Introductory note: This is an instalment of my recollections of the World Cup, which undeniably are wildly misplaced on a blog meant to bitterly berate the works of accomplished writers, but my own lack of commitment has meant that I’m doing this instead. If you want some context for the following few paragraphs, I can recommend The Arrival: Part 1 or The Arrival: Part 2. Honestly, reading just one of them should be enough, I mostly just whinge about the hostel landlady in both of them anyway.
It is amazing how much purpose football can give you. In all of England, in certain parts of Norway, and I’m sure everywhere else, matchday is a day. Football is not something that happens over the course of 2×45 minutes, you dedicate 8-10 hours to it, incapacitating you to get anything else done. I’ve lived in and around the Highbury area in North London for three and a half years now, and even though I’m not an Arsenal fan, I love being around on Matchday. The streets are full of people intoxicated on anticipation (And alcohol), shopkeepers will ask you for your predictions on the game, even if you’re not sporting any football gear, the local pubs are packed on the one day of the week that keeps them floating for the six days when there are hardly any customers. Matchday drives local economies throughout the world, as people are making sure to make a day of it, supporting not only pubs, but cafes, restaurants and grocery shops as well. It makes me wonder how American sports teams can just move from one city to another, and how devastating the consequences for the local community must be. I love North London, but I don’t think I would live there if it weren’t for all the things that are there thanks to the football. Or for the Matchday, the only weekly appointment people will show up to four hours early, both to enjoy themselves and to spread joy in the streets of a community that would be unrecognisable without it.
Even when I’m nowhere near the centre of Matchday, I can still feel it. I plan my day around it, be it at home, in a pub, or out with friends who will either partake in my Matchday rituals, or find themselves being abandoned. That being said, normally I only feel that sense of purpose myself when Liverpool is playing. But during the World Cup, it’s every day, pretty much regardless of the games. Am I particularly invested in the outcome of Belgium-Tunisia? Am I fuck. But I know that every kick of the ball is a piece of football history, a part of The Beautiful Game’s heritage that will be passed on. Even before the game started, I knew that long after I die, there will be some obsessive weirdo out there who will know the exact score of Belgium-Tunisia in Moscow on 23rd June 2018. That knowledge provides an incredible sense of purpose. I’m sure I would have enjoyed sitting in the middle of Kazan’s high street Ulitsa Baumana, drinking beer in the sunshine with my two travel companions regardless, but knowing that this was Matchday during the World Cup made it euphoric, even though this wouldn’t be one of the games we went to, and even after minimal sleep the previous 30 hours and having just fallen victim to a partially successful hostel scam.
Prior to the trip, I had done all the research I could on Kazan. Not because I’m a particularly fastidious traveller (I will refer you to the hostel debacle described in The Arrival: Parts 1 & 2), but just because I needed something to distract me from the agony of waiting for a World Cup to begin, especially one that I was going to witness in person. I sensed that Lars and Anders felt that I was taking some of the fun out of exploring the place. And there’s no denying that there is a lot to be said for serendipity, but the truth is that I couldn’t help it, it was a coping mechanism. Anyway, the most positive thing that came out of this was me always knowing where the closest pub with a TV screen was, potentially saving us from scurrying around 10 minutes before kick-off begging passers-by for information on where one might enjoy the pleasure of a game and a pint (Incidentally a scenario I had been in with Lars and Anders before, albeit in Bristol). So half an hour before Belgium-Tunisia, we calmly wandered down to Beerlozha at the bottom of Ulitsa Baumana, a pub rich in those two precious resources, beer and screens, according to the tourists guide I had pretty much memorised by heart.
The guides weren’t wrong. From the table we sat down by, we could see about three and a half screens, and the menu was filled with obscure, but very pleasant beer. There was also a glorious button on the table, that we could press to summon gorgeous Slavic women who attended to our beer-related needs. We gave a toast to the World Cup, the tourist guides and the glorious table button, before falling into observant silence as Belgium-Tunisia got underway.
