Home and Away Pt. I / by Justin Salhani

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This is the first in our Home and Away series, where Adrian Kidaman and Justin Salhani exchange letters on the World Cup and everything that's gone on in and around the tournament.

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June 16
Washington, D.C.

Hey Justin,

Hope you and Carine are well. 

How is Russia so far? Back here in the States things are good. It’s a weird World Cup. It seems the general public doesn’t care about the World Cup here. There are few bars here and there that just put up flags looking to cash in on the fans who will demand to watch the games.

As for me, not a big go watch the game in the bar guy. I mean it’s amazing to watch it with other people, but I just can’t stand some conversations when I am watching the game. On Thursday, we had the event at Maketto and it went well. It brought about what I think we are looking for: a community based around football culture.

I had a lot of interesting conversations with guys and I ended up losing my voice at the end of the night. You probably don’t need to hear this but Guerrilla is doing well. 

So, to the important stuff: the games. I have watched all the games so far and it seems the only game that was not evenly matched was the Saudi - Russia game. I mean they lost five - nil, but they did play well until they reached the final third. The games on Friday were more even that nothing surprised me. I wanted a draw between Egypt and Uruguay but Uruguay deserved it. They missed a host of chances and it would have been cruel for them to lose that game or even draw. Football eh, never goes the way you want it to but I still have Egypt finishing second.

The Morocco - Iran game was just anti-football. I get Iran hadn’t won a World Cup game since they beat the USA, but they didn’t deserve that win. I’m gutted for the guy who scored the own goal but, it’s football it happens all the time. The win was so monumental for Iranians. In the States they were celebrating all over.

The final game was the most entertaining I have seen so far. Both Spain and Portugal are good. The narrative makes it look like Ronaldo is carrying the team, but I am telling you Portugal have a nice team as well. Not as nice as Spain’s, but on their day, they can beat anyone. Spain on the other hand have Costa who I might not like but the man is a great striker. But the thing I love about the team is that they have this dream midfield. It’s out of this world. Isco, Silva, and Don Andres are magicians. It’s unfair for that lot to have such a magical three there.

Today, you play your team plays. I see them beating Australia comfortably but Giroud shouldn’t start. The midfield is all up to Deschamps but we’ll see how it goes. Good luck.

Finally, I saw you took a picture with Luis Figo knowing you you probably told him that you rate Rui Costa more. Hopefully you got to have a conversation with him. The France game seems pretty straight forward. Most games today seem like that, but you know football is so unpredictable. I think Peru and Denmark will be an interesting game. Anyway, talk later guy.

Regards,
Adrian

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June 16
On a train from Kazan to Moscow

Adrian,

Thanks for writing. World Cups in the states are weird for certain. I’m in Russia for the first time with Carine. We were in Moscow but came to Kazan to watch France vs Australia. I’m actually writing you now from an overnight train back to Moscow. 

We watched the first match from the fan zone in Kazan. I felt the Saudis were technically decent in midfield but the defenders’ technical ability and awareness was poor. The Russian fans were very eager and excited though. I met a guy on the train over who was pessimistic about Russia’s chances. I still think they’ll struggle but the first match they mitigated almost all Saudi threat and finished their chances well. 

We watched Uruguay v Egypt in a bar in Kazan. It was interesting because Kazan’s restaurants (at least the ones we visited) were not used to such crowds. Service was friendly but overwhelmed. I remember Suarez lacking sharpness but I am impressed by how Godin transitions from Atletico to Uruguay’s style of play. I don’t have as much time to watch matches like I used to so seeing Cavani, Muslera, Godin, and Suarez is like seeing old friends. Elneny seemed to be frustrated his teammates aren’t as technical as his Arsenal mates. #20 impressed me on Egypt though and I think they missed Salah.

I caught the second half of Iran v Morocco on my phone as the hotel didn’t have matches on tv. I would say I was surprised but traveling makes you expect the unexpected sometimes. We ran around town looking for a pub for the 3rd match and settled in a very gauche restaurant. There were no seats but the waitress asked two Russian fellows if they were done literally as they stuffed the last bite of dinner in their mouths. They stood straight up and left despite us insisting they stay. They promised they had finished but it was a bit comical. 

