Home and Away Pt. II / by Justin Salhani

This is the second 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.

Read part I.

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June 19
Washington, D.C.

Justin,

Once again, send my regards to Carine. Hope you had a good first weekend in Russia.  It’s been an interesting few days Stateside. It’s nice that they have Guus Hiddink as a panellist next to Alexi Lalas. I believe it brings to the front how bad Alexi’s analysis is. But, thankfully, the games so far have been good.

The France game had no rhythm until the subs were made. Nothing against them, but it felt like they had first game syndrome - if that’s a thing. So far, no team has impressed me in the cup. All teams can beat each other. And that’s the dream we are all sold, if you put effort and stick to the plan you might overcome any opponent. I love how every game is not going as expected.

The past weekend’s games were all good. The thing that kills me so far is the African teams are playing so well only to be undone by set pieces. Fucking set pieces. But that is football. VAR has played a big part in most games from the France one to the South Korea match.

Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about it. I guess it makes the game cleaner but takes out the fact that the referee is human. The narrative of the game is about to change with this VAR thing. Will the advantage rule be even necessary because one could argue why give them the advantage?

If VAR is to be implemented worldwide the narrative of the game will change like it did yesterday in the Sweden game. The ref decided to go to VAR when Korea were about to launch a counter attack. I am not saying they were going to score for sure, but you felt the momentum was with them. Bennett brought out this point in that it changes how teams react to injustice. I do see it in the future of football now, but I am struggling with it. Maybe it will prevent the booking of wrong players like the Ox - Gibbs situation from a few years back.

Germany lost their game against Mexico and what I loved about the game was that Mexico didn’t care who Germany was. They attacked, and although they should have put away more chances, they won the game all the same. Germany did what Germany does and attacked but I guess it wasn’t just their day. The Belgium game yesterday was not a fair result in my opinion because Panama played well and didn’t let Belgium settle and dictate the pace of the game. Even after they conceded they stuck to their guns and played the same way.

Brazil v Switzerland was a good game in that both teams looked up for it. Although Brazil didn’t play well, it hurt to see how mercurial players like Neymar are targeted. As of now I do not know who will win the World Cup, but I hope Messi does it. Though I think my notion of playing the perfect world cup is a must for one to win, no country that has won it has played well from the beginning to the end. Maybe it’s time domestic leagues start looking to shorten their seasons during World Cup years in order to have the players fresh.

Yesterday, we played our first game of the season with Guerrilla Football Club.  We lost. But I still feel the team is building up to be something good. Everybody seems to be willing to talk to each other and encourage one another.

Finally, I read the Lukaku article in The Players' Tribune and it pulled a string in my heart. It’s a great read. Have a look if you haven't already.

I know you are wondering why I am not talking about the England game. I didn’t watch it but from what I heard they played awful. Hopefully, today Senegal and Egypt do it for Africa.

Have a Nice!

Kidaman, Adrian.

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June 20
Moscow

Hi Adrian,

I’m in Moscow until Friday and then it’s back to Milan. When I’m home, I’ll have more time to write you. At the moment our days are filled with sights, friends, and football.

The beauty of visiting a country during the World Cup is there are never down moments. For example, this morning we’re headed to Gorky Park to see a Banksy exhibit. After, we’ll head to the stadium to try and grab last minute tickets to Portugal-Morocco. It’s always a mix of seeing the country you’re staying in and catching as much football as possible. Stadiums, bars, cafes, from the hotel/hostel... it’s all part of the experience. 

There are a number of matches to catch up on here. I didn’t even know the Nigeria - Croatia match had been played until the next day. I was on a train, as I mentioned, and spent the night drinking and singing with a group of Russians, Mexicans, Australians, and a couple Frenchmen based in the UK. 

Since then, we’ve seen Mexico beat Germany in a well deserved battle. The Mexicans played without fear, like you said, and their close control and quick countering was fun to watch. I’m more of a possession enthusiast of course but Mexico played with real panache and daring. 

We’ve also had Japan defeat Colombia and so far the tournament has been poor for Conmebol with only Uruguay squeaking out a win. 

