KJ's World Cup Diary - Nov. 27: Lewandowski, Messi shine, Croatia disrespect continues
Saturday November 26th, 2022
Robert Lewandowski has his arms folded. His image is placed on the big screen here inside Education City Stadium. He is billed as the ‘one to watch’ for Poland, you know just in case anyone here was unaware. I don’t think they are.
Below him reads his statistics telling the supporters he is 34, has 76 goals for his country, has played in four World Cup games and has zero World Cup goals. What it doesn’t tell is that number of goals have come in 135 internationals. Quite simply, he is one of the greatest strikers of all time, yet the zero next to his name shows just how difficult it is for the greats to stand out in a team sport based on nationalities. Yet, time and time again it is this zero that many have concentrated on, questioning him because he wasn’t able to score at a World Cup.
Lewandowski leads his team onto the pitch and looks around preparing for the Polish anthem. Today he is in Qatar and inside a stadium that was already painted when the sun rose this morning before anyone entered it. The posters are green, the banners are green and now as he looks around a stadium full of an announced capacity of 44,259, he sees green and white throughout the crowd. Poland fans make up relatively close to around 1,000 behind one goal. The rest are here to root for Saudi Arabia and it’s loud.
The energy and tension from the seats translate to the pitch. Poland, like Argentina before them, struggle to match the physicality of Herve Renard’s side. Three players get booked inside the opening 18 minutes. Lewandowski receives the ball but is immediately swarmed by more green. Repeatedly they close the space like they did against Lionel Messi. Lewandowski grimaces and limps away as another foursome surround him.
The Saudi Arabia story here is more collective and less individualistic and as the first half continues appears to be a train moving fast and not looking to slow down. You can see they have had weeks off to prepare for this tournament. While countries lack unity, this group, predominantly built from three domestic teams, have cohesion for fun. Their players are remarkably fit, they have no time for tiki-taka and instead travel fast from box-to-box, get balls wide and into the penalty area quicker than most.
Lewandowski refuses to be intimidated. He claps often, shouts above the noise to lift his teammates and is still the fastest thinking man on the pitch. His movement is clever, and he knows this is a day to win with the mind. Some help from his teammates is always useful too. It was coming.
Matty Cash delivers a brilliant pass forward in the air, overlaps down the right and then supplies the kind of cross Lewandowski feasts off. The striker is denied, but remains calm to win the ball, find a pass to Piotr Zielinski, who does the rest, firing home his 10th international goal.
What follows is a special noise in football. The sound of a tiny minority of fans, usually away supporters, screaming while the majority cover are left into stunned silence. The same tune plays again five minutes later, as does some more help for Lewandowski, when Wojciech Szczesny stops a penalty from Salem Al Dawsari and then makes the best save I have seen at the World Cup with a two-handed stop from Mohammed Al Burayk on the rebound.
The setback does little to stop Saudi Arabia’s wave of attacks. Szczesny performs more heroics early in the second half and this is a game where Poland needs to suffer. Lewandowski cannot be kept far from the screen, however. Rare attacks from the men in white are sent his way, his foot graces the ball in a way no one else will touch it today. Moments spent in Lewandowski’s possession for this ball make it feel loved and treasured, before being transported quicker by the men in green.
Lewandowski and the ball are soon reunited, a toe-drag, a soft, gentle touch from his left foot sends Poland on another attack and Arkadiusz Milik heads against the bar. Lewandowski the leader returns, clapping and encouraging his teammate. Soon after, he dashes to the front post, with a run only he can make, and sees his shot come back off the post. He looks to the sky, perhaps it is not his day, perhaps finally someone else in a Poland shirt can be the hero and help guide his team to a crucial win.
And then it happened. The ball, so treasured and loved by Lewandowski, reunited with him in a perfect position for him to go in and finally score at a World Cup. Lewandowski, one of the game’s greats, a man who has won everything at the club level, fell to the ground in a mixture of jubilation and relief. This is why we are all here at the World Cup. It means so much.
It was once again a lesson that for these star players to perform in these environments, sometimes they need others to steal their show. Poland had several heroes that helped them get a lead and hold on to it. A group of characters that stood tall and built a foundation that ultimately allowed Lewandowski to have his moment and Qatar 2022 to have another iconic one too. While Poland fans and media rose to celebrate the goal, Saudi Arabian fans were stunned into silence. It is there where they should be joined by anyone willing to question Lewandowski’s legacy ever again.
Bizarre bus rides
In an effort to ensure all media members can get to the games, the World Cup organizers have a large number of buses going from the main media centre to stadiums. While grateful for this, it is getting more and more challenging to actually get to them. In the past few days, we have had drivers go the wrong way, head towards the wrong stadium and listen to their satellite navigation system rather than watch for signs to entrances.
