Saturday, June 30, 2018

Saransk

The journey to Saransk was just 10 hours and there were only two of us in the compartment. So it was a peaceful journey. We arrived in Saransk at noon. You could tell it is getting to the end of my stay here as I found my accommodation within five minutes of leaving the station. Once again I went through all the formalities of registering, but it was completed in record time.

I spoke to the receptionist briefly about the process. She laughed as she ridiculed the fact that as well as taking a copy of all the documents she also had to record the occupation of all the guests. She admitted that in her rush to complete the formalities she occasionally forgot to ask. But if she did not put anything down she would be in trouble. (She jokingly said "They will kill me!"). So she would put the guest down as a stripper, gynaecologist, or an exorcist. No one had ever come back to her.

Saransk

The town centre was closed to traffic and a party atmosphere was present all day as the locals watched the antics of the Panama and Tunisia fans.





After the match I spoke to the receptionist again and found that before the World Cup 90% of the residents of Saransk thought that hosting the World Cup was a bad idea. They were worried about the influx of foreigners and their behaviour and that there be lots of drunk people that they were meant to be nice to. Also the city centre roads would be closed off.

Now she told me 99% of the residents thought the World Cup was a success.

Unfortunately once the football fans checked out she had no more bookings.

Saransk Stadium

Friday, June 29, 2018

And Then There Were 16

HALF THE TEAMS ARE OUT, THE OTHERS TIP-TOE INTO THE NEXT PHASE

The first round, fiery and goal-filled, is over.

Was it as good as USA '94 or BRAZIL 2014? Maybe not, but at least everyone scored and most had a good time.

It will be remembered largely for VAR's debut and Germany's exit.

I trust it will not be recalled fondly for the Denmark v France farce, the soporific closing minutes of Japan v Poland or tonight's surreal England v Belgium clash in Kaliningrad, all no-stakes contests which prove FIFA has not yet got everything about the format right.

The prize for Belgium, whose B-team deservedly beat England's second string, is a dubious one of an easier Round of 16 game but harder tasks thereon and one less rest day.

Few if any could get excited about watching this non-event whose only bearing on the World Cup will be as a part of the debate when England or Belgium lose.

Unsurprisingly, Roberto Martinez was less than cock-a-hoop at Adnan Januzaj's exquisite strike.

Danny Rose seemed to be the only England player pressing for a promotion until he let the former Man United prodigy beat him to score.

Jordan Pickford was finally tested and aerobatic as he is, also showed in leaping but missing Januzaj's shot, how he lacks big-match experience at this level.

The debates in England go on as to whether Gareth Southgate erred by not playing a stronger side but the tone is calm because the consensus is that the Colombia/Sweden/Switzerland route to the last four is easier than Japan/Brazil/Mexico.

Should England lose to Colombia of course there will be those insisting we should have played Japan and blaming Southgate for picking a B-team to face Belgium; damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Yes, Colombia have been worse than England, despite winning their group. They only played one good match, the 3-0 win against Poland, but James Rodriguez, instrumental in those shining goals, limped off injured today against Senegal.

Falcao's strength and shooting, Juan Cuadrado's pace on the wing, Jerry Mina crashing the box for set pieces and Juan Quintero's passing are still reasons to beware Los Cafeteros.



But their defence let Japan, a short-passing side, in twice and allowed Senegal to boss the first half today. Colombia have been relentlessly inconsistent since the last World Cup and in this one have blown hot and cold again.

Against a fit and on-form James, England might have rued not fielding a stronger side tonight. As it stands they must be favourites going into Tuesday's clash in Moscow.

* Belgium on the other hand, should beat Japan and then be confident on the back of four straight wins of taking on a fitful Brazil or Mexico, who showed fatal flaws for the first time against Sweden.

Of the other suspects, I wonder why no-one is tipping the only other countries who came out the first round with maximum points to go all the way: Croatia and Uruguay.

Either we are ignoring them as second-string teams or there really are no outstanding nations at this tournament, so far perhaps.

* A fond farewell to the last African team Senegal who were edged out by Colombia today despite dominating them for 45 minutes.

When Cameroon terrified England at Italia '90 we all thought that Africa was on the march in world soccer. Ghana ought to have made the last four in South Africa 2010 of course but had the worst luck.

If anyone is to break the African duck it should be Nigeria but they keep tripping up at the World Cup too, shining one match, collapsing the next.

With so many talented Africans playing at the highest level in Europe, one wonders what is going on with the domestic associations' long-term planning and tournament preparations.

*Speaking of talented Africans, I hope we hear more of Nigeria custodian Francis Ozuho. The Deportivo La Coruna man looked truly commanding between the sticks, aged only 19.



Another impressive goalkeeper was South Korea's Cho Hyun-Woo, whom little was known about before the tournament. The 26 year-old Daegu star has never played in Europe but after a man of the match performance as his nation knocked out Germany, expect his agent's phone to be ringing now.

* Group D (Croatia-Argentina-Iceland-Nigeria) was my favourite because it was so tight until the final whistles, Group F (Germany-Mexico-Sweden-South Korea) had the most excitement because the world champions were shockingly imploding and Group H (Colombia-Senegal-Japan-Poland) the most interesting clash of styles, an Asian-Euro-Latin-African punch only the World Cup can blend.

