Whatever | September 2008

Whatever | Festivals If blanket TV coverage of music festivals is to rival sport, where’s its equivalent of Alan Hansen? WhateverGlasto2008 Back in the studio after a lacklustre nil-nil draw in Group C between France and Romania, BBC pundit Alan Hansen looked set to bust out of his pressed white shirt as he declared, with a degree of overstatement, “That was the worst game I’ve ever seen in my life.” Harbour a grudging respect for him or hate him, his assessment must have chimed with the thoughts of many Euro 2008 viewers at home. Punditry in motion. As it happened, three weeks of goalmouth incident, questionable pronunciations of Xavi and jibes about the astrology-based decisions of the French coach later, the Euro 2008 final coincided with blanket TV coverage of another heavily sponsored outdoor summer spectacle, Glastonbury. While BBC1 showed the entertaining clash between Germany and Spain in one field, over on BBC3 it was the Fratellis, Kings of Leon and Buddy Guy in another. The constant refrain of those committed enough to attend major sporting events and/or music festivals is, “You had to be there.” But for the majority, television is our best chance of a ringside seat. Since I stopped going after Glastonbury ’95, I have been the target armchair festivalgoer as the Beeb’s coverage has expanded like cosmic insulation foam to fill all nooks of the digisphere. As with Wimbledon, you can even press the red button and select from a multi-screen menu which game, set or match you wish to view. In many ways – most of them logistical and hygienic – it really is better than being there. WhateverGlasto2008 However, this comparison between sport and live music on TV throws up a problem. As one gradually morphs into the other – slick, branded, omnipresent, relentlessly cross-promoted and with saturation point never too far around the next corner – the big difference between the two becomes ever more apparent. There is one crucial element missing from festival TV. I’m talking about its total dereliction of critical judgement. Imagine if, during this year’s fulsome Glastonbury coverage, Mark Radcliffe had swivelled round on his backstage hay bail and exclaimed to Jo Whiley, “Well, that was the worst set I’ve seen on the Pyramid Stage in my life.” It’s unthinkable. Alan Hansen can call the Polish defence “abysmal”; Radcliffe must describe Shakin’ Stevens as “a trooper.” This is not a criticism of Mark or Jo or any other presenter, whose job it is to talk everything up, in order to justify the vast sums invested in securing rights, setting up outside-broadcast shop in Pilton for a week and supplying content to BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, BBC News, Radio 1, 5 Live, 6 Music, 1 Xtra, BBC online and BBCi. But I can vouch for the fact that, once a broadcaster is onsite, the tendency is simply to cheerlead. “The atmosphere is amazing!” “It’s shaping up to be a vintage Glastonbury!” “It’s not just about the music.” It’ll be the same for T In The Park, Reading and Leeds, Cambridge … TV and radio coverage is less like editorial, more like advertorial. The irony in all this round-the-clock, welly-wearing Pollyannaism is that music fans are no strangers to music criticism. Whether old enough to have been raised on the sturm und drang of the weekly music press or new enough to be fluent in the snap judgements of blog and Facebook, the type of person who will actually sit down to watch Glastonbury on TV (and there are 1.9 million in peak-time, down to a respectable 500,000 after 11pm) is exactly the type who would welcome at least a heated debate on the merits of Jay-Z, rather than to hear the party line parroted (ie. that he “won the crowd over”). WhateverGlasto2008 Sporting pundits are there to dissect a match; to marvel at the way Torres lifted Xavi’s pass over the keeper’s legs, but also to bemoan the ref’s decision not to book Silva after that surreptitious headbutt on Podolski. Why are we not grown up enough to hear the same degree of expert critique from football’s festival counterparts? In fairness, this won’t come from DJs like Jo or Zane or Fearne, ambassadors for the Corporation with future guest bookings to protect, but can a substrata of critics not be arranged in a studio to offer something a little more incisive? “The atmosphere seems oddly corporate and stilted this year.” “Is there a festival the Verve aren’t playing?” “Is Beth Ditto still at it?” Actually, a couple of years ago, Jo Whiley did break ranks and offer a unique glimpse of editorial. After the Alison Goldfrapp set, she said, “It just goes to show that you can be thin and still have cellulite.” Not even Hansen would be that incisive.

