I approached the start of summer with a sense of trepidation, as is the norm for me in the odd-numbered years, the years without a major tournament in which to completely immerse myself for a month, and to minimise the amount of time spent in the purgatory of having no football to watch. My immediate coping mechanism this summer was to try to forget about football altogether, to go cold turkey so to speak, and to concentrate my energies and obsessive nature on another of my passions in the form of Major League Baseball.
An excellent trip to the West Coast of North America with my wife and father and visits to Safeco Field in Seattle and Petco Park in San Diego assuaged my withdrawal symptoms to an extent; but almost inevitably with football in some nature still going on, it was only a matter of time until I cracked. The first lapse came in San Diego and a World Cup Qualifier between self-avowed rivals Mexico and the USA.
Say what you like about the standard of North American football (as a traditionalist and pedant of the highest order in these matters, I flatly refuse to ever call it soccer!), this match was a war of attrition between two bitter rivals, a grudge match if you like, with the atmosphere in the Azteca Stadium as ferocious and hostile as any you would witness in the more traditionally celebrated rivalries, whether club or international in Europe or South America.
It was the USA who silenced the home crowd after only 5 minutes, Michael Bradley, son of former national team coach and failed Swansea manager Bob, who opened the scoring with an exquisite lob from fully 30 yards. The size of the celebrating travelling contingent provided a clear indication of just how the game is developing in the States.
Almost inevitably the hosts clawed their way back into the game and it was Carlos Vela (yes that one Arsenal fans!) who levelled the tie midway through the first half with a low left-footed drive after cutting in from the right. Herrera could have won the game late on when he hit the bar with a free kick, and while the visitors were disappointed to be pegged back after taking the early lead, this was only their third ever point gained at the iconic stadium.
The draw continued the USA’s recovery after a disastrous start to the qualifying campaign when they lost their first two games to Mexico and Costa Rica; but they are not out of the woods just yet, sitting third amongst the three automatic qualifiers, they can afford few slip-ups in their remaining four fixtures. Having witnessed the passion, verve and colour the American Outlaws, as their seemingly ever-growing army of fans call themselves, brought to the party in Brazil three years ago; it would be the tournament’s loss if they didn’t qualify for the eighth consecutive time.
Upon returning from my failed football exile, I have found myself drawn into watching the relatively scant football offerings available, starting with an attempt to beat jet-lag by watching France host England in Paris. Suffice it to say that save for a slightly surreal but nonetheless heart-felt and moving rendition of Don’t Look Back in Anger in tribute to those who tragically lost their lives so recently in Manchester and London, made all the more poignant by events at the Stade de France just over 18 months ago; there was little to remember from this match, or indeed much in the way of action to help me stay awake. This one will probably be remembered more for the Video Assistant Referee (VAR)-aided sending off of Raphael Varane than anything else. It is hard to escape the feeling that debate surrounding VAR decisions is something that is going to become more and more prevalent over coming seasons.
While only a friendly, any beleaguered England fan looking for a slither of encouragement that England are progressing from their failings in France last summer, would be concerned that once again when facing a team with a decent pedigree, Gareth Southgate’s men were found wanting even with the hosts having been reduced to 10-men. Didier Deschamps side look much closer to being a true competitor.
England’s Under 20’s may have given hope for the future and credence to the FA’s much-touted England DNA manifesto which purports to be the starting point for a bright future, by winning their World Cup; but a mere matter of weeks later any growing hope was torpedoed when the Under 21’s, in all too familiar fashion, were eliminated at the semi-final stage on penalties by traditional foes Germany. The German side, despite being denied some of its more experienced players who were with the senior side at the Confederations Cup, with their slick passing and fluid interchanges in attack provided a stark reminder of just how far behind the best our young players are.
Up until Wednesday night I had managed to resist the temptation to watch any of the Confederations Cup, but finding myself at a bit of a loose end I watched the second half, extra time and the penalty shootout of what was a goalless but lively semi-final between Chile and Portugal. My motivation was probably as much to do with being able to watch Alexis Sanchez once more before his seemingly inevitable departure to a team with bona fide pedigree and genuine aspirations for the very top prizes. His all action display re-emphasized just what Arsenal will probably be losing unless a new contract agreement can be reached or the board bite the bullet and keep him for the final year of his contract. Given the club hierarchy’s track record in similar matters previously, I for one find it hard to believe they will either give the player what he is asking for or fail to cash in if it is clear that he wants to leave.
Now that I have succumbed, I will no doubt watch the Confederations Cup Final when Chile take on Germany on Sunday evening, in actual fact it promises to be an interesting game between two decent sides. Plus once the tournament comes to a close there is still the MLS and a rather random trip to Stavanger next weekend to watch Bryne FK take on Nardo FK in the Norwegian Second Division (more on that in the weeks to come) to keep me going before the pre-season friendlies start!