Uruguay-Saudi Arabia. It wasn't the blowout I expected ... the Saudis saved face after their awful game against Russia. But I never thought they'd win. Uruguay and Russia advance from Group A, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will go home after one more match.
Portugal-Morocco. One person said Morocco is going to be the best team ever to total zero points before going home. They did well against Portugal, and have now lost two 1-0 games. Which means they'll be watching the knockout rounds on TV. I don't know why Ronaldo irritates me more than, say, Luis Suárez. Suárez isn't in Ronaldo's class as a player ... hardly anyone in soccer history is that good ... he's very good, maybe even great, and he irritates people, too. But Ronaldo does irritate me. He is a great one, though.
Iran-Spain. I sure wish Spain looked better. At least they aren't this guy:
Portugal-Morocco (Group B) 5:00 AM. I found out today that I am 2nd out of 7 in the prediction contest I entered, so maybe these are closer than I'd think. Morocco came close to a draw in their first match, Portugal did get a draw in what is so far the tournament's best match. And Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo, and Morocco does not. Returning again to my pre-Cup predictions, Portugal wins, 2-1, goals by Ronaldo and Bernardo Silva for the winners, Ayoub El Kaabi for Morocco.
Uruguay-Saudi Arabia (Group A) 8:00 AM. This won't be close, and when it's done, Uruguay and Russia will have made it to the knockout round. I'll go with a final score of 3-0, two goals by Luis Suárez and one by Edinson Cavani.
Iran-Spain (Group B) 11:00 AM. This is the match that matters to me. Iran is the surprise team atop the table, but I'm guessing by the end of these matches, Portugal and Spain will have taken over the top 2 spots. I predicted a 3-0 rout for Spain while back, and so I'll post it here, but I suspect Iran's defense will keep the score down ... say, 2-0 or even 1-0. Goals for Spain: David Silva, Isco, Iago Aspas.
Colombia-Japan. Entertaining match. Carlos Sánchez got sent off in the third minute, and the subsequent penalty gave Japan both a goal lead and a man advantage. José Pekerman had Colombia go on the attack despite having only ten men, and it paid off when Juan Quintero scored on a great free kick in a tournament that has already seen many great free kicks. Japan gradually wore down the Colombians, though, taking the lead in the 73rd minute. James came on for Colombia but didn't do much beyond getting a yellow card.
Poland-Senegal. A match that will be remembered for the oddball second Senegal goal. The Africans had taken the lead in the first half on an own goal, but that was just the appetizer to one of the weirdest goals you'll ever see, with the referees acting, to my limited knowledge, by the rules but bizarrely nonetheless, and Grzegorz Krychowiak doing one of the stupider things we'll likely see in this tournament. Poland got a late goal from Krychowiak, but it wasn't enough.
Russia-Egypt. Finally, Mohamed Salah turned up, and I was excited ... he's the player I most wanted to see. This was when the second matches in group play began, with Russia looking good after their big win in the opener, and Egypt needing a win to have anything more than a miracle chance of advancing. After a scoreless first half, Russia erupted once again, scoring three goals in 17 minutes. Salah picked up a consolation penalty, but it's looking pretty clear that we'll only get him for one more match in this tournament. Liverpool never looked so good ... Salah scored 43 goals for them in all competitions. Egypt isn't nearly as good as Liverpool, though, and Salah wasn't going to beat Russia all by himself.
Sweden-South Korea. Opta Sports tweeted early on, "The first shot in this match came after exactly 20 minutes – the second longest wait for a first attempt in a World Cup match since 1966". South Korea committed 23 fouls ... Tunisia and England between them committed 22. (Sweden wasn't much better ... they committed 20.) It makes sense that the only goal came from a penalty.
Belgium-Panama. Anibal Godoy was the only one of the two Earthquakes on the Panama squad to play. He didn't have much of a match, although he did complete 40 of 43 passes. Most of the Belgians had good game, none of the Panamanians did. The first half was fairly even, but then Belgium got a quick goal to start the second half, and Lukaku took over from there. Belgium should have no trouble advancing to the knockout rounds ... Panama may not score any goals before they go home after group play.
Tunisia-England. It took extra time for England to get a winner. The match wasn't as close as that sounds, and they won't have any problem joining Belgium in the knockouts. But outside of goalscorer Kane, not much impressed me from the English side. Trippier had a nice match, but overall, I don't know that England have proven themselves yet. They'll coast against Panama, and the match against Belgium won't be very important, only deciding who plays which team from Group H.
It wasn't a great day. The first match was pretty bad, Panama was pretty bad, leaving Tunisia-England to salvage the day, which it did thanks to late heroics. This was also the first match I watched in English, and I was impressed with Aly Wagner's work as color commentator.
"There Be Ice Dragons Here". Aron Gunnarsson, Iceland captain, on his country and their soccer. Especially interesting following their draw against Argentina.
It’s funny, because I can recall the exact moment when I realized that we had something special. It was after a training session just before the tournament, when Eidur Gudjohnsen came up to me.
