Almanac Soccer: Argentina v France – Maji Square, Taipei

 

 

By this night of December 19, our holiday has drained. The brief time my sister and I have left is mostly booked for Taipei Christmas shopping. There’s at least a public viewing of the World Cup Final to come, and yet it struggles to feel necessarily part of the trip, as compared to an immovable, spectacular gorge, a 500-metre tower, or a brush with specialty street-food. Heading towards notionally the biggest occasion in world sport under the cover of late Sunday night doesn’t feel particularly Taiwanese¸ especially as we begin merging with groups of European expats in numbers we haven’t seen before on these streets. Some had even diverted to queue in a 7-Eleven for Japanese beer. Here’s evidence of football ‘bringing the world together’ in a fashion that’d please anxious FIFA promoters.

Jess isn’t a soccer fan – is famous for kicking with her toes during old beach games. My knowledge is patchy at best, and yet I take the posture of a presumptuous tour guide – as I have, unbidden, for many of the experiences of the trip. She knows Messi, of course, and I add Mbappe. I figure they’re enough, and I could only tell her a couple more anyway. We agree the best possible outcome is a match decided by penalties, clear justification for the lost sleep.

Specifically, I’d like two open-play goals from both teams in the regular minutes, one apiece in extra time, a tense shootout as the eventual determinant. Greedy, given the special agony penalties lump upon at least a few players. But such a game surely would have all the obvious, eternal ingredients of the ‘invasion game’ sporting classic – relative high scoring that doesn’t completely discredit defenders, long periods of inseparability, delayed crescendo. You might consume water-polo, handball or Ultimate Frisbee as a spectator, and know certainly if you tasted the above combination your experience was something valuable.

This tournament has only intertwined with brief patches of my time in Taiwan – trips to sports bars for the Socceroos, missing most of the Denmark victory as I battled to get a VPN for an old laptop, a couple of early mornings with second-halves as piercing blue phone-light. During the Argentina v Australia game, at a Scottish bar in Taipei, an American, in perhaps his only worthwhile comment to us (he was pissed, coming off his team’s quarter-final loss to the Netherlands), suggested the place to be in this city, for this kind of sporting event, was ‘Maji Square’.

We’ve kept it in our back pockets since – otherwise full of portable chargers, $1 NTD coins, infernal convenience-store receipts – and now, returning to the megalopolis, have retrieved it for the final. The square with the quasi-Biblical name extends off a riverside park, is a thin food-court alley between converted shipping containers, perhaps sixty-metres long, fifteen- wide. The food stalls are all shut by this hour, save for a van wafting mysteriously in the unobtainable near-distance. Dozens of picnic benches have already been claimed by large groups of the savvy.

To protest the human rights record, perhaps, the projector screen might only be 1.5x the size of what you’d find in a high-school classroom. I think I’m being smart in jogging to a different 7-Eleven (400m away from the previous – there’s 6,400 stores for fans in Taiwan to collect) for our own supplies, but by the time I’m back the crowd has clotted around the screen ridiculously. There might be 2500 people. To return to Jess’ prime spot requires the personality I’m lately questioning most, and which has been frequently roused by travel scenarios of being put-out by transport, carrying a backpack too long, or feeling underfed. In short, I’m assertive to the verge of aggression – I move into and between a crowd that has very little interest in moving for me. This place isn’t properly a bottleneck, I know – I can’t be initiating a crush – but it does feel I reach Jess in a fashion not many others would have attempted.

Argentina seems the most popular team but the French is the dominant non-Taiwanese nationality. Without handing out surveys, I suspect they’re mostly students. When either of PSG club teammates (a titbit I learnt afterwards!) Messi or Mbappe have their faces large on the high-school screen, the roar is distinct, almost ironic. The pre-game seems feebly reduced to the pair. This is, undeniably, the biggest crowd I’ve watched a soccer match amongst, save a few widely-dispersed mobs from A-League games in the early ’10s – a mundane, peaceful era. The Argentinian anthem gets no karaoke, but there’s a unified effort for ‘La Marseillaise’, and then it’s kick-off before anyone can drum-up much of a countdown. I don’t need this puffer-jacket. We’re sardines, brined by our own sweat between the shipping containers. We’re Maji noodles wound tight into one brick.

