The 2018 World Cup: Culture Clash

by | Jul 4, 2018

It has been said before that the footballing cultures of Europe and South America are so different that they could occasionally be mistaken for playing different sports. Last night in Moscow, those two cultures crashed into each other at such a rate that it was surprising that no-one got seriously hurt. From the moment the draw was finalised, England against Colombia had the look of a match between two teams with barely a cigarette paper between them. Both had shown flashes of excellence, yet neither looked very much as though they could go all the way and win the trophy. For England, however, this morning begins with the dawning realisation that this opportunity, a chance at reaching the semi-finals or perhaps even the final of the World Cup, isn’t just alive, but has somehow unhooked itself from the drip and is now trying to book a taxi to the nearest casino.

At half-time in extra-time, it looked as though England’s chance had come and gone. Everybody imposes their own narratives onto England matches – those white shirts can sometimes feel like a screen onto which we all project our hopes, fears, insecurities and prejudices – and last night’s, at points, had a familiar air of tragicomedy starting to build around it. A second half lead had finally shaken Colombia out of their snarling shell, and a twenty minute long onslaught upon Jordan Pickford’s goal had eventually led to an equalising goal from Yerry Mina with two and a half minutes of stoppage-time played. The theme of Colombian dominance had continued into the first fifteen minutes of the extra thirty, and with a best case scenario for England looking at this point like a penalty shootout, it’s small wonder that most of us were sharpening our pencils to write our obituaries at this point.

In that final fifteen minutes of extra time, though, something changed. Perhaps it was subconscious, perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it was a belief that they had to win this in one hundred and twenty minutes because they could never do so from a penalty shootout. Perhaps it was a belief that, having had their lead snatched away at the very last, they had to finish those two hours of football on a high of some description. Perhaps it was all and none of this at the same time. Whatever the reasoning, England took back to their positions with something like a renewed sense of purpose, pushing Colombia back and creating chances which might have won the game without the agony of what was to follow. But they got there, and twenty minutes or so after the referee blew the final whistle for the last time the celebrations began. England are now two matches away from a World Cup final, with a draw that doesn’t look completely insurmountable and a penalty shootout win under their belts. Truly, we live in remarkable times.

There is a word which describes the Colombian performance which sounds so Edwardian English that to even consider its use feels like something approaching parody, but it feels appropriate at this moment: roughhousing. This was football with a hint of malevolence and intimidation about it. “The Dark Arts” is a phrase which has been thrown about a lot over the last couple of weeks or so and Colombia began their game aggressively and intensely, but as the adrenaline and testosterone started to course through their game, their plan felt as though it glided across the line between mere gamesmanship and something altogether less savoury.

When Wilmar Barrios pressed his head back into Jordan Henderson’s head and thrusted upwards, all hell broke loose. Henderson’s reaction, to fall to the floor clutching his face, was a bit daft and may even have helped in handing Barrios a yellow card rather than a red. It was an absurd situation in the era of video review, awarded by a weak referee, but a degree of culpability for letting this slide also rests with the phalanx of full kit wankers in FIFA’s VAR room. Henderson’s reaction didn’t negate the violence of Barrios’ initial movement. It should, by any reasonable definition, have been a sending off, and it might even be argued that such was the extent to which Colombia had at this point embraced their gamesmanship that coach Jose Pekerman was probably relieved to get to half-time to talk a little shape back into his team.

Ten minutes into the second half, temperatures rose again. England’s set pieces at this tournament have felt almost unmanageable for opposing defenders at times, but the fact that Colombia’s defence had dealt with them with relatively little difficulty in the first half made it all the more inexplicable that Carlos Sanchez should have taken upon himself to haul Harry Kane to the ground just feet from the referee. There was no question that it was a penalty kick, but some of the Colombian surrounded the referee once more whilst another, just out of his sight, another deliberately scuffed the penalty spot with his boot. More games, more trickery. Whatever it takes. Harry Kane’s penalty kick wasn’t as emphatic as those that he took against Panama in the group stages of the competition, but it reached the goal netting nevertheless. Whatever it takes.

