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ROKER RAMBLE: “Well, that was fun!” - mulling over the madness of the 2018 World Cup in Russia

It might not be coming home... yet.... I like to think it’s just staying out late because it’s not a school night.

Fans Watch As Croatia Take On France In The Football World Cup Final
Croatia win world record for entire country fitting in smallest space.
Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

You can gauge the success of a major sporting event like the World Cup by the size of the vacuum it creates when it’s over... and right about now I’m staring down the nozzle of a pretty huge Dyson, because I feel like someone’s just taken away the air that I breathe.

Like a lot of people, I had low expectations for the tournament. All the signs were that the infrastructure may be poor, coverage may be low quality, the big teams and players would dominate, England may not even get out of the group stages, and the atmosphere at games could be lacking.

Wrong on every level. From start to finish it was probably the best tournament I’ve ever seen, in every department – apart from ITV’s commentary of course, but what do you expect? It held my attention from the first minute to the last like no other, and the only down-side to the whole event I can think of is the political capital that both Putin and FIFA made from it.

Tunisia v England: Group G - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Don’t try this at home
Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

And of course, the enjoyment for us at home was the performance of the England team – what a ride! We struggled a bit against a very dirty Tunisian side, and wondered what the hell VAR was supposed to be doing at set pieces. But, the positive thing was we didn’t respond adversely to the provocation and got the result.

Panama was almost literally a walk in the park, but may have hinted at defensive frailties when we let them score. Those frailties were again highlighted when we went down to an Adnan Januzaj goal against Belgium.

Januzaj – really? He spent most of his time at Sunderland looking like he was preserved in formaldehyde and moved round on casters he was so lifeless. It didn’t halt our progress out of the group, but a worrying sign none the less.

Colombia v England: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Will never get sick of seeing this...
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Colombia decided to test the VAR system to the limit as well as the patience of a referee who should’ve been waving cards around like it was Christmas in the first half. England dominated but then faded and didn’t look like they had a Plan B. Ironically, when they stopped dicking around, Colombia looked like a decent team. They equalized, forced extra time and had the momentum.

But then something happened which I haven’t seen for years. England came back at them and could’ve won it in the second period of extra time. But it didn’t matter because we won the penalties with a confidence that again, we haven’t seen – ever.

Now the mood changed and people started believing. A quarter final against Sweden, who probably delivered the most disappointing game of the tournament to beat Switzerland, and who were bigged up in the media as a real threat to England.

I couldn’t understand how. They had Ola Toivonen and Seb Larsson in their first team – players who couldn’t make our first eleven in a relegation season, and no-one else I’d heard of, how were they going to hurt us? In the end, it was comfortable, the usual couple of good saves from Jordan Pickford and we were in the semis.

Sweden v England: Quarter Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
Perhaps his time was due...but then again...
Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images

Croatia – even before this point I was aware that they were a ‘small country’. It must be the first phrase taught to schoolchildren in their English lessons because it seems to form the answer to every question. That’s not to detract from their achievements, which are highly impressive for a country of any size, let alone one which has a total population of half that of London, has only been a country since 1991, no domestic football structure – and no sense of humour.

They reached the semi-finals of Euro 96 and had fought and battled their way through qualifying to reach this point again. But after every game they moaned and whinged to the media about how hard done by they were - I wouldn’t be surprised if the national symbol was a shoulder with a large chip on it.

However, I fancied our chances, and as they lined up to sing their national anthem (which when translated probably made reference to the terrible food in the hotel) it struck me as the camera inevitably panned along the line – what’s the other team doing when this is happening? They could be up to anything really, holding up denigrating signs, singing the wrong words to the anthem, playing keepy-uppy. However, it doesn’t matter, this was a semi-final... it was serious.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia
And not just a small country
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

And although we should’ve buried them in the first half - and had Kane been on form we would’ve - as the game went on you had to admire their tenacity and drive, the way they kept their shape and used the wings to pull us out of position.

So, meh, we didn’t get to the final. With hindsight it was a glorious opportunity lost, but let’s take the positives from the whole thing. We fell in love with an England team again and I honestly didn’t know when - or even if - that was ever going to happen.

Despite a grudging admiration for ‘plucky little’ Croatia, I approached the final with an undeniable feeling that I wanted Messrs Modric, Rakitic and Perisic to get crushedic, trouncedic and stuffedic. I mean it was France (‘mangetout Rodney, mangetout’) – they’re almost English… well, they have enough of us living over there.

Of course VAR had to play a key role. Where was it when Griezeman dived for the first goal? And of course the penalty decision - which I don’t think you can blame on VAR, it was the referees decision. It was just brought to his attention, but as always it’s consistency that’s required.

Alan Shearer rails against it - slightly ironic that he relies on watching slow motion replays to earn his (very healthy, judging by the recently released salary figures from the BBC) living.

Perhaps he should admit that match officials should be allowed to do the same.

France v Croatia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final
The public conveniences in the Luzhniki were of a revolutionary new design.
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Sepp Blatter refused to endorse it, famously justifying his decision by announcing that football needed contentious decisions to be discussed after the game – it was a huge part of the attraction. Shame that we’ve lost all that then.

But it’s all over, and in the fall-out Theresa May announced that England would bid to stage the 2030 tournament. Good luck with that, given that we’ve got the Euros in two years time.

We’ve also got Qatar in four years time, which is going to be played before Christmas, and we all wait with baited breath to see if Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat will make it in the heat.

There are now about three weeks to the start of the new season and the end of the transfer window, which means all of the pundits, players, staff and crew will be on holiday from today.

It’s going to be chaos out there. Let’s hope not too many of them haven’t gone to Croatia – it’s only a small country, you know.

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