* Son Heung-Min's sprint through no-man's-land before slotting into an empty net after Manuel Neuer's Rene Higuita impression remains the starkest goal so far, schoolboy football unleashed.



* Korea and Peru's celebrations at winning while already having been eliminated summed up the joy of our beloved game. Even Poland, awful hitherto, were happy as larry today when they beat Japan. And don't forget Panama, who lost all their games, finished with the worst goal difference of -9 but go home delighted at having scored twice.

* Spare a thought for those VAR decisions which did not benefit the victims. The technology is working fairly well and might even remove the scourge of shirt-pulling from the game, but the grey areas in the game's rules mean even camera replays are open to a referee's interpretations.

* Bad luck too to Iran and Senegal, for whom a win and a draw was not enough to qualify for the Round of 16. Four points however was enough for Argentina and Japan to get out their groups.

LAST SIXTEEN

France v Argentina
Uruguay v Portugal
Brazil v Mexico
Belgium v Japan

Spain v Russia
Croatia v Denmark
Sweden v Switzerland
Colombia v England

FIFA Regional Representation

UEFA: ⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽⚽
CONMEBOL:⚽⚽⚽⚽
AFC: ⚽
CONMEBOL: ⚽
CAF: 0
OCEANIA: 0

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Dark Side of Russia

The Dark Side of Russia
Protest in Moscow
Whilst I have highlighted a lot of the positive things I have seen in Russia during World Cup 2018, I am also aware there is another side to all I am seeing.

The Dark Side of Russia


The petty bureaucracy that demands all foreigners register where they stay. This is one that I have already explained.

There are gross inefficiencies in the system where people are not encouraged to think for themselves. If they do they have learnt that it is best to keep their ideas to themselves.

Children learn English at school, but do not appear to have been encouraged. The arrival of thousands of foreigners I believe will see a renewed enthusiasm for this subject as they clearly want to communicate.

At Sochi train station people were selling train tickets after the match. The train was free and the turnstiles to the station were left open.

On one of the free trains it was someone's job to come round and check your nationality. They already have that information as the Fan ID was used to book the ticket.

Whilst on the overnight train I struck up friendships with a lot of young people. One of them liked football and his English was good. We were having a long conversation when word reached him that his parents thought he should go to bed. It was 9 pm. It was light and his two sisters aged 9 and 10 were up until after 10.30 pm.

Arriving back to Moscow from Volgograd, I was present at the first 0-0 of the tournament.

With the schedule having matches in Moscow on two consecutive days, the next day I had time for a day of sightseeing.

First stop the Cosmonaut Museum.

The Dark Side of Russia

Next there was a World Cup exhibition.

The Dark Side of Russia

Then there was time to visit the Izmaylovo Kremlin.

The Dark Side of Russia

Before watching the Brazil game and then catching the 2 am train to Saransk.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Conspiracy Theories

Before I set off I felt that a number of people were seriously worried that I might not be returning from the trip.

Well, whilst in Volgograd, I was using my device to find the way to Mamayev Kurgan. At first it suggested a main road.... that looked far to easy. Then it suggested another route! So off I went down some alley, along a dirt track, and though some woodland. Now I heard that there was recreations of the Battle Of Stalingrad. So as I got there I was impressed that they had made it realistic as I made my way towards the monument.

Aeroflot


Then a Russian soldier came from nowhere. This was clearly off limits and I was politely shown an acceptable route.

Another reason for not making it back might be a failure of my transport. So far everything has gone to plan, but every now and again I have received messages that have confused me slightly. The latest one troubling me is from Aereoflot.

Now I checked and my next flight with Aeroflot is actually my flight home! I have checked my booking and everything seems fine, but if it is cancelled..... sorry work!

Cometh the hour

MESSI MAGIC SAVES THE DAY BUT LES BLEUS AWAIT IN KAZAN


Lionel Messi once more donned his Superman cape and saved Argentina. The exquisite technique of arguably the world's greatest footballer told in Saint Petersburg.

An honourable mention too to Marcus Rojo's perfectly-timed strike for their second. 

Buenos Aires as expected was on fire, warming the South American winter:


The fantasy romance of Messi the Forever Prince of the World Cup continues for at least another 90 minutes.

Commiserations to Nigeria who played wonderfully when beating Iceland and with better finishing would have been playing France in the next round instead.

That record-breaking replica shirt is still a cool badge of honour amongst the European expats.

Will Argentina be smiling in Kazan on Saturday?

The pain of the Croatia match has largely healed but is the ship still fatally holed? 

They controlled much of last night's game against a young and inexperienced Nigeria but still veered between disorder and recklessness, fluency and genius.

The epitome of this kaleidoscope came from above - Diego Maradona no less, the deux ex machina, going through the gamut of human emotions from his posh seats.

Jorge Sampaoli was fully-clothed last night but with the score stuck at 1-1 and elimination beckoning, recommenced his nervous pacing of the technical area, before exploding in blissful liberation once Rojo scored.

They can enjoy the champagne for now but sterner tests are fast approaching, starting and perhaps ending with the French.

Their latest goalkeeper Franco Armani was nothing special, albeit an error-free improvement on Willy Caballero. What a night on which to make your debut.

Their best defender is the shaky Nicolas Otamendi, while 34 year-old, China-based Javier Mascherano is still a cornerstone of the side, yet last night ineptly gave away a penalty which led to a goal.

Up front there is still much confusion as to who to start with and where. Sergio Aguero seemed to have fallen out with Jorge Sampaoli which meant he was benched until late on but Gonzalo Higuain once more flunked his big audition.

According to Spanish press reports, Sampaoli even asked Messi if he should bring Aguero on...

The hitherto impressive Enzo Perez was flat while the recalled Ever Banega shone.

Angel Di Maria was recalled but was substituted and the winning goal was scored by a defender who had loped upfield and decided to hang around there for a while.

Who on earth Sampaoli will pick to play France is anyone's guess. 

Can the Alabiceleste beat Les Bleus, group winners and one of the pre-tournament favourites who boast the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappe in attack?

Of course they can with Messi around...

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Back to the Andes with Pride

TEARS OF JOY IN SOCHI AS PERU DEFEAT AUSTRALIA 2-0

Adios Peru, a team who found the net too late. Farewell to that iconic strip too, for now.


If there was such a thing as a dark horse, a species now rendered effectively extinct through the dissemination of technology, I thought it would be La Blanquirroja.

The elements were in the mix for a famous run - a first qualification in 36 years, a football-mad nation and a legendary captain who only got the OK from FIFA to play at the last minute thanks to a Hail Mary campaign over a cup of tea.

The Paulo Guerrero saga forged a concrete team spirit in the squad, a togetherness rocket-fuelled by the 45,000 Peruvians in Russia, the seventh largest fan group allegedly, for the trip of a lifetime.

Team confidence was to the fore as they flew at Denmark in their opening match but tragically lost after Christian Cueva leaned back and sent his penalty sailing over the bar. Another Christian, Eriksen, sent his compatriot Yussuf Poulsen free to score at the other end and nick the points.

Who knows what would have happened if Cueva had found the net instead. At the final whistle today against Australia, despite a convincing 2-0 win over a team who needed to win, he sat down by himself and cried, still blaming himself for that miss.

Peru had deserved three points against the Danes but came away with none. Nevertheless they won a legion of admirers and in right-winger Andre Carrillo they had a sublime attacker.

There was a sense of justice today that Carrillo and Guerrero scored and that Peru won, despite already having being eliminated. For Guerrero, which means warrior in Spanish it was a famous last battle - his first and probably last World Cup goal at the age of 34.

I recall attending a similar scenario at Euro '92 in Sweden where Scotland had been knocked out after defeats to the Dutch and Germans and had nothing but pride to play for in their final match.

Their opponents that day, the short-lived Confederation of Independent States (the Soviet Union during its break-up) needed a win to advance but ended up losing 3-0.

Before that match the Scottish fans were amazingly upbeat and were all saying quite soberly that they would be surprised if they did not win that evening. Germany were expecting a Russian win and elimination but they need not have worried.



The partying Peruvians in Sochi today had the same spirit of invincibility the Scots had that day in Norrkopping. They celebrated with tears of joy at their winning swansong in Russia. Two defeats in the first two matches would normally mean howls from the press for the manager's head.

But instead we have been treated to a nation and its newspapers pleading with Ricardo Gareca to reconsider his decision to leave after the World Cup.

Their supporters outnumbered their rivals and made memories that will live with them forever. Their team caught fire too late and had no luck in their opening game when you only have three games to advance you cannot afford to lose more than once.

Let us hope Los Incas take this World Cup as a springboard, starting with next summer's Copa America in Brazil, to get back into the leading pack of South American football nations.

We have missed the passion of Peru.



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile


No More Heroes Anymore

Arriving in a city early, is great for getting a full day there but can be a nightmare for your accommodation. I got lucky today. Arriving there at 9 am I was able to check in and have a shower before setting off to see the city.

First stop was Mamayav Kurgan.



I think I forgot to mention that they also used stirring music in St Petersburg for the bridges.

It is a towering monument celebrating the Russian victory in the 200 day Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 (The city's name was changed to Volgograd in 1961).

Mother Russia


On the way up you pass through the hall of military glory. I noted the names on the ceiling - Lenin, Alexander Nevsky, but no sign of Stalin.

After this I headed to the Panorama of the battle. Before making my way to the Saudi Arabia v Egypt match. In a mall near the stadium, I was queuing for some food. At the next queue someone was having a problem, I gestured that he could come in front of me he accepted after some hesitation and then insisted on buying me a drink.

After the match I went to a bar. There I shared stories with a friend. This is one he told me.

At a recent game he had seen. He spotted a Nigerian in an English football shirt. The poor guy was mobbed by locals. Someone asked him for a photo, his reply - "Not again!"

No more heroes anymore


Whilst in the bar I woman came in and asked if she could talk to us. We found out she was an English teacher and that she had brought a group of her pupils into town specifically to try and meet foreigners and talk to them.

She asked the security if her 16 year olds could come in the bar and have their photo taken with us. They introduced themselves in perfect English and were clearly happy with this brief encounter. The teacher could be heard saying "I am so lucky".

At around midnight we bumped into her and the whole group at the train station. Once again they whole group asked for photographs and even an autograph.

I asked her if I could ask one question. I had been to the Hall of Military Glory earlier in the day and noted the names of the Russians on the ceilings, as this was Stalingrad, I asked where he was.

She said: "That is a good question and one I have been trying to find out myself. I recently searched for the answer but could not find it."

Monday, June 25, 2018

Power to the People

The previous two trains I caught had been free. Laid on for people with Fan I's to travel between cities. The trains had both been modern and the overnight train from Nizhny Novgorod to St Petersburg was immaculate.

My previous experience of overnight trains was in the Ukraine, and that was not a pleasant one. Carriages 30 years old, as was the bedding. Stifling hot and no air conditioning. This time the bedding was crisp and clean, as though it was being used for the first time. The trip to St Petersburg was to watch Russia and the train was full of Russian football fans.

Sochi to Volgograd train


This time I had booked the train myself and was travelling from Sochi to Volgograd to watch Saudi Arabia v Egypt. There were no football fans. Everyone else in my carriage was Russian and no one seemed to speak English. The train was not a new one, and the bedding was not as I described. The train itself is actually on a four day journey. I would only be on it for 22 hours.

The previous trains had an electric socket in each compartment. This time there was one socket between the whole carriage - 36 people.

As ever when travelling it is a constant battle to keep ipod(!) and camera charged as sometimes you do not know when you will ever get the chance. And without the technology these days you would quickly get lost.

I was greeted by two staff at the wagon of my train, as I handed over my passport in perfect Russian. I could understand that they recognised I did not speak Russian and they were unsure what to do with me. A few minutes later another member of staff came and gave me a guided tour of the carriage highlighting the toilet and the refreshments. My compartment, and indeed the whole carriage did not seem interested in me.

This was a stark contrast to the rest of my trip, when people who did not even speak English will come up to you and try to speak with you and then giggle as they walk away. The last time I remember this situation was in Japan 2002.

Last night I was in the train back from Sochi.

I was surrounded by a family and saw the young boy had a big camera. I gestured that I would like to see the photos he had taken. A minute later he and his older brother had introduced me to the whole family and they wanted to know all about my impressions of Russia. (All of this made me wonder what do they make of me?). As they left they gave me two Rouble souvenir coins for the World Cup.

After 30 minutes of silence in my carriage a woman gestured that I would be welcome to join her in the next compartment. She was there with her daughter and another man. He was from Abkhazia, which is next to Sochi and was going to Krasnodar on a business trip. They all talked a little English. They fed and watered me, even at one stage bringing an ice cream.

I asked the question I wanted and this is the reply I got....

Power to the People

Trip to Sochi

A 4.30 am rise was needed to make my way to St Petersburg airport. I made an effort to give myself time to talk to Stas my 7 foot tall receptionist.

Sure enough he was waiting for me, he is a member of the opposition party and was present at Alex Navalny's gathering six years ago which called for reforms. He also explained the role of Boris Berezovsky in Yeltsin's government. Unlike Yeltsin, Berezovsky did not get immunity.

His parting words to me were that I would enjoy Sochi as it had been specifically built to cater for tourists. He clearly doesn't know me! But I understand him. He is caught in a system, and only has limited experience of the outside world. Russia hosting the World Cup is the best thing that has ever happened to this country.

Sochi Stadium


Propaganda, a word that was used earlier, is a word that we would have associated with Russia in the past but nowadays it is realised that 'fake news' (modern propaganda) is all around us and we have seen the damage it is doing.

We are fighting against fake news, and now with the World Cup I am able to see through Russian propaganda.

There are plenty of examples of the communist philosophy still in play. For example the registration of foreigners. Taking that further. Whilst Stas was registering me he looked up my details on the computer, and then apologised as he started to write down details of my payment on a piece of paper. I just said "Stop," and looked at him.

He said, "I know, but I have to do it this way."

He could see how absurd it was that all the details were on a computer and then the most important part was scribbled on a piece of paper.

I spoke to another Russian about this situation. They explained that yes they could see the problem, and the answer would be to make a duplicate of the paperwork to reduce the chance of it being lost....a fascinating insight into their way of thinking. These were people in their twenties!

Leaving St Petersburg in a taxi I saw several grand monuments that I wished to stop and photograph to show you. St Petersburg in the summer is a magical place to be.

Sochi


So to Sochi, a tourist resort. The airport is in Adler as is the stadium. I had several friends in the plane, they were all staying in Adler.

Me, being me, had decided that no matter I would go and see Sochi as the game was advertised as being in Sochi. After all why would you go all the way to a football match and not go in the stadium (except for Ekaterinburg).

Bar in Sochi


So I took a bus 30km along the Black Sea coast. The weather was overcast, and the threat of rain was there all day.

I met two Australians and quickly agreed to go to lunch with them where they met another four friends. We then went to a pub with a view overlooking the Black Sea.

Bar in Sochi


I immediately recognised the menu.

I had seen this chain Stargorod in the Ukraine, and knew what to expect!

On the wall...

Drinking ratings.

Bar in Sochi


Points were awarded for how much you drink. If you look closely at the ratings, you will not find my name there.

We were able to watch the Belgium v Tunisia game there.

Before I headed to Adler to see Germany v Sweden.

Strangely Sochi was the place where visitors encountered most problems with the language.

Bar in Sochi

Bar in Sochi


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Second Chance Saloon...Baloy's the boy

With the World Cup's first phase amidst its second round of matches, the stakes get higher as elimination beckons for those who lost their opening games.

The drama gets more intense and the catharsis greater. Winning and losing swap places within unforeseen instants.

Real life can turn imminent defeat into sudden victory too but it does not perform magic so easily or regularly as football does.

It is qualities like this which makes the sport so addictive.

The current storylines in Russia 2018 have been unputdownable:

Germany were heading out of the tournament at half-time against Sweden, then saved their bacon (or their wursten) with a last-gasp winner.

Colombia were peering down the barrel after losing to Japan but tonight really turned on the style to ignite their 2018 campaign.

Nigeria were miserably useless in their first match but brilliantly joyful in their next one. Ahmed Musa's aeroplane celebration after his second goal was the epitome of happy.



Switzerland were browbeaten in the first half against Serbia, but glorious in the second



And so it goes on.

Redemption stories are one of football's great lessons - there is always a second chance if you believe.

* Quote of the Day:
"I didn't like their start and I didn't like their goal at the end..I enjoyed the win against Tunisia more" - England coach Gareth Southgate raining on his side's 6-1 hammering of Panama parade.

Panama of course were eliminated from their first World Cup finals today, but you would not have known it as the little Central American nation went crazy at netting their first goal in finals history.



Felipe Baloy has now gone down in Panamanian history, much like El Salvador's 'Pele' Zapata, who was equally ecstatic netting his country's first and so far only goal in the World Cup and remains a national hero, despite an unflattering scoreline in Espana '82.












(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Brazil Match in St Petersburg

The evening of the Brazil match in St. Petersburg saw Urban Orienteering take on a new level.

A friend gave me the name of a bar and said he expected to be there at 6.30. Now my friend will always be there, but he is always rushing.

Bar in St. Petersburg


The name of the bar was the only clue. You then have to negotiate the crowds after the match and find your way there. For me the easiest way would be to take the Metro and then walk to the place.

The twist was that, after reaching the bar I was then to spot his Finnish friend he was meeting.

I immediately replied "White hair".

Where's Aapo?


I messaged to say I expected to be there at 6.45. He was running late.

I arrived and soon spotted who I thought was his friend. Sure enough the person with the White hair was Finnish but the person I was looking for was sat next to him. Mission accomplished.

As I suspected my friend reached the bar late.

Russian Hostel System Messy

Well I was woken by the sound of six minutes injury time and two Brazilian goals.

Brazil fans


I went to my accommodation before the match to attempt to check in and drop my bag off. The code I had been given, no longer worked. Never mind. I waited for someone to come out. The next code worked. I was greeted with a smile as the receptionist recognised me, but she then informed me I was not staying there!

The hostel system is a mess. They use one name and address to lure you in and then they seem to use different locations. Only you do not know that!

I had time to find my new home for the night. I was greeted by a young man in perfect English. I had already noted the size of the door frames - as bigger than normal. When he stood up I realised they needed to make them bigger. I found out later that he was 7 feet tall.

He checked my details on the computer, and then asked if I had registered.

Russian Hostels A Mess


This is something I have been waiting for... I had read some months ago that Russia had decided that all foreign visitors must register the address at which they are staying within 24 hours of arrival in a city.

The message I read was hilarious. It gave Moscow as an example, explaining that the office to register was an hour out of the way. The staff would not speak English and you would be expected to queue for at least an hour. Hotels would register for you. I emailed a couple of places I would be staying and they confirmed they would not be registering me!

My receptionist politely informed me that he knew the system was crazy, but that it was the law, and to save any problems it would be best to complete the registration. I left him just after noon, came back at 10 at night. He was still working on it, but he completed it by the time I left at 5am the next morning.

Russian Hostels A Mess

Saturday, June 23, 2018

No Need for an Octopus

CAN WE REALLY PREDICT WHO WILL WIN THE WORLD CUP?

Ten years ago, Paul the Octopus became a global star after his football predictions showed a stunning accuracy - 85% in fact. He famously got all Germany's matches at the 2010 World Cup right as well as
correctly predicting Spain would win the final.

Copycat animals emerged with varying levels of credibility - one of my favourites was a Peruvian guinea pig called Jimmy:


But these days we prefer algorithms and permutations to molluscs and rodents. What do they say about the likeliest winner in Russia?

According to UBS bank, who ran 10,000 simulations, Germany have the best chance of winning, followed by Brazil and then Spain. So far, no surprise...except Deutschland lost their first match didn't they and risk elimination if they cannot beat Sweden tonight.

In other words, computers can still get it wrong.

Germany entered the tournament No.1 in the FIFA World Rankings, so as far as football was officially concerned they are most likely to lift the trophy.

But it is also worth a peek at the ELO Ratings, an alternative to the FIFA system, which place both Brazil top and Spain above the Germans. Interestingly, FIFA puts Spain only 10th.

David Sumpter, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Uppsala, whose book "Soccermatics" showed how mathematical models can be applied to football, devised "The Soccerbot" to calculate game outcomes, yet still believes England will top Belgium in Group G.

Tech company Gracenote ranks Brazil as the favourite to lift the cup in Moscow while American sports predictor AccuScore believes Argentina no less, will win the 2018 World Cup.