Stung by the concession, Colombia were pressed into competing in a football match. Had they done so earlier, they’d likely have won. As the final half hour played out, they pressed increasingly deeply into England’s territory, and as the clock ticked down to zero they started to create chances. A mistake from Kyle Walker allowed Juan Cuadrado a shot in space from the edge of the penalty area, but he blazed the ball over the crossbar. Two minutes into stoppage time, Uribe’s fierce shot from distance was flicked away outstandingly by the acrobatic Jordan Pickford. The dam, however, burst from the resulting corner, Mina’s downward header bounced up and over Kieran Trippier, who was supposed to be guarding the post for his defence. Colombia celebrated as though they’d won the game. It turned out to be a little premature.

So, to penalty kicks, then. Such is the foetal position into which the whole of England wraps itself over the very concept of these duels that we tend to treat the full-time whistle at the end of extra time as the sound of defeat, and if we consider that duelling was decriminalised in Uruguay between 1920 and 1992, it’s reasonable presume that Gareth Southgate didn’t tell his players this ahead of the penalty shootout, if he even knew himself. The Narrative was upon us, and after five perfectly placed kicks, when Jordan Henderson’s shot was superbly palmed away by David Ospina it looked as though prophecy was self-fulfilling itself yet again. The roughhousing. The unawarded red card. The scuffed penalty spot. The stoppage-time equaliser. The burden of history. Sometimes, however, the stars don’t quite align in the way that we expect them to. Uribe shanked his kick against the crossbar and Trippier fired England level again.

Then it came. Bacca’s penalty was powerful enough, but too close to the centre of the goal. Pickford stretched out an arm and pushed the ball away. Eric Dier stepped up and, as cool as anybody could wish for on a night during which the heat had been unbearable in so many senses, steered the ball past Ospina and into the bottom corner of the goal. Turin in 1990, Wembley in 1996, Saint-Etienne in 1998, Lisbon in 2004, Gelsenkirchen in 2006, Kiev in 2012. These losses aren’t erased from the history books as a result of Dier’s sangfroid from the penalty spot last night, but they can be interpreted as a part of England’s history rather than its present, for now, at least. We may, of course, be dancing to a different tune by the end of the weekend – it’s hardly beyond the realms of possibility to see their next match also ending in a shootout, at which point the gloves are off again – but, for now, it feels a little churlish to get anxious over potential future shootouts when such a dismal losing streak has only just been broken.

And let’s make no mistake about this, Colombia didn’t really deserve to take anything much from this match. In Radamel Falcao, Juan Cuadrado, Yerry Mina and the injured James Rodriguez, they have an extremely talented squad of players, but they troubled Jordan Pickford little more than England’s players troubled David Ospina last night and were extremely fortunate to even get to half-time with a full complement of players on the pitch. The dark arts, sometimes, will only get you so far. But Colombia have been here before, not quite meeting pre-tournament hopes or expectations. They’ve had a mixed tournament, starting with a surprising – at the time, at least – defeat to Japan, getting through the group stages was an achievement in itself. To end up topping a group after having lost their opening match is certainly unusual and worthy of note, even if it ultimately counts for little now that they’ve been eliminated from the tournament.

England, meanwhile, had a look at their quarter-final opposition earlier in the day with the match between Sweden and Switzerland, which was won by a heavily deflected goal from Emil Forsberg, a shot which otherwise would likely have made a comfortable save for the Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer had it not been for the unfortunate intervention of defender Manuel Akanji, an own goal in all but name. For all that Sweden will have seen little to fear in England last night, so it is that England will have seen little of concern in their opponents’ performance yesterday afternoon. This match is another between two very well-matched sides with little between them, and the inevitable hubris that will come over the next few days from some quarters will ill-suit the reality of this fixture.

Sometimes, though, it’s healthy to switch off the background noise and simply bask in the moment for a while. There are some terrible people in England, and the attempted hijacking of any form of success will be inevitable over the next couple of days. We already know that there will be more heat than light between now and Saturday. Ever was it thus. But the amplification of stupid or bigoted voices in order to create anger for anger’s sake doesn’t seem to bring much to the party either, so long as we all remember that the victories of a national football team should belong to everybody, and certainly not just the lunatic fringes. England’s progress through this tournament doesn’t need to be overstated. They’ve reached the quarter-finals, and could go further. They’ve won a penalty shootout in the World Cup finals. One of the team might end up with the Golden Boot. A couple of weeks ago, most agreed that this was enough to keep us all happy this summer. Exceeding expectations is possible, but for now, where they already are is enough. Plenty enough.