KALININGRAD, Russia — When the World Cup finals began 14 days earlier, Russia had no hope, Mohamed Salah was one of the putative stars, VAR was a disaster waiting to happen and the Germans most likely had a bus parade route marked for Berlin, just in case. Nothing presumptuous, of course, but when you have meticulously planned every other element of world football domination, you might as well give the authorities prior notice that they may need to shut some roads.
And England? Two weeks ago they were a work in progress, forcing their toes into the new shoe of Gareth Southgate’s 3-5-2 formation, embarking on a World Cup finals without the beery roar of the usual 20,000 fans in tow. At Elland Road in Leeds on June 7, after they took their time breaking down Costa Rica in a friendly England won 2-0, Southgate said he had encouraged his players to talk about their lives and the challenges they had faced. He wanted to break down the old boundaries and do something different, and it sounded so sensible you could only hope it was not the usual prelude to failure.
Two weeks on and the last 16 awaits, with England’s A team unbeaten.
Their B team’s defeat to Belgium has got them a second-round game against Colombia and, beyond that — if there is a beyond that — a place in the favourable half of the draw. When finally the nation woke from 24 hours of celebrating sweet German incompetence, it saw its team defeated by Belgium B and cast into the half of the draw mostly populated by nations with a record as mediocre as England’s own in recent years.
In Belgium’s half are their second-round opponents, Japan, as well as Uruguay, Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. It’s a collection of sides sufficiently intimidating that in the first half on Thursday, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez seemed not to want to win, his team counter-attacking with all the speed of a 1967 Volga negotiating the foothills of the Urals. When Adnan Januzaj scored the game’s only goal, it was hard to tell how Martinez felt. He made the cutting gesture generally recognized in his home country, Spain, to denote wonder at a spectacular goal, although it also looks like the gesture to desist.
Whether winning was Martinez’s plan or not, we may never know. For England, the tougher second-round opponents Colombia at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow on Tuesday, and then potentially the winners of Sweden or Switzerland. Great news until you consider that both are very much the kind of underrated European opposition who have embarrassed the English in the past.
As a nation, Colombia’s best World Cup was their 2014 trip to the quarter-finals in Brazil, when their support travelled in huge numbers and they were on their home continent. This current team have a core of established top-level players and some, like the goalscoring centre-back Yerry Mina, of Barcelona, going that way. Clearly much rides on James Rodriguez’s fitness.
All of the 16 survivors come into the second round with reasonable questions being asked of the overall health of their chances. Even Brazil, who strung together a few steps of the old jogo bonito when they saw off Serbia on Wednesday for first place in Group E, were posed problems at the start of the second half, when their opposition thought they might smell a weakness. In Mexico, Brazil face a country that has forever been in their football shadow and a team who conjured one of the great performances of this World Cup to beat Germany — and one of its worst in the defeat to Sweden.
Mexico should have won their group and the gloom will be enfolding them that a seventh straight round-of-16 exit awaits. France and Argentina are another accidental meeting, the consequence of the South Americans’ malfunctioning over the course of their first two games.
Of course, the World Cup knows how they can be beaten, as per Croatia’s example, but you wonder about them now, stripped down of all pretence. Argentina know what they are now, an unbalanced lot held together by Lionel Messi and a general fear of what their fans will say if they lose. France seem still to be searching for their identity in this tournament.
So too Spain, turned upside down by the Julen Lopetegui saga (in which the manager was sacked on the eve of the World Cup for accepting the same job at Real Madrid), outfoxed by Cristiano Ronaldo in that first game — equalizing late against Morocco in their last. Another case of one of the elite trying to find their stride. There should be no chance of the Russians prevailing, but then the Russians were given no chance of reaching the second round of their own tournament and yet here they are in Moscow with a good side on the back foot.
Sweden and Switzerland have come as far as they could have hoped, and the tournament should hold no fears for either. Croatia are a much better side than Denmark and have potentially the tournament’s best draw. In Uruguay and Portugal, the world expects.
What did England lose in Kaliningrad — apart from the game to Belgium? Hard to tell in a tournament where no one feels invincible, and the draw has opened up the possibility that someone new could step forward. It certainly feels replete with possibilities for those teams outside the usual elite, of which, of course, England are one.