Home and Away Pt. IV / by Justin Salhani

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This is the fourth part 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  part II  part III

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June 29
Saint Etienne

Adrian, 

My last message was about Germany's elimination. An incredible couple of matches from yesterday. 

I have to say, the Swiss have impressed me this tournament. Brazil looked strong and I don't think the Serbs are a weak team at all. I could see Switzerland beating Sweden and facing Colombia in the quarterfinals. I really think Colombia will take England. I have a very strong feeling.

I missed the first two matches today, I was on a bus to Saint Etienne in France. These will be my last matches with the club I've played with for the last year. I never really connected with them and things went really poor for me on and off the pitch. I was frequently frustrated and injured, so I will seek out a new environment next season.

I was able to catch bits of the Belgium v England match though. Belgium's squad is strong. They have a lot of depth and the diversity of talent is also really handy. I felt that despite a couple chances for England, including a golden one for Rashford, Belgium looked in control. I think once England faces a team with a bit more awareness and anticipation they'll crumble. 

Tomorrow is something we won't have experienced for a couple weeks now - a break. There are no matches, and I have to say, this is where I start to feel the depression creep in.

The group stages are the best. It's a party for all nations. But now we're with out all the African teams, all the Arab teams, and only one Asian team remains. Panama, Costa Rica, and Peru are gone too, joined by a few European teams - most notably Germany.

Now the tournament is less party and more business. The joyous sides, happy to be there, have left. And we must face the reality of expectations. Nothing short of a win in the final is enough for France, Brazil, Argentina, or probably Spain. The matches are now more tense. More about not losing than winning in style. 

And then before we know it, the whole thing will be over. The experience will be recorded as data - with winners, losers, goal scorers, etc. We will be left with only our memories.

I read a book recently about the true nature of time. Time, the book says, is a man made invention and the human mind is a collection of memories. This tournament certainly has left me with some fantastic memories. The train ride from Kazan to Moscow being one of the best, along with the stadium experience, Messi's goal, Spain v Portugal, the Korea match, almost every time Mexico has played, evenings with friends, meeting new people, and so much more. I think now it would be appropriate to remind myself that the tournament is actually not nearly over yet!

I think these next matches will determine the legacy of the tournament though. South Africa 2010 was a boring tournament for me. Spain's series of 1-0 wins - though done with fantastic control of the ball and technical ability, was rather dull. Brazil 2014 was exciting in the group stages but much of that dried up in the knockout rounds.

Germany's 7-1 win was definitely momentous but it was almost like getting too drunk too fast. It wasn't enjoyable - it was just overwhelming and I still find it hard to register as an actual moment in the World Cup.

I remember a lot of matches where teams seemed to bow out rather meekly. France, despite a great group stage, seemed to accept around the 75th minute against Germany they would lose the match. It was odd. And the Colombia match vs Brazil - the match was never really close, it was quite brutal, and it lead a brutal injury for Neymar - it all just was too extreme in a sense to be exciting.

My hope is that in this one, we see more daring. More chances. Upsets, for sure, and exciting matches. I think this tournament has been so great because we've seen the unexpected so many times. Let's hope it's not over yet.

By the way, did you fill out a bracket? I filled one out with Across the Pond - the podcast in DC about the English Premier League. I think at the moment I'm in 36th place or so - out of around 110. It's not bad. John Keiran is in second but the rest of the Guerrilla crew is below me. 

All the best to you,

Justin

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June 29
Washington, D.C.

Justin, 

Wow a lot to address. I had to watch the France Denmark game again. Your thoughts were spot on. The game was pretty much dead to me. Denmark didn’t offer much but France didn’t push either.

The thing with the team, I feel, is that no one wants to make a mistake. No one wants to be the guy who “fucks up”. I don’t know, I think Cruyff said something along the lines of, “Football is a game of mistakes and whoever makes less wins." That quote may stay in their mind, stopping them from trying the audacious stuff. I have been watching and it’s like they are playing with a leg tied behind their back.

I’m kind of torn on the fact that yeah, I do not like that Giroud starts, but at the same time I like that he gets to show his skill through the team. He isn’t as bad as people make him seem. I think he slows down their attack, but he is effective and pretty good at his position. 