Published in Word magazine, September 2008

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A lobby of green-ink heart attack candidates in the Sunday Times Culture section’s You Say TV forum (to whit: “What about the 50 million licence fee payers who don’t like football?”) have been wishing for four weeks that World Cup 2014 was all over. It is now. Thanks to the fleet left foot of the German substitute who looks like my niece’s boyfriend Shane – Mario Götze – who misshaped the bottom corner of the Argentinian net in the 112th minute from a cross by André Schürrle, Germany are now four-times World Cup champions, and this is their first team to win it since the Wall came down. A new star will have to be embroidered onto their shirt. Götze already is one, a 22-year-old symbol of Germany’s “New Generation.”

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The Maracanã, pulsing with coloured lights from above like a sea anemone as the sun went down, hosted a thrilling final, whose single goal and singular lack of shots do not quite describe the action within. Having ungratefully humiliated the host nation and sent the whole of Brazil spiraling into despond – forced, by default, to cheer them on – Germany were the stronger side, but Argentina’s defence was stout. Unfortunately for the South Americans, their “demigod”, as Alan Shearer describe him, Lionel Messi, was only occasionally the best player in the world, and couldn’t finish.

However, and this is now a commonplace, Germany were a team: unreliant on demigods or talismen, they were eleven men, who simply looked for each other, passed clearly and cleanly, cleared some space, created chances, and, more often than not, converted those chances into goals. Only one last night, but it only required one. Stoically, they dealt with the zero-hour loss of Khedira – injured during training – by replacing him with Christoph Kramer, who was himself rendered dazed and confused by a shoulder to the bonce, and replaced by Schürrle. This is how a good team works. It is a sum of its parts. Brazil, as we have seen, cannot function without Neymar. Argentina, in this instance, couldn’t win without Messi. Messi was there, but not quite.

Let us not sanctify Germany; one or two of them did their fair share of diving (albeit not at the theatrical level of Holland’s Iron Robin, whose supercilious grin made him one of the most difficult to like stars of the tournament, right through to the pointless Third Place Playoff against an undead Brazil). But there are eleven reasons why Germany are the first European side to win the World Cup in South America. Oh, and one of those reasons happened to be the best keeper of the last four weeks.

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As Gary Lineker said to the shy and retiring Alan Hansen during the suited-up half-time mull, “You like stats.” Here are some I’ve lifted from the BBC Sport website:

Germany have won the World Cup for a fourth time. Only Brazil (5) have more wins. Argentina conceded a goal in extra time at the World Cup for the first time.
Argentina failed to have a shot on target in a World Cup game for the first time since the 1990 final v West Germany. Germany are the first European team to win a World Cup in the Americas.
Germany’s total of 18 goals is the most in a World Cup since Brazil scored 18 in 2002. Argentina only trailed for seven minutes in the entire tournament.

It was, of course, over for Brazil a lifetime ago on Tuesday, just after Germany’s second goal from Klose, when they went to pieces before the eyes of the world. Or, if you prefer to dig back a bit further: the moment Colombia’s Zuniga high-tackled Neymar in the quarter final and put him out of the frame. Or, if you prefer, the moment in the same match when captain Thiago Silva got sent off, for surely it was the lack of a cohering skipper as much as the lack of what Sam Matterface later called “a goal-scoring striker” that took the legs out from under Brazil. (Or Brazeel, Brazeeel, as I still call them, after the ITV theme tune, an affectation that has taken on a melancholy air.)

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The semi final against Germany at Belo Horizonte has already gone down in the World Cup and even footballing annals as one of the most shocking ever played. And that’s according to people who’ve seen a lot more games than I have. It certainly left a lot of people horizonte. The word “humiliation” is an emotive one, but in the case of Brazil’s 7-1 drubbing – and that particularly surreal five minutes during which they scored four and the numbers went up like the counter on a pinball machine – it has hardened into cold fact. It really was all over before half time. Records were being smashed so often, there was no time to stop and appreciate the fact that Klose’s goal made him the World Cup’s highest ever scorer. (One of the reasons we didn’t have time to take it in was Kroos’s first of two, which he scored a minute after Klose’s.)