He said, “You know, Aron … I really wouldn’t want to play against us.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “Well, there’s no space. I wanted to play these passes, and I wanted to create chances … But I just couldn’t.”
And that’s when the penny dropped for me. Because if you didn’t know, Eidur is football royalty. He’s played for Pep Guardiola at Barcelona — he’s played with Ronaldinho and Messi. Basically, if Eidur says you have a great defense, you really do have a great defense.
There was plenty of attacking intent: Mexico pressed well in open play, and left three men upfront when defending set-pieces. In the latter stages they were forced to defend deep, but for long periods of the first half, they outplayed Germany.
Mexico’s key defensive tactic involved man-marking Toni Kroos, Germany’s deep-lying playmaker. Kroos was followed diligently by Carlos Vela, more renowned for his attacking speed than his defensive work, and occasionally by centre-forward Javier Hernandez, when Vela found himself out of position after attacking moves broke down.
I knew we were struggling. But when she was mixing in water with the milk, I realized it was over, you know what I mean? This was our life.
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want her to stress. I just ate my lunch. But I swear to God, I made a promise to myself that day. It was like somebody snapped their fingers and woke me up. I knew exactly what I had to do, and what I was going to do.
I couldn’t see my mother living like that. Nah, nah, nah. I couldn’t have that.
People in football love to talk about mental strength. Well, I’m the strongest dude you’re ever going to meet. Because I remember sitting in the dark with my brother and my mom, saying our prayers, and thinking, believing, knowing … it’s going to happen.
I kept my promise to myself for a while. But then some days I’d come home from school and find my mum crying. So I finally told her one day, “Mum, it’s gonna change. You’ll see. I’m going to play football for Anderlecht, and it’s going to happen soon. We’ll be good. You won’t have to worry anymore.”
I was six.
Since his essay was posted, Lukaku scored two goals for Belgium in their 3-0 win over Panama.
Sweden-South Korea (Group F) 5:00 AM Pacific Time. Germany's loss makes this match crucial. I have it 2-1 Sweden, goals by Marcus Berg and Emil Forsberg for the Swedes and Son Heung-min for the Koreans. Sweden is also on top of my "Human Rights Table".
Belgium-Panama (Group G) 8:00 AM. Panama features the only two San Jose Earthquakes in the tournament, Harold Cummings and Anibal Godoy. This group has two good teams and two lesser teams, so there shouldn't be much mystery to it. I have Belgium winning here, 2-0, goals from Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.
Tunisia-England (Group G) 11:00 AM. I don't think Tunisia will score in this tournament, but for some reason, I only predicted a 1-0 win for England, goal by Harry Kane. If England struggles, well, they usually disappoint eventually in every Cup since 1966. This will be the first match I watch in English ... only seems right for an England match. Derek Rae and Aly Wagner are scheduled to call the game.
England's relationship with Europe is complicated (at least from our side -- one suspects gloomily that it's much more straightforward over the Channel) and it's not hard to imagine that in the current climate, the England team means different things to different English people. If, as some fear, our far-right nutters clash with the Russian hard-right nutters, then feelings will become even more diffuse.
Of course, it would be great if England won the tournament but that "if" is too small to the naked eye to be any use to the editor of this piece. What many of us crave is an England team we can like: one that plays fast, muscular, ambitious English football, beats the teams that are inferior to them and goes out bravely to the one that's better.
It's not much to ask, but it would help an unhappy country to feel better about itself.
Costa Rica-Serbia. On paper, this was the least tasty match of the day. It wasn't all that bad, with Aleksandar Kolarov unleashing a free kick that even the great Keylor Navas couldn't stop. A reasonable start to what promised to be a good day. And the promises came true.
Germany-Mexico. The first real upset of the tournament, as the defending champions went down. The Germans dominated many of the statistical categories: 25 shots to 12, 9 on target to 4, 61% possession, 8 corners to 1. Didn't matter ... in fact, the 1-0 final may have flattered Germany, as Mexico blew several chances. Not that anyone cares at the moment ... there are rumors of earthquake-sized rumblings in Mexico when Lozano scored his goal. Germany had the world-famous keeper, but it was Mexico's Memo Ochoa who really shined. As the oft-quoted in these parts Jonathan Wilson tweeted, "If Mexico were even moderately competent at counter-attacking this would be 4-0." The real problem was their finishing, but point taken. You won't find a single Mexican fan who cares. Cantor's call of the goal was worth its own post, but he had a great game over all, continually marvelling at how many Mexicans were in the German half of the field ... "against the defending champs!"
Brazil-Switzerland. Not as big an upset as Mexico's win, but given that I predicted a 3-0 win for the Brazilians, a surprise nonetheless. Coutinho's strike was otherworldly ... it was as well-taken and remarkable as some of the great free kicks we've already seen at this tournament, except he took it in the run of play. Group E is a lot more complicated today than it was before these matches were played.
