Russia 2018 is the first FIFA World Cup I have not attended since 2002. The treks around the world following the Aussies are now wonderful memories, with amazing games and sad exits from Germany 2006, South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014.
My first game remains the highlight, after 32 years away from the World Cup for Australia. That extraordinary day in Kaiserslautern has entered our football folklore. Tens of thousands of Australians covered the town and stadium in a sea of green and gold, the music of Men at Work and The Angels blared through the streets, and we beat Japan in breathless style. Anton Tagliaferro sat behind me and I learned a few new swear words that day. In 2006, the glorious German summer sun shone over fan zones by the Rhine, the steins of beer flowed and sausages never tasted so good. I was hooked, although arduous criss-crossing of South Africa and Brazil to far-flung stadiums in deserts and jungles were more exhausting experiences.
In 2018, I’m watching the games from Russia in a lounge room in Sydney, with friends who see round ball football every four years. Oh dear, it shows. Explaining the offside rule is quite a distraction in the middle of the game.
From Timor Leste to Gibraltar
The 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying started in Dili, Timor Leste on 12 March 2015, and 210 countries competed for final places, including Bhutan, South Sudan, Kosovo and Gibraltar making their debuts. Imagine that, a World Cup qualifying game on a rock in the Mediterranean. It’s the sort of global coverage other football codes only dream of, with a larger audience than the Olympics. The World Cup brings nations across the globe to a standstill and unites their people. More Australian children play this type of football than any other, but they call it soccer.
It’s a time when followers of other codes make mistakes which confirm their ephemeral expertise. They jump on the global bandwagon, suddenly familiar with an eccentric Brazilian forward who a month earlier sounded like a brand of coffee.
For those people who steal the word football for sports that are predominantly played with the hands, here is an attempt to minimise the inevitable embarrassments.
Don’t make these common mistakes
Criticism of a shortage of goals reveals a deep lack of understanding. The goal rarity is one of the strengths of the game. Any collector of stamps or coins knows that value comes from scarcity. A goal is a truly wonderful thing, a joy enhanced by its relative infrequency. The knowledge that there may be no other goal in the game heightens the thrill, while familiarity breeds contempt. Many 1-0 games are exciting to watch, nerves jangling at the closeness. Just one goal in open play from Australia against Denmark would have changed the way the nation thinks about this team and its performances at the World Cup.
No informed cricket follower believes a maiden over in a test match is boring because there are no runs. Contrast it with basketball. There is so much scoring, each basket is of little consequence. They even need loud music and a commentator at the stadium to build the excitement. No football fan can warm to basketball for this reason.
The inexperienced do not know how to talk about the game properly. Footballers do not ‘kick’ goals, they ‘score’ them. It is only a penalty inside the defending penalty area, otherwise, it is a free kick. Anyone who refers to a direct penalty has misunderstood. Never mention a ‘Manchester’ player, as the distinction between United and City is vital. There are no umpires, but it is fine to refer to linesmen, as hardened followers have no time for the politically correct ‘assistant referees’. All measurements are in yards, not metres, because the English invented the game, not the French.
The rules are intuitive. It is a sport that follows natural instincts rather than creating silly devices like scrums, lineouts and mauls. Handling the ball is only an offence if it is deliberate. A player is not necessarily offside simply because he or she is in an offside position. A goalkeeper cannot pick up a back pass that has been kicked by his or her own player. That’s it. The rest is obvious.
Hints that give a chance to impress
A neat comment may impress. Observe that English players perform better for their clubs than their country, and any speculation on the reason why is acceptable. Express amazement that Italy, The Netherlands and the US did not qualify. Defend the referee’s decisions. It is so instinctive to criticise referees that doing otherwise unsettles everybody, and offers the beginner a chance.
Contrast the way players in other forms of football use their heads. That’s the part of the body that contains the brain. Rugby players are taught to stick it between other men’s legs, turning ears to cauliflowers and noses to mash. Proper football players use it to rise high above others and score goals.
The sacred nature of football is confirmed by the official rule that prohibits advertising on the hallowed turf. What a scourge on other football codes that they allow sponsors to plaster their names directly on the pitch. Is it something to read during the game?
Nothing baffles the novice more than the way teams are set up to play. When I was a boy, a hundred years ago, there was little variation from two fullbacks, three in the middle and five (yes, five!) forwards. This would be called 2:3:5 now (not counting the goalkeeper), although it is no longer used. Position descriptions such as centre-forward, inside-right and winger are left over from these days.
Then most teams switched to 4:4:2, with only two forwards and four in defense including two centre backs. These became known as a ‘stopper’, playing just in front of the other three defenders, and ‘sweeper’, cleaning up at the rear. A more attacking formation might be 4:3:3 pushing a midfielder forward, sometimes called ‘playing in the hole’. Recently, three at the back has become more common (England is using this system in the World Cup), but it requires two ‘wing-backs’ to both attack and defend in a highly-demanding role. In this World Cup, some lower-ranked teams are using 5:4:1 in attempt to stifle strong opponents.
Watch the formation used by four midfielders. Sydney FC has been successful with a midfield diamond structure with one back, one forward and one wide on each side. A joy of attending live football is watching these formations take shape and vary.
What did Australia do under Bert van Marwijk before its group stage exit? It was 4:2:3:1. Four at the back, Sainsbury and Milligan in the middle and the two fullbacks, Risdon and Behich, defending but encouraged to go forward. Two midfielders, usually Jedinak and Mooy, protect the defense. Two wide men, Leckie and Kruse, are mainly attackers with Rogic behind the lone forward, Nabbout or Juric, hassling the opposing defenders in a thankless slog.
Talking about formations and how they change during the game will move anyone beyond the novice.
The World Cup glorifies the only global team sport
Remember what Sydney was like during the 2000 Olympics? It’s like that in an entire country during the World Cup. When the lowest-ranked team in the competition, Russia, won its second game, the nation went into a frenzied celebration. When Mexico beat Germany, seismic disturbance was (apocryphally) detected in Mexico City. Argentina observed a one-minute silence following the 3-0 loss to Croatia. Every team is competitive, whereas the two rugby world cups are dominated by one-sided games.
Football is the only global team sport. We can cheer the Wallabies and the Kangaroos and the Baggy Greens and the Bombers all we like, but the rest of the planet is watching something else. Once every four years, Australians join them. We will rejoice in a glorious month of football, embracing the spectacle of the world playing its favourite sport. Only one of Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Ramos, Hazard, Pogba, Muller or Kane can win, and become a national hero forever.
Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Cuffelinks and is not getting much sleep at the moment.
A different version of this article first appeared in the Crikey Magazine on 26 May 2002, under the title, ‘Everything you need to know about real football’. Crikey’s introduction said: “Graham Hand is better known to Crikey readers for his fabulous bank bashing book “Naked Among Cannibals” but he’s also an expat Pom who has filed this entertaining preview to the biggest sporting event on earth.”