Over the last 20 years I have watched a lot of international football matches at two-year intervals, and there has been nothing like Brazil Germany, which was almost eerie. The volume on the majority Brazilian crowd dipped around the 20-minute mark and only recovered once when little Oscar pulled one back in the 90th minute. (Oh, and when they collectively booed their team off the park at the end of each half. Incidentally, you had to give shy and resigning coach Scolari some credit for taking the blame. He wore a “Forca Neymar” baseball cap as he went off, presumably with a lining of irony.)

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It has been a memorable World Cup, already fading away like a white Rubicon of referee’s foam. All those South American players crossing and prostrating themselves before God – and, conceivably, Christ the Redeemer – to no appreciable avail. Enough yellow cards to build a replica Yellow Submarine. Two African sides in the final 16. So much offside. So many talismen. So much pointless, Jonathan Pearce-flummoxing goal-line technology at the beginning, and so much less of it at the end. So little Phil Neville come the end, too. So many goal-of-the-tournament contenders! My own favourite – hope it’s one of yours – was catapulted from the toe of 23-year-old Colombian forward and ingenue James “Haymez” Rodriguez against Uruguay in the last-16. It was art.

He also won the Golden Boot with six goals in five matches, ahead of Muller and Messi.

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So much finely sculpted and greased hair. A few poodles. One or two headbands. In Neymar’s two-tone creation, a tribute to the drummer of Kajagoogoo. One ridiculous rat-tail sticking out at any angle from the otherwise shaven head of Rodrigo Palacio which, knowing my luck, will turn out to be a tribute to a dead member of his family, something he hasn’t cut since they perished, or something, in which case I’ll delete this aesthetic complaint. Apparently, Thierry Henry’s cardigan cost £505. You can’t buy that kind of style. And Adrian Chiles won’t stuff his tackle into those one-size-too-small M&S short again. He rather ruined the view when ITV’s gang were seated out on the Opinion Terrace. Only Fabio looked truly attractive with his legs out. But some kind of medal for the salmon-skinned Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon for being outside at all. I wonder if anybody watched the Final on ITV? I mean, anybody at all.

I like the fact that, come the Final, I was able to name ten out of the eleven starting German team from their faces during what I still controversially think of as Deutschland Über Alles – albeit less of the Argentinians during Canción Patriótica Nacional. It’s small personal victories like this that make the four-week commitment worthwhile. This means that, in two years’ time, I’ll know about four of them, of course. But it’s a start.

I still haven’t quite got to the bottom of why a taciturn Scot in his 50s is “retiring” from sitting in a chair and talking about football, but farewell, Alan Hansen, in any case. You picked a good one to go out on.

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They don’t just think it’s all over. It is all over. But only if you pledge allegiance to England over allegiance to a great World Cup, which this one truly has been, and the groups aren’t even over yet. (At least, they’re not over for everybody; they’re over for England, and Spain, among other notables.) To quote the multilingual advert that keeps scrolling up like a Reeves & Mortimer gag: Quality Meats.

Now, to England’s early bath. Their defeat at the hands, or feet, of Uruguay was no shame. This talismanic figure Luis Suarez, only “75% fit” according to the pundit chorus, but still dangerous when he’s below par, scored twice, and beautifully. Only the face-painted will have been unable to concede those two goals. (Hey, we’ve all gone back to work or started drinking again a bit earlier than doctor’s orders, or put pressure on a broken bone or a pulled tendon or an ingrowing toenail before sensible, but playing a World Cup match and scoring two goals?) As for the fate of England, which was not strictly sealed until Italy failed to beat Costa Rica on Friday (no kiss for Mario Balotteli, then, but I think he might’ve be thinking of Kate), we’ve been hereabouts before, if not actually booking the seats on the plane home after two matches played.

