The knock-outs began with pressure on the big guns... What an outcome. Europe asserting its authority over Latin America?
The impressive performance of Croatia in this tournament (winning all 3 of their games so far) masks a real crisis in Croatian football and indeed their national team. Earlier in June just before tournament Zdravko Mamic - the power of Croatian football since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 was sentenced for 6.5 years for fraud relating to transfers when he was head of Dinamo Zagreb (in the early days of indy known as Croatia Zagreb). He has fled into Bosnia rather than face prison. Several of the players he made millions from are in the national squad including club captain Luka Modric - man of the match in recent Champions League Final - and Liverpool defender Lovren. Modric gave confused and weak testimony in Mamic's trial (see below) and has been charged with perjury - which he will have to deal with after tournament. Lovren also gave contradictory evidence and is currently being investigated for perjury
. Mamic was also Vice President of the national Croatian Federation - Cacic (the coach duirng Euro 2016) was widely seen as a dupe of Mamic and was sacked as Mamic was charged. Their new coach Dalic has been brought in from UAE football where he managed fairly impressively. Perhaps more significantly he has no links with Mamic although ironically given Mamic's self imposed exile he is a Bosnian Croat.
Whether the excitement of the World Cup can overcome these tensions for the next couple of weeks we shall have to see.
The Right Wing governments of both Croatia and Denmark met at the EU Summit on Immigration last week - Croatia refusing to host any processing camps for migrants. Denmark has also taken a strong anti-immigration stance with the growth of the populist right wing Danish People's Party. In the last few years welfare payments to asylum seekers has been slashed provoking protest s (see below)The moderate Social Democratic Danish party (Labour's sister party and one of the models for the SNP Growth Commission) is now indistinguishable from the far-right on immigration - calling for a cap on asylum seekers amongst other things - meaning other left groups have broken all potential links with it. The Danish team have a number of players whose families arrived as refugees from Africa in a more welcoming period.
The Mexicans will take to the pitch this afternoon in the afterglow of a massive left wing landslide victory for Obrador. (see below) He gained over 50% of the votes with a left wing populist programme - in defiance to the country's establishment and (obvioulsy) Trump's Presidency. Many Mexicans speak of overturning the "theft" of the 1988 election where the leftist candidate Cardenas' victory was stolen - with the neo-liberal governments that followed across Mexico and Latin America in the 90s this could have sparked a very different history.
One year later in Brazil Lula the veteran trade unionist also almost won the Presidency with the Workers' Party. Now the situation is very different. Lula was jailed in April this year for corruption charges - he is now barred from standing in this year's elections where he was leading the opinion polls. This follows the "coup" which overthrew the Workers' Party President and torture survivor - Dilma Roussef in 2016. She was also impeached on misusing government funds. This has created the basis for a right wing movement in Brazil - the leading candidate in the opinion polls is Bolsonaro (see below) - a far right ex-army officer. He expressly praised the torturers in Brazil's miltary dictatorship of Roussef before her impeachment. He is also explicitly homophobic and has advocated sterilisation of poor familiies. The fact that the Left (despite the moderate nature of the Worker's Party in power - they still had a large degree of support) has no candidate to counter Bolsonaro is really worrying. To such an extent Tite the Brazilian coach who has turned the team round after the humiliation of the 7-1 defeat to Germany at home was named as most Brazilians' favoured Presidential candidate. Tite has dismissed this out of hand though if he wins the World Cup in Russia - this momentum may become unstoppable!!
The Quarter Finals!
One outside bet for the tournament are Uruguay who have won every game so far and only conceded one goal with a strong defence. One inspiration for the team is to win it for their manager Oscar Tabarez (see below) whose health is visibly failing with alleged Guillain-Barre syndrome. Tabarez is the longest serving manager at the World Cup (in post since 2006) and made the semi-finals in 2010. He has revolutionised Uruguayan football and has moved it away from the brutal team that played Scotland in the 1986 tournament. He is known as El Maestro - he has a background as a primary school teacher- and is close to the leftist President Tabare Vazquez. Vazquez was also involved in football being the Chairman of Montevideo team Progres in the 80s (when it won the league). His Broad Front coalition have faced some protests in January this year from farmers allied to the right wing parties who have been excluded from power for 15 years who wanted more tax subsidies (see below).
At his house Tabarez has a quote emblazened on his wall ascribed to Che Guevara "One must harden oneself without losing tenderness.” He also named his daughter Tania after Che's comrade in the Cuban and Bolivian struggles. His support for Che ensured he was popular with Argentinian club Boca Juniors who he coached to a title in early 1990s.
His philosophical approach has gone down surprisingly well with the Uruguay team who have a few big names in their line up notably Suarez and Cavani. In Tabarez' own words "Football is a collective game not an individual one. When I want to see stars I look at the sky. I do not coach stars I coach people." Good luck El Maestro!
England v Sweden. This afternoon's match has historically two closely aligned teams. Swedish football followed English football tactically and structurally very closely for many years. Eriksson and Hodgson (both ex England coaches) won a number of league titles in Sweden early in their career. Southgate in many other ways a breath of fresh air as no connections with that form of tactics - allowing him to develop a more mainland European direction ironic given the Brexit era. The Swedish coah Andersson like Southgate has only ever managed in his domestic league. They also both are keen students of other sports to see what they can learn - Andersson with handball and Southgate with American Sports - notably basketball and their form of football!
The future for English football as a whole regardless of the outcome of today and indeed the tournament is in a lot of doubt. Every member of the England squad plays in England although the number of English players in the league is a minorirty (see below) - in contrast to few of the Swedish squad playing domestically.
On the day after Theresa May announced plans to adopt a soft-ish Brexit she spoke of a work permit system across EU rather than free movement. This system already operates in English Football Leagues (including the Premier League) and indeed Scottish leagues for non- EU players. Essentially this means the player needs to be a regular international with a lot of caps or young and you have paid a lot of money for them recognising their potential The big money dominance of the Premier League from 1992 onwards coincided with the expansion of the EU allowing the cream of European football in England with minimum immigration law fuss - even Scotland got Laudrup and Larsson in the 1990s (established Scandinavian internationals).
Academic research shows that if the free movement of EU footballers had not existed in the Premier League Era and instead a work permit system - which looks quite similar to May's proposals - was in place only 40% of foreign players would have been allowed to play in England. This ban would have included big names like Anelka, Fabregas, Vialli, Mahrez, Kante and Alonso. Post Brexit the English Premier League may become something very different. Southgate may see this as an advantage as his young team may get more English players around them at their clubs. Or it could mean the influence of the more skilful European possession football could diminish.
Sweden itself had its own ambiguous relaionship with the EU - it only voted to join in 1995 with a majority of 52% - the reverse of the 2016 Brexit vote. The current Social Democrat PM Lofven (see below) (an Anglophile Spurs fan!) has shifted to the right on immigration like his Danish counter part and has vowed to cut refugee numbers in half pandering to far right populists. A close match in political leaders as well as football history - let the best team win!