Overall, a good day. We had nothing like Portugal-Spain, but none of the matches sucked, and the later two matches were full of emotion.
World soccer in the 21st century represents the opposite of everything Trump appears to stand for, in every respect but one. (That would of course be the money.) Indeed, the story of how soccer escaped its gritty, clannish, working-class roots and became an enormous global industry is a central cultural and economic parable of our time. That happened through essentially the same processes of globalization, commodification and “financialization” that have led to widespread resentment and right-wing backlash in much of Europe, as well as the election of You Know Who in the United States....
If Big Soccer still tries to cash in on nationalism, especially during the quadrennial pageantry of the World Cup, the dynamic has shifted immensely. It might be more accurate to say that soccer now tries to commodify nationalism -- as a charming anachronism useful for marketing purposes, its bombs and bullets replaced by one-liners in a Volkswagen commercial. Mostly this is the inevitable logic of capitalism at work, that revolutionary force under which “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” But it also clearly represents a strategic marketing effort to pivot away from the darker episodes in soccer’s past....
There’s also what might be called the immanent contradiction of Big Soccer, which is marketing the distinctive, peculiar intensity of the European game to a global audience, and in the process making it less distinctive and peculiar. Once upon a time, a London “derby” match between Arsenal and Chelsea was an urban, tribal event, pregnant with the possibility of violence. Today everyone in the stadium understands that it’s a global spectacle, and they are performing the roles of passionate London fans for an audience of millions. The whole event has become a “simulacrum,” to use Jean Baudrillard’s term, a self-consciously artificial representation of itself.
Looking again at the predictions I made before the tournament began. I did OK for Day 3 ... called the winner in the three matches that didn't end in a draw, even got the Croatia-Nigeria score right. I'll pat myself on the back, since I'm sure that success will rarely if ever be repeated.
Yesterday I posted a list of FiveThirtyEight's top ten pivotal games of the group stage. Two of them are tomorrow, Germany-Mexico and Brazil-Switzerland.
Costa Rica-Serbia (Group E) 5:00 AM Pacific Time. I've got Dusan Tadic of Serbia scoring the only goal of the match. I should note that whatever limited success I've had so far in picking winners, I've done poorly predicting goal scorers. I don't think either of these teams will advance out of the group stage.
Germany-Mexico (Group F) 8:00 AM. I'll be pulling for Mexico, but I think Germany is going to win it all, starting with a 2-0 victory here, goals by Thomas Müller and Mario Gómez. Mexico is CONCACAF's best hope of a good tournament.
Brazil-Switzerland (Group E) 11:00 AM. I'm predicting a rout, 3-0, goals by Neymar, Roberto Firmino, and Philippe Coutinho. I have Neymar down to be the top goal scorer in the tournament. Despite my prediction, I think the Swiss will recover and go to the next round.
This blog is about my experience with the World Cup, and today, that means not much discussion of the matches. It was the longest day of the tournament, four matches over 11 hours beginning at 3:00 AM my time. I had every intention of catching them all, even if I watched some of the action on delay via the DVR. But I woke up a little past 3:00 and thought to myself, I'm about to turn 65, I may be too old for this. I started listening to France-Australia on the radio ... I had read the matches were available here in the States ... turned out it was just a simulcast of the Fox Soccer TV version. I fell into and out of sleep, got up a little before Argentina-Iceland, watched the highlights of France-Australia, and watched the second match in its entirety. I then went back to sleep, woke up a few minutes into Peru-Denmark, watched that, went to breakfast with my wife, and came home about ten minutes into Croatia-Nigeria. So I watched a lot of soccer today, but it wasn't comprehensive. So any comments here are tentative and uninformed.
Paul Pogba's goal was well-taken. Peru-Denmark was made better by all the loud Peru fans in the crowd, while Kaspar Schmeichel did his dad proud. Argentina-Iceland was disappointing for those of us rooting for Argentina, and Messi deserves better than to remember this solely for the missed penalty ... he was Argentina's best player on the pitch, otherwise. Once again, I turn to Jonathan Wilson: "Lionel Messi, Argentina Left Frustrated After Being Denied in Iceland Draw". Iceland is a nice story, and the draw against Argentina tells us their strategy is working, but for the first time in this tournament, I found myself complaining about extreme, 9-or-10-behind-the-ball defense. Finally, there's Croatia-Nigeria, which had two goals, one an own-goal and one a penalty. Given that I was barely moving at that point, I needed something more exciting.
I'm going to attribute most of that to my tiredness. After three days, this has been a good World Cup, and tomorrow we get two CONCACAF teams, Germany, and Brazil.
The highlight of the day came in the Croatia-Nigeria match. Viviana Vila was the color commentator on Telemundo, the first time a woman analyst called a World Cup game in the U.S. She did fine ... no surprise, she's been at this for almost 15 years ... I don't always trust my evaluation of Spanish-language color commentators, since my command of the language is a bit more shaky when the talk moves away from simple play-by-play. But she knew her stuff, worked well with her partner, Copán Álvarez. (I understand USWNT great Aly Wagner is performing a similar role for Fox.)
