The World Cup needed a dose of normality, and Poland’s wider struggles being embodied by their star man’s provided just that.
This has thus far been a confusing, other-worldly and discombobulating World Cup.
It’s in winter for a start, in a country with no football heritage among a litany of other problems and it’s not followed any kind of accepted script to this point.
The strangeness of the matches has been amplified by every game seemingly having a minimum of 15 added minutes as FIFA clamp down on time-wasting. The five longest halves ever recorded at a men’s World Cup happened between Monday afternoon and Tuesday lunchtime, according to Opta boffins.
And the results haven’t been anything like you’d expect. Nobody in truth knew exactly what to expect from Qatar but few thought they would be quite so magnificently, hilariously dreadful in becoming the first hosts ever to lose their opening game.
Then along came England, with assorted players and the manager under pressure and an unwanted distraction of the bollocksed up OneLove protest to face a tricky-looking opening fixture. We all know what that leads to – yep, thumping great 6-2 wins in which Gareth Southgate’s England attack with clinical skill and dazzling frequency.
Into day three, and of course Saudi Arabia come from 1-0 down at half-time against Argentina, who also managed to have three goals ruled out in the first “45” minutes, to record a sensational 2-1 win and what boffins would later decree to be the greatest shock in World Cup history.
It was all getting a bit much, and so it was surely a relief for everyone to see two sides you can absolutely set your World Cup watch by. Poland and Mexico, the two most relentlessly reliable performers of all on the grandest stage.
In Mexico’s case, this famously means always reaching the last 16 but absolutely never getting any further.
Since being banned from Italia 90 due to the Cachirules scandal, Mexico have qualified for all seven World Cups and gone out in the first knockout round every single time. It’s a reassuring presence at every World Cup, and this is a tournament in grave need of reassuring presences.
Poland do not have the same World Cup pedigree as Mexico, who hold the record for most World Cup matches played by any team never to reach a final despite never even reaching a semi-final, but are if anything even more reliable in the modern era.
They’ve been at three World Cups this century, and their record is identical in every one of them. Played three, won one, lost two, finished third, gone home.
More than that, closer examination reveals the pattern is even bleaker than that suggests. Every single time they’ve lost their first two games before collecting a futile win in the last. They don’t just go out at the earliest opportunity, they go out at the earliest opportunity.
So this should have been nice and easy. Long before the tournament begun it was easy to mark out as a potentially pivotal group-stage game, its place in the opening round of games doing little to alter its likely status as a second-place shootout in a group also featuring Argentina and Saudi Arabia.
That narrative had already been thoroughly upended by events hours earlier, and made this game simultaneously more and less significant. For the winner, top spot would suddenly be beguilingly in sight, but defeat would no longer carry the expected finality.
The result, which we found surprisingly welcome in its expectedness but which the BBC commentary and punditry team seemed to find disarmingly upsetting, was a cagey first half in which not losing the game was very much the order of the day.
It’s going to be 0-0, we convinced ourselves. That’s okay. It’s not been as good a game as the 0-0 that preceded it but it’s been a tense and competitive game between two good sides either or both of whom could yet make the last 16.
And then VAR got involved and gave Poland a penalty. This is it! This is the moment where this game upends the established World Cup storylines of these two countries. Poland are going to win their first game and get themselves properly in and amongst a World Cup for the first time since 1986. Robert Lewandowski was finally going to match Jude Bellingham and score his first World Cup goal. He’d just need to beat Guillermo Ochoa from 12 yards.
Oh, hang on a second. No. Clearly none of that is going to happen. Lewandowski? World Cup? Ochoa? We know how this goes.
And sure enough, the 37-year-old Ochoa, the hero of Mexico’s 1-0 win over Germany in their opening game four years ago and a man at his fifth World Cup, sprung to his left to deny the 34-year-old striker.
A draw to start the group stage marks an improvement for Poland. Failure to win puts Mexico’s proud record of last-16 qualification at risk.
But in the game’s crucial moment everything went according to plan to leave the group enticingly poised.
And there was only nine minutes of stoppage time.
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