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Saturday 17:00: France 4-3 Argentina

My Saturday schedule was surprisingly clear, I only had to go to one office in the morning and was finished by 13:00. So I had plenty of time to get ready for the football and keep up to date with the build up. Of course I went to the Fan Fest to watch, where a handful of Argentinian fans were also supporting their team.

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The match was hugely entertaining, with momentum swinging one way then the other, until in the second half, France took control and ploughed their way into a big lead. Argentina’s consolation in injury time made the score look a bit closer than they deserved, but it was another previous World Champion team joining Germany on the plane home.

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Saturday 21:00: Uruguay 2-1 Portugal

The late night matches generally seem to have a better atmosphere with more people at Fan Fest, but it was still easy for me to find a central place to sit and watch the game. The story here was Cristiano Ronaldo’s inability to change the outcome of the game, again they put up a good fight scoring a rare goal against Uruguay’s miserly defence but Uruguay were on top, though an injury to their goalscorer Cavani must be a concern for them.

Sunday 17:00 Spain 1-1 Russia (Russia win on penalties)

This was the big one for the locals, there was very little space at the top of the embankment or on the grass verges to either side but when I made my way down to the front row there were one or two spaces still and I claimed one of these. In front of me more and more people were appearing just standing to watch the match, which was fine as long as I could see over their heads, but then one guy came with a massive flag which he decided to wave continuously, blocking the screen for a whole section of people around me. Fortunately one of the others who spoke better Russian than me went and had a word with him so I was able to mostly see the screen.

 

Expectation was still low with the locals and while there was disappointment, there was not a huge amount of surprise when Spain took the lead through a rather unfortunate own goal from Russia’s veteran Ignashaev. Russian attacks were few and far between but each one was cheered vigorously. Surprisingly, Spanish attacks were also limited as they seemed to prefer to just pass the ball around. Eventually, near the end of the first half, one Russian attack resulted in a penalty being awarded, which Dzubaev put away with confidence.

The crowd started to believe in the second half, those who believe in omens and portents might have been given cause for hope from a flock of crows flying over the screen, or the huge rumble of thunder at half time, or the sudden splash of big, cold raindrops in the heat of the afternoon. Some people actually left, but most of the crowd thought a little rain a fair price to pay for supporting their team.

In the second half, Spain still struggled to break down Russia’s defence, which was now Russia’s sole focus. Extra time came and went, and suddenly we had the drama of a penalty shootout, and possibly for the first time the crowd started to realise their team could actually really win this game. Russia’s penalty takers did their job, but more importantly their goalkeeper Akinfeev (who is both their best known and best performing player) made two great saves to put Spain (another former World Champion) out of the competition! The cheers and celebrations were tumultuous and continued long into the evening with car horns, vuvuzela-type horns, even occasional fireworks marking the unlikely victory!

Sunday 21:00 Denmark 1-1 Croatia (Croatia win on penalties)

I decided to watch this one at home – and let the Russians have their party. Croatia had been very fancied from the way they demolished Argentina, but Denmark gave them a good game, even taking the lead before Croatia levelled very soon afterwards. The exciting start was not a promise of more goals but it was an even game where Croatia’s talented attacking players were unable to get past Denmark’s solid defenders or goalkeeper Schmeichel. Even in extra time, when Croatia got a penalty near the end that would have won the game for them, Schmeichel saved from Modric. It looked like it was going to be Denmark’s day but in the lottery of the penalty shootout it was the Danish penalty-takers who missed their targets, allowing Croatia to squeak through.

Monday 17:00 Brazil 2-0 Mexico

It was tight but I was able to watch this match at Fan Fest because of a gap in my schedule. If it had gone to extra time and penalties I might have missed the end as I had another lesson later on. But Brazil spared me the dilemma by dispatching Mexico after a couple of defensive mistakes.

When I arrived I was greeted by one of the volunteer helpers who had been one of my students, Lyera, she skipped up to me calling my name and welcomed me, answering all my questions with very good English grammar!

Fan Fest was surprisingly empty and I pretty much had my pick of where to sit, even in the shaded areas as it was a very hot day. I bought my first ice cream and enjoyed it during the first half, before moving down to the central area at the bottom of the steps. In the second half I moved to an unoccupied shaded alcove at the side of the steps. I was annoyed with Mexico who I thought could have beaten Brazil if they had played more like a team and passed to each other instead of taking wasteful shots from outside the penalty box. I was almost happy to get back to my lessons.