I've posted some calls by Andres Cantor, so it's only fair to toss in one from Sammy Sadovnik, another favorite of mine. I imagine this one was bittersweet for Sammy, who is from Peru.
MR: Just speaking about unity, and the relationship you’re aiming to help build between the U.S. and Mexico. The United Bid received the rights to host the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first time three nations have co-hosted a tournament of this magnitude. What’s the overall importance of hosting again, and even more so doing it with our neighbors to the north and south?
LD: Let’s just put aside the soccer aspect for a second. From a political and global perspective this shows the rest of the world that we have three massive countries coming together to do something really great. Especially amidst our political climate and some of our leaders and their feelings towards our southern neighbors, I just think it’s a massive message of positivity and unity when we desperately need it. I’m really proud of the efforts that everyone involved put in to achieve this and I think it’s big for society as a whole.
In an article on FiveThirtyEight titled "The 2018 World Cup: Favorites, Sleepers And Most Pivotal Games", Neil Paine listed the top ten group-stage matches to watch for. Portugal-Spain was #2, and was the first one to show up, so maybe we should be listening to him. Check out his article. In the meantime, here are the other nine matches that look good:
June 17: Germany-Mexico (#6 on the list), Brazil-Switzerland (#4)
June 20: Spain-Iran (#5)
June 21: Argentina-Croatia (#7)
June 23: Germany-Sweden (#10)
June 25: Spain-Morocco (#1)
June 26: Argentina-Nigeria (#8)
June 27: Brazil-Serbia (#3)
June 28: England-Belgium (#9)
"Aside from the few group-stage clashes between titans, such as Spain-Portugal or England-Belgium, there’s a common recipe for the crucial matches listed above: a talented underdog that can’t be overlooked by its contending opponent and that has the potential to break the knockout bracket before it’s even set."
This will be quick ... there are four matches tomorrow, the first of which begins at 3 in the morning my time, so just watching them will be nearly impossible, let alone come up with something to say about them in advance. I've mentioned that I entered one prediction contest, so I'll look at that and assume I'm correct for once.
France-Australia (Group C) 3:00 AM (all times Pacific). France wins, 3-0, goals by Olivier Giroud, Paul Pogba, and Antoine Griezmann.
Argentina-Iceland (Group D) 6:00. Argentina wins, 2-0, goals by Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain.
Peru-Denmark (Group C) 9:00. Denmark wins, 2-1. Both of their goals by Christian Eriksen, with Paolo Guerrero scoring for Peru.
Croatia-Nigeria (Group D) 12:00. Croatia wins, 2-0, with goals by Mario Mandžukić and Ivan Rakitić.
A friend with whom I was having an ongoing email chat during today's matches said it best when he emailed me, "What a fucking game!!!!" You don't need me to elaborate ... if you are reading this, you have already seen it for yourself, heard the analysis, praised Cristiano Ronaldo. But, as I said to my friend, it was perhaps more enjoyable for the neutral fan. My rooting interest is with Spain, and so I was disappointed in the ending. When I reviewed the Ronaldo video posted below, I wanted to cry.
But it was a terrific match, an example of what happens when neither team sucks. (Just wait until there are 48 teams in the tournament, 17 of which will be worse than Saudi Arabia 2018.) Spain dominated in their usual categories, like possession and pass success, but that doesn't always guarantee victory. Diego Costa was their best player, with his two goals, which is another side of the Rooter's Interest theme ... I can't stand him when he plays for his club, but I cheered him on today (see Sergio Ramos for Part Two of that story). His first goal embodied everything I feel about him: a terrific job, physical and expertly taken, preceded by him clubbing his defender in the neck, resulting in a pause for a VAR examination (among other things, this interrupted Andres Cantor's goal call, which in itself deserves a yellow card):
I don't think Spain will suffer too much from this result. They won't have to face Ronaldo again unless it's in the final. David de Gea is a top goalkeeper, and I don't expect him to commit another major blunder. Portugal and Spain, currently tied for second place, will move into first and second after their next matches.
The first match to defeat my efforts to stay awake. The match itself wasn't much help, but I tried to take a quick nap between the first two matches of the day, awoke 15 minutes into the match, played catch-up on the DVR, and never really got interested. The scariest event came when Nordin Amrabat of Morocco, arguably the best player on the pitch, slammed his head on the grass. From Deadspin:
I thought the goal by Giménez salvaged a so-so affair. The final result was fair ... Uruguay outplayed the Egyptians ... but disappointing if you were looking for fireworks from the big attacking stars (Salah didn't even play).
I'll have to decide how I'm going to watch matches, since beginning tomorrow, the starting times for the first matches will be early. I'm thinking I won't set an alarm, but if I wake up at the right time, I'll watch live. Otherwise I'll play catch up on the DVR.
