Austria 1 (Arnautovic) Italy 0
The laws in my universe differ from those imposed by Fifa. Austria go through, having weathered a difficult first half and then taken control of the game and in the 64th minute won it through a beautiful header from their querulous star, Marko Arnautovic. It was a deserved victory.
This is why I hate VAR and all of those other inventions the pencil necks have come up with in order to make football pristine, free of chance and human error and misjudgement, which of course it never can be. They cannot see the wood for the trees. VAR has not eliminated controversy, it has heightened it. In this particular case the video carabinieri pronounced Arnautovic offside. And so he was. By a Planck Length, at best. The slenderest strand of a fibre on his left bootlace. That is not the point of the offside law. It is to punish forwards who hung out by the goal for the entire match, thus making the game dull as hell. It was not intended to punish a swift, brilliant attack.
Having thus been spared the guillotine, Italy scored two in extra time and Austria managed only a late consolation. But at least the Austrians showed that Italy are not quite as unassailable as some – including me – had feared.
Meanwhile, my favourite foreign player as a ten year old was Ladislav Petras, Czechoslovakia’s centre forward at the 1970 World Cup. He would cross himself after scoring – something I later did when scoring for my school team, only to be upbraided by my dad ‘because we’re not bloody Catholics’. But an affection for the Czechs has stayed with me, even if Petras was actually Slovakian. I didn’t understand at the time, but Petras’s actions were brave.
Here, the Czechs were the beneficiary of another questionable VAR decision, when De Ligt was sent off for a handball. They scored shortly afterwards, the ball headed back across the Dutch penalty area for Holes to direct a very good header into the net. Then Schick, a player growing in stature, finished superbly as the ten men Dutch were stretched on the break. This is not a great Czech team. There is no Petras or Karol Dobias, still less a Pavel Nedved or Milan Baros. There IS a Masupest – but no relation, genetic or otherwise, to the famous Josef. But they are wily, superbly organised and very street-wise. It is not always easy to play against ten men: the Czechs did it brilliantly.
I was feeling sorry for the talented Dutch. But then the camera panned to a Dutch fan in the stands. A bloke of maybe 50 years. In his replica shirt, the big baby. And with his face painted to resemble a lion – whiskers, black nose etc. Grow up, you marsh-dwelling tit, I thought and the sympathy evaporated. Onwards you gallant Slavs! Onwards to the West!