Senegal’s match yesterday was great. The entire team had fantastic match awareness. Their anticipation was too much for a Polish team that wasn’t able to match Senegal’s cerebral quality. The fact their coach is from the 2002 squad is really exciting as well. 

But the big match, and tragedy for me, is Russia’s victory over Egypt. In two bars in Moscow (we left the first bar at halftime to find a better atmosphere) I was the only person supporting Egypt. I saw groups of Moroccans chanting for Russia. I’m heartbroken for this team because they have real quality and I felt they were unfortunate against Uruguay and a bit unlucky against Russia too. 

The streets of Moscow after the match though were incredible. At midnight the city center was flooded with people. Chants of Ru-see-aa. Cars racing by waving flags. Of course, we passed a group of Mexicans still celebrating from the other night. But it was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Carine and I left around 12:30 or 1 am and people were still piling in to the square from every direction. People as far as the eye could see!

The first round is over and it’s a bit sad because this is always the best part of the tournament. It’s when everyone is still hopeful and here for the party. Egypt’s cup is almost certainly over now and Morocco and Saudi Arabia could follow suit today. 

Anyway, it’s been a lovely tournament so far. Here’s to more surprises, upsets, last minute winners, and joy for all the fans. Write soon. 

Justin

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June 23
Milan

Hi Adrian,

Back in Italy, so I have more time to write now. 

Some good news - France is through! But it's a shame it is at the expense of Peru. I missed that match because I was making a custom Nike kit at the Nike Box in Moscow.

Mine is kind of plain if I'm being honest. I added a tail (later I thought about adding a hood but it was too late) and sublimated a spot on the front that I covered with crosses. I added a double strap on each sleeve and I sublimated my name on the back in Cyrilic but compared to past creations it's quite dull for me. Carine's is cool. She made a dress, turned the number sideways, added zippers on the front as an accessory and used the sublimation to make blots. 

My last match in Russia was watching Croatia vs Argentina in Gorky Park at a space set up by the Croatian FA. There were small spaces to play 3 or 5 a side, stations for FIFA, foosball tables, and beanbags on a grass area with a big screen. Croatia has been one of the most impressive teams so far in this tournament. 

Modric and Rakitic are really a formidable duo. Modric, like Xavi, seems to be getting better with age. I remember when my mate used to buy him on Football Manager in 2007 and play him on the left wing with Dimitri Payet on the right. This was before his Tottenham days mind you. Argentina is really painful to watch though and it hurts to see Messi suffer through this.

It's strange we worry about Messi's suffering. He's enjoyed greater highs than probably anyone. So many Champions Leagues, La Liga titles, etc etc. But this is the last World Cup in his prime (I'm sure he'll feature at the next one unless he retires again). And he's achieved so much. As our groupchat discussed though - the lineup was strange. And a manager like Jorge Sampaoli - who is brilliant - is playing limited players over guys like Dybala for some reason. What politics are at play? How much of a say does Messi have? It's all so tragic. Now we are at a crux where Nigeria - who performed beautifully against Iceland - or Argentina go through to the next round.

Of course, the match could have been so different if that early chance went in and if Caballero didn't make that mistake. But Croatia was the superior team. They crowded Messi out. It wasn't that he wasn't working, it's that the ball never got near him. He searched for it deep at times but Croatia's strategy was sublime in its execution. 

I read Maradona's comments after the match. His words must sting Messi because they sting me and I'm not even Argentinian. It strikes me as the hurt ego of someone who can't accept he's been surpassed in talent. He did add the qualifier that he (Maradona) may not be considered even among the best and that there are many who consider someone else better. Still, it just seems to come from a place of spite to me. I've obviously not reached these levels of success in the game. But I always feel that my job as a relative elder (31 to your 25) is to offer you support, confidence, and the platform for expressing yourself. I guess it's a bit sad because Maradona obviously cares so much but it's also a window into his own soul which must be hurting - from Argentina's play and from his own personal demons.