Egypt-Uruguay(Group A 5:00 AM (all times Pacific). Mohamed Salah is cleared to play, which is great news, because he is the #1 player I'm am looking forward to watching. Meanwhile, Uruguay has Luis Suarez, another favorite. I initially had Uruguay with a 2-1 win, but Salah could change that. I also have Egypt being edged out of third place by Russia, and that was before the 5-0 awakening. The winner of this match should take the group, which is a three-team race. I'm guessing Russia isn't anywhere near as good as the result they got today. The best thing for them is probably for Egypt-Uruguay to end up in a tie. Watch for Ramadan Sobhi for Egypt and Edinson Cavani for Uruguay.
Morocco-Iran(Group B) 8:00 AM. Morocco manager Herve Renard, appearing for the first time as a World Cup coach, is up against the four-time manager Carlos Queiroz, and he has been self-deprecating about his supposed lack of experience. But, he says, "We are not here to take pictures of the monuments in St Petersburg." I've tagged M'barek Boussoufa to score the only goal in a 1-0 win for Morocco. If either of these two teams wins, it will likely be their only one ... the other teams in the group are Spain and Portugal.
Portugal-Spain (Group B) 11:00 AM. Speaking of which. No one knows what the turmoil regarding the Spanish manager situation will mean for their on field performance. I'll go with my heart and say my personal favorites in the tournament will beat Portugal, 2-1. Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo will score, but that's all Portugal will get. I've picked David Silva and Andrés Iniesta to tally for the Spaniards. On paper, this is the first marquee matchup of the Cup, although you really shouldn't miss Mo Salah.
In the meantime, here is one of Andres Cantor's five goal calls today:
I wouldn't make any assumptions yet about the greatness of Russia ... the Saudi defense was so awful. Still the 5-0 score might come in handy for tiebreaker purposes. If they manage draws with Egypt and Uruguay, they could advance. And it's possible, although Salah is apparently healthy, which, to state the obvious, ups Egypt's chances.
Aleksandr Golovin had a great match, with 2 assists and a goal. Meanwhile, the Saudis had 61% of possession and zero shots on target.
As I noted earlier, this was a match for human rights offenders: #30 Russia vs. #32 Saudi Arabia. The leaders enjoyed the match alongside the FIFA president:
The games start tomorrow. Looking forward to Russia-Saudi Arabia? Of course you are, because it's the first match of the World Cup. But ... well, the Financial Times has an article titled, "Is Russia-Saudi Arabia the worst World Cup game ever?" Fear not, the data analysts say the answer is no, that New Zealand-Slovakia in 2010 was the worst. And take heart, as well, because, as the FT says, Russia and Saudi Arabia are closely matched in value, so their match could be an exciting, if poorly-played, match. You don't need to go any farther back than 2010 to see the possibilities:
Thankfully, Slovakia recovered:
In the one, v.complicated prediction game I entered, I have Russia winning this 1-0 on a goal by Fedor Smolov.
I didn't expect to talk about Spain quite this early. Here is the timeline:
May 26: Real Madrid defeats Liverpool to win the Champions League.
May 31: Real manager Zinedine Zidane leaves the club.
June 12: Spain manager Julen Lopetegui was named as Zidane's successor, to take effect after the World Cup.
June 13: Lopetegui was fired as the Spain manager. Fernando Hierro was named as his replacement.
June 15: Spain will play their first match in the 2018 World Cup, against Portugal.
Apparently, Lopetegui negotiated his new contract without consulting the Spanish federation, who found out about the move just five minutes before it was announced. Federation head Luis Rubiales said they had been "obliged to fire the national coach".
What will this mean for Spain's chances? I've been assuming they would make at least the quarterfinals, and I don't know that this changes anything. But I also assume they will beat Portugal on Friday, and the margin for victory there is small enough that this could affect the result. And of course, Portugal's star, Cristiano Ronaldo, plays for Real Madrid, which may be meaningless but I bet it gets talked about a lot, nonetheless.
Given the significant influx of foreigners scheduled to visit these cities, regional governments have begun the long process of implementing cosmetic changes that would mask the glaring deficiencies in each of their cities. These changes include cleaning the streets, painting old houses and buildings, relocating homeless people, and slaughtering stray animals.
During the playing of the 2006 World Cup (June 9-July 9), this blog got 2429 views.
During the playing of the 2010 World Cup (June 11-July 11) this blog got 1937 views.
During the playing of the 2014 World Cup (June 12-July 13) this blog got 841 views.
I enjoy being able to think about the tournament as it happens, and leaving a record of my experience during that time. That won't stop for the 2018 World Cup. But more than ever, I'll be assuming there are very few people reading. I don't know what that means for the content I decide to post, but I know it will be on my mind. I also know, from comments over the past three Cups, that a few people find my daily posts here fun to read, so again, I'm not going anywhere, I'm just trying to be realistic about who I am writing for (i.e., I'm writing for me).
Now, my regular blog isn't much better ... over the last 30 days, it's gotten 1171 views. I have no delusions about my "readership".
Can't decide who to root for in this year's World Cup? Here's a list that can help you feel good about yourself: all 32 teams, ranked by "degree of civil liberties and political rights". The list is dodgy ... the primary source is the annual Freedom in the World report, which is not perfect ... none of these lists are, they are all susceptible to one extent or another to ideological biases. But I admit I was being lazy, and just checked out the most available report to go by. I adjusted for "ties" using the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index. All to be taken with a large grain of salt, but I decided, why not? So here they are, the 32 World Cup teams, ranked first to last in terms of civil liberties and political rights.
1 Sweden 2 Australia 3 Uruguay 4 Denmark 5 Portugal 6 Japan 7 Switzerland 8 Belgium 9 Iceland 10 Germany 11 England (UK) 12 Spain 13 Costa Rica 14 France 15 Croatia 16 Poland 17 South Korea 18 Argentina 19 Panama 20 Brazil 21 Senegal 22 Peru 23 Serbia 24 Tunisia 25 Colombia 26 Mexico 27 Nigeria 28 Morocco 29 Egypt 30 Russia 31 Iran 32 Saudi Arabia
No one doing these things seems to want to split up the UK, so England's ranking is actually the UK ranking. Also note that the opening match, between Russia and Saudi Arabia, will be the worst match in the tournament by this method, unless Iran and the Saudis both advance and meet in a later round, which is highly unlikely. Finally, if the USA had managed to actually make it to WC 2018, they would be battling Croatia for 15th place.
The failure to qualify for the World Cup was a collective failure of the entire American soccer community. It was a flawed outsider, Klinsmann, and his divisive leadership that clashed with an insular organization — led by Gulati — that was unwilling to loosen its grip on power or admit to its own mistakes. It was Arena’s overreliance on veteran players and his inability to reunite a divided locker room in a short period of time. The centralized power structure, and the small size of the media core covering it, encouraged an echo chamber where the thought of missing the World Cup was considered impossible until it happened.
And, of course, a core group of U.S. national team players failed to get a result when they needed one. The burden of failure has fallen most heavily on their shoulders. For many veterans, the 2018 World Cup would have been their last shot to play in the world’s biggest sporting event. To be the team to have fallen short for the first time in 32 years was devastating for all of them.
But the reason this year's World Cup might feel particularly flat, at least in the early stages, is the obsession with pressing among top club managers over the past few years. Pressing is not a new concept, of course, but its popularity has grown considerably over the past few decades, morphing from a useful "bonus" concept that proved a side was organised and hard-working, to often being considered a side's main tactical plan....
The rise of pressing has been so spectacular, so successful and so popular that it's now widely expected of top sides. Everyone has become so accustomed to such ferocious, high-intensity, 100 mph matches like those involving Liverpool in this season's Champions League, that more sedate, patient matches are considered terrible games, which is somewhat worrying ahead of the World Cup....
The vast majority of teams at this World Cup ... will take the cautious approach of standing off the opposition and sitting deep in their own half.... This is no different from the situation at previous World Cups, but somewhat out of keeping with the high-tempo, frenetic football we've become accustomed to at club level in recent years....
In terms of both quality and entertainment value, international football is now way behind club football, which means this summer's matches in Russia -- at least in the group stage -- might feel somewhat underwhelming.
OK, here's something I can post over here. On February 7, 1998, we attended a Gold Cup match between the U.S. and Costa Rica. Some of the basic facts will bring back some memories.
It was played at the Oakland Coliseum before 36, 240. Both teams had won their first group matches, so the winner of this one would advance to the semi-finals while the loser would be done. (I forget what would have happened if it was a draw.) The lineups:
USA: Brad Friedel, Jeff Agoos, Marcelo Balboa (Preki 69), Alexi Lalas, Eddie Pope (Mike Burns 46), Frankie Hejduk, John Harkes, Cobi Jones, Joe-Max Moore, Eric Wynalda, Roy Wegerle (Brian McBride 63). Coach: Steve Sampson.
Costa Rica: Erick Lonnis, Luis Marín, Austin Berry, Hárold Wallace (Bernard Mullins 82), Mauricio Wright, Luis Arnáez, Wilmer López, Joaquin Guillén, Roy Meyers (Floyd Guthrie 71), Allan Oviedo (Jervis Drummond 65), Paulo Wanchope. Coach: Rolando Villalobos.
Referee: Mohammed Nazri Abdullah (Malaysia).
Eddie Pope scored in the 7th minute. The U.S. took the lead into halftime, but then Oviedo equalized in the 56th minute. Preki entered the match in the 69th minute ... he scored the winner in the 78th minute:
(You'll notice the constant din of the vuvuzelas ... this was a double-header with Mexico in the second match, and they came prepared.)
I never really understood how Preki scored all of those goals. The goal above was copied hundreds of times over the years ... he seemed pretty predictable ... but teams never caught on, I guess, and it was fun to watch him score.
