World Cup Diaries: (5) from Russia with love, back to Middlesbrough

This is the final instalment of the World Cup diaries of Monsieur Salut’s nephew, Andy Falconer, a good lad for all that he supports Boro (as he would, having spent his entire life there). Now back home, Andy reflects on an intriguing if brief trip to Russia 2018 and describes what he encountered there with some affection.
At Salut! Sunderland, we’ve perhaps been more preoccupied with SAFC but may be the place to go if you want to study the form and have a flutter on the remaining stages of the World Cup or, indeed, League One promotion prospects …
Well, we’ve passed halfway in the World Cup, the group stage is over, knockout games are well underway and I’m back from my travels.
Four years ago, in Brazil, I was fortunate to have three weeks towards the end of the tournament. This time I got to enjoy the steady build-up, the gradual arrival of hundreds of thousands of fans from across the world and the shared acculturation.



Each edition of the World Cup brings surprise and excitement but I’ve really enjoyed this year’s opening phase. Lots of groups went to the wire (let’s ignore the game in Kaliningrad).

Given my Iran and Morocco games I was rooting for an upset in Group B. It never came, but it was still intriguing.

A few big boys scraped through and then, of course, Germany went out, the holders being dumped out at this point is seemingly now a pattern, rather than an exception.

If only there was a word for how the English revelled in that moment of humiliation… [I think the Germans have one, Andy, beginning with sch… – Ed] Is this the end of the German golden age? Is it a warning about hubris and complacency? Either way, it goes to show how football will always be gripping. There are no guarantees.

Skynet, I mean VAR, had its debut at a World Cup.
There are lots of legitimate critiques we need to wrestle with, for sure some refinements.
Does it break the charm of the game? I think not. Despite the inevitable teething problems and subjectivity I love its introduction. In the Morocco-Portugal game the fans in the Luzhniki were bemoaning it being underused.
I recall loads of pundits begging for video assistance years ago (remember Lampard’s disallowed goal in Bloemfontein in 2010?). Maybe we just like to complain. Or it’s an element of resistance to change. Drama will always be there. Once we let ourselves adjust we’ve got to anticipate more direct justice in the key moments. It’ll come good.
How about up and coming players? Well, the World Cup is a great glimpse into the developing game; players we rarely get to see on TV. As a Boro fan I feel like it’s been a while since a World Cup was where I’d see our next signing. Brathwaite is our sole representative this time. Nevertheless, there are some decent prospects.
Andre Carillo will have boosted his valuation. Japan’s Honda was pretty impressive. I was hoping to see more of Milinkovic-Savic. That blend of toughness, tenacity and genuine skill hugely appeals to my sense of a strong midfield.
I’d like to see Brazil growing the confidence of their squad. They haven’t quite clicked but look capable of dominating the game once more. A Tite success, given his overhaul of a spent Brazil, may be a gift to world football.
So, as the sun has set on my time in Russia, I look forward to watching the knockout rounds back home. Russia is as contradictory a place as anywhere. Imagine such seismic changes and horrors in living memory!
Frankie Boyle captured this brilliantly in his pre-munidal documentary. And yet it is a stunning country. The depth of culture and civic responsibility is remarkable.
Many people seem largely apolitical, but very proud of their part in modern Russia. In the cities at least (and allowing for the atmosphere of a World Cup) I’ve never felt so safe while travelling.
Stranegly, I wasn’t hunted down by anti-British intelligence operatives or hooligans.
Public displays of affection are uncommon but there is a warmth under that exterior and I ended up in some great conversations with Russians.
In fact, I often felt an admirable directness that I’d like to learn from. Like I said last week, I wonder how the swarms of expressive, globally minded footy fans will influence emerging cultures there. Young people are so well connected already, but it’s different when that arrives in town en masse. I’d love to go back and visit again a couple years down the line.
Thanks for reading. Enjoy the rest of World Cup 2018.
* See previous items from Andy’s series by clicking on the image below:
Andy Falconer: ‘I love Sunderland really’

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