Belgium pummelled Tunisia 5-2 today. So does that mean they are on their way to winning the World Cup?

We know they have good players and the advantage of not being hosts, holders or South American in Europe. So why not bet on the Belgians? They have always been classified in the chasing pack rather than the favourites but the evidence for a Red Devil party in Red Square is growing with each match,

I suppose one ought to pay attention to bookmakers, whose business model is based on not losing money on sports betting and whose consensus for some time has been that Brazil or Germany will win with Spain a close third.

Fair enough, but what about France I keep thinking, a team who tick all the Belgian boxes too?

British broadcaster TalkSport used its own "Super Computer" to predict Egypt would not only win Group A but reach the last eight, yet the Pharaohs are going home after two defeats in their first two games.

Said master machine also tipped Peru to qualify from Group C...Out of interest it said Brazil would beat Spain 2-1 in the final.

In other words, nobody as ever knows for sure.

Doubt over the outcome makes football endlessly fascinating and I for one do not want to know the result before the tournament starts.

Hope springs eternal. Perennial optimism is a pre-requisite of being a true supporter.

EA Sports FIFA 18 game thinks France will beat Germany in the final on penalties by the way.

I might get out my childhood Subbuteo set now to see if England can win.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, June 22, 2018

World Cup shorts


  • How happy was Japan when they beat Colombia?

  • England's travelling support is more of a platoon than an army in Russia, but so far they have had an unexpectedly wonderful time. According to this article by the well-established Football Supporters' Federation, the scare stories have proven to be totally unfounded as English fans have been welcomed with open arms by the locals.
  • I have not had the chance to go through all the official World Cup songs, which of course are usually dire but now and again throw up a World in Motion. Anyway, having enjoyed the happy music of Senegal in that friendly West African country, I gravitated quickly to its 2018 official song, featuring its most famous musician Yossou N'Dour.

  • Seven facts about Lev Yashin, the greatest Russian footballer and perhaps the greatest goalie of all time. Incidentally, the Black Spider said the secret to his success was this: 
"The trick is to smoke a cigarette to calm your nerves and then take a big swig of strong liquor to tone your muscles." 
  • Mexico captain Rafael Marquez will not be winning any Man of the Match awards or giving any post-match interviews at the World Cup, thanks to corporate America.
  • Pitch-side sponsors at Russia 2018 are not the usual bunch - FIFA's old pals Adidas, Coca-Cola & Hyundai are there, but so are some large Chinese companies almost unknown in the West like Hisense, Vivo and Wanda. What is going on? The Economist explains it is all part of China's plan to rule the world, as well as hosting the 2030 World Cup.
  • The Guardian takes an in-depth look at the dozen 2018 World Cup stadia, but how about viewing them from beyond the Earth: 


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

What a mess, whither Messi?

Argentina's collapse leaves its star looking burnt out

Lionel Messi scored a fantastic goal last night.

The great midfielder, who normally plays for one of Spain's big two, teased a defender on the edge of the box before unleashing a swerving missile inside the near post.

As the watching world acclaimed one of the most exquisite goals of the World Cup, they pinched themselves and realised it was Croatia's Luka Modric who had found the net instead.

What a mess, whither Messi?


For all the wails and lamentations over Argentina's shadow side which has stumbled and fallen in Russia, we are all a bit guilty of underestimating their opposition too.

Iceland are no mugs as England found out to their cost at Euro 2016 and Croatia have form too: World Cup semi-finalists in 1998, Euro quarter finalists in 1996 and 2008.

If Croatia had an Alen Boksic or Davor Suker up front to help Mario Mandzukic, a Slaven Bilic in defence and a Robert Prosinecki in attacking midfield, well...

Mind you, if Messi had had some quality suppliers too...

France '98 calls out to Argentina, a tournament they could have won had it not been for a moment of genius from Dennis Bergkamp. As with their talented 1994 side derailed by Diego Maradona's positive drugs test, if only...

Imagine if twenty years later they could call upon the following arsenal: Gabriel Batistuta, Hernan Crespo, Marcelo Gallardo, Ariel Ortega, Juan Sebastian Veron and Javier Zanetti.

1998 also resonates with Croatia. Their win last night in Nizhny Novgorod felt uncannily like their 3-0 demolition of an ageing Germany in Lyon that year, putting an overrated legend out of its misery with fresher legs and better teamwork.

Like a German team which fielded veterans like 33 year-old Jurgen Klinsmann and 37 year-old Lothar Matthaus, Argentina knew they would encounter a painful truth sooner or later: Messi will never win a World Cup, unless at 34 in Qatar he finds himself surrounded by a much better team.

He has retired from the national team before of course, only to return for more lost finals. Will he want to put himself through yet more suffering with his country when at club level he can live in the land of milk and honey?

All talk of whether this makes him an all-time great is daft of course. We all know he is one of the greatest. Many greats never won the World Cup: George Best, Alfredo Di Stefano, Eusebio, Johann Cruyff, Michel Platini, Ferenc Puskas, Marco Van Basten, Zico, oh and Cristiano Ronaldo, so far.

Yet the shadow of Diego Maradona hauling a functional yet uninspiring side to the World Cup in 1986 will always hang over him because they come from the same country.