Preki was, and is, an interesting guy. Born Predrag Radosavljević, he was a Serbian who in his early 20s began playing indoor soccer in the U.S., where he became a legend, scoring 389 goals in 370 matches. He played 86 games in England (Everton and Portsmouth), scoring 9 goals. He was one of the original MLS players in 1996, and was MLS MVP twice as well as the top goal scorer twice. He became a U.S. citizen in 1996, by which time he was already in his 30s. He played 28 times for the USA, scoring 4 goals, and appeared in two World Cup matches in 1998. After his playing career, he began coaching, with Chivas USA and Toronto in MLS, and then with Sacramento Republic FC. And as I type this, he is rumored to be in line to manager a team in the English Premier League.
Preki is best known in the U.S. for his goal in the semi-finals of the '98 Gold Cup, which gave the U.S. a 1-0 win over Brazil. The match is famous for the performance of Kasey Keller in goal, and I remember that quite well, but I also remember shouting and screaming when Preki scored in that match.
A few of those U.S. players are working as announcers for this year's Gold Cup. Friedel is the color commentator for the English-language broadcast, while Balboa is working the Spanish-language side. (I tweeted last night that Balboa-in-Spanish seems like a better analyst than Balboa-in-English.) Also, Eric Wynalda is working in the studio.
It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look -- I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring -- caring deeply and passionately, really caring -- which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete -- the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
It's interesting that McCann wants us to know that, even though the title of the piece reflects what she shows us, "Things are more even than they seem". If I were a betting man, I'd take Japan, since they are underdogs, probably too much so, and thus are the better bet. The over/under looks to be 2.5, which is a tough call ... under would be 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, and 2-0. All of those seem possible, but so does 2-1.
I have a rooting interest, so I won't care about any of this. I just want the U.S. to win. I don't know enough about the players to make definitive statements. I know Carli Lloyd is important, but I'm not sure why. The switch in formation seems more important to me than any individual player ... Wambach as a late sub is a good idea, and her absence opens up space for various attacking players, which I guess is where Lloyd fits in. I want Alex Morgan to do well mainly because #GoBears. I have complicated thoughts about Hope Solo, but not about her play ... she instills confidence.
So ... USA 2-1 Japan in 120 minutes.
Meanwhile, soccer goes on. Chile won Copa América, and Argentine fans are trashing Messi, who is only the best player on the planet. Next week, the CONCACAF Gold Cup begins. Whether I continue to post regularly on this blog is up in the air. I don't feel like I've got much to say, and the viewer totals are as miniscule as could be ... since an early "high" of 30 views on June 7, there haven't been more than 11 views in any single day, and twice there was only one view.
The #1 team for Fox has been J.P. Dellacamera on play-by-play, with Tony DiCicco and Cat Whitehill on color commentary. They make a solid team. J.P. has always been one of the best U.S. soccer play-by-play guys, and as the article notes, he's been around forever. DiCicco can get on my nerves, but his insights are often good, as are Whitehill's, and I like it when Cat says something and, instead of arguing for the sake of arguing, Tony will just say, "I agree with Cat".
The #2 team is Jenn Hildreth and Kyndra de St. Aubin. The most obvious thing about this team is that they are both women ... this is still unusual. They are both solid and seem to have good rapport.
I haven't listened to enough of the Spanish-language guys, but Andres Cantor and Sammy Sadovnik are always good, and Carlos Hermosillo gave me a few laughs when I heard him doing color.
And I don't usually watch pre-and-post-game shows.
I guess the most remarkable thing about the offerings is that there is nothing remarkable. We've reached a point in the U.S. when a major soccer tournament gets the kind of professional treatment it deserves, and we barely notice, because we're getting used to it.
I can imagine many futures where Laura Bassett's name will be reviled. Thankfully, none of those futures appears to be happening. Bassett, a 31-year-old veteran of the game who had a strong World Cup, committed one of those wrong place, wrong time own-goals. Own-goals happen all the time. You pound the grass (er, turf) and move on. But this one was #1 on the Wrong Time Scale.
The outpouring of support for Bassett on Twitter and elsewhere was moving. Bassett has nothing to be ashamed of. Neither does the England team. They went farther than expected. For one day, set aside thoughts about the USA-Japan final, and think positive thoughts about England and Laura Bassett.
America’s pressing was a thing of beauty. There was hardly a single pass our ladies didn’t harry, with nary one German allowed time and space to think about what she wanted to do with the ball before an American rolled up and gently persuaded her to aid the American cause. You can’t do that with old-ass Abby lumbering around. Both USWNT goals, from the (terrible, in no way should it have been a) penalty to Kelley O’Hara’s coup de grâce, originated from dispossessions of the ball in the midfield. It would be an exaggeration to say pressing solved all our problems, but it did mask our biggest one and in doing so, made us immeasurably more dangerous.