On Messi, he is the best. His whole humble narrative is a thing I like but at times I wish he was cheeky. But none of that matters as much of a Messi fan I am, I like other players more. He has been in a set up where he was always going to succeed. Your mate is right on the fact that we have been conditioned to perceive Ronaldo as the arrogant guy and Messi as the humble guy.

They always emphasize Messi’s story as a young kid and forget that Ronaldo struggled too. It’s the classic life thing of Good vs Evil. One has to be good and the other has to be evil. It’s just the way it is. Plus, the fact that the world football narrative is run basically by a group of elite clubs -mainly United, Barca and Madrid.

So yeah, the group stages are done, and I feel gutted for Senegal who are going out on a technicality. The game is cruel, it teases us then breaks your heart. This whole year it has been like that for me. Senegal lost to Colombia off a corner kick. Again with the set pieces. They had the perfect tactic. They would crowd Cuadrado to the line and he had nowhere to go.

Germany are out too; the defending champions are out and personally, I love it. There is this whole level of arrogance with many founding teams of football and every time the defending champions lose I love it. It’s for the good of the game. Quite impressed by South Korea in that game. They were relentless all game and played with no fear. 

Never got to watch the England v Belgium game. I always end up napping when England play. I don’t know why. Maybe I have been mentally abused by their bad football for too long that I switch out just so I do not ruin my mood. From what people are saying it seem like England are going to win it but they are wrong. The team I think that no one wants to play is Croatia. So far, they have played well in the whole tournament for me.

As I write this, we are on a break today from the games. This here is my quick response and I want to go back out and explore the city more and definitely get more pictures in. I  am enjoying  the break as I get to check out of football and see what else is going on in the world. I love it and hate it at the same time - it’s weird. Since it’s been a great first round so far with great fearless football on display I fear this round of 16 games will turn out to be a bore because of the stakes. I really hope that isn’t the case. 

Guerrilla FC did well on Wednesday. We drew but we kept the ball practically the whole game. It was a nice day out, we had one sub and we just balled out. Champion wouldn’t agree because he missed a host of chances but as long as we created them I’ll take that. 

I didn’t fill out a bracket. It’s never fun for me plus I always end up forgetting about it. Hopefully John wins it and gets the (prize) jersey. 

Finally, enjoy your last hurrah in France with Velasca. It’s sad it didn’t pan out as you planned it to but use that like you did here in DC to create another great team and community. Of course, it won’t be easy but it’s worth the try. 

Adrian

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July 2
Milan


Adrian,

We may have just seen the best match of the tournament. I'll write more tomorrow. But for now I just want to say I'm gutted for Japan. Their composure throughout the match was fantastic. That's exactly how I'd want my team to play. 

July 3
Milan

Adrian, 

Hope you are well man. I see Guerrilla drew 5-5 last night? Sounds like a game full of excitement. I hope the guys are coming around and enjoying the play. I know there are a couple who like clean victories with clean sheets. But hopefully the culture infects them a bit and they can take positives from the experience.

Part of the beauty of football is the coming together of different personalities to coalesce around a common goal. I think Guerrilla FC in that sense is not just a football club and community but a place where we all gain an education in a different way of football.

We're in the last days of the Round of 16 now. Luckily, the majority of the games have been interesting. Tight affairs with goals and flair on display. It's a lot to take in really because now more than half the teams that started the tournament are going home.

I'll address the matches one by one.

France v Argentina - finally we saw a brave performance from the French. Messi wasn't his electric self but he did create two goals. The final pass he made for Aguero's goal was sublime. But the star was undoubtedly Mbappe. His composure and ability is really superb. He is a player who truly excites me because he seems to have the full package - intelligence, speed, technique, awareness - it is really hard to not be reminded of Thierry Henry.

We were also treated to wondrous goals from Pavard and Di Maria. Argentina though just looked tired and lacked invention. I wonder if Pastore might have injected some spark into this team...if he could have ever made it off the bench! When I first saw him play as a 20 year old I thought he'd be destined for great things. He's still a joy to watch and hopefully he can thrive at Roma.

Argentina is due a rebuild. I hope Messi stays on, but they can't rely solely on him and Mascherano's culo-tearing defensive prowess anymore. I'm still upset with the AFA for giving Diego the job in 2010. I think the players available at that time could have won the World Cup. These days, they aren't short on attackers but the midfield, defense, and goalkeeping positions look incredibly weak. 

