People like to look at sports as a beacon of hope in a world that feels hopeless. But I tend to see athletes as belonging to another world entirely. The same English fans cheering on Sterling at the World Cup are perhaps the same ones who voted for Brexit in 2016. Lukaku is now adored in Belgium, where he was born 25 years ago. But it wasn’t that long ago that he would come on the field as a youth player and be confronted by the parents of the opposing side, demanding to see his ID.
As Europe faces an identity crisis, it needs to accept the fact that there are countless Lukakus and Sterlings among us, contributing to every level of society. Embracing immigrants for three weeks when the World Cup comes knocking every four years is just not good enough.
One thing I know for sure about being a fan is this: it is not a vicarious pleasure, despite all appearances to the contrary, and those who say that they would rather do than watch are missing the point.... When there is some kind of triumph, the pleasure does not radiate from the players outwards until it reaches the likes of us at the back of the terraces in a pale and diminished form; our fun is not a watery version of the team's fun ... The joy we feel on occasions like this is not a celebration of others' good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity, and anyone who wishes to understand how football is consumed must realise this above all things.
--Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch
Today, in my morning paper (San Francisco Chronicle), Ann Killion's World Cup article began, "Is this the greatest World Cup ever?" Part of her answer can be found in the title of the column: "Let’s enjoy it while it lasts because changes are coming soon". She notes that the next World Cup in Qatar will be different enough that if nothing else, the World Cup will never be the same. (Case in point: it will take place in November and December.) But that's not an answer to if this is the best Cup ever, just a prediction about where it is heading. As Killion writes, "It seems inevitable that history will look back on the 2018 tournament as the last great World Cup."
She then asks, "What makes a great World Cup? Close games, surprises, drama. And the 2018 World Cup has all of that."
If I had to list the best features of this World Cup, I would put, at the top of the list, that I have rarely been annoyed or grumpy. I have admittedly been a grouch in the past ... maybe I'm just mellowing out in my old age.
There has only been one scoreless draw in the first 63 matches. That's a good thing.
There have been some very good matches. Spain had a poor tournament, but they had a couple of entertaining group matches, a 3-3 draw with Portugal and a 2-2 draw with Morocco that came down to a stoppage time goal that required VAR to decide it was good.
In their first match, finalists France needed a late own-goal to defeat Australia, 2-1. Sounds better than it was ... two of the three goals were from penalties. France took part in one of the wildest matches, their 4-3 win that eliminated Argentina:
The final day of Group D matches was dramatic, including this goal:
Serbia-Switzerland eventually decided which of the two teams would advance:
Eventual semi-finalists England got off to a shaky, if excited, start against unfancied Tunisia:
Their last match was also something, as they crashed out to Croatia, who were playing their third straight 120-minute match:
In the quarter-finals, Croatia broke the hearts of the home team:
And I shouldn't forget Belgium, who had some exciting moments in the knockout phase. They beat Brazil, but the most amazing match came against Japan, featuring the best second-half of the tournament:
It was an odd day, when the most important things happened just to the side of the actual events.
Group H went first. The live table as the matches began: (Senegal 5 Japan 5) Colombia 4 Poland eliminated.
In the 59th minute, Jan Bednarek scored to put Poland up 1-0 against Japan. SEN 5 (JPN 4 COL 4).
In the 74th minute, Yerry Mina scored to put Colombia up 1-0 against Senegal. COL 6 (SEN 4 JPN 4).
Senegal tried for an equalizer, but Colombian keeper David Ospina made a couple of saves, and, to be honest, Senegal didn't show much. Colombia ended atop the table with 6 points, Senegal and Japan with 4. Which led to tiebreakers.
The first two tiebreakers are Goal Differential and Goals Scored. Both teams scored 4 and allowed 4.
Next is head-to-head. (I'm skipping some that don't seem necessary to me, important only if more than 2 teams have tied.) When the two teams met, they drew, 2-2, in one of the more entertaining matches so far.
Which leads to the "Fair Play" tiebreakers. The team with the best record in yellow and red cards finishes ahead of the other team.
In three games, Japan received 4 yellow cards. Senegal received 6. Japan advances, Senegal goes home.
You might say Polish star Robert Lewandowski, who had a disappointing tournament, was as crucial as anyone. In the 66th minute of today's game, he was fouled by Tomoaki Makino, leading to a yellow card. In the second half of the match between Senegal and Poland, the African team received two yellows for fouls on Lewandowski. In a group where Fair Play mattered, Lewandowski drew three yellows from the teams in question.
Of course, Senegal had two more yellows than Japan, so Lewandowski wasn't the only reason Japan advanced. But I'll put him forward as the Forgotten Man of this World Cup thus far, for his mediocre play, and for his ability to draw yellow cards.
Here's how important Group G action was today: I'm writing this at halftime, because the only match that matters is largely a sham. As I type, Panama leads Tunisia, 1-0, at the half. Both teams are already eliminated, and the only goal of the match was an own goal. Meanwhile, England and Belgium are scoreless at the half. The crucial stat in that game: Belgium has gotten two yellows, England none. If the teams finish the game tied, this one will also go down to Fair Play, and in the "Live Table", England is leading the table. (In fairness, Belgium just scored, so it won't finish 0-0.)
It gets better/worse: there is some debate whether either team actually wants to win the group. The winner faces Japan in the next round, the second place team takes on Colombia. But it's what might come down the road that has people wondering. If the winner beats Japan, their likely next opponent would be Brazil. If the second place team beats Colombia, their next opponent would be Sweden or Switzerland. So, all else being equal, the Group G winner would face Japan and Brazil, the second place team would face Colombia and, say, Sweden. Some people think this means the second place team is in better shape than the winner.
Should I wait until the matches are over to post this? Nah.
Andrew O'Hehir with a solid article: "Donald Trump, America’s isolation and the World Cup: There’s no stopping Big Soccer".
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.
Matt Reed with the interview:
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."
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:
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.
Kevin Draper: "FIFA has made it clear that they don't really give a shit about the women or teams involved."
There was this, though, from Chile-Peru in a Copa América semi-final match: