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Russia 2018 A month on

by Tunna on Aug 15, 2018

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On a memorable night in Moscow a month ago, a French team led by Paul Pogba and featuring the lethal combination of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, dazzled the world with an electrifying display to become World Champions for the second time in their history. In doing so, they left a gallant Croatian side in their wake and put a halt on a victory most Football Romantics had hoped for.

What a great tournament it was and what gracious hosts the Russians were.

In my final world cup blog, I sat down with two men that experienced it with me first hand. Fox Sports Senior Football Commentator Simon Hill, and Radio Personality Tony Wilson. Funnily enough, both men have written books which feature on the Tunna bookshelf. No doubt the pinnacle to both their careers. Tony with his 2006 epic, ‘Australia United’, and more recently Simon with ‘Just a Gob on a Stick’.

So, with a bowl of Borscht and glass of Vodka (well, not really. We sat with nothing but a laptop), we dissected the month that was ‘Russia 2018’.

Tunna: Looking back, I actually find myself still frustrated with our campaign. I’ve watched the games back again and there were certain moments where we had the opening two games in our grasp and on both occasions I found that Bert made wrong subs at the wrong times. How do you boys best sum up the Socceroos campaign?

TW: Competitive, toothless, and predictable. The Socceroos played approximately to my expectation. Beforehand, I thought we might win against Denmark or Peru, and thought we might get beaten badly by France. As it eventuated, we were superb against France, very good against Denmark, and below par against Peru. I was proud of the team, despite being bottom of the group and without a win for the second consecutive World Cup. But realistically, we won’t progress to the knockout stages and beyond until we have some sort of scoring weapon, and we haven’t had one of those for some time. Should Timmy have been given more game time? Probably. Is it indicative of our attacking malaise that we needed a 39 year old to have more game time? Absolutely. I don’t regard the campaign as a failure though. We made it again. Those players produced something close to their capacity performance. That’s what I love about this team. I never get the sense that I’m being short changed as a fan, at least in terms of courage and effort.

SH: I think it was disappointing overall, but perhaps unsurprising. Yes, they were competitive, but the struggles in qualification were clearly no fluke. Australia simply don't have enough firepower, and the calls for Timmy Cahill to make an appearance (at 38, and without much club football) were rather indicative of that.

Tunna: We really looked like a team that were lacking in the front third and in the end it really exposed us for what we were. We were able to defend well on the most part, and break lines but it was that polish in delivering a final ball and being clinical in and around goal that proved our undoing. Would you agree that’s what went wrong?

SH: Not much individually, and I think it was more of a case of the personnel just not being (for the most part) good enough to compete at that level. Could the money spent on hiring Bert Van Marwijk have been better spent? Possibly.

TW: We didn’t score enough goals – again! Even the goals we did score, a lunatic hand ball from a French defender, and a lucky-ish VAR hand ball against Denmark, it’s hardly the sort of stuff that gets you to the knockout stage of a World Cup. We’ll never know if the ‘safe and stable’, four at the back, van Marwjik philosophy saved us or scuppered us. Certainly, I thought we were composed and organised, until we tired in game three. I fear that France might have filleted us under Ange. But I also wonder if a more attacking mindset against Denmark and Peru might have helped. Certainly, Luongo is one player who can actually score and he didn’t play a single minute. Jedinak looked tired at the end of the Denmark game. I was surprised Mass didn’t play for Jedinak in game three. In the end though, it’s a gap in quality. Guerrero is better than any of our strikers. Carrillo took a chance nobody in our side (beyond Cahill four years ago) would be likely to take. Ditto Christian Eriksen when he opened us up in the first ten minutes. Is there an Australian player who would make the French squad? Maybe Aaron Mooy. Maybe Mat Ryan. Why have the talent levels fallen away in Australia? It has to be money though – both in terms of the rorting that goes on in charging kids who are getting interested in the game. And in terms of lack of investment in talent at all levels of the Australian football pyramid.

SH: Correct. Without wishing to go into the current politics of the game too deeply, we all know that there are major issues with our game here which need to be urgently addressed. Youth development needs a serious revamp, the National Youth League is nowhere near long enough, and generally, our young players don't play enough football, and in enough high-pressure games. At the pointy end of the pitch, too few Aussies are playing in the A-League because clubs (understandably), go for foreigners and marquees in those positions to try and get success, and get bums on seats. Solutions? More clubs, more opportunities, a bigger youth league, a national second division - but as we know, that all costs money and is tricky.

Tunna: There’s always a positive I guess and that for me was being at our fourth successive World Cup. Its something we now take for granted after having lived through the pain of Iran in 97 and everything that came before that. There’s other positives too I guess…

TW: Yes, there are. All those words that make long term fans groan. We were competitive, we tried, we surprised a few, we didn’t disgrace ourselves, we knew our game plan, we stuck to it, and we didn’t make it easy for our opponents to score. We were admirable. We defended with energy and courage. WE transitioned okay through midfield, especially in that second half against Denmark. We had standouts in Mooy, Sainsbury and Leckie. Mooy, in particular is just a star. I wonder if he gets to a really big club in the next couple of years? Arzani was awesome. Just to see that confident little strut, and his love of the stage and the moment, the youngest kid at a World Cup and with the courage to play like he did. That was a big positive. I can’t wait to find out what sort of player he can be. Also, we made it again. I’m so proud that we’ve made four World Cups in a row. It sure beats being Italy, or The Netherlands, or USA, or Ivory Coast.

SH: As Tony said, the performances (briefly) of Daniel Arzani suggest he has a great future ahead of him. I thought others like Josh Risdon, Aziz Behich and Trent Sainsbury acquitted themselves quite well - but again, the fact they are three defenders illustrates Australia didn't have enough in the front third.

TW: I agree with you both that without a striker, it’s unlikely we start dominating big tournaments. The Arnold era will be interesting. You’d imagine Milligan and Mile will be nudged to the side, perhaps after the Asian Cup, and they’ve been mainstays. At first glance, the post Cahill era looks a little grey – who is the 20 year old dominating world junior internationals, or even the A-League? There was a sparkle about Japan’s attacking play in Russia that is beyond our current crop. But I’m hopeful we’ll find a way. I was worried after Brazil that we’d drop away significantly, and yet we still made it to Russia, albeit via the long route. One thing I noticed in this tournament was how much of a difference one star makes. A true world class talent, like Eriksen, Modric, Suarez or Kane. Can we dig one up? I think we can say now that Cahill has been that star for us. I spoke to a Millwall fan in Russia who said that the world completely underrates how great he has been. An Everton poll put Timmy near the top of all footballer to ever play for that club. Who can accept the mantle? Can we produce another Cahill, Kewell, or Viduka? The talent vacuum is a worry. Is the junior academy/AIS system broken? We badly need a star.

Tunna: FIFA President Gianni Infantino says it was the best ever World Cup, and Russia have been labelled by many as the perfect hosts. Do you agree?

SH: I certainly thought it was an excellent World Cup. Lots of exciting games, plenty of shocks, brilliantly organized in superb stadiums and no trouble - you can't wish for more than that. Russia were definitely very good hosts. but (and you can call me cynical), I'd be interested to be back there today, to see if it has the same vibe. It was a big PR win for Vladimir Putin, but there's no doubt he runs the country with strong arm tactics. The bigger question should be how they won it in the first place (and the subsequent excuse to the Garcia inquiry that the computers containing their preparatory work had been destroyed!), but no-one seems particularly interested in that any more.

TW: It was a brilliant World Cup. I had so much fun, and the Russians were wonderful hosts. They seemed determined to make it work, and so any request for help was met with what passes for a smile in Russia. They loved chatting with us, and it was a true cultural exchange. One bloke we met at the fan fest was desperate for us to experience true Russian food so took us to a restaurant the following day at lunch. A couple of rough looking drinkers at one bar INSISTED I go home to their place to drink ‘choot choot’, a type of moonshine, after I shouted them a round. Eventually, I mimed ‘do you intend to kill me’ and they laughed hard enough for me to believe they weren’t going to, so I braved the car with them. Extremely memorable, eating vegetables, liver and salami in an outdoor area next to a housing commission type building. The episode ‘Tony invited back to Jenya’s’ on the World Cup Road Trip podcast I did with Francis Leach captures that night well.

Tunna: I listened to that Podcast the other night. What a belter! I’m glad you survived to tell the tale.

TW: Like Simon though, I worry a bit about how Russia got the world cup, and what it meant in a PR sense for the Putin regime. Again this is something we discussed on the last ep of the podcast. Were we complicit in something that legitimised whatever it is that Putin is building? The answer to that is, probably yes. But the counterpoint is that the cross-cultural pollination, the conversations I’ll remember between myself and ordinary Russians, and hopefully, the reciprocal impact for people over there, might mean that change is possible, that Russia finally shifts away from authoritarianism and towards something that is freer, and more democratic. I did hate seeing Putin smiling happily under that umbrella on world cup final day though.

And I hated their slow beer taps! Somebody take Australian beer taps, and Australian bar staff, and Australian beer to Russia, and make the millions I’m too lazy to make.

Tunna: Aside from the Beer taps then (Germany 2006 would win that contest hands down) How does Russia 2018 compare with other World Cups you’ve attended?

SH: It is certainly up there with the best - I've been to six consecutive World Cups now, and I'd say it ranks alongside Germany 2006 and France 1998 as the best I've attended. There's no doubt they put on a very good show indeed.

Tunna: Anyone I’ve ever met that went to France in 98 rank it as one of their favorites. For someone like me who wasn’t lucky enough it seems so mythical. Such a great era with some iconic players on show.

TW: It maybe nudged ahead of South Africa (because Moscow and Kazan were such outstanding cities), and because I worked pretty hard in South Africa, making daily stories for Santo Sam and Ed Cup Fever. I went to France ‘98, but only to Paris, and was working hard on Race Around the World too. But it didn’t touch Germany 2006. I don’t think anything ever will. Just for the stage of my life at the time, Socceroos performance, logistics, ease of travel, quality of beer, fun of party, and F_____G EVERYTHING - nothing will ever touch Germany. It was the best four weeks of my life. I even got to the world cup final, for free! The whole thing was impossibly great, and nothing will ever touch it.

