THE BIG STORIES OF THURSDAY
A good result
In general, a team becomes a neutral favorite when they play attractive football, field interesting players, or go about their business in a charming and endearing manner. These things all apply to Ukraine, of course, and yet the ongoing Russian invasion, backdrop of bloodshed and mayhem, made last night’s playoffs a completely odd affair.
“We played for those fighting in the trenches” – Emotional Petrakov after Scotland’s victory
BEFORE AN HOUR
This game should have been played in April. Half of the Ukrainian team had not played a game since the war began. The team needed special permission to travel, as all Ukrainian men are required by martial law to remain in their home country. Rarely have so many carefree people been so excited for a team to win. Rarely has an opposition anthem been so well received.
But in the end, any worries that victory would make Scotland unpopular or find themselves at the wrong end of a mysterious narrative were allayed. Ukraine was the better team and Ukraine won with better football.
Roman Yaremchuk celebrates after scoring during the FIFA World Cup qualifier between Scotland and Ukraine at Hampden Park on June 1, 2022 in Glasgow
Photo credit: Getty Images
The pre-game suggestions that Scotland should step aside or in some way help bring about a victory for Ukraine were patently stupid and treated with deserved contempt. But this stupidity reveals something worth considering. The value of sport comes from doing sport; Winning a game or reaching a World Cup is something special for the teams that don’t take it for granted because it’s a deserved cause.
Presumably, those responsible for football in Ukraine would have been happy about a bye. Maybe even some of the players here at the end of a long and very strange season. But the value of last night’s victory is not only in taking a step closer to the World Cup, but in taking that step: that’s what makes the sporting achievements of about 11 individuals inspire pride and joy and delirium sublimated by millions. It is getting the result that makes the result.
Besides, who needs a team to deliberately induce defeat when they can invent it by sweet coincidence instead? Ukraine can pass the ball sharply and move it around skilfully, yet it was a simple lob across the back line, a nice touch and a dink from Yarmolenko that opened the game. Andy Robertson, holding the line where the line should be, confidently raised his hand and waited for the flag to come. The rest of his defense looked around, embarrassed. Say what you like about the narration, but it can’t play anyone on the side.
Got that, old world
Call it the finalissima. Call it the CONMEBOL–UEFA Cup of Champions. Call it the European/South American Nations Cup. Or even the Artemio Franchi Cup: it is a sign of absolute quality when a trophy has had more names than competitions. But the result cannot be disputed. South America is the best continent and Europe is stuck in the mud. Argentina’s 3-0 victory probably flattered Italy.
How did the continent come to have such an inadequate champion? Well, Italy’s triumph at Euro 2020 (but really 2021) was totally deserved – it’s hard to win an entire tournament by accident – but it was never a win built on blowing your opponents away. It was rough, which we mean as a compliment: a win built on enduring the bad points, capitalizing on the good points, and keeping your nerve throughout.
Lionel Messi lifts the trophy
Photo credit: Getty Images
Such a team attaches great importance to those who do things differently. And last night, with Insigne, Immobile and Chiesa all missing and Spinazzola limited to a second-half cameo, Italy lacked any sort of threat. Argentina could play patiently, calmly and effortlessly, knowing that if they lost the ball they wouldn’t be in much danger and it wouldn’t be too difficult to get it back.
In contrast, the other side had Leo Messi. It took him five minutes to touch the ball and about 20 minutes to get going to shake off the dust of a strange season. Then the game was his. He made the first, he controlled the game until the second, and then Operation Get Messi A Goal began. That failed, to the amusement and disappointment of the Argentines who jumped up in the crowd. But it failed productively, at the very end, when the ball spurted free for Paulo Dybala to fire home.
Of course only friendly. A made-up excuse to fill Wembley, a trophy last contested in 1983. But there was a nice historical resonance from that delay: the last captain to lift that trophy was Diego Maradona. And the game showed that Argentina will be an unpleasant opponent in Qatar. Messi, Lautaro Martínez and Ángel Di María harmonize beautifully as the front three, the central defensive partnership is tight and awkward, and Emi Martínez has a good line in authoritative pointing. And there’s depth on the bench: alongside Dybala’s late cameo, last night marked Julián Álvarez’s first appearance on English turf. And he looked, to use a jargon, lightning fast.
See you soon, farewell
As a famous Dutch proverb goes, you can’t make an omelet without first firing a few youth players. Yesterday Manchester United announced the departure of Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard, who joined the club aged 16 and 9 respectively. There’s probably a cheeky Erik Ten Hag Disrespects United’s Tradition Of Playing The Kids angle here if anyone wants it.
There’s also a United Are Rubbish At Transfers page: These are two 29-year-old internationals going for free. Both will not be short of offers and both will have decent careers from that point forward. The kind of careers that any club anywhere would have paid for. United’s unfortunate talent in the transfer market applies to both the outside and the inside.
But at the same time, none of the departures represent a major blow to United’s imminent rebuilding. Lingard never quite made the leap from useful squad player to first-team regular and his departure was anticipated long before Ten Hag’s appointment was announced. It will be a departure that can be felt more in the heart than in the head.
As for Pogba, well his second spell at United was one of those moments and not enough of them. Three coaches came and went, and none figured out how to make him work or where to play. Arguably the most successful of these experiments was a one-off event when José Mourinho used him as a midfield target against Ajax to win the Europa League.
Who is to blame? Choose your fighter. Either the club let him down with a parade of inadequate managers and teammates, or the player himself checked out early and never really checked back in. He just needed a defensive midfielder! He saved himself for France! He was very hurt! He was very “hurt”! Expected assists! haircuts! Graeme Souness was wrong and a little obsessed! Graeme Souness was right and was a little obsessed!
The recent history of United in a microcosm. Expensive, flawed; failed or failed or both. And here we see his true worth and what we all lost with his departure. He was never United’s star but he was a lynchpin of The Discourse and we all thank him for that. Chances are his next club will be a little more sensible. There is a good chance that we will never have such good and endless arguments again.
IN OTHER NEWS
A delightful moment here as Graeme Souness smiles and takes the applause of the crowd. The warm-up chooses to think that he knew it was for the teams that came out to warm up and that he was just playing a little prank on all of us, but we’re happy either way.
Speaking of old Artemio Franchi games, here’s Argentina vs Denmark from 1993. Of note: Peter Schmeichel’s goalkeeper shirt, the great one with the neon patches. Claudio Caniggia almost missed by less than a foot. And a penalty shootout that confirms what you suspected: footballers really are better at penalties these days.
“Since the laws enacted on February 24, all men between the ages of 18 and 60 are ordered to remain in Ukraine to protect their country. This is one of the reasons why so many women and children in Ukraine have been seen as far away as Hampden Park, many of whom have fled to Scotland after fleeing their war-torn homeland. As cameras panned ahead of the game, children raised signs that read “Stop War.”
A super duper helping of Nations League sprinkles. Northern Ireland meets Greece and the Czech Republic meets Switzerland, but the real headline game is Spain vs Portugal. The Peninsula Derby, as nobody calls it.
And Andi Thomas will be here tomorrow with all that and more.
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