That was quite an evening. The Argentina World Cup team were 5th in the outright betting odds heading into the tournament. Now they’ll be lucky to get out of the group stage.
We’ll begin today’s 2018 World Cup diary shortly with a look back at their disastrous performance.
But first, an announcement.
Full 90 Football will be live at the World Cup again tonight! We’ve got World Cup tickets to see Serbia take on Switzerland; a tantalising fixture, in the wide-open Group E.
I’ll be posting on Twitter live from the game (and perhaps on Instagram too), so make sure you give us a follow to get our on-the-spot posts. There will also be a full report in tomorrow’s World Cup Diary, of course, with lots of pretty pictures.
In today’s Diary, I’m also going to be telling you about Kaliningrad. It’s one of the less-heralded World Cup locations, but it’s the one I’m calling home for the first fortnight of the tournament. If you’re not interested in the actual football, then you can just zip straight down to that right now!
Right, let’s get cracking.
Argentina World Cup 2018 Over?
I never had high hopes for the 2018 Argentina World Cup team.
They were up in 5th place in my pre-tournament World Cup power rankings, true, but everything I actually wrote about them was negative.
It wasn’t difficult to discern the warning signs, heading into the Argentina World Cup 2018 campaign. They were coming off three straight finals defeats. A world-class attack was in place (it seemed), but there was little whatsoever in midfield or defence.
They dropped to 7th in the second edition, following their lackluster display against Iceland… and they’re going to be a lot lower than that next time out, I can tell you now!
Let’s get on to last night’s game – Croatia 3 – 0 Argentina.
Argentina World Cup manager Jorge Sampaoli did little to fix the issues from that Iceland game.
To be fair, there’s not much he can do with the defence – they’re pretty bereft of talent – and besides, midfield was the clear problem area anyway. Argentina were unconvincing in possession against Iceland, and struggled to craft any coherent moves.
In an effort to fix this, he switched from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3. That’s all well and good in theory, but it threw up an enormous new problem. Both his “wing-backs” were really wingers. Every time Croatia won the ball back, there were acres of space down the flanks for Perišić and Rebić to gallop into.
Also, even with the extra man there, Argentina still failed to get anything out of their midfield.
It would be a stretch to say that Éver Banega “changed the game” when he came on against Iceland. He certainly made a positive impact, though. He’s exactly the kind of player that would’ve exercised some influence from the middle last night, with his vision and passing range, and his omission was baffling.
If Sampaoli has some kind of issue with Banega, he could at least have given Giovani Lo Celso a chance. He’s far less experienced, but could have helped to create something.
As it was, Argentina’s midfield was completely anonymous. Not only did they fail to control possession, they also offered barely anything defensively. Modrić and Rakitić deserve plenty of credit for their dominant displays last night, of course; they ran much of the game, between them. That said, Argentina sure made it easy for them.
The treacherous Cesc Fabregas summed it up brilliantly last night. He said that Argentina were playing five in attack, and five in defence, with nothing in the middle. For a midfielder like himself, or a better one like Modrić, that’s an absolute dream.
Croatia World Cup Team Looking Strong
Argentina’s demise is the main story, but credit must be given to Croatia.
I had World Cup tickets to see their opening match, against Nigeria. It was a terrible game, but it was interesting to see Croatia grow as it went along.
They could barely string three passes together in the first half. By the end, they were crafting some wonderful, incisive moves. In particular, they were exploiting the flanks well, moving one of their two brilliant central-midfielders out there to combine with the wide players, creating overpowering overloads.
I was a little worried they’d retreat back into their shell against “tougher” (in theory) opposition. They didn’t.
It wasn’t a dominant performance, despite the scoreline. Still, the result was never in doubt. My favourite thing about their performance was its ruthlessness; something that’s vital, in cup competitions.
They didn’t simply take their fortuitous opener, sit back, and try to grind it out (unlike France against Peru). Croatia knew the Argentina World Cup team were there for the taking, and duly stepped on their throat. They kept pushing, kept moving forwards quickly. Modrić’s goal was beautiful. Their third was just mean – Argentina were already dead and buried – but again, I like that.
Croatia look comfortably one of the 2018 World Cup’s stronger teams. They’re basically Group D winners already, meaning they don’t have to press too hard against a resilient Iceland. If they continue to play this style of direct, attacking football, and don’t retreat when they start to come up against the actual tougher teams, they could go a long way in this competition.