Tunna: Agree, for all those reasons. It was also the first time that I got to experience that feeling of being abroad and representing your country as a fan. I found the Russian hospitality mirrored what I experienced in 2006.

TW: Yes, one thing I will say is that the Russians, like the Germans, seemed desperate to debunk myths about them (dour, grey, humourless) and show the world a great time. And they achieved it in spades.

Tunna: They were great hosts. I did see some unusual things though that I look back now and laugh at. Like the baggage checks at airports. I think it was in Samara where they were literally 30 metres apart. What could I possibly have snuck into my hand luggage between the x-ray machines?!! What was the weirdest or most foreign thing you saw?

TW: I wasn’t with Francis Leach when he saw a bear in a cage on the back of a truck! At that very moment, in a different part of Moscow, our bus had merged onto a freeway as a car accelerated in an attempt to squeeze between us and another bus. He didn’t quite make it, and at 80km an hour, we caught him in a two panel Malacci Crunch (Happy Days reference). Fortunately, he was okay. We had to change buses while the police investigated.

SH: I guess that would be Bunker 42 - the Cold War nuclear shelter where the Soviet generals met to discuss the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. To see the control modules that would have been used to press the nuclear button - wow!

Tunna: I was flicking through my photos the other day and started to reminisce about the best moments. I think on the field and aside from seeing the Socceroos in action, it was watching Belgium live against Tunisia. Also, seeing how very little CR7 does off the ball (Portugal vs Morocco at Luzhniki) but how lethal he is once his team have it. Off the field, it would have to be seeing Russia’s Military might on show when we visited the top secret Bunker 42. After a month to reflect on your experience in Russia, can you pinpoint a highlight from both on and off the field that stands out for you?

SH: Well, being English by birth, the highlight on the field (even though I wasn't actually there!) was watching England progress through to the semis. I was back in the UK by then, and the sheer joy of the qualification for the last four with the win over Sweden was something to behold. There were thousands on the streets celebrating in London - that's what football can do. At the games themselves, just the party atmosphere World Cups create - no segregation, everyone in together, joined by our one common language. Off the field the trip to the Russian Military Museum and Stalin's Dacha - I'm a big student of political history, and those trips were outstanding.

TW: My on field highlight was Mile scoring the penalty against France, just minutes after the dagger of the first French goal. I dared to dream in that moment, and Australian noise was dominating the Kazan arena. My off field highlight was either the trip to Jenya’s house (see above), or sitting on the pebble ‘beach’ in Sochi, overlooking the Black Sea, chatting with Francis Leach under a beach umbrella and over quite a few drinks, and getting all the gossip about Triple J in the early 90s. (not fit for the podcast!)

Tunna: Belgium, Mbappe, Hazard, Modric, France, Croatia, Russia, McGuire, not neccesarily in that order. Was there a particular team or individual that captured your attention during the tournament?

TW: Like you, I really enjoyed Belgium at this World Cup, with Hazard simply superb, and thought they would have been worthy winners. Not only did they pile on some group stage goals, they were so competitive in the semi-final, in what I thought was the match of the tournament. In some ways they were more admirable than France, just in terms of the positivity they brought to the field, but France had the edge in talent. Worthy champs.
Mbappe was superb of course. To see him live when the Socceroos played France was such a treat. Even though the French were flat that day, he was blistering to watch. What a fifteen years it’s going to be!

SH: Apart from England? I suppose Russia captured everyone's heart for a while - their progress to the quarters was brilliant to watch from the perspective of pure human emotion during our time there. Individual? Hard to go past Kylian Mbappe - he was one of the big stars of the World Cup and now has a winners medal - and he is not even 20!

Tunna: It’s another World Cup over and we at Green & Gold Army are happy that our guests, yourselves included had such a great time. Our guests loved having you aboard. What are some final thoughts about what it was like for you..

SH: I really enjoyed it. A very different perspective of the World Cup to my previous experiences. Great fun with the pre and post game parties, and expertly organized. Lots to do and see aside of the football, ensuring people didn't get bored.

TW: The Green and Gold Army Tour was superb. To watch the energy and attention to detail that was put into every event, every logistical challenge, every matchday, every flight – was to see a truly professional and caring sports tour company. I’ll never forget these two weeks and a bit weeks, and Michael Edgley was so accommodating in allowing me a last minute spot on ‘Follow Australia’ (I only decided to come 7 weeks out).
What I love about the GGArmy is that they are always respectful of football, the importance of the tournament, and the fun and partying is an adjunct to what we are really there for, which is to soak up a global sporting and cultural event. There are so many truly great football people on the tour, and we saw great games and amazing Russian sights (I’ll never forget the Museum dedicated to The Great Patriotic War)…..What I’m trying to say, perhaps, is there are less beer showers with the GGArmy than some other groups.

Tunna: Well, that’s it. Until next time when we’re possibly feasting on Machbus in Doha, thanks for your time and Go Socceroos!.

Join us on our next tour supporting the Socceroos at the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE https://ggatravel.com.au/2019-afc-asian-cup/