The World Cup, in its 90 years of existence, has not been particularly kind to its champions. Over the past three tournaments, the trophy holders – The Deceivers have tested Italy; dominant Spain; A resilient Germany team that, in the semi-finals, humiliated Brazil, 7-1, in Brazil – got out as early as possible, the group stage. No country has successfully defended the World Cup since 1962, when the tournament featured just sixteen teams, and Pele still roams the field. Expectations are a heavy thing. There is talk of a curse.
France, an exceptionally talented team and title-winning champions, have a habit of falling victim to what the soccer media likes to call the “implosion”. Personal disagreements, catastrophic injuries. In 2010, the team had a fight with its own manager, and one of the players fell off a mountain bike during a freak team-bonding activity in the Alps. In 2002, as champions from 1998, they lost their first match and were quickly knocked out of the group. Missing out this year in Qatar were the two players widely seen as key to their 2018 victory, midfielders N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, both injured. A few weeks ago, the team’s best striker, Karim Benzema, won the men’s Ballon d’Or, the award for the best player in the world. Three days ago, he was beaten to the full cup after aggravating his groin injury during training. (the team Headline: “Le Ballon de Plomb,” The Lead Ball.) Even one of the team’s younger stars, Christopher Nkunku, top scorer in the Bundesliga, was injured, also during training, due to the intervention of a teammate. The team seemed busy gathering omens.
Their opponents, Australia, whom I have supported my whole life, also entered this tournament on a wave of measured expectations. The team qualified, somewhat improbably, for their fifth consecutive World Cup. However, confidence was low. The Australians, as they are known, had a strange and stuttering qualifying journey: they drew with Oman, lost against Saudi Arabia and struggled in a tense play-off against Peru. While other countries in the English region, such as the United States and Canada, or in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, have young, exciting teams who feel they are on the verge of a major turnaround, Australia felt they were at one end of the spectrum.
But the devotion of an Australian football fan can border on absurdity. The World Cup in Australia is usually a night event. Europe has sunlit pubs, miles of fan spots, and a splash of beer. In Australia, near the edge of the International Date Line, matches are a must-see at 3:15 A.m or 4:45 A.m My memories of the World Cup often begin with an absent eye, in the dark, with alarm. For this year’s playoff game against Peru, fans gathered at Melbourne’s Federation Square before sunrise, in the cold. When the match went into a penalty shootout, fans bowed to the big screens as if it were the midnight mass. On Tuesday, the match kicked off in Qatar at 6. A.m on the east coast of Australia, and 3 A.m In the West, my phone started to light up with morning messages.
In the first 25 minutes of the opening match, Australia were hopeful. They removed France, attacked and threatened the French goal with a kick deep in the French half of the field. They even scored in the eighth minute. The ball was lifted a long distance to Australian winger Matthew Leckie. His pass slipped behind the French defenders, who play for Liverpool and Bayern Munich, to Craig Goodwin, who plays for Adelaide United. Goodwin pushed it to the ceiling of the net. Lucas Hernandez, the French left back, was on the grass, holding his right knee. On replays, it appeared he was already falling back, sulking from a game-ending injury, even as he stretched out to block the ball. Damn thoughts spread.
But France still has Kylian Mbappe – who won the World Cup at 19, now at 23 best – and Olivier Giroud, a multi-faceted, if sometimes outspoken weapon. The French team wasn’t missing their stars much, but rather formed a slightly duller constellation. Lucas Hernandez’s brother Theo, who plays in the same position, took his place, creating the French response – an easy-to-catch goal. The team ran through its gears, finding a second, then a third, then a fourth. In the seventy-first minute, Mbappe received the ball. He stood completely still for a second. Then Australian defender Nathaniel Atkinson approached, Mbappe dropped one leg, took a left, and suddenly he was now on the Australian goal line, lofting a ball for Giroud who nodded the ball home.
The French would be forgiven for feeling, thankfully, a little superstitious. Their final World Cup opening match was also against Australia, in a group that also dismayedly contained their next opponent, Denmark. Finally, a good omen to balance out the bad.
For Australians, there was a shudder of what might have been. A friend of mine, a reporter on assignment, watched the match from a hotel room in the small provincial town of Peak Hill, New South Wales. The night before, he was at a bar in the nearby town of Parkes. Above him, on the wall, was a faded photograph of the 2003 match when Australia beat England, in England, 3-1. Harry Kewell, who would later play for Liverpool, feuded with David Beckham. The Australian team in Qatar is far from this model. But, on Sunday, winger Awer Mabil – one of four members of the Australian national team who came to the country as refugees – told the media the team hoped to “shock the world”. For twenty-five minutes, they almost made it. ♦