Today’s journey from Education City Stadium to Lusail Stadium was supposed to take 30 minutes but in fact took two hours. At one point the driver stopped on a major road and demanded everyone to get off the bus and walk as he was lost. Half of the bus got frustrated and left while half of us remained to calm him down. The brilliant Italian journalist Tancredi Palmeri led the way at the front of the bus getting the driver to go a different way before we cut through cones, side roads and parking lots to finally arrive. “Power to the people,” said Tancredi before a golf cart picked us up and helped us get closer and get in before kickoff.
Messi delivers at a crucial time
For an hour Argentina looked languid, burdened by the pressure and expectations, frustrated by Mexico in a game full of fouls and stoppages. Space seemed to close in the moment Lionel Messi got the ball. Argentina were 30 minutes away from not winning a second successive game at the World Cup.
While that would have meant they could have still progressed with a 2-0 win over Poland it would also have led to another five days of immense pressure on a team who seem to be affected like no other by such distractions. Only two teams since this format began in 1998 have progressed through the group stages after not winning their opening two matches (Turkey 2002, Greece 2014). That was the mountain facing Argentina.
Then Messi suddenly had time and space for two touches. One to steady and one to load, his left foot pulling back to unleash a perfectly placed shot along the ground and into the corner. It was another iconic moment at this World Cup, a moment to change the way Argentina feel and change the momentum. They remain nowhere near their best but few teams respond to emotion like this one. As low as the lows can feel, the highs are just as powerful for Argentina and at 1-0 they settled into the game and secured the win thanks to Enzo Fernandez’s spectacular strike.
Disrespect continues for Croatia
John Herdman didn’t seem to have much time for getting into “F Croatia” saga here in Qatar when he met the media on Saturday afternoon. By now, you will have seen the image on the Croatian front page targeting the Canadian coach and asking if he has “the balls.”
Herdman did tell TSN today it was said during an ‘emotional moment’ and as someone who is often asked to speak live into a microphone, I have compassion for those when it comes to getting the right words out at the right time. However, he did repeat the quote again in a press conference some 30 minutes later but did follow-up on Saturday calling it a ‘learning moment’ showing some contrition in a correct manner to try and put an end to it all.
It won’t be easy, however. The Toronto Sun decided to light the flame a little brighter on Saturday morning when it ran the headline ‘Our Balls are Bigger’ next to a photo of two footballs.
Presumably the sub editor who went with it hadn’t done his research on the Croatian team and its history. This is why careful words publicly are far more advisable when you are at a World Cup. We are, after all, talking about countries. The idea that one country can ‘F’ another may well be acceptable language amongst a team environment if it is meant a certain mentality or play is needed to ‘get into them’. On its own publicly it can be dangerous and running such a headline is disgraceful.
I would guess the sub editor, who went home to the comforts of his Toronto area home after publishing, would know little to nothing about how this Croatian team have been built. I would guess he has no idea about December 18th, 1991, when Serbian forces invaded the town young Luka Modrić, was living in, immediately bringing tragedy and horror to Croatian families. Modric’s grandfather was shot and killed that day, his parents had to escape with little Luka and his sister Jasmina, forced into a small hotel without much in the middle of a war. This is just one of many stories of tragedy that stay with these players yet have become some of the world’s best players. They are of an age that each of them plays for a further deeper purpose with some, like Modric, remembering a time pre-October 1990 when Croatia didn’t yet play an international football match.
Canada’s story is unique and special, and it is a pity more people are not talking about these players and their stories, choosing instead to believe it is somehow a good thing that the attention is off them, as if somehow, they would be drowned in pressure. This is the time to highlight those stories. Croatia has their own too that should not be looked down upon. This is a wonderfully proud country that too many Canadians have accepted, laughed, encouraged and celebrated that Canada can ‘F’ them. Many of the same people who are far too quick to call other countries arrogant in a passive aggressive manner, particularly their neighbours to the south, but condone this because it is coming from their team.
Whether they win, draw or lose tomorrow, the simple facts are Croatia don’t lack ‘balls’ as the Toronto Sun suggests off the pitch and on it where multiple UEFA Champions League winners and a remarkable number of domestic titles sit amongst them. This is not to say the Canadian squad should be in awe of them, but we should all be reminded that it was one thing for a team to say things behind closed doors to motivate them, it is quite another for many Canadians to do the same. Many of whom will be the first to celebrate if Canada wins and have absolutely no idea the size of that accomplishment should it happen because it was far more important to not talk about our players and target the opposition instead. What a pity.