The most underrated man of that match though was Blaise Matuidi. If you look at the build up to goals four and five he has a key pass in both. He's always been an underrated player. And I think France could miss him in the next round considering his yellow card suspension.

Uruguay v Portugal - this was an intense match. Suarez and Cavani performed beautifully. I like this Uruguay team. They sacrifice and suffer for each other and they seem to know exactly how much talent they possess and utilize it to the max. To be honest, Portugal never impressed me in this tournament. They were a decent team with Bernardo and Ronaldo there to help drag them through. It was nice to see Quaresma shine once more but I think Round of 16 is as far as they deserve to go.

Spain v Russia - what a torrid match. I love possession football. But tiki-taka is not about merely keeping the ball. As Guardiola has said many times, you move the ball to open up space to exploit and penetrate. 

I feel Hierro was too conservative. Koke and Busquets were basically shielding Ramos and Pique. But when you control the ball to the extent Spain were, you don't need two shielding midfielders. In fact, you don't really need one. Pique and Ramos both have quality on the ball. They both pass well and can step up into midfield. What Spain seemed to try to do was push up the outside backs for width and build triangles in the middle. But the number of Russians sitting deep made it hard to play quick passes.

The introduction of Iniesta helped but I believe bringing on Thiago for one of the two midfielders (or even one of the center backs!) would have filled one more gap and allowed the quick, technical passing to have more possibilities and thus more easily find the 3rd man running in. I also think having one of Isco or Asensio drifting wide, to allow the outside backs to overlap and create a bit of havoc, might have brought more success and space.

When Spain plays like this it feels forced. It's like art for the sake of art. Art is at it's most beautiful when it has a message that can't be suppressed. It forces it's way out into the world. But this football is not about expression. Nonetheless, I still wish Spain had carried on. Russia isn't an exciting team and apart from Golovin I don't think they offer much to the tournament. That being said, I heard the streets of Moscow were incredible after the victory. I was there after they beat Egypt and it was spectacular. I can't imagine what it was like after beating Spain.

Croatia v Denmark - I was on the phone for the first five minutes of this one. I was flying off my seat watching it on mute. But the less said about the next 115 minutes the better. Let's just say it was a goalkeeping masterclass. Kasper Schmeichel has really grown into a top class goalkeeper. I'm glad to be able to see more of Luka Modric too. One of the players of the tournament so far. 

Brazil v Mexico - I think Mexico played quite well. They had a few chances and played with bravery. As usual, Neymar became the match's focal point. He's been criticized for his playacting and rolling around. I can understand that it upsets people. But I think if I were in Neymar's shoes I would do the same.

He's often targeted with late challenges on the pitch. People know he has a fiery character and he can be worked up. So they target him. There's also a convenient amnesia about what happened to his back in 2014.

Neymar is a gem. He may be a prima donna - I think the debate is still open - but he needs to be protected on the pitch. He provides so much beauty and there are few players like him in the history of the game.

Belgium v Japan - surely the match of the tournament. My heart is broken for the Japanese. They played so well. Their composure was incredible. Imagine playing against a lineup of world football stars - each more celebrated than the last - and not only keeping a cool head, but pulling off those passes, tricks, and finishes. They even went for the win in injury time.

Inui, for me, was man of the match despite the loss. Kagawa also shone. It's great to see matches like this, I just wish the result was reversed!

Anyway, today we have Colombia v England and Sweden v Switzerland. I'll watch them both from home. I'm hoping Switzerland and Colombia make it through. I don't know how many more times I can hear, read, or see 'it's coming home' without foraging into the woods to live out the rest of my days.

Ah! One thing I forgot.

I'm not sure if you noticed but the Round of 16 had one looming absence - VAR. I can't remember a single instance the referees went to VAR after it's tireless use in the first round. I wonder if orders came from up high? I remember in 2006 hearing that following the Portugal v Netherlands match, Blatter asked the referees to be very lenient with issuing cards so star players didn't miss the final. I wonder if Infantino interfered? I know VAR dominated talking points after many matches. Personally, I quite liked the drama it brought. I wouldn't mind seeing a VAR decision or two today.

All the best,

j