A respite from the storm

Antoine Griezmann doing that chicken dance in front of the Atletico supporters at the Emirates Stadium. Obafemi Martins doing a backflip in front of a blue wall of Birmingham supporters at Wembley. The one-two punch of Eto’o and Beletti in the Stade d’ France, the year that Arsenal had the record for the most minutes played without conceding a goal in the Champions League. As an Arsenal supporter I’ve suffered my share of crushing blows and it’s always the hope that kills.

I’m not going to gloat, I picked England to win the World Cup because I thought that they had the right mix of talent (more on why that was wrong in a minute). And I’m not here to tell you that you shouldn’t have hope or mediate your expectations. I will just give my commiserations. I can imagine exactly what you’re feeling right now.

Being a sports fan is a complex mixture of fantasy and reality. Like being a Republican or a Democrat, or even just being an American or a Brit, or any time that you’re rooting for “a side”.

When the tournament kicked off there was a distinct sense of “realism” around this England team. There were no memes about Vindaloo, and I didn’t even know the song “It’s coming home” existed. If there were hopeful England supporters they were well quieted by the “realists” in the bunch. The ones who were saying that we should all lower our expectations. That getting out of the group stage would be an achievement.

The pragmatic approach turned out to be the whole England cause. Everything from the way that this team was constructed, with zero ball-playing midfielders, to the long outlet passes to speedy wide players, who were instructed to get the crosses in to Kane, was all about pragmatism. Even losing to Belgium in the final day of the group stage was a win for pragmatic English football because it meant that they got the easy route to the final.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this into a think-piece about “British pragmatism” or “stiff upper lips” because that’s not what happened. Instead, what this World Cup delivered to England was a brief, overwhelming, fantasy and unity. And ironically, it was the realism which made the fantasy so powerful.

We live in crazy times here in the USA and in Great Britain. It feels like half the population believes one thing and the other half believes the exact opposite. And these are deeply held, powerful beliefs, that don’t like to talk to each other. My sister is a Trump supporter and I dread having conversations with her about the homeless or whatever topic she brings up at family gatherings. I’ve come to the point where I just let her say what she wants and I move on with my life.

I know that not everyone in England was behind England in this World Cup, but the support was huge and cut across political and ideological lines. Brexiters were hugging Remainers; Arsenal supporters were cheering on Spurs players; and everyone (it seems) was throwing beer into the air all over England when Kieran Trippier scored against Croatia. In a world where everyone is so at odds with anyone that they disagree with, it was kind of a nice moment to see some unity.

Humans crave this connection. That’s why we join clubs. And here was something simple to get behind. Something practical to cheer for that wasn’t about something powerful and divisive but rather something nice and unifying. It was a brief respite from the crazy world of Brexit, me too, Trump, North Korea, Russian interference, migration, and terrorism.

At its best, that’s what football can deliver. Even in defeat.




  1. “It was a brief respite from the crazy world of […] Russian interference,…”

    I personally think that the football “fantasy” should be an entertainment and a hobby, but should not make you blind for the reality around you.
    A month ago you wrote “Politically, I don’t want to watch the games”. Me neither – I simply think that some things are more valuable than my entertainment. Therefore I didn’t watch any game and didn’t read any articles about that tournament.

      1. It is not, if you count this blog and some other discussion threads. But no news or sports sites that count on attendance and where the coverage of the WC is the product they sell, have received my clicks.
        I know it might sounds a bit crazy, but this is as much as a single person could do.

  2. It was good as long as it lasted, but I doubt if that many of us over here thought we’d actually win the damn thing.
    Can’t imagine how the Spanish, German & Brazilians must feel. I mean they actually had realistic expectations based on having world class players.
    Best of Luck to Croatia for Sundays final, but I think France will have too much for them.

    1. Tell me about it, I have two passports, Brazilian from my mother’s side and German from my father’s. This has been a weird WC, from the overconfidence and weird ennui the Bayern players brought to the team to a Brazil team I really liked but for the superstar that couldn’t deliver.

  3. And this was exactly how I felt this morning, and I threw an arm around my English friends with exactly this sentiment. This was the week that the Brexit debate again tore the country apart, and its political leaders showed the world that they were a bunch of opportunists and incompetents. This is the week that Trump comes to town, and the majority of Brits wishes that their government had the guts to tell him to stay the hell away.