World Cup 2018 Locations – Kaliningrad
I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again! Kaliningrad isn’t the sexiest of World Cup locations, and I only chose it because I liked the games here.
To be honest, I’d never heard of it before the 2018 World Cup (though I knew its German name, Königsberg). It’s got a fascinating history, though, and I’ve actually grown to rather like the place.
(The football portion of today’s World Cup 2018 Diary is over, by the way. If the word “history” made your eyes droop already, now’s a good time to close the article).
I’ve mostly been shut up in my apartment since getting to Kaliningrad, writing for the website, doing my actual job, and watching a ton of World Cup football. When I have emerged, usually in the evenings… it’s been to go somewhere else to watch football.
Yesterday, my girlfriend and I finally got out into the city proper, and did some exploring.
History of Kaliningrad
Here’s a super-quick whip-through of Kaliningrad’s past.
For almost all its history, Kaliningrad – or Königsberg – has been a German city. Specifically, it was the capital of Prussia for many centuries (until 1701, when Berlin became the capital), and thereafter the capital of East Prussia. Even well into the 20th century, up until WWII, it was one of Germany’s most important eastern cities.
Then, World War Two happened, and the entire place was basically demolished.
When the dust settled, the Soviet Union annexed Königsberg and the surrounding region, renamed it Kaliningrad, and set about removing almost all traces of its Prussian heritage. All the Germans who still lived there were expelled.
Upon the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Kaliningrad was left in a very strange spot. Despite being 100% Russian, it was now completely cut off from the mainland:
Its western position makes Kaliningrad a key strategic holding for Russia, particularly as it borders NATO members Lithuania and Poland. It also has a port which is ice-free throughout the year, and thus serves as the home of Russia’s Baltic fleet.
Kaliningrad’s Historical Centre – Kneiphof
The only thing I knew about Kaliningrad, before coming, was that it used to be German. Accordingly, I was expecting to find a Germanic/Russian cultural mix, and plenty of German architecture.
I did not.
Kaliningrad is a completely Russian place. It was actually closed to foreigners entirely until the early 1990s, and there’s barely any evidence at all of its Prussian past.
There are also almost no historical buildings whatsoever in the city. The historical centre (such as it is) is an island in the middle of the city. It used to be known as Kneiphof, and was one of three towns that constituted Königsberg.
Here’s what the centre used to look like:
And here’s how it looks now:
Across the green, quiet island, there are signposts which throw the juxtaposition between past and present into sharp contrast. It’s genuinely hard to believe, as you walk through the sleepy sculpture park, that the same little-used roads and paths were once the streets of a fully-developed, thriving city centre.
The cathedral – which is the most recognisable landmark in the city – is of an odd design. The style is apparently “brick gothic”, but – to my untrained eye – it still looks a pretty atypical example of gothic architecture:
Like most of Königsberg, the cathedral was reduced to rubble by allied air raids during WWII. It remained an empty shell up until the early nineties, when it was finally rebuilt.
As well as being a thriving port, Königsberg was also a centre of learning for many centuries. It was a university city, home to the prestigious Albertina University since 1544. Its most famous alumnus was philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is buried on the island:
Nowadays, the region of Kaliningrad is most famous for its amber deposits. In fact, a whopping 90% of the world’s amber is mined here. The actual mines are off to the north of the city, but there are still plenty of amber trinkets available to buy here:
Kaliningrad – Final Thoughts (For Now)
To simply walk around Kaliningrad today, with no knowledge of its history, you’d think you were in a soulless, modern city, or perhaps a satellite town near a larger, more important place. The architecture is largely concrete and blocky, the parks are the same as you’d find anywhere else, and – to put it simply – there’s little to do here.
And yet, in reality, Kaliningrad is a place with an absolutely fascinating history, which finds itself in an incredibly unusual spot today.
It’s a German city, really… but all traces of that heritage have been removed, and Germany doesn’t press any claim whatsoever upon it.
It’s a product of the Soviet era… but that era has long since ended, and now it’s simply left, isolated from the rest of Russia, amongst other former Soviet states.
It’s a city which itself has little cultural or economic impact… but, with the way things are going between NATO and Russia, would seem a prime candidate to become a flash point in any potential conflict or second Cold War.
Kaliningrad is, quite simply, an incredibly odd place. There isn’t really any other way to put it.