A Russian Rhapsody


On 24 February 2022, Russia launched an unprovoked, large-scale military invasion of Ukraine, its neighbour to the southwest, marking an escalation to a conflict that began in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Donbass. Stop The War!

A Russian Rhapsody.
'Dreams' - the 2018 FIFA World Cup official film became recently available to watch free online and it is a nice way to recall how good that tournament in Russia was.

"A tournament that many argue was the greatest ever" says narrator Damian Lewis. I would not go that far but it is one of my favourite five.

With the exception of Liev Schreiber in 1994 and Ian Darke in 2010, British thespians have been employed since 1962 to do the voiceovers - Lewis follows Sean Bean, Sean Connery, Michael Caine and others.

Following the mark established by 'Goal!' - the first official World Cup film made in colour in 1966, this one employs  a measured voiceover and camerawork so close-up you can almost smell the sweat of the players' shirts.

It begins with a short montage of fans arriving from around the world - echoing the jet airliners in 'Goal!'

Then we see the first match - Russia's 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia which at the time seemed to be the host nation's concession before they pulled a surprise and eliminated Spain.

Spain had another bad World Cup following the disastrous defence of their 2010 crown in Brazil.

I was reminded how their federation sensationally and absurdly sacked their manager Julen Lopetegui after he had arrived in Russia but before their first match, handicapping them from the off, all for the crime of him landing his dream job at Real Madrid.

The fact Spain won the Fair Play Award was quickly forgotten. A team of that calibre should not have lost to Russia, even if they were at home.

Soon we see Leo Messi and Ronaldo, who bagged a hat-trick against the Spanish. We get a snatch of the Portuguese star talking to club teammate Sergio Ramos during the Iberian derby, hand shielding the mouth La Liga-style to avoid the lipreaders.

Destined for national team mediocrity, once more the world's top two stars perform impressions of themselves, though Ronaldo's is the stronger.

It took barely nine minutes before Diego Maradona pops up, angry and gesticulating in his executive box,  de rigeur for World Cup coverage these days.

There was a lot for the usual legions of Argentine fans to fret about, as their side was particularly disjointed and incomplete in 2018. This angst was encapsulated in the figure of their manager, about whom Lewis slowly intones thus -

"Brooding, increasingly isolated, Argentine manager Jorge Sampaoli is a man under pressure."

Croatia's team and supporters by contrast look cocksure and loving every minute of it as they beat La Albiceleste - "Imperiously despatched" as the narrator lapses into balladry. He muses on. Messi has "unfathomable talent" but risks "ignominious defeat" and "eternal disappointment."

Soon arrive the "fancied French" whose failure to break down the "obdurate Aussies" in 45 minutes leaves "Les Bleus sombre", which sounds too ambitious an assonance.

"Like oil and water, England and World Cup penalty shootouts don't mix" was another gem.

We never visit the training camps but do get a rare treat of a few seconds inside France's dressing room, although Didier Deschamps' team talk is largely him pacing up and down in silence.

Silence is when the film works best, as without the match commentator but with a less than perfect sightline we actually get a little sense of being in the stadia.

VAR then makes its bow as the Uruguayan referee consults the screen and wrongly awards a penalty for an Antoine Griezmann dive, a taste of things to come...At least unlike in 2010, the goal-line cameras were there to confirm Paul Pogba's hair's breadth strike.

It is easy to forget brief moments which were significant - the VAR call which gave Korea a 1-0 lead over Germany and caused Manuel Neuer to charge upfield suicidally or the fact Japan led Belgium 2-0 after an hour in their second round clash.

We did not see however the Koreans' reaction amid their joy at sending the DFB zu hause that Sweden had beaten Mexico so they were out too. Nor is it mentioned that England, home of fair play, fielded a B team against Sweden to get an easier second round draw.

We get many clips of fans cheering inside the stadia but sadly none of the wonderful Peruvians on a rare World Cup visit.

Yet there is something samey about those clips. I wanted more of those outside the FIFA-controlled arenas - the Mexicans who ask the Russian cops to fix their van's engine for instance.

Some nations are missed out altogether e.g. Costa Rica and Poland. Others get airtime.

Mercifully there are few stats. The fact both Messi & Ronaldo have failed to score in 1,279 minutes of knockout World Cup matches is only mildly interesting.

Looking back at France's flowing goals to eliminate Argentina it seems natural they went on to lift the trophy but we probably were not certain at the time.

Rewatching the Ivan Perisic did-he didn't-he handball in the final sadly confirms VAR's ability to ruin matches as well as improve them. The Croatian team and manager are still berating the match officials as they reenter the pitch for the second half.

The privileged access works wonders - we didn't otherwise get to hear Harry Kane's studs tack-tacking along a Russian corridor, the Germans slumped in their pitch-side seats after shock elimination by Korea, or the excitement in the little ball boys and girls when Ronaldo appeared.

It was fascinating watching the off-field World Cup the TV stations largely spurn - the aftermath of Croatia v Russia in Sochi was especially engaging.

We also see the fleeting international friendships only the World Cup can create - Colombia fans consoling a crying Senegalese for instance.

The host nation, shown in snatches through the windows of racing vehicles, looks beautiful too and full of warm and generous people, a welcome antidote to its usual negative portrayal in the world's media.

This was not a great or particularly memorable movie but it does remind us the World Cup is an extraordinary and unique global gathering where the human race really does feel like one diverse but life-loving family, if only for a month.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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