I’m standing behind Jess’ hair. The commentary is in Mandarin, leaving us to come to our own ideas. We can both acknowledge Messi’s side make the better start, with the ball having a magnet that seems to want their half. The pockets of real Argentines in the Taipei crowd (which I’m finding surreal, though I could just be underestimating their diaspora) show appreciation for each of the forays. Now, the odds of a classic appear slim, given the energy of the teams is so different. Argentina deserve a lead, but surely not its circumstances. Di Maria, a name I gather from his flop and the subsequent news reports, receives little more than a hard, incidental high-five from his French marker, and the force has him toppling in the penalty box.

It’s outrageous, but the biased crowd don’t make much protest as their diminutive hero approaches the spot. I explain to Jess, again unprompted, that the VAR will overturn this – owing to the fact Dembele barely touched him – but it turns out the system isn’t so sensible. Phones go aloft in Taipei at 11:20PM, so that the moment the hero converts theatrically can be preserved in a cloud, shared as proof each videographer picked the right place for seeing the final. My own phone’s included. Lionel scores, collapses, infinitesimally poses on the ground like he’s Richie on an album cover, and it crystallises in that moment I’m herein supporting Le Bleus. Only the celebrations in Taipei are audible.

I hate the way the camera follows Dembele afterwards, as though he is guilty. And then how he’s dragged, later, as seeming confirmation. Still, it’s a simmering atmosphere, it feels like a major event. Around the 35th minute, Jess turns, hands me her beer, tells me she has to leave the crowd. I react, first thought, like it’s urgent but under control – perhaps a bathroom visit – and I permit myself to stay in the hard-won spot among the sardine school, with its strong vantage of the relatively small screen, in case she’ll soon be back.

Yet it quickly dawns on me the tone was for a more serious evacuation, that in not following my travel companion and sister – ‘little’, but 23 – immediately, helping to part the dense throng of people to be on hand to pacify someone she’d spewed an emulsion of Pocky sticks and Pad Thai over, to assist with a clean-up, and to bear the brunt of the protests and threats of her deportation instead, say, I’ve provided evidence I’m more than part-shithead, in fact the ratio could be severe.

See, I forget briefly I don’t like soccer enough to justify lingering behind. It’s amidst this early regret that Di Maria gets released by Mac Allister with more space, scores, and the match I’d clung to against my character is suddenly, surely finished. I find Jess, a few minutes before half-time, sitting on a bench at the back of the plaza – closer to a Sunday night street-dance troupe than the crowd. She didn’t puke. She gets giddy standing on her feet like that too long, I might’ve known. I offer leaving, largely because of the score-line.

But we don’t – Jess is keen to stay near the back. The demographic, here, is perhaps less parochial, more Taiwanese. A popular chant overtakes the whole square, flings between ‘MESSI!’ … ‘MBAPPE!’, is coordinated by two suspected Europeans alternating the competing flags and gets filmed by them for sweet content. France starts better in the second half, as you know, and more of the neutrals are now urging them on. I’ve got it fresh in my mind – verbalise it, even – that around the 70-minute mark, in the Scottish sports bar, Argentina very nearly capitulated to the Socceroos. Only an analyst sharing my nationalistic bent, then, might have predicted what’s to come.

A vengefully aggrandised foul gets a Bleu penalty. Mbappe – who’d been about to surrender the Golden Boot to Messi on account of the veteran’s numerous penalty opportunities, his team of divers – strikes back. They then actually take the goal-scoring lead within the same surge of momentum, through a ball so heavy it might’ve been slugged not by Kylian’s boot but the metal Adidas shoe that is the trophy itself. In the national contest – more importantly – it’s suddenly 2-2, and I emit an abrupt, possibly involuntary shout. It is now a classic. On account of the stakes and the surprise of the French comeback – and yet how much of a surprise can it really be when, to my eye, hardly trained, they boast the most dynamic forward in the sport?