We invited two French fellows to join us because they showed up late just as we had. One had Portuguese lineage and imitated the 'Suuuuu' Ronaldo celebration each time he scored. It was funny. The match was fantastic though. Spain is a joy to watch and, while I agree the trifecta you mentioned is incredible, the player I was quite impressed with was Thiago Alcantra. He had one particular turn out of pressure that I really did not expect. I think he completed all his passes and dribbles. 

To be honest, Ronaldo had a fantastic match. I’ve never been a big fan but last night was maybe the first time I’ve felt I had to truly admire his performance. The free kick in particular was sublime. 

I also agree their team is not bad at all but I think he will have to continue to carry them. The annoying bit is until three years ago I felt the Messi/Ronaldo debate was done and dusted. Ronaldo was past 30 and Messi was levels above. But three finals lost, a Euro Cup and three Champions league titles later we may look back on this debate differently. For me, Messi is still the GOAT (unless Ronaldo walks them to the World Cup and maybe even if) but the recent years have been kind to CR7. 

Today the France match was fun. We marched from the French fans' base to the stadium. They made up a creative chant directed at Gerard Depardieu - who gave up his French passport to live in Russia. 

Rough translation:
'Gerard Depardieu
bring out your vodka
we're going to win it at your place'


The match started well for France who was clearly stronger player for player. But the dynamic in this team isn’t strong enough. Individually, they are possibly the best squad in Russia and I think Mbappe, Pogba, and Dembele will lead the team forward really well and continue to develop together. But I think they are missing two things. A metronome - the role Cabaye used to play that N’Zonzi potentially could - and the selfless striker who makes dummy runs to open up space for either Mbappe or Griezmann. I think with Kante in the team it’s hard to also play N’Zonzi and against a defensive team like Australia Kante wasn’t needed as much. That being said he was arguably France’s best player today. Varane is also quite impressive and reminds me of a more athletic Nesta. His reading of the game is superb and his timing in the jump as well as his leap is precise. With Umtiti I think we are seeing the best French defensive duo at least since Gallas and Thuram in 06 if not since Desailly/Blanc. 

If France wants to win I think they’ll need to sort this out but I’m not confident Deschamps will be the guy to find the solution. Maybe when Zidane or Wenger takes over after the tournament. 

I was at a beautiful beachfront spot with fellow France fans for the Argentina - Iceland match. The breeze and sun was so nice I decided to sit outside on the pier instead of watch the match inside. World Cup’s are about the full experience and I think in addition to a gluttony of football it’s about finding pleasure in your days. I missed all the big moments. From what I saw Iceland looked the stronger team. Messi appeared isolated and alone. For years, only Mascherano, Messi, and Di Maria have impressed me while appearing for Argentina. Lavezzi as well but he’s not here this time. I feel awful for Messi - clearly the greatest player of this generation, if not ever - and how he’s unlikely to ever win the World Cup his talent deserves. I’m upset with Maradona who I think ruined a 2010 talent pool quite capable of winning the cup. 

I’m now on a train. I watched a bit of Peru v Denmark’s first half but the service went and so we still don’t know the score. 

In the morning we’ll be back in Moscow and will try to find more tickets for Mexico-Germany and maybe Poland-Senegal and Morocco-Portugal. 

On Figo - I didn’t get to speak to him. I didn’t want to approach him. I could tell Alejandro wanted to but I was sure he needed support. I think I whispered to Figo in a mix of Spanish and English if we could have a photo and I apologized profusely for bothering him. There’s no easy way to do it - and normally I wouldn’t even ask. I’ve had footballers near me before but the last time I spoke to one was in high school about 14 years ago. There’s no good way to ask someone you don’t know for their time. 

Anyway, on Rui Costa - I don’t necessarily rate him more - I just think he was more of a romantic player. It’s interesting how we idolize players we saw play when we were children in a way that doesn’t happen again when we are adults. In France’s starting lineup today, I think only Lloris was older than me - and barely. On the squad I think only Rami, Mandanda, and Giroud were born before me. But that’s for another time. 

Looking forward to writing more soon. All the best and hope you enjoy tomorrow’s matches.

Justin