The last thing I'll say about Argentina is - it's quite incredible we view them as a failure of a national team considering how many finals they've reached in the last eight years. I saw something on Twitter about our love for those great Dutch teams - including Cruyffs, the 1982 Brazil team lead by Zico that never won the final, among many others. Cruyff is often grouped in with the three to five best players of all time but he didn't achieve all that Messi has on a personal or team level. These are different times I suppose.

I caught the end of Brazil vs Costa Rica streaming from my phone as we landed at Bergamo airport. Right as I opened it up, Coutinho burst into the box and finished Jesus delicate touch. It's harsh for a quality Costa Rica team but it's also nice to see the Brazilians discovering some joy after the trauma of 2014. People spoke after about Neymar's antics - his rainbow and his tears after the match. People talk about the disrespect. But I find myself growing tired of this talk. In terms of the skill, my belief is if you have it - use it. Give people joy. Children particularly love to see this. Hell, I love to see this. I think you already knew that though. I've been given a few swipes for turns of skill when we're winning matches with Guerrilla, as you might remember.

And I know I'm in a minority here but I don't understand why we work so hard at our skills and expression only to temper them. Should we dampen our talents to make our opponents more secure in themselves? I don't remember the screams of disrespect when Germany put seven past Brazil. And I don't think there should have been. This is sport - not war. Of course, we should know that the defender being embarrassed won't like that and the fans may want to see you fail after. That's part of the game. But these criticisms that players shouldn't express themselves with audacious skill is ludicrous too me. The idea that a physical assault is then warranted as a reaction to a piece of trickery is surely absurd and a brutal, cruel, and overzealous response.

I caught the second half of Nigeria - Iceland and it was so nice to see Nigeria play with daring and skill. Also those kits! Musa's two goals were wonderfully taken. The technique to control on the first one was exquisite. The second goal was made by his first touch. It was a push with the bottom of the toe that just edged the defender and allowed him to get in behind. We don't see such brilliance that often and the analysis will surely be on his speed (which exists) but that touch was everything. And the fact they did it in those kits...ouf.

The last match I wasn't particularly interested in but considering I'd missed a fair amount of football in the last two days I decided to watch anyway. And it turned out to be a great one. Two Swiss of Albanian origin scored goals in the second half to take the lead from Serbia. Granit Xhaka's father spent years in prison for his politics and after scoring both he and Shaqiri gave the Albanian eagle hand signal. It was beautiful. Politically charged, but it's a bit naive to think sport shouldn't be - especially when representing nations.

This Swiss team is different than those of the past. For the last 16 years I've been watching the Swiss team with dread. Hakan Yakin and Alex Frei were interesting players for a time but the team was generally quite boring. Shaqiri has obviously changed that, but now the base of Xhaka and Behrami (in his fourth World Cup) allow for some interesting attackers. You see a flair and movement that past teams didn't inhibit.

Today, I'm back to work a bit. But I'll be watching all three matches for certain. We have Sweden take on Germany and it will be interesting to see if the Germans recover. I think they played quite well against Mexico in general but lacked a bit of luck. Also the Mexicans' counters were daring and precise. Mexico then takes on South Korea. I know Ray is pessimistic - and he probably should be. I would love to see Mexico go far in this tournament. Hopefully, it wakes something up in the USSF too. And of course Belgium takes on Tunisia. I was born in Belgium but have no particular affinity for the team or most of their players. I like Radja a lot and I'm sad he missed out on this tournament. I think I'll pull for Tunisia this time. I'd like to see an upset and an Arab team finally not lose a match (we're 7 losses out of 7 played at the moment). 

Look forward to your next letter and will write more tomorrow hopefully.

Justin

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June 24
Washington, D.C.

Hey man,

Hope you are good. Well, I guess all my North African teams are out of the World Cup as we speak. It’s confirmed. Football is a cruel sport. I mean all these countries played so well. They just didn’t score. It reminds me of those 7 a side games we’d play and lose after bossing it all day (talking about the 4-3 loss we had). I find those games funny. While most get frustrated about them, I tend to take more from them. I feel most of them played well but a few unfortunate moments led to their downfall and that is life I guess. Peru is out too and I'm gutted for Ale, since he is a fellow Liverpool fan, but all in all they can say they had a good World Cup. They haven’t won yet, but they gave it their all. That’s all one can ask for as a fan.

