to take off.
Samara was the city where the rocket was built to launch Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. The semi finals were fully in England's orbit from the start against a limited, insipid Sweden, who played into their opponents hands. Raheem Sterling was lively and Harry Maguire picked a great stage on which to score his first international goal. Dele Alli produced his best tournament display so far, and manager Gareth Southgate will need more of that against Croatia in Moscow. Saving a penalty against Colombia seems to have injected Jordan Pickford with unlimited confidence and he was outstanding in the second half as England eased to a 2-0 win. What surprised me was the amount of empty seats at the stadium, which wasn't at full capacity. The England supporters brought good nature and noise, but not many numbers, Sweden even less so. I would expect a lot more England fans to go to Wednesday's game, but it's expensive at this rate and there is the hassle of flights and Fan ID. If it was the Republic of Ireland, and if it was me, I would be moving heaven and earth to get there. 28 years is a long time to be waiting for a World Cup semi final.
In ways it's hard to believe after so many flops at major championships that England are one victory away from appearing in only a second World Cup Final in their history. It's been that type of World Cup though, a tournament untethered to the past. That said, I feel England are a little under rated. All they can do is beat the teams in front of them. They were the better side against Colombia, the better side against Sweden. They are a young, spirited, organised, disciplined team, with an average starting age of 25.7 yesterday. 3 of the starters play for Premier League champions Manchester City, 3 for Tottenham Hotspur, 2 for Manchester United, 1 for Liverpool, 1 for Everton and 1 for Leicester City. That's 9 players working at elite Champions League clubs, featuring weekly in an global league. These England players are not undistinguished. They can win the tournament.
The flying saucer must have made an impact on me, because while waiting at a hotel for my taxi from Samara back to Kazan, I tripped upon returning from the bathroom and my burger and chips went flying all over the floor. Ketchup everywhere. A mess. The Russian fans in the hotel started cheering. I walked away to clean up and calm down and prepared for a 5 hour journey, my second of the day. Incidents like this will happen on tour and you have to laugh. It was hardly 'Fear and Loathing in Russia', but if you didn't have an omnipresent police presence and if you decided to let the handbrake off, I could see how the varied and colourful experience of a World Cup could parallel the beautiful madness of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.
The journey from Samara to Kazan is rural and the roads are not great in spots. My driver had an inner Max Verstappen about him, overtaking trucks whenever he had the opportunity to and it certainly removed me from my inner equilibrium. There is a sense of the wild west about Russian roads. Luckily my driver was accomplished and we listened to the radio commentary of Russia v Croatia and I didn't need to speak Russian to know what was unfolding. When Domagoj Vida put the Croats ahead, off went the radio and on went the heavy metal. Curiosity got the better of him and the commentary soon returned. The car wobbled all over the road as he went crazy when Mario Fernandes equalised. I thought of the wonder of this moment, sitting in a car in the middle of nowhere, in darkness, 2700 miles from home. Sadly it was not to be for Russia, but they have done themselves proud at their own World Cup and the win over Spain will live long in the memory of their nation.
"I never want to see this place again," muttered a canary clad Brazilian fan on Friday, stomping away from the hotel in which I was residing in Kazan. You couldn't blame him really, as Rio de Janeiro is on the other side of the world. One can imagine that the trip home for Brazilians will be rotten, the sour taste of a bitter World Cup exit promising to linger. It just slipped away from them against Belgium, for a few reasons.
Firstly, Belgium are a very good side, with two truly world class players in Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. De Bruyne, who reminds me of a Belgian icon, Tintin, is a marvellous footballer. X ray vision, silky passing and deadly finishing embody his football flavour, and he used his talent to maximum effect in the execution of the Red Devils' second goal. Hazard worked his socks off and was dazzling with his dribbling in the retention of possession. Romelu Lukaku was a battering ram, working tirelessly from a less forward position, his creativity an integral part of the second goal.
Roberto Martinez got his tactics right and outsmarted his opposite number Tite. Martinez has his critics after an uneven spell in charge of Everton, but he had the pragmatism to shift De Bruyne further up the pitch, play 4 at the back and introduce Marouane Fellaini alongside Axel Witsel. By contrast, Tite had no decent back up for the suspended Casemiro, as Fernandinho endured a nightmare, Roberto Firmino should have received the call instead of the green Gabriel Jesus, and Marcelo was badly exposed defensively, a net negative.
When you compare the last Brazilian World Cup winning team to this one, the differences are clear. In 2002, Brazil held the gift in their grasp of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. Now, they have quality in Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, but the former, who is a fantastic player, is distracted by his own reflection in the mirror, while Coutinho, excellent in the early games, ran out of puff on Friday. Brazil may consider themselves unlucky, but it's a fourth successive defeat by European opposition at the World Cup.
So it's France against Belgium on Tuesday, a repeat of the 1986 third / fourth place play off, which France won in Mexico. Croatia defeated England 3-2 at Wembley in 2007 to qualify for Euro 2008 at England's expense, prompting the famous 'Wally with the Brolly' headline about then manager Steve McClaren. England thumped Croatia in qualifying for Euro 2010, but these past results won't have any bearing on Wednesday's showdown at the Luzhniki Stadium. What will matter a lot more is energy, composure, bravery and technique.
So the denouement to this World Cup will ensure a second time winner (England in 1966, France in 1998) or a maiden winner (Croatia, Belgium). The absence of Germany, Brazil, Argentina or even Italy may feel strange, but it shouldn't cloud our view of what's ahead. They weren't good enough, it's as simple as that. When West Germany won the 1954 World Cup, it was one of the greatest shocks in sporting history. The future is unwritten and the rear view mirror won't influence it. The novelty of last four should be embraced by all football fans and the absence of complete certainty any of us have about what will happen next is guaranteed to keep the planet engrossed until next Sunday night.