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Look on the bright side. The newly invigorated England squad shows cohesive promise. They have played less well and scraped through before, only to go out in the knockout with even more expectation on their shoulders. Also, Wayne Rooney, so vilified by armchair critics, managers and strategists, scored his first World Cup goal, having set one up in the first match – and from a textbook cross from Glen Johnson. Once Coleen’s re-packed those 18 suitcases, he can go home with his newly-thatched head held high. (I don’t like to read today about Gerrard saying he’s “a broken man” – he shouldn’t be, although anyone forced to wear an armband can never be too far from morbidity.)

The cliche is, they’re playing “for pride” against Costa Rica tomorrow. I’ve also read that, rather than play with long faces, the newer players might actually treat it as an exhibition match for Uncle Roy (whose position is immune from kneejerk calls for impeachment, thanks to a well-timed announcement from Greg Dyke, for two more years, which seems only right and proper – Dyke’s good at PR).

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Ah well. I’ve said it before and risked the wrath of the flag-wavers and the confused Crusades-reenactors, but I always find it a relief when England crash and burn. It’s so much easier to enjoy the rest of the tournament when they’re out of it. And all nationalism aside, it’s been a feast of football, especially for those of us who check in with the game every two years! It’s not just about goals, but there have been so many goals.

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Switzerland France was a beauty. Of the eight French goals of the World Cup so far, Karim Benzema has been responsible for five of them. But it was Olivier Giroud, with his great iced Shoreditch cupcake of a hairstyle, who headed in what was France’s 100th World Cup goal. As if that wasn’t showbiz enough, Blaise Matuidi scored another one 66 seconds later – more like 13 seconds if you time it from when the game re-started. (More records: Switzerland’s Blerim Dzemaili became the first player to score a goal from a direct free-kick at the 2014 World Cup.) With a final scoreline of 5-2, these teams were really spoiling us.

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And so to Germany Ghana, a tie from which neither side came away with any shame, and whose 2-2 score utterly reflects the game that produced it. Many fancy Germany to win, and with Klose nudging himself to joint highest World Cup goal-scorer with none other than Gerd Muller with his first touch (yes, first touch) after being substituted on in the second half, we are gazing in wonder upon a Valhalla of football here. (I liked it when Gary Lineker sort of explained who Gerd Muller was to his younger pundits – “I grew up watching him,” said the 53-year-old, talking for all of we 70s football children.)

“German efficiency” – one of those almost racist generalisations – doesn’t quite cover it, although to watch the ball travel between white shirts from a distance, it could be a computer game. (Ben Smith in his perceptive BBC Sport precis noted the “pinball passing movements” between Ozil, Muller and Gotze.)

All that onboard, let us not forget the battle charge that was Ghana’s performance, with Andre Ayew and Asamoah Gyan scoring within ten minutes of each other. If it turns out that Fifa does have to investigate certain German fans for “blacking up”, it will be up to all of the other enlightened German fans to explain things to them (optionally, to complete the Woody Allen line, “with bricks and baseball bats.”)

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I loved the fact that Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan equalled Cameroonian king of the road Roger Milla’s record of five goals, engraving their names as the two highest scoring Africans at World Cups. And I really want Ghana to beat Portugal on Thursday, which, on the strength or otherwise of their draw with USA (which – due to a social imperative commonly known as a rave for mums and dads at the South Bank – I missed), is not out of the question. Gotze, by the way, is the spitting image of the boyfriend of one of my nieces. I hope he wouldn’t be too upset at the comparison. It’s meant as a compliment.

WCGerGha1I thank full-time football fans’ patience. But I find watching football sooooo relaxing and stimulating at the same time; the hypnotic rhythms, the dots of colour moving like flies across a sky of green, the thunk of a ball clogged upfield, the swell of the crowd, the undulation of a Mexican Wave, the cracks around the mouth in the face paint of a fan in closeup, midway into a game. If I watched football all the time, maybe I wouldn’t feel this way. But for an intense month every other year, it’s one of my greatest pleasures.

