The 2018 World Cup, Day Two: The Parallax View
I don’t like the self-regard, even if it’s justified. I don’t like the public persona, quite possibly as it’s about as fare away from being me as it’s possible to be. I certainly don’t like the tax evasion. But I like and respect and that he’s come from poverty. I certainly respect his incredible footballing ability, and I’d like it a hell of a lot more if I supported the team that he played for, though I suspect that will never happen. I like and absolutely respect his philanthropic work, especially his blood and bone marrow donation. And, if I’m not committed to the match at all, I quite like the occasional sleight of hand that the pulls off, every now and again.
They’d been playing for just three minutes when Cristiano Ronaldo ran at Nacho, dangled a leg, and won a penalty kick, which he then converted himself, beating the best goalkeeper in the world, David de Gea, to do so. At such moments, it’s possible to believe that he may be close to being able to live the life of a superhero, albeit with very occasional crashes back to reality and the veneer of a… divisive public persona. He humped the ball past de Gea as though smacking the ball past a youth team goalkeeper during a practice session on a training ground. Insouciance personified.
But there was more than just this. This was a match of bewitching skill and brilliance, of sleight of hand and human frailty. Had it come later in the tournament, there is no question that it would have been talked about as one of the all time great matches. It might be, regardless. The early Portugal goal hinted at a possible rout, especially considering Spain’s internecine difficulties during the week, but instead the muscle memory kicked in. Spain started to claw their way back in. Another master of the dark arts, Diego Costa, pickpocketed Pepe with a crowbar, made off with the ball, and within seconds had swept Spain level.
As we ticked towards half-time, it rather felt as though Portugal would be the more relieved of the two teams to get to the dressing room. But then came another moment of shock and surprise. David de Gea is the best goalkeeper in the world. That is still the case today. But in allowing the ball to slip through his hands from Ronaldo’s extremely tame shot, he did at least prove that he’s human. Ronaldo, meanwhile, wheeled away in disbelieving celebration. Portugal led by two to one at the interval.
The second half began as explosively as the first had ended. Nine minutes in, Costa swept Spain level from close range, and two minutes later Nacho caught the ball full pelt, sending a low, powerful, slightly curving shot in off the post, a wonderful piece of precision and control. But even then there was one final plot twist. A free-kick, just over twenty yards from goal. Ronaldo stepped up to curl an exquisite shot up, over down and into the Spanish goal. It was no less a dramatic finish than the rest of the match deserved.
The mid-afternoon game had been a curious mixture of a game, starting promisingly effervescently before tailing off as the two teams seemed to withdraw into themselves. It felt like a curious position to put yourself in, really. Did they both fancy their chances more against Spain or Portugal, their next two opponents in the group? Whatever was going on out there, Morocco capped off a terrible week for themselves when their substitute Aziz Bouhaddouz inexplicably diverted a free-kick – which itself had been conceded unnecessarily by another substitute – past his own goalkeeper, four minutes into stoppage-time at the end of the match to give Iran their first World Cup finals win in twenty years. First, Morocco lost out in their bid to host the 2016 World Cup finals. Now, this. What a week. These were two teams who it it would be very difficult to imagine in the next round of this competition.
This wasn’t even the first late, late goal of the day. In the (UK) lunchtime kick-off, Uruguay and Egypt seemed to be largely cancelling each other out. On the Uruguayan side, Edinson Cavani looked spritely enough, but Luis Suarez was a shadow of his former self, missing a sitter in the first half – which, somewhat hilariously, BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce called as a disallowed goal for fully fifteen seconds because the ball got stuck in the netting of the goal – and wrapping his foot right around the ball with another chance. Uruguay pushed against Egypt like a slowly turning vice, griding them down, until the pressure became too much and Egypt buckled.
When the goal came, it was strikingly clinical. José María Giménez put a bullet of a header into the bottom corner of the goal. True enough, the marking had not been strong enough for a corner, this late in the game, but there could be absolutely no faulting the quality of the finish. The way in which Egypt played seemed to confirm their degree of reliance on Mo Salah, who sat forlornly on the sidelines, very much with the look on his face of someone who didn’t think that they should be going on the pitch. The cameras were probably on him more than they were for any other Egypt player, of course. Such is the game, these days.
Egypt may have been slightly spooked by Russia’s skilled filleting of Saudi Arabia the night before, but their task remains the same. If they can take a point from their game with the hosts and then rack up the goals against a very poor-looking Saudi Arabia team, well… it’s a potential route through. Playing Uruguay was getting the toughest match out of the way. We shall see. It’s certainly what we largely thought, just a couple of days ago. Uruguay did not quite live up to the billing given to them by some of their acolytes, but that counts for little, this early in a World Cup. It would not be surprising to see them in the semi-finals, this time around.
It’s difficult not to look at the football played by both Spain and Portugal this evening, however, and reach the conclusion that they were simply playing on a different plane to all six of the nations that had come before them in this tournament. Whether either can maintain that sort of gallop remains to be seen, but anyone looking at the sheer depth of quality and strength – both physical and psychological – can only have been a little awed by the fact that they may have to standard, quite possibly more than once, in order to lift the World Cup this summer. But equally importantly, these two teams came with their degrees of fragility. Both should qualify from their group. In comparison with the other matches played a little earlier in the day, they were almost playing a different game altogether.