    The ride in Russia became more than about the football — it was a rallying point. And going from someone who didnt care much about Team England, in the end I really didn’t mind if football did come home. Plus, I’ve really taken to Gareth Southgate. In demeanour, his public deportment and his likeable, easy, inoffensive charm, he was exactly want the country needed at this time. If he was American, someone, somewhere, would be saying “Gareth for President.”

    England didnt have the best coach, or the best team, or the best tactics, and they had the easiest draw of the semi-finalists. But, the longer the ride went on, the less it became about the football.

  4. And these are big reasons for why I follow football in general and Arsenal in particular. Well said.

    BTW, I wouldn’t have thought it before but I think Croatia has a real chance for another big upset on Sunday if they can keep it tight.

    1. I’d be pretty surprised. France has a much better team than England. You could make a case for Kane instead of Giroud, but other than that, not sure there are any other England players that would start for France. To say nothing of the tiredness factor. But it is a one-off final, so you never know.

        1. In place of who? Certainly not Griezmann or Mbappe. And I don’t think he’s a good enough defender to replace Pavard or Hernandez.

        2. OMG, you must be kidding. Sterling doesn’t even make the bench; Dembele, Fakir, Tollisso…. all eat Sterling’s lunch. The most overrated player in the Premier league. City just bought Mahrez to make Sterling a bench warmer.

      1. Gentlemen… he’s better than Lemar or Dembele and France would certainly take him. That means he would have at least started one or two matches and possibly would have forced France to drop Giroud and play with Sterling, Mbappe, Griezmann up top. The point is that he would certainly have made the French team. You just don’t leave pace like that at home.

        1. Why do you say he is better than Lemar and Dembele? Better at what? It’s not necessarily that I disagree but this is a fascinating opinion and I’d like to hear your reasons.

        2. No way. Agree with above, Sterling is way overrated. Pace (I thought you disliked that word) sure. But mentally and physically weak. Can be locked down by an experienced defender.

          All the rage for Mbappe… OMG Dembele is almost as much of a beast. No way is Sterling even in the same class.

  5. I always see arrogance and disrespect from the English team and they end up losing because of that. Also, the english media is somewhat different when talking about their national team and players, this might have also played a role in the long reign of failures. Having the best football show in the world won’t make you the best team in the world.

  6. I don’t know how the media of other nations create and manage expectations for their teams, but because I follow the Premier League, I’m of course more attuned to the English media, and I have to say that it has always grated, and continues to do so. It has always come across as arrogant and triumphalist, even after this latest defeat.

    Did Jordan Henderson (JORDAN HENDERSON), for example, really merit an entire Guardian piece about what a talisman he is, the heartbeat of the team, coming of age, etc., all this before the semi-final. Seriously? For what? For bossing Panama and (barely) Tunisia? Getting an easy ride to a semi-final where they lost against the first side of any quality?

    The hype there and elsewhere was nauseating because so blatantly, unapologetically blinkered.

    And now, the day after. Weepy, jingoistic pieces about the immense pride in the players, how they went so far, and how this tournament represents how far England have come, will be used as a stepping stone for the next tournament, etc. Sorry, but that’s just silly talk. England will never again have a route to the final put on such a platter, from the group stages to the R16 to the QF and SF, and if this really is the benchmark, if they really do think reaching the SF this year demonstrates the actual quality of this team on the international stage, then I fear the dismal three-pronged strategy of hoofing long balls to your forwards, not bothering with midfield, and pinning all hopes on set pieces…well, it will continue unabated.

    I don’t hate this England team — in fact, I had hoped they would be in the final — but I have little patience for the attitudes surrounding them in their home country. Does it really take so little to be called a hero there? It certainly wasn’t heroic football.

    Ah well, let’s hope Southgate has a little sticky note next to his computer reading, “Next time: bring a midfield.”

    1. There was certainly a bit more hype than was warranted by the play that was shown. That said, it was a relatively young team, so there is potential for the future.
      Ironically, someone like a healthy, playing well, Jack Wilshere would have been exactly what was needed in the Croatia match.

      1. Every time Eric Dier walked onto the pitch, with his punched-in-the-face bewilderment, I thought why, oh why, oh dear God why was he there instead of Wilshere, who can at least carry the ball (or even Oxlade-Chamberlain). Southgate had ball-carrying central midfielders to choose from, but decided against it. He might be a classy and likable guy, but his callow strategy was apparent from the get-go.