The crowd lifts further. There’s excitement among the neutrals that this effort to come out has been rewarded by a match that’s remarkable. We’re watching something that will be re-watched, while it’s hot and fresh, rather than later lifting it out of the sporting bain-marie of replays and archives. Maybe the vibe of playing and spectating within history is thick in the Qatari stadium, as well. Maybe it rumbles the contestants. The broadcast has footage aplenty of Di Maria, substituted, demonstrable, and perhaps his distress contains the thought his influence on the match, when it’s said and done, will have drained.

I can’t hear anything of the Taiwanese commentators. There seems to be such a course towards penalties – the paradoxically crude and proper wedge for landmark games – that even when Messi’s second goal undeniably passes the decisive line, the match doesn’t seem done, like the scenario of its end is already booked. The ‘MESSI!’… ‘MBAPPE!’ chanting, luring half of the three-thousand strong crowd (no new arrivals, but it’s surely swollen) no longer seems so reductive when it’s unmistakably just these two trading the barbs. It’s fair to wonder whether an Argentine defender could have removed his limb in time to prevent a 117th minute handball, but I’m not too aggrieved given I’ve stayed a Bleu sympathiser. I want France’s late, very serious chances to be caught by the net, though this would reduce the length, the legacy. Instead, goal-keeping heroics adds to these.

I’m still Jess’ self-appointed guide for the match and I inform her that only twice before have finals been decided on penalties like this. She mightn’t see me checking Google. That other famous final, 2006, glimmers from more than a decade ago like Zidane’s polished, combative dome, but it’s been resoundingly eclipsed. I’d been 11 years old and half-asleep, watching it on SBS. Only the headbutt had been saved in me – I’d forgotten that match went to penalties, too.

Here and now, the penalty process is mercifully quick, as if the contest has already provided enough to its observers, like the tournament’s overall spent. Certainly the crowd at Maji Square – and we can judge them better, from deeper in the pack, despite the lanky obstructor who could be Dutch or American, but is definitely a tosspot – can’t even seem to keep tempo with the attempts. When Argentina’s Montiel seals it, his tired celebration, and undressing, like he’s preparing for bed, fits the mood. Plenty of cheering, still, of course. No involuntary shout from me, just brief disappointment. Which gets swamped by the fact I hadn’t even come here with a horse in the race, and I did, magically, receive each of those events I might have ordered, disregarding the predominance of penalty goals.

Jess and I had been contemplating an hour’s walk back to desperate accommodation in Ximen, but then remember the city’s bike rental service. I’m riding alongside the river like I’m coming back from the real stadium, bridges and outlying New Taipei bright in the early Monday morning, the path wandering gently, allowing daydreaming, and I’m reflecting this might’ve all been one of the great experiences of the trip. And it gets confirmed as such in the peeling hotel room, when a quick check of news reports confirms many learned sources think it the greatest final of all time. Truly, all we could’ve possibly asked for. We want the best for our era. Together, we compete against the past, but it’s a tough adversary and if we can sniff a victory, a pinnacle, we’ll quickly claim it.

I feel I’m allowed to store this game alongside that early morning three years ago, when New Zealand and England played the greatest cricket match of all time, simultaneous to Federer and Djokovic entering the first fifth-set tiebreaker in a Wimbledon final, simultaneous to me running a TV-marathon in a Melbourne lounge room. We feel like whatever we’ve seen, to a small extent, is ours, however faraway it’s happening, we move to paste it amongst our own stories. Of course, when I check this night in years ahead, it will perhaps be blotched by its own moments of scandal, like Zidane’s final match. Rather than the flight of Mbappe’s second goal, I might expect to one-day find only a mental picture of me holding my place with two Sapporo cans, not doing much, and having my sister disappear. Which is regrettable. At least no lasting images of four French students, a random Argentinian, several Taiwanese with Jess’ vomit in their hair, food, shoes, across their perfect threads, I suppose.

 

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About Joe Sexton

A middling utility lost to the game too soon. Now a teacher and occasional fiction writer.

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