Less Excitement, More Hope, 'Miraculous' Player Recoveries... Russia's World Cup Is Turning Football On Its Head

by Paul Dyer
16th Jun 2018

There's a change in the air. I'm positive. The thing is, so is everybody else, it seems. 

For months the pervading mood has been one of negativity, of angst. OK, so many people are nervous/furious about Brexit and the Government has been under attack from all angles – probably exacerbated by the fact it does not have a majority and that it is Conservative. Yet even its harshest of critics appear to have eased off a bit.

Maybe it has something to do with the sun finally shining. Maybe it's to do with a begrudging acceptance of inevitability. Whatever. The fact remains that while there may be no wild optimism, there is at least an upturn in positivity. Even as far as the England football team is concerned. Yet without the tub-thumping excesses. 

Usually ahead of a World Cup campaign jingoism rears its ugly head. Balanced views give way to blind insistence that England will claim their rightful place at the head of the global game, that the country that gave football to the world will add to the success of 1966. This time, though, no-one seriously believes they will win the World Cup – and everyone seems happier for it.

There are no posters of roaring lions, blood stained or otherwise. No talisman in the Beckham or Rooney mould carrying the unrealistic hopes of a nation on their shoulders. Yet the quiet way in which Gareth Southgate (who was not greeted with universal delight when he was given the job) has gone about his business is winning many friends. Both inside and outside the squad.

The two recent friendlies against Nigeria and Costa Rica, the last before England headed to Russia, demonstrated that perfectly. There was something of a party atmosphere at both Wembley and Elland Road – but no impossible expectation. Fans singing Three Lions were enjoying seeing a young side play with a certain freedom – something few England teams have done in recent years. And the fact the players felt confident enough to try the tricks and flicks was hugely refreshing. It gave rise to the feeling that they might just do themselves justice this time. Not enough to win it, perhaps, but a belief that they should not be taking the first flight home, either.

Ironically, while there are fewer flags spilling out of windows and trailing from car aerials, England's chances of progressing in the tournament are actually better than they have been for some time. Southgate has done a superb job of keeping a lid on things, while ensuring the players carry on dreaming.

They boldly talk of lifting the trophy on July 15th yet, somehow, the fans greet their confidence with a pinch of salt. They would consider it a success if they get out of the group then win one more game. Heroic failure in the quarter-finals would ensure they would return to Blighty with their heads held high.

And who wouldn't dream? The World Cup is to footballers what Everest is to mountaineers. Merely playing in one is regarded as the pinnacle of a player's career. And no-one is immune to its pull. Indeed, the world's most expensive player, Brazil icon Neymar, has, miraculously, returned to fitness after three months out just in time for the finals. Germany keeper Manuel Neuer has been absent for even longer but, again, is conveniently raring to go. Elsewhere, the Tunisian squad is markedly different from that which qualified, with starry-eyed stars who presumably had better things to do than turn up for matches in Guinea and Democratic Republic of Congo suddenly deciding they could perhaps represent their country after all. And maybe put themselves in the shop window, too.

The optimism surrounding the tournament and the mood in Russia was helped by the fine start for the hosts – and the absence of crowd trouble (so far). Indeed, the locals seem far more welcoming than most had anticipated. And this is the time, of course, when everyone's glass is at least half-full.

The strange thing is that, for once, it is not spilling over. Now that has to be something to be positive about.

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