The World Cup has not been particularly kind to its champions in its ninety-plus years of existence. During the last three tournaments, the trophy holders have been – smart, experienced Italy; the dominant Spain; The flowing German team, which humiliated Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals in Brazil, exited the group stage at the earliest opportunity. No nation has successfully defended a World Cup since 1962, when the tournament consisted of only sixteen teams and Pelé was still roaming the field. Expectations are a hard thing; there is talk of a curse.
France, a phenomenally talented team and the reigning champions, have a habit of falling victim to what the football media likes to call an ‘implosion’. Interpersonal disputes, catastrophic injuries. In 2010, the squad struggled with their own manager, and a player fell off a mountain bike during a strange team bonding activity in the Alps. In 2002, as 1998 champions, they lost their first game and were soon eliminated from the group. This year Qatar are missing the two players widely credited as key to their 2018 victory, midfielders N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba – both injured. A few weeks ago, the squad’s best forward, Karim Benzema, won the men’s Ballon D’Or award for the best player in the world. Three days ago he was knocked down for the entire cup after picking up a hamstring injury in training. (L’Equipe’s Headline: “Le Ballon de Plomb”, The Lead Ball.) One of the younger stars of the team, Christopher Nkunku, the top scorer in the German league, was also injured in training when a team-mate tackled him. The team seemed eager to gather omens.
Their opponents, Australia, who I have supported all my life, also entered this tournament with a tide of managed expectations. The team has, somewhat improbably, qualified for a fifth consecutive World Cup. But trust was low. The Socceroos, as they’re known, had a strange, rocky road to qualification, drawing with Oman, losing to Saudi Arabia and enduring a tense play-off against Peru. While other nations in the Anglosphere, like the US and Canada, or in Asia, like Japan and South Korea, have young, exciting teams on the verge of a big change, Australia felt at the brink of one.
But the Australian football fan’s devotion can border on the absurd. The World Cup in Australia is usually a nighttime event. Europe has sun-drenched pubs, miles of fan zones, the ripple of beer. In Australia, near the edge of the International Date Line, games are watched at 3:15 a.m AM or 4:45 AM My memories of world championships often begin with tired eyes, in the dark, with an alarm. For this year’s playoffs against Peru, fans gathered in Melbourne’s Federation Square before dawn in the cold; As the game went to penalties, fans bowed in front of big screens like it was midnight mass. On Tuesday when the game in Qatar kicked off at 6am AM on the east coast of Australia and 3 AM In the west my phone started to glow with morning news.
Australia found hope in the first twenty-five minutes of that opening game. They harassed and harassed France, threatening the French goal with throw-ins deep in the French half. They even scored in the eighth minute. The ball was hoisted well over the field to Australia winger Mathew Leckie. His pass slipped past the French defenders, who play for Liverpool and Bayern Munich, to Craig Goodwin, who plays for Adelaide United. Goodwin impaled it in the roof of the net. Lucas Hernandez, the France left-back, was on the pitch clutching his right knee. On replays, he already seemed to slump and grimace from a game-ending injury, even as he stretched to block the ball. Thoughts of the curse arose.
But a France without Pogba, without Kanté, without Benzema still has Kylian Mbappé – who became world champion at nineteen and is only better now at twenty-three – and Olivier Giroud, a multi-faceted if sometimes outspoken attacking weapon. The French team didn’t miss their stars so much, just formed a slightly darker constellation. Lucas Hernandez’s own brother Theo, in the same position, replaced him and provided the French response – an easy goal. The team switched gears and found a second, third, then fourth. In the seventy-first minute, Mbappé received the ball. He stood perfectly still for a second. Then Australian defender Nathaniel Atkinson approached, Mbappé stretched out a leg, shuffled to the left and suddenly was on the Australian goal line, lofting a ball for Giroud, who superficially nodded the ball home.
The French could be forgiven for being a little superstitious. Their opening game of the last World Cup had also been against Australia, in a group that, eerily, also included their next opponent, Denmark. Finally a good omen to offset the bad.
For Australians, there was the tingle of what could have been. A friend of mine who was a reporter on the job was watching the game from a motel room in the small New South Wales regional town of Peak Hill. The night before he had been to a pub in the nearby town of Parkes. Above him, on the wall, was a faded photo of a game from 2003, when Australia beat England 3-1 in England. Harry Kewell, who would later play for Liverpool, tussled with David Beckham. The Australian team in Qatar is a long way from this vintage. But on Sunday, winger Awer Mabil – one of four members of the Socceroos side who arrived in the country as refugees – told the media the team hopes to “shock the world”. For twenty-five minutes, they’re almost there. ♦