Football Fancy, World Cup 2018: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

   
  
    
  
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    Photo credit: Instagram @aussenrist15

Photo credit: Instagram @aussenrist15

In hindsight, Toni Kroos’ magical goal against Sweden was the last gasp of life from the World Champions, and not the initial spark that would give the German team the mental strength to turn things around. In the last game of the group stage against South Korea, it became clear very quickly that we needed another miracle to survive, but after 98 minutes, the looming threat was painful reality. It was over.

I’m a very emotional football fan, and I was sad for sure. But we don’t need to sugarcoat anything: it was highly deserved. Constructive criticism is more than appropriate now, and it’s high time for major changes.

Still, I have no understanding for so-called German fans who trash the national team – as if they lost on purpose – those who cheered the loudest when Germany won the World Cup four years ago and are now the first to abandon them, calling them a national disgrace. I’m furious about right-wing populists who have bemoaned the fact that the German team is full of “foreigners”, pointing to Mesut Özil as scapegoat. I’m annoyed at those who instantly demanded Joachim Löw’s resignation, as if the last 12 successful years never happened. And while I understand that mockery and schadenfreude from the rest of the world was to be expected, I can’t remember laughing when Spain had to leave the tournament early four years ago – but then again, I’m not an asshole.

I woke up this morning feeling hungover (not only due to the wine I drank yesterday, I presume), but despite Germany’s historic defeat, the group stage of this World Cup also presented me with lots of memorable and heartwarming moments.

Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz was devastated when he scored an own goal in the fifth minute of injury time against Iran. Obviously, Iran was over the moon to win its second World Cup match ever, but forward Reza Ghoochannejhad understood the pain of his unlucky opponent. He took to Instagram to send him a heartfelt message: “I don’t know you personally but in life, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Don’t let this own goal bring you down. We are all professional sportsmen and this is a part of football. I am so happy and proud of my country, but wanted to wish you also all the best in your career.”

When TV commentators from World Cup debutant Panama heard their national anthem at this major tournament for the first time, they couldn’t help but cry and gave each other a big, long hug. Moreover, even when Panama was down 0-6 against England, the fans in the stadium continued to cheer them on and celebrated like there’s no tomorrow when their team finally scored the country’s first-ever World Cup goal.

   
  
    
  
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    Photo credit: Instagram @jondadi

Photo credit: Instagram @jondadi

Iceland, another debutant and a country that already won hearts at the EURO 2016, posted a photo before their game against Nigeria: the whole team was standing together, holding up a jersey of Nigeria’s goalkeeper Carl Ikeme, who had to miss the tournament because he was battling leukemia. The caption read: “All of us in @footballiceland are with you @Carl_Ikeme” – a wonderful gesture from a team that kept alive my somewhat romantic notion of what football can and should be.

The award for best fans after this group stage must go to the supporters from Japan and Senegal, as videos circulating on social media showed them cleaning up after themselves in the stadium – good manners go a long way, and this golden rule also applies for a football game.

And lastly, there is a particularly touching story that I found out about via Twitter: the South China Morning Post had recorded a video of Nicolas Atkin, a sports reporter and editor based in Hong Kong, carefully filling his World Cup album with Panini stickers. In the end, he realized, that he was missing one sticker: Medhi Benatia, the captain of Morocco’s national team, was nowhere to be found. Imagine his surprise when he walked into his office a couple of days later, finding a letter from California on his desk. It was from a 5-year-old boy named Philip who had sent him the missing sticker. The accompanying letter read: “Dear Nicolas […] I enjoyed watching your Panini sticker album video on SCMP’s Twitter feed, and I was sad when I saw how devastated you were by missing the Medhi Benatia sticker. But then I realized that I have an extra Medhi Benatia sticker, and the thought of sending it to you made me happy.”

A World Cup lives from excitement, thrill and also devastating loss and pain on the pitch. But sometimes it’s the stories off the pitch that deliver the powerful message of football: this is a sport that speaks a universal language, can break down barriers and unite people regardless of their gender, age and color. I, for one, am looking forward to the rest of this World Cup. Although the team of my heart is already back home, my love for them and the game stays.