Yet they were different types of midfielder, a fact which should close the debate down. Messi-Ronaldo comparisons are equally futile.

While he trots around the opposition half for Barcelona about to explode in a burst of dribbling, chips over the back four, quick flicks or curling shots, for his country he trots around before deflating as the ball does not arrive or his colleagues do not move into areas he can pass to them.

Messi has had twelve shots but no goals so far in Russia. Last night he had less than 50 touches and only a half a dozen in the last quarter of the game. It is as if his brain works differently when he is not sporting the blaugrana.

The lack of cohesion in La Albiceleste last night was stark when they conceded a shambolic third, jogging at best back towards their goal as Croatia broke and appealing absurdly for offside as Ivan Rakitic drilled home.

As coach Jorge Sampaoli was chivalrous in accepting blame having cut the most nerve-racked figure in all the tournament for 90 minutes, pacing up and down the technical area not like a caged animal, but quivering like a man facing imminent execution on death row.

How much the failure is down to him or his personnel is something the media can chew over, but it will not alleviate much of the pain. Argentina used 45 players and three coaches during a turbulent qualifying campaign rescued only at the last minute by a Messi hat-trick.

Sampaoli had tried to impose the system which worked so well for Chile in the 2015 Copa America, telling the media he wanted to play 2-3-3-2 in Russia, but last night the effect was a disjointed mess which ended with effectively a 5-0-5 formation.

Did swapping Sergio Aguero for Gonzalo Higuain make any difference for instance? What was Pablo Dybala's role? Why were they not trying to feed Messi at every turn etc?

The evening turned for the worse when Willy Caballero mishit a pass he should have launched, almost certainly a legacy of Pep Guardiola's insistence that his custodians pass the ball out of defence.

Caballero means 'gentleman' or 'knight' in Spanish, an irony not lost on Buenos Aires daily Ole, which opined in melodramatic terms about the tragedy in Russia:

"The knights of anguish which pain the soul of so many Argentinians..." it wrote.

Argentina, one of the perennial greats of world soccer, were left looking as poor and humiliated last night as Brazil did after their 7-1 thrashing by Germany in the last World Cup.

Sadness pervades, not only because millions of neutrals want Messi to shine on the biggest stage, but because a feeling of normality has been disrupted with Argentina playing so badly.

There is still a chance La Albiceleste can progress but in reality they need to be put out of their misery before they suffer further humiliation in the knockout stages.

Messi will always be one of the best, but the lack of the best trophy will always hurt too.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Why was it a mistake?

Well instead of accepting a lift I walked the 3 kilometres with my bag. Found the address of my accommodation, but could find no trace of the hostel. Despite enlisting the help of the locals, and ringing the number given, I had to give up looking after an hour.

St. Petersburg Stadium

St. Petersburg Stadium

St. Petersburg Stadium

St. Petersburg Stadium


Luckily managed to find somewhere nearby and then spent the next two hours checking in as they recorded all my documents and wanted to know where I had been and where I was going. All with the help of google translate. It took some explaining and I have now decided to cancel my next booking in Ekaterinburg, as I would end up spending as much time checking in as sleeping there!

During the day it was cloudy and it started raining for the first time in this trip. It was a great shame as it is a lovely city, but photographs on this weather would not do it justice. I decided I would come back at night.

Why was it a mistake?


At this time of year, it does not really get dark and these are known as white nights. This added a surreal feeling after the Russia game as clearly no one wanted to go to bed. Russians chanted with displays of nationalism I had not seen since the Lucy bar in the Ukraine in 2012. Cars blared their horns, with people hanging out their windows waving flags. You would think they had conquered the world, not just won a second football match.

All this was going on as I took in the sights and photographed them into the early hours... as I have a day off tomorrow.

St Petersburg Russia

St Petersburg Russia

St Petersburg Russia

St Petersburg Russia

St Petersburg Russia

St Petersburg Russia

St Petersburg Russia

St Petersburg Russia

St Petersburg Russia

Petrovsky Stadium
Petrovsky Stadium

Ross Clegg

See Ross' photos of the 2018 Europa League Final

Copa del Rey photos

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Long day in Ekaterinburg

It was always going to be a long day in Ekaterinburg arriving at 5.20 am. After seeing all the sights by 8 am. I decided to go the Boris Yeltsin museum.

There was a World Press Photo exhibition where they showcased the winners - why is it bad news makes a good story?

There was also an informative exhibition on Yeltsin's presidency. It was interesting to see that they described communism as an experiment and that it was only in the '90's that Russia found the path to liberation from its totalitarian past.

These were things I wanted to talk to Alex and Uliana about. But I sensed that Alex's bottle of rum would see his nationalistic side rise up, and could see at times that his daughter did not agree with his outlook.

At the end of the exhibition I was wondering what Boris Yeltsin would think of the man he asked to "Look after Russia." Also what would Putin have made of Yeltsin's comments questioning the leadership of the country before he rose to power. Finally which world leader bought him a Boss jumper as a gift?

Did you see the look Ronaldo gave Mo Salah at the Champions League Final in the tunnel. Well that was the look I saw in Putin’s eyes as he took over the presidency.

Peru v France


The thriller did not materialise in Ekaterinburg and the 20,000 plus Peruvians in the stadium (and me outside the stadium in the temporary stand) were disappointed with a 1-0 win to France.