I saw what you and Carine were doing at the Nike Box. That’s a cool concept that could work out here in DC too. Basically, a place where guys come and create whatever is in their mind. It kind of works like therapy in my opinion. I expected Carine to make something cool. She’s been doing that for a while.

About the Croatia v Argentina game, a lot has been said about it. I saw it happening. Croatia as a team has always been good. I remember once they destroyed England in the qualifier for the Euros in 2008.

What is going on in Argentina is that it’s finally come to the fold that they do not know what they are doing. My theory is that Argentina never really had a plan in the World Cup in terms of playing. It’s one of those things you have to ask. What is the Argentine style of play? Argentina has always been blessed with a whole lot of talent, so it makes the team get through a lot. I think the last final they lost did a number on the squad as a whole. In my opinion, they just put too much pressure on themselves. I mean I get it - it’s the World Cup - you want to go out there and win but where is the fun aspect? 

Look at Panama for instance. They are out there having a nice. Results never go as planned but just go out and have fun. I don’t think the coach is the problem either. He is the perfect guy to fix the situation for them. It seems like Argentina are losing it but they have been in so many finals and in most of them they have lost in extra time or penalties. No point worrying about Messi in that he will be fine. It will hurt for him that it just didn’t work out for him with Argentina.

The whole thing about Maradona's criticism people forget it was a handball against England. Yeah, he scored that brilliant goal and all, but we don’t know if they could have won that game without it. Problem with it is that they are two totally different players. What Maradona said was irresponsible and what he meant to say is that people needed to step up. In the world we live in today people forget that football is a team sport that is hard for a player to have an impact and forget to appreciate what Messi does. It’s unfortunate but that is the world we live in.

Brazil v Costa Rica was a good game in my opinion. I love the way Brazil play and just enjoy themselves no matter how frustrating the game is. Again, there is me going on with my whole fun factor of the game. Maybe it’s the purist nature in me but that is why I fell in love with the game at first.  The guys hating on Neymar are the guys who don’t appreciate the game. I mean imagine you’ve had a shit day at work and you come home to that such a thing of beauty. It changes your mood.

I agree with you in what is the point of training for all those years if you can’t get to use those skills. This World Cup is going to be Couthinho’s World Cup. People talk about Neymar but Coutinho isn’t far behind. I am happy he is on the world stage and people get to see what we as Liverpool had for a good period with the little magician.

Switzerland v Serbia brought out why football might be the greatest form of art. It’s a way to make a statement, although a political one that FIFA is against. That goal meant a lot to all Albanians. They will have stories about that in the future. Plus, it amazed me how Xhaka - a player ridiculed in club football - is so good for his country.

I watched the Germany game today and I must admit it was one of the worst Boateng performances I have seen from him. He was just bad. I guess Germany are weak on the counter. Something we have come to expect from them is now their weakness. The irony! I got to see the Belgium game again and the strategy of Martinez making De Bryune the anchor seems to be working well. I was Impressed by Mertens especially on his assist to Lukaku. If I was in that situation I would have gone wide, but he drove at them which caused havoc. I guess that’s why he is a pro and I’m not.

France will grow into the tournament I feel but in the last group game I want to see a free-flowing team on the front foot. Tomorrow, England play and I am not looking forward to it. I think they will win but it will be one of those ugly games. What I can hope for is that they show up and entertain.

Concerning great teams that didn’t win - what those teams did is inspire the next generation. In this world, I think what you want to do is inspire the next generation or leave a mark. The Cryuff team showed the world that the game could be played in a beautiful and inclusive way. That team has influenced world football to this day. For all the World Cups that Italy won, no one says 'hey I want to play like the Italians.' The problem here is that there is an emphasis on the trophy and not how it comes about or what it exudes to the world. It’s unfortunate.

The one thing I love so far about the World Cup so far is that no team is afraid of the other. They are all going for it and that’s what we want. Hopefully, your Arab teams save face with their final matches.

Cheers,

Adrian