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 upcoming paragraphs, I can recommend reading some of the previous instalments:
The Arrival: Part 1 (In which I whinge about the hostel landlady.)
The Arrival: Part 2 (In which I whinge some more about the hostel landlady.)
Love of Matchday, Hatred of Penalties (In which I whinge about penalties, an institution in the game of football.)
Game 1: Colombian Tigers Invade Kazan (In this one I actually don’t whinge at all. It’s pretty dull.)
In one of my previous posts, I talked about the concept of Matchday, and how uniquely gratifying it is to have the 2×45 as a focal point for your existence, even if it’s only for a day. When you’re at an international tournament, this is extended and exacerbated. After watching Poland-Colombia, our first live World Cup game, we had two days to fill until South Korea-Germany. Sure enough, we were on holiday in a country where alcohol was cheap, the weather was inexplicably sunny, and the World Cup was rolling across pub screens constantly, be it in the form of highlights, repeats or the games themselves. But the act of actually attending games was such a monumental climax, overshadowing everything we did elsewhere. It really was very reminiscent of being at the pub on a Sunday afternoon watching Bournemouth-Palace while you’re waiting for El Clasico to kick off. And to be clear: to me, and presumably to every football fan out there, this means that you’ll still have a good time while you’re waiting, but simultaneously knowing that this is not what you’re there for. It’s a half-climax, and one that I tend to enjoy during Matchday because it’s part of the build-up and the routine. This was also the case for the two days between games in Kazan, but it was hard to shake the hollow feeling of something not living quite up to expectations. On the other hand, that is what the pub culture is there to fill, in the form of beer and short-term friendships.
With the tournament now being in the final round of the group stages, games were being played simultaneously, meaning that even the most dedicated fan would have to miss out on at least a little bit of live football (You can’t really watch two games at the same time. I have done my fair share of dual screening over the years, and in my experience you’ll always miss out on quite a bit in both games. I’m a monogamist viewer these days). In previous tournaments, I’ve found the first day of this a little upsetting, believing firmly in my God-given right to watch every minute of the World Cup unfold, regardless of what some Central Europeans might have got up to in the early 80s. But this time, I was strangely OK with it. In part because I’d already missed out on a bit of football due to travelling (First by plane to Kazan, then by bus to the stadium), and knowing that there was more of that to come (Sadly we were unable to get a flight home that didn’t overlap with two Round of 16 games). But in part also because the game we were to miss out on was Egypt-Saudi Arabia, i.e. the two most disappointing teams in the tournament at the time (Note that this was two days before Germany’s disaster against South Korea, the live experience of which I will convey on the blog. Stay tuned). Not because of particularly high pre-World Cup expectations, certainly not in the case of the Saudis, but just because they had both been disgracefully terrible. As it would turn out, the outcome of this game would end up contributing to a substantial payday at the bookie’s around a week later (If you’re still not staying tuned, I really don’t know what’s wrong with you), but at the time I only had a vague awareness of the bet that would make this happen, and so this game might just be the one I have cared the least about in World Cup history, at least while it was being played. Not that Uruguay-Russia was all that brilliant either. We went to watch it at Fan Fest in order to get a sense of Russian fan culture, but the 3-0 defeat of the hosts would dampen this somewhat. Thankfully, we would get to experience the host nation celebrating later on in the tournament (You probably don’t have to stay tuned for this one. If you’re reading this, I would imagine you know exactly what I’m referring to).
Back in the city centre, we decided to not go to Trinity, the Irish pub where we seemed to always end up, and instead broaden our horizons by going to Dublin, Kazan’s other Irish pub. How wonderfully exotic it was to be abroad! As we were waiting for Iran-Portugal to kick off (If I were in charge of the screens at Dublin I would have gone for Spain-Morocco, but who am I to criticise the decisions of people who are blatantly wrong?), the group of Korean guys at the table next to us proposed a bet. They were Asian, and consequently felt an obligation to back Iran, we were European, and should back Portugal. So if Iran were to get anything out of the game, we were to buy them a round, vice versa if Portugal did the job against the clearly inferior Persian side. Retrospectively, I reckon that they were mainly looking to make friends and didn’t care much about the bet, but Iran did end up equalising after a cheap stoppage time penalty. Can’t say I minded much buying the round of Guinness, as despite the Koreans’ notions of continental loyalty, I can’t stand the vast majority of Portuguese footballers, and actually took great delight in seeing Quaresma being robbed of becoming match winner, as well as Ronaldo’s penalty miss being decisive for the result. Additionally, Iran’s goal was crucial to my aforementioned profitable bet, though I didn’t know this at the time. But in the end, the most important part was being able to get to know the Korean guys, who turned out to be a group of 18- and 19-year olds on a lads’ trip. They gave us the first proper taste of World Cup friendliness. Sure enough, we’d got along with our Colombian hostel roommates Juan and Cristian, but this felt like it was in part due to the convenience of being placed in adjacent beds and part due to the sheer joy in the celebrations following the win against Poland. With the Koreans, it was a particularly pure form of jovial companionship, built on an unspoken idea that the fact that we love three of the same things, specifically pubs, Guinness and football, means that there is no reason for us to act like strangers. Over the course of our stay in Russia, we would spend time with loads of people under those circumstances, from Brazil, Australia, Kazakhstan as well as Russia. The friendly atmosphere surrounding the tournament is unlike anything I’ve experienced. Although this could be influenced by the fact that until recently I had spent all my life in Northern Europe.
The best example of this universal camaraderie occurred on the next day. Following a dire display between Denmark and France, amazingly the only 0-0 game of the entire tournament, we yet again ventured to the familiar watering hole of Trinity to catch the conclusion of Group D. Mind you, these games were of enormous consequence for us, as we knew we were going to watch the Round of 16 between the runner-up in Group D against France, naturally strongly hoping for Argentina (Spoiler alert: I am basically the luckiest little shit on the planet). We’d stayed in touch with our Korean friends from the night before and told them where we were, to which they responded that they would drop by. Apparently, this expression has an extremely literal meaning in Korean. The six of them marched into the pub wearing their gear, arranged chairs around the table we were sitting, stayed for about 40 seconds, then announced that they needed to leave for some Korean fan event elsewhere in the city. As they left, still smiling and cheering while we waved back in confusion, I suddenly heard a voice behind me with a distinct Northern English accent:
“Sorry… But what the fuck was that?”
That was the start of another friendship one-nighter. The voice belonged to a guy called Mike, who was there with his German girlfriend for the game the following day. He was an Everton fan, I support Liverpool; he hoped for an Argentina defeat on account of his Brazilian friends, we were hoping to see the Argentinians live the following Saturday and so needed them to win. Our hopes won out in the end, but he took the defeat graciously (No doubt he’s had a lot of practice, being a Toffee). I cannot tell you how ecstatic we were about getting to see France-Argentina in a World Cup knock-out game, the fixture we considered a hypothetical ideal match-up, but not a realistic prospect when we got on the plane. Naturally, we celebrated by getting smashed in Trinity and Dublin with Mike and his German girlfriend. My recollection of things is that we got on famously, which must have been why we swapped contact details at the end of it. The next day we exchanged some messages about the game, but we didn’t stay in touch. Nor did we with the Koreans. I guess that everyone involved eventually came to the realisation that having 2-3 things in common doesn’t make for much of a long-term friendship. It can, however, make for a couple of extremely enjoyable nights out.