Everything I write here, I cribbed from others. I have nothing new. But this blog serves as my memory, if nothing else, so ...
There are two ways to look at this match (of course I know there are more than two, but bear with me). When Julie Johnston committed a foul in the box for a German penalty, it was heartbreaking for a player who has been as good as anyone in the tournament. But the U.S. was actually lucky, because the referee awarded a penalty and a yellow card, when it should have been a red card. If the U.S. had to play the final half-an-hour short-handed, the result might well have been different. Then, when Alex Morgan drew a penalty at the other end of the field, the penalty call was missed ... she was outside the box. The two most crucial referee decisions of the match both went against the Germans.
On the other hand, there's this: the Germans missed their penalty, the Americans made theirs.
And, in the words of the immortal Norberto Longo, dos palabras: Torsten Frings.
Meanwhile, it was a match that "lived up to the hype". The U.S. did everything except score in the first half, in the second half the Germans were much more lively, and the last 30 minutes had everything.
I watch a lot of sporting events alone. I mean, I attend a lot of games, and obviously that's a public participation deal. But I don't usually go to bars, or even friends/family homes. There is something too intimate about really caring who wins or loses, something I don't want to expose to others. So, when the Giants won three World Series on the road, I watched at home by myself.
I'll be at home for USA-Germany. I'll connect with others by following Twitter updates, but mostly I'll be suffering alone. Note I said "suffering" ... clearly, I don't anticipate a U.S. victory. I don't have any inside insights. I just think the Germans are a better team. I don't expect a blowout ... maybe 2-1 to the Germans.
Most people are saying this is the true "final" ... whoever wins will be favored in the final. But that opponent will likely be Japan, the defending champions, so it won't be a pushover.
Meanwhile, if you need further incentive to catch the match, there's this from Allison McCann at FiveThirtyEight:
Women athletes in these programs are deeply alienated from the federation’s administrative structures. Women athletes in these programs see no future for themselves—not on the pitch, not as coaches, not in any of the structures that govern the game. If they are lucky, they leave their country. Or just make peace with it, stick with a grassroots sports scene, and do something else with their lives.
Many women’s teams have every right to just flat out strike. FIFA’s structures force women’s programs into a deeper part of its sewer—where men are coerced into complicity with FIFA’s corruption through the promise of fame and financial fortune, women are coerced into silence with the threat of being removed from the game altogether.
The more people who stand with these athletes, right now, the better.
If it didn't match the rush of Germany-France, it certainly pleased fans of the USA. I'll agree with those pundits who noted the Americans' strategy worked, despite the loss of Rapinoe and Holiday, because of a third absence, that of Abby Wambach. Their pressing was a joy to behold ... for the first half and much of the second, the U.S. tirelessly hounded the Chinese whenever and wherever they had the ball, never giving China a chance to mount any significant threats. Often, when a team scores a goal, the commentators will say that you could see it coming, and in this case, the cliche was true. The U.S. was deserved winners, playing their best game of the Cup so far.
What to do about Germany? We get to rest a bit, but U.S. coach Jill Ellis is already planning the strategy for the Germans. Based on what France was able to accomplish, it seems clear Ellis will opt for more speed, which works well with Rapinoe's return, and which should mean that Wambach starts on the bench.
A match for the ages. No talk about FIFA (although it couldn't have been easy playing 120 minutes on that turf), no thoughts to Chile and Copa América, not even much thinking about the USA-China match to follow. Just two teams playing entertaining soccer until they started dropping like flies.
I don't how a fan of either team could stand it. Well, I do understand, I've been there. But this time, I was a neutral, and I could watch on the literal edge of my seat without worrying that life would end if the result went differently than I'd wanted. Perhaps I sided ever so slightly for France ... Germany has worn down so many teams over the years ... but when it ended, the result was fair, or as fair as any match left to penalties can be.
And ... OK, I did think a bit about the USA. If they get past China in 90 minutes, they will be more rested than the Germans next week. Heck, Rapinoe and Holiday will be VERY rested.
But for another half hour, as I await China-USA, I can think back on the best match of this Cup so far.
Today it gets serious. First, Germany and France. France is one of the top three teams in the tournament. Unfortunately for them, Germany is probably the top team. Still, it has the makings of being the best match of the Cup so far. Then, the USA goes against China, without Rapinoe and Holiday. I think they will win, I don't expect it to be a blowout, and then they'll face the winner of GER-FRA, which will be the big test.
And yet, you could say the WWC has been overshadowed once again by Copa América, this time for something bizarre. In the match between Chile and Uruguay, Chilean Gonzalo Jara figured out a way to get inside Uruguay's Edinson Cavani, who was already carrying a yellow card.
The debate over turf is important, however, as a symptom of something much larger: the ongoing inequalities in support for women’s and men’s soccer programs globally. The artificial turf is a metaphor, a very visible and inescapable reminder many ways in which institutional forces continue to hold back the development of the women’s game, quite literally impacting its most brilliant and inspiring players