        1. He really didn’t have ball carrying midfielders. Other than Jack Wilshere there are almost no English midfielders who can play a possession-type game. Conor Coady does it for Wolves but other than him, there are literally zero English midfielders who play possession football. So, in theory, I agree with you that this was exactly the problem, the cure isn’t so obvious.

          Unless I’m missing a player. And I had quite a good look at both my memory of which English players might be able to do it and at the stats.

          Furthermore, I would say that Wilshere and (lets say there’s an imaginary 2nd good English midfielder and insert him here) would have been eviscerated by teams like Croatia. Wilshere can’t do the defensive duties that Henderson and Dier do out of possession and also aren’t going to be nearly as good as Modric and others in possession.

          They played to their strengths. They played like Leicester. Which is interesting because that might also explain why this England team were so popular: they were the underdogs, they played an ugly brand of football, and their fans knew it so a run to the final was unbelievable.

    2. It’s not just the media, the supporters on my twitter feed are indignant at any suggestion that the three lions were anything less than massively unlucky to lose that match against Croatia and I felt like it was one of those things I didn’t want to lose a lot of followers over so I remained mostly quiet. I did, however, post some stats about the match and received a pretty elevated and angry set of responses in return. I’ve also seen otherwise rational people proudly proclaim that they are blocking and/or unsubscribing or even deleting their corporate accounts with companies/personalities that dare to criticize Colonel Waistcoat and his tactics.

      I have also come across a number of high level British accounts chastising people as “killjoys” for any criticism of the team and their tactics. To be fair, I agree with some of the main points: Southgate had to play to England’s strengths and there are almost zero ball playing midfielders, but like you say it does grate on the nerves that so many people are so unrepentantly flag-waving about this team.

      So, maybe I’m wrong.

  7. Unity? It’s all illusory. Of course, as you say, it can be good to just revel in that for a while. I feel a bit grinch-y about this, but I really cannot stand the English attitude towards the game. I don’t know why exactly but they come across as smug and jingoistic. Even Modric said they used the arrogance of the English media as motivation. I think it’s because they refuse to talk about the actual football, preferring their own narratives instead. I mean look at the sanctimonious ‘national treasure’ and ‘priceless jewel’ nonsense about Harry Kane who, despite his considerable talent and goals in the World Cup, was disappointing.

    Not Neymar level disappointing, who managed to turn the normally neutral’s favourites Brazil into a much reviled team. Not the sheer idiocy of the DFB scapegoating and playing politics over Ozil. But still.. I’m glad they lost, if for no other reason than we wouldn’t have heard the end of it if they somehow fluked a win.

  8. Not lived in London for 3 years, have no love for the England football team (which I said at the start of the WC) but deep ties and strong friendships endure. There’s a sadness, and we’re talking too about worldly folks who know full well of England’s limitations, and disdain the jingo merchants. I feel for them today.

    Shard speaks of illusory unity, but misses the point by a continent. Who believed that it was a kumbaya moment that would endure in perpetuity? Nobody. It was a moment. A rallying point. Feelgood about being English. Not that many folks were in a position, or cared, about offering a dispassionate assessment of the weaknesses of their team. Heck, I believed against all the evidence that we could, would beat City and Atletico in two cup finals.

    We have more access to the British biases, than we do of those of other countries. Know who Im glad was sent packing? Russia. Shard’s friend Putin, already insufferable, would have been far more so than any England supporter.

    And yes, Southgate was a credit to the tournament.

    1. I meant illusory from even the football PoV. I saw Spurs fans crowing over Liverpool and Arsenal fans about how ‘their’ players were doing this for England. Saw Arsenal fans bemoan the lack of quality shown by Spurs’ players. It depends on what you focus on, hence the illusion of unity. Which as I said, is good to focus on.

      Russia were never going to win it. And it’s always sad when a host nation goes out. Because Putin =/= Russia. Much as you and the Western media like to portray it as such. Putin is popular in Russia and unpopular in the West because he brought Russia out from under the thumb of the West over the past 2 decades. He’s not my friend. I just don’t demonise him like you do.

      1. Absolutely Shard, I think a lot of people believe the narrative of what the major western media outlets tell them. Putin is no saint, neither was Bush, Obama or Trump currently. Putin as far as I’m concerned has only done what he believes is good for Russia.