By the time of the knockouts, I’ll be able to name half of each of the teams still in with a shout, by their haircuts if not their playing style. I’ll be able to name the managers and recognise their dugout quirks and sartorial hallmarks. I’ll be able to differentiate the sound of Guy Mowbray and Danny Murphy from Sam Matterface and Andy Townsend (whose contention that a player “got a toe to it” always makes me cheer).

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Style points: I wonder what would happen if you disqualified any player with a tattoo “sleeve” tomorrow. Whose team would be the most decimated? The in-progress-illustrated-man effect is admittedly subtler on darker skin, but from a distance the effect is still that of the after effect of a veterinarian who’s had his whole arm up a cow’s bum. And why all the Mohicans this World Cup? I know football is famous for extreme haircuts, and these men’s men have attitude to prove, but there’s surely nothing attractive about the shaved sides and Travis Bickle landing strip bonce? Raheem Sterling just about carries his off, although from the side it looks to be edging closer and closer to a 1980s King’s Road punk’s.

 

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Brazeel, BrazeelDay 7 of the World Cup; 16 games into the group stages; one cardigan; one headbutt; one smashed studio window; one England goal. But it’s not about England. Alright, it is a bit. If you’re new to my expert football writing, I do not profess – and never have done – to being a football fan in the sense of someone who lives for when Saturday comes and knows who scored what and when against whom and was transferred from where for how much. I do not follow club football, and I have no team (which is how come I was able to “support” Norwich City for a year or so when I was first on 6 Music, out of heartfelt allegiance to Gary, an ardent fan who worked on the show). The closest I get to such a thing is to feel a sort of vague geographical pull deep in my guts for England, and they make me pay for that sentimental weakness. We’ll come back to them presently.

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If you are halfway interested in my previous football reports from World Cups, please put “World Cup” into the search engine above right. I re-read a few entries yesterday and was frankly impressed by the level of detail and observation. Was I really so blessed with free time in the summers of 2010 and 2006? Apparently so. Unlike most top football players, I appear to working harder and earning less. Ah well, let’s give this roundup a crack.

I  must admit, watching Brazil fail to be Brazil against Mexico last night, and thus seeing a team play for the second time, I started to feel a bit of context forming around my position as a well-meaning fairweather enthusiast running to stand still and then finding out that standing still is pointless and running again. As the group stages unfold, generalisations can be confidently made, themes and tropes harden into a narrative, and hairstyles and habits can be matched with men and their positions in teams.

Due to being in Northampton last week, I was able to experience the first night – ie. the interminable interpretative dance-based opening ceremony and speculative heel-kicking in advance of the tournament’s first nightmarishly late kickoff – at my sister’s house with three card-carrying male football fans: my brother-in-law Graham and two of their boys, Ben and William, both glued to iPads throughout, naturally. (Although this enabled Ben to find out if “Hulk”, “Fred” and “Oscar” were the actual names of the Brazilian players so listed – no, yes and yes.) Due to school and work in the morning, staying up until the final whistle was tricky, so I nipped home at half-time and continued watching at Mum and Dad’s, on my own. Beers were taken, as is traditional. I fear for my waistline over the next month. Last World Cup, I had to foreswear the hops and move to chilled tapwater, mid-tournament.

Once it eventually kicked off, Brazil Croatia was entertaining enough. With a welcome early-ish Brazilian goal – albeit on behalf of Croatia – the game and World Cup at least broke their duck at 11 minutes. Defender Marcelo – and not blameless, brilliantly-named keeper Julio Cesar – will have to live with the unwelcome accolade: Brazil’s first ever World Cup own goal. Although what his OG meant ultimately was that Brazil basically played themselves to 3-1. Incidentally, Marcelo is one of an alarming number of players with a “sleeve” tattoo. I respect them but don’t like them. And I won’t have to wake up to one when I’m 70 and they will.