I have a couple of things to say about Belgium, about the quality of their current players, about the stunning way they played in the tournament, but also about why I can’t get myself to support them, and about why I have very little faith that they’ll ever win an international tournament. But these thoughts wouldn’t be very suitable when I’m remembering a game that Belgium won 5-2, taking them to their second three-goal victory in five days. Consequently, I’ll save those thoughts for later, and will focus instead on the embarrassment to the game that is penalty kicks. I’m not talking about penalty shoot-outs, I’m talking about the fundamental unfairness of 90% of all penalties that are awarded, leading me to the conclusion that penalties should be either abolished or only given in extreme circumstances.
5 minutes into Belgium-Tunisia. Eden Hazard goes on a run towards the goal line, probably hoping to get a cross in. You never know when Hazard is on the ball, but the only Belgium player interested in being in the box is Romelu Lukaku, so it hardly looks like a dangerous situation. However, Tunisia’s centre back Syam Ben Youssef is overly eager to dispossess the Belgian maestro of the ball, comes in slightly too late, and knocks Hazard over. An honest attempt at the ball, in a situation that was nowhere near a goal-scoring opportunity. If this happens anywhere else on the pitch, Belgium are allowed to continue play from where the foul was committed, in the form of a free kick. Unfortunately for Ben Youssef and Tunisia, he made his challenge marginally inside the magic box, which grants the opposition a chance for a free shot on goal from close range, with only the goalkeeper being in the way. Does that seem fair? And this applies to a majority of penalties given. I think I only reached this realisation during the World Cup because of VAR. More accurate refereeing leads to more penalties, in the case of this tournament a staggering 29, because a lot of fouls are committed inside the magic box, on average this would seem to happen around once every two games. The reason penalties are under-awarded is that referees themselves know intuitively that the punishment so often does not fit the crime.
It becomes even more intriguing when you read up on the history of the penalty. The spot kicks were not included in the original rules of the game, but were introduced as a health and safety measure as defenders would panic when the ball was close to their goal, hellbent on stopping it from going in, not caring much about what or who they kicked. This would lead to severe injuries, and so it was decided that fouls committed in the immediate area in front of one’s goal should carry a strict punishment, to make sure that defenders took more care when placing their studs. These conditions surely do not apply to the game of today? If penalties were replaced by free kicks inside the area, do we really think the modern game would descend into carnage? Even if that is a possibility, can we not reach a solution with penalties only being given in cases of violent conduct or depriving an opponent of a goal-scoring opportunity? If the reason for introducing penalties no longer applies, what are the reasons for keeping them? IFAB, the governing body that determines the laws of the game, came close to the same conclusion a couple of years ago, when they decided that the “double punishment” of both conceding a penalty and getting sent off was too harsh for non-deliberate offences. Their solution was to eliminate the red card from these situations. In some ways a step in the right direction, but a step taken with the wrong foot.
Having stumbled upon this epiphany, I needed to share it with Lars and Anders. At this point, we had moved on to Trinity, an Irish-themed bar closer to our hostel where the staff spoke surprisingly good English and the prices were ridiculously cheap. I felt at the time that I had stumbled upon some groundbreaking ideas, but the two of them more or less shrugged it off without providing much of a counter-argument. Potentially because penalties are just so ingrained in the game that it’s hard to convince people that football would actually be better without them. Or maybe because my two friends were visibly feeling the 36 more or less sleepless hours and were struggling to take an active interest in anything. Anders went back to the hostel to sleep ahead of South Korea-Mexico, but returned for Germany-Sweden, during which Lars kept falling asleep on his chair. Fair enough. I was grateful that they were willing to endure my relentless references to tourist guides and my overly opinionated rants about well established rules of the game, it would have been too much to ask that they take part in this level of enthusiasm. But when Toni Kroos scored the incredible stoppage time 2-1 winner, they celebrated as hard as me. In part because we were going to watch Germany in their last group game, and did not want to see them being knocked out beforehand, in part because a group of three Norwegians will always celebrate a Swedish defeat in the name of Scandinavian rivalry, and in part because the most magical moments of Matchday are too climactic to resist for anyone.