Monday 21:00 Belgium 3-2 Japan

Later in the evening I decided to make myself a special meal – really for the important England game the next day when I wouldn’t have time to cook. So I watched Belgium v Japan in my kitchen while I was cooking. Fortunately I had a pretty good stream because this was a really great match – Japan surprised everyone by racing into a 2-goal lead and for a long time they looked like they were going to go through.

But Belgium’s quality wouldn’t be suppressed, and they made some tactical changes and substitutions, started to play more like an English team (their manager, Martinez, managed in England for a long time) and pulled back level before winning the game, heartbreakingly, in the very last minute.

Tuesday 17:00 Sweden 1-0 Switzerland

I was teaching for almost the whole of this game, fortunately my last student of the day cancelled so I was able to sit and watch the last quarter of an hour on my tablet, by which time Sweden were already ahead. It didn’t look like I missed much, really. At the end it looked like Sweden would get a second with a penalty after a Swiss player was sent off for fouling to prevent a goal, but after a VAR check the decision was changed to a free kick outside the penalty box, from which nothing really happened.

Tuesday 21:00 England 1-1 Colombia (England win on penalties)

I didn’t enjoy this match at all really. England went ahead with a penalty after Colombia were penalised for one of many instances of rough play – Kane keeping himself in front of the Golden Boot competition. England seemed to settle for one goal, for most of the game Colombia did not seem capable of testing England’s keeper until the final minute when Pickford saved a shot out of nowhere, but Colombia scored from the resulting corner. This forced extra time, in which neither team really produced anything, penalties were inevitable.

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During the first half a pair of Colombian fans with a giant flag were the bane of my evening, I kept moving my position so I could see all the screen, they kept edging back into my field of vision. At half-time they went to get refreshments (as did I) and when I came back I took their spot. They moved to a less intrusive position but were a lot quieter with their team behind. But at the end with the goal, and throughout extra time they were standing, waving their flag, chanting and singing.

In fairness, I have to say most of the Russian people watching were cheering for England, there was no political animosity towards our football team, or perhaps they liked the way England just got on with their job while the Colombians tried to provoke them and foul them.

Of course the penalty shootout was very stressful. The Colombians all seemed to be expert penalty takers, at least the first three were. Kane and Rashford stuck their penalties away competently but I just knew something wasn’t right when Jordan Henderson stepped up and almost couldn’t bring myself to look. It just felt like a David Batty moment. When he missed it looked like England were going out of the World Cup – all it needed was two more Colombians to power the ball into the top corner. I was SO relieved when Uribe hit the bar to leave things level again. Gracias, Uribe.

I was actually quite confident about Kieron Trippier, I knew he was a placement specialist and could put the ball where he wanted, and indeed he put it in the top corner where the Colombian keeper Ospina was never going to get near it. Perhaps there was a hint that things were beginning to swing England’s way. But really, the decisive moment came from Jordan Pickford, England’s young goalkeeper, criticised for being too small, too inexperienced. He had got nowhere near the first three penalties, nor would he have stopped Uribe’s had it been 2cm lower, but the 5th penalty of Bacca, he brilliantly reacted to get his hand on it and block it. He seemed to be diving the wrong way, but managed to push his arm to where the ball was and get enough on it to stop it dead.

I wasn’t too confident about Eric Dier (something about defensive midfielders taking penalties) but he got lucky, Ospina’s hand was not as strong as Pickford’s and the ball went through it and in. Even if he had missed, England could have had more chances as Colombia’s nervous lower orders faced Pickford, while England still had people who you would fancy to score, like Vardy (though he had a slight injury), Rose, Lingard and Maguire. Southgate, the manager, had experienced the pain of missing a decisive penalty in Euro 96 and had meticulously prepared his players on how to deal with the pressure and minimise the risk. All of that work paid off – this was England’s first penalty shootout win in the World Cup.

As Dier’s penalty went in I just lay back (in my clean Newcastle shirt, on the dirty steps of the embankment) in relief and gratitude, oblivious to the celebrations and commiserations around me. The Russian stranger sitting next to me with an England flag painted on his face patted me on the shoulder and said – I don’t know what he said, whether it was English or Russian, but he said something to me, something positive and comradely. England were through, their Russian adventure, like mine, was continuing on.

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