        1. So did Mugabe. And that mustachioed guy from the 1930s (who Im not comparing to anyone, but who acted, from his pov, in his country’s best interests). Every dictator does what he think is best for his country. What a silly standard.

          I’m a journalist. Sanctioning the killing of journalists, as Putin does, is not good for his country.

          And to Shard, Putin is popular among Trump conservatives.

          1. Mugabe was a darling of the West. As were countless other dictators. Including Saddam (who the Americans provided with chemicals to be used on Iran..and as collateral damage on the Kurds) and Gaddafi. Until it became convenient to overthrow them, too inconvenient to keep them around, or they were overthrown by others.

            The West cares about democracy only if it gives them the result they want. Otherwise they reject it. They seek to manipulate it to their end. Failing which they destroy it. It’s arrogance to suggest that the rest of the world needs American or Western ‘benevolent’ intervention to sort out their lives. In the cases that it would be needed, that’s what the UN was for, but unfortunately, that’s basically been destroyed. Mostly by the American led West once they had absolute power. You argue for democracy while arguing for a tyrant in the international sphere.

            Not an exact comparison, but it’s how Israel criticises Palestinian violence without ever looking at themselves or the root cause.

          2. CLAUDEIVAN, I’m no Putin, Trump or any government supporter, they are all evil as far as I’m concerned, but I just detest demonizing certain governments or officials because they have a different point of view.
            Talking about Mugabe, this guy oversaw one of the most stable economies in Africa, until he went against the colonialist British government, who had given over 90% of Zimbabwe’s arable land to 3% of the population (world War 2 veterans and their descendants). The brits had promised to return back the land during when Zimbabwe gained independence and even pay some compensation, Mugabe waited for close to 2 decades before he forcefully collected back the lands. Was he justified? Maybe. Did he carry it out well? Meh.
            Mugabe was a western boy until he bit the hand that feed him, all of a sudden acts he had been carrying out throughout his rule of Zimbabwe were now deemed terrible by the same governments that lauded him before.
            The facts are there people need to research for themselves instead of going with the narrative fed them by the media

          3. Don’t be silly now Claude, do you have any hard proof Putin has actually killed anyone at all?
            Plenty of people fall of the roof tops, It’s just that in most countries they’re called roofers while in Russia it’s mostly politicians and journalists.
            Stop being so pedantic and melodramatic.

          1. TREX D’GUNNER

            Every President you mentioned falls within normal parameters of wealth accumulation ( not Trump) for Ivy League graduates who go into politics on the national level.

            If you can command speaking fees in the neighborhood of $400k after leaving office then it’s no wonder your wealth can soar quickly to Obama’ s $12m , Clinton’s $45m or something in between for Reagan and both Bushes.

            As far as anyone can tell none of it has been acquired illegally which is more than can be said for Putin’s wealth, which is being estimated in hundreds billions of dollars.
            I’d say for a former kgb agent he’s done ok for himself…., I mean for Russia.

          2. Putin ain’t no saint, but labeling him the ultimate bad guy who steals a public funds and wants to bully the rest of the world is just simply myopic. He is bad no doubt, but so is Bush junior for attacking and destroying a country under the pretense of WMD’s. It’s high time people realized that there is no good guy or bad guy in world politics. Sadam and Gaddafi were vilified as evil dictators, but upon their overthrow / killing, their countries have been thrown into an endless cycle of violence and unrest. The western way is not the only way

        2. “Putin as far as I’m concerned has only done what he believes is good for Russia”

          Purely out of patriotic duty while taking only a very small, token- like compensate for himself.
          Oh wait….

          1. Hey Tom, how very one sided. Reagan, Clinton, Bush senior and Junior, and our dearly beloved Trump are altruistic in their leadership right?

          2. Putin is a bad guy.. I have no problem with that view. Of course he is. ‘Good’ guys don’t get to such positions. Putin is a bad guy and all who oppose him are hence good is the narrative I reject.

            By the way, it is interesting to me that what counts as ‘conspiracy theories’ when it’s against the West is much more easily accepted when it’s against one of these numerous bad guys that the West is protecting the world against. All altruistically of course.

            The same standards do not apply to others as to them. Every excess by someone they don’t like is directly attributable to the system (in this case, replaced by one man) and every systemic excess in the West or their allies is attributed to a few bad apples, if at all. Seen this too many times to fall for it again.