This is the stadium where the capacity was not big enough so, the took down the shell of the stadium from behind the goal and added scaffold stands. Maybe I should be thankful that the Peruvians did not do so well, as early on in the game they started chanting whilst jumping up and down!

After the match I had time to kill, before my 7.20 am flight back to St Petersburg so I went to a pub to watch Argentina v Croatia and was thrown out at 2am.

This is turning into my longest day.

I did not sleep the night before, I am up all night tonight and I have a 26 hour day (due to the time difference).

Good job it is Brazil as they look to win their sixth title.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

They'll always have Guadalajara

Portugal 1:0 Morocco

The FRMF, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, has had a rough couple of weeks.

Morocco


Firstly they saw their World Cup 2026 bid rejected in favour of a joint bid from Canada, Mexico and the USA - three against one is not really fair is it?

Then on their first World Cup appearance in twenty years their national team became the first to be eliminated from the tournament.

One can argue they did not deserve to lose to Egypt in their opener but as we have seen there is no infallible justice in this World Cup.

They also missed a handful of chances against a once more workmanlike yet unimpressive Portugal, who relied once more on their megastar talisman.

At this rate the 33 year-old CR7 is going to smash the record for goals scored in the finals and be awarded a platinum, not just golden boot.

Younes Belhanda's header needed a flying one-handed save from Rui Patricio so nobody can accuse them of not trying.

Losing to Portugal brought back memories of Morocco's finest hour at Mexico '86 when they beat them 3-1 in Guadalajara to win group F above England and Poland too.

The Atlas Lions then lost only 1-0 to eventual finalists West Germany but could at least say they had  become the first African team to have won a World Cup group.

Where Moroccan football goes now is a big question after this double-whammy. They have bid and failed five times to host the World Cup but in reality had no chance when up against the CAN-MEX-USA behemoth.

Their bid was judged "high-risk" by FIFA's Technical Report because 14 stadia, as well as hotel and transport infrastructure needed building, including an alluring but still hypothetical 93,000-seat Grande Stade de Casablanca.

Maybe Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco should unite for a Maghreb bid to win the World Cup hosting.

For the Atlas Lions, it is back to the pride.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Nizhny Novgorod

The train arrived in Nizhny Novgorod at 11am. Thankfully luggage storage was available at the station, so I left my bag and headed into town.

The centrepiece is, would you believe The Kremlin. (The word actually means citadel) it had fortified towers and a view over the River Volga to the impressive new stadium.

Sweden fans


The match Sweden v Korea was decided by the Swedish players pleading with the referee to view the VAR. They chased him all the way to the half way line before they got their wish.

After the match, I headed straight back to the train station for the 19.06 to St Petersburg. Another free train laid on by FIFA.

The fourteen hour journey was to be spent with Alex and his daughter Uliana and an older gentleman Vladimir. Thankfully Uliana studied languages and she was able to translate.

When introducing himself to a Russian Alex said his name was Sasha. I quickly picked up on this and asked him why. He said all people named Alexander were also know as Sasha. I explained we have names where you can see where the nicknames come from like, but I did not understand this one...neither did he! I found out that one of Alex's first big football matches was Spartak v Napoli at the Luzhniki. Maradona played as did Cherchesov, the Russian manager.

Alex worked for the government and his administrative district included Nizhny Novgorod, Saint Petersburg and The Crimea (!).

I asked why people would not think it safe to travel to Russia and they explained it was just propaganda and that they thought everything would be fine.

No guns on Russian trains


I had seen evidence that steps were being taken to tighten security with the banning of guns on trains for the period of 25th May to 25th June, and I was assured you could never take a gun on the train.

As for smiling. Well I had already worked out that a lot of people here had not met foreigners and were basically shy. Also as they did not speak the same language they would avoid contact. Also when you do ask for help, they don't always know the answer.... but they want to give you something.... hence don’t trust a Russian.

Studying the news the next morning Alex announced with great delight that now (according to the polls) 60% of Russians thought that they would win today's match. Interesting to see he thought the polls were so important.

Upon arrival in St Petersburg Vladimir’s grandson met him and immediately offered me a lift to my accommodation.

How I wish I had taken him up on that offer!

Russia celebrates


Ross Clegg

See Ross' photos of the 2018 Europa League Final

Copa del Rey photos

FanFest on Sparrow Hill

A swift pre match visit to the FanFest on Sparrow Hill in the shadow of the Moscow State University and with a view back over the River Moskva and the stadium.

FanFest on Sparrow Hill


The Luzhniki was a fitting setting for a great game and a wonderful atmosphere as the Mexicans held their nerve to win.

After the match I decided to avoid the queues at the nearest metro stations and walked away from the crowds for some thirty minutes. To then blend in with the Muscovites, except for wanting to use my Fan ID instead of my troika Card to pay the fare.

Luzhniki


The next morning it was an early start as I caught the Free Train from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod, which departed at 7.15 for the four hour journey.

I quickly spotted my new friend with the crutch at the station in the morning. I also heard from my other friend that he has given up on his travels to Volgograd and is limping back home... looks like he will have to change his name!

Ross Clegg

See Ross' photos of the 2018 Europa League Final

Copa del Rey photos