Poster boy Neymar (who my Guardian World Cup Guide tells me plays for Barcelona, a city being homogenised by the holiday cruise ship trade, so I read elsewhere in the Guardian) scored two for his own team, once in each half, the first from 25 yards, the second from the penalty spot after “Fred” was fouled (sorry, Fred was “fouled”). I have little context beyond their World Cup performance in 2010 to help place their continued international brilliance, but I have learned that Neymar keeps scoring for them. (I have major trouble remembering previous World Cups and Euros. I can just about recall which countries they took place in; this is what happens when you take your eye off the ball for two-year stretches.)

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I missed Chile beat Australia and Mexico beat Cameroon (I usually enjoy watching the African sides play, so I’ll remedy this), but the big goal haul came with Spain Netherlands, a decisive 5-1 dismantling of a once formidable team now in the doldrums. You could tell a lot had changed since I last saw Spain reign: when Torres was brought on in the last act, the BBC commentator wondered aloud why coach del Bosque had even bothered playing him. How the mighty are fallen, even when they’ve moved on from their Alice-band period. (Spain have not conceded five goals in a World Cup since 1950, stat fans.) Good to see some other old faces: non-too-shabby Xabi Alonso, who took the misleading penalty for Spain at the top of the shop; Holland’s statuesque Arjen Robben, who made it five at the other end; Robin van Persie, or RVP, who now seems now to be carrying the whole team on his shoulders, like Balotelli and Italy, or Messi and Argentina, or … cough … Rooney and England? (As we speak there is talk that Roy Hodgson might not even start Rooney against Uruguay as the owlish multilinguist seems to be all about the young players and I rather applaud him for that.)

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It might be remembered in all the easy Rooney-bashing that he set up England’s only goal of the tournament. England’s first game against Italy (get the toughest of their group out of the way first) was, initially, a revelation. Revelations are all relative, but “our boys” – and some of them are boys – seemed to be playing as a unit, pushing forward, creating chances, passing to each other. If you followed England during the friendlies here and in unfriendly Miami, you’ll already have a handle on their current form, but I didn’t. (Adrian Chiles made a remark last night about the general disdain for “soccer” among the Floridian camera operators he spoke to, who can’t get to grips with all the amateur-dramatic rolling around in pain involved in the game – they probably can’t understand why we don’t wear armour either, or split the matches up into tiny chunks to accommodate the advertisers.) I’m excited not to know so many of the England squad: Phil Jones? Luke Shaw? Raheem Sterling? Adam Lallana? Ross Barkley? Daniel Sturridge? I know who Sturridge is now, of course. His cool equaliser at 37 minutes, so soon after Marchisio’s goal for Italy, acted as a symbol for our raised hopes and dampened fears. I, for one, approached the second half with optimism, which duly evaporated like a line of that squirty cream the refs now carry on their utility belts. So we’re left with England in third place in Group D and Costa Rica first. It’s not over ’till it’s over, of course, but it’s started, hasn’t it?

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Mexico were “accomplished” against Brazeel last night, according to Jonathan Pearce (a man still confused by the goal-line technology: “NO GOAL!”). Free-flowing football was expected from Brazil; in actual fact, it was flowing-free. As I say, after witnessing two below-par Brazilian matches, I can now say with confidence that the team could provide a serviceable Kajagoogoo tribute act, or at least two Sideshow Bob lookalikes, should the bottom fall out of their football careers. I don’t know if he actually was the man of the match, but the man of the match was Guillermo Ochoa, the Mexican keeper, who’s definitely a “keeper”. Every time a Brazilian goal looked likely, there he was, with his supermop of hair bouncing behind his headband, in front of the ball: fists, chest, stomach, whichever part of him was nearest, as as graceless as it may have looked. (As Mark Lawrenson wryly commented, “You get no marks for artistic impression.”) It was enjoyable to see Fred replaced by Jo, who has even less letters in his full name.

If Brazil and Spain can cock up on the world stage, England are in good company.

What Brazil need to do is bottle the unity and spirit that was actually free-flowing during the singing of their massive national anthem, from the tortuously long intro to the a capella final verse. Tremendous. Accomplished. Total anthem singing.

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