            NK got its nukes because the US facilitated Pak getting its nukes, and when they sold it on to NK, the hero scientist AQ Khan was the fall guy. His punishment ‘house arrest’. One guy did this. Don’t ask more questions.

            That’s one example. You can see the same when it comes to torture, or ‘faulty intelligence’ to go to war (which runs the economy and ‘creates jobs’), or the financial crash. Always someone else, or a few bad apples to blame. And they don’t even get punished really. And no lessons are learned because we already solved this. Putin or Assad or Kim are all distractions/monsters created to keep the belief that they are fighting the good fight. Without these villains, people might actually question the status quo a bit more. Besides, who would pay us for weapons if there weren’t a boogeyman?

            So hey, you want to say Putin is a bad person, go right ahead. I agree with you. But this is not about good or bad. Somehow, this seems to offend you. Maybe it’s because without the shield of righteousness, the argument you have starts looking less solid?

          3. Putin is corrupt. True (I guess) He is a politician after all. Putin has led his nation from the brink of disaster to being on the path of being an independent global power again. Also true. This is exactly why he is disliked. It is nothing to do with his cruelty or corruption or whatever else. They don’t care even a bit about that.

  9. Here is the thing about having a Wilshere option on the pitch that Southgate and his supporters miss. Croatia knew they had a Modric to control their midfield and that elevates the team’s belief that we have a guy who is better than their guys and relaxes the mental stress of a team down one is under. England at one all had no one remotely capable of saying ” follow me boys” in their midfield who would drive the ball in the final third, make a chip pass in the box for someone to run onto, play a reverse through ball for Sterling to beat the back line or finally someone who understands how to execute a one-two pass at the edge of the box. Ericksen and DeBruyne if they are English would have been left at home by Southgate with his updated long ball approach that looks great when you’re up against Panama.

  10. Arsenal.com are running a 5 min clip of 1st team training and even that looks like an exciting foretelling of what’s to come for our season. No more photos of a static Wenger presiding over training but an all action Emery sweating with players.

  11. Oh it all makes sense now. Juventus’ Netflix series is produced by IMG. IMG also bought the distribution rights for Serie A for the next 3 years. Juventus is looking to make a step up into the elite of the football world. That’s what Ronaldo’s signing was about. Apparently they’ve already gained 5 million followers more on Twitter. Crazy. This is how sports and marketing intersect. Still, if it can revive Serie A, it’s all for the better.

  12. The new guys in charge of AC Milan are apparently looking to recruit Ivan Gazidis to run the club.

  13. I thought the strength of this England team was that they embraced their identity as a team that does not attempt to build attacks trough possession. Crosses and physicality has always been the English way and at least they went down true to who they are. Previous managers tried to shoehorn mediocre playmakers into the team and it just made them look flat and predictable. It may not have been pretty but I promise you Croatia would’ve preferred facing a team with Wilshere or any other second rate midfielder trying to play creator versus the dynamic directness that took them to the semifinal. As I said in the buildup, Croatia had the bodies to deal with their set pieces and to nullify the wingbacks, and England had no plan B. But the plan A was effective. I think they will go backwards if they scale it back in favor of a possession style. Having said that, I agree that they missed Ox, who would’ve brought a missing dimension of a competent ball carrier in midfield without losing too much physical edge, particularly since Dele Ali was, by my estimation, probably the most disappointing player on the pitch in that elimination game. Wilshere may have been that game changing player when he first broke through but nowadays I don’t think he has the same burst and Croatia would’ve handled him easily in possession and abused him defensively.

    With all this talk about England, I don’t think people are giving Croatia proper credit. They were comfortably the best side England had faced and the only side with an accomplished game in possession. They also had underrated athletes, particulalry Rebic, Perisic and Brozovic who were outstanding. Modric meanwhile a arguably the best central midfielder in the world and for my money the best one for a team that tries to possess the ball. Strinic and Vrjasalko have proved their mettle while Lovren and Vida have not given up an open play goal in who knows how long. I am not a fan of Mandzukic but they also have Kramaric who can score and assist. Most importantly, they play together, they play tough, and they are good on the ball 1-11. They may have gotten lucky on the penalties but they blitzed through their group. This team is GOOD and they are in the final on merit. I wish more people would talk about than than lament England’s newest glorious failure.

    1. I agree. My concern for France is that they’re the sexy pick but can they grind out a win against a Croatia who are the Kings of grind with 3 extra time wins.

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