fever pitch

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.

-- Felipe Araujo

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


the final

Coming in to today's game, the last four World Cup finals had been 2-0, 1-1, 1-0, 1-0, a total of five goals in four matches.

Today, France and Croatia scored six goals between them.

It was a messy game, but it was exciting, with lots of goals, so you'd think I liked it, and I did. I wasn't fooled into thinking I was seeing the best soccer of the tournament ... both teams were tired, Croatia likely most of all. Don't know if that explains some of the goofiness, but whatever. Paul Pogba had a great match to top off a great tournament. Luka Modric won the Golden Ball, and he had the best tournament of anyone playing in the final, but he fell off a bit in his last two matches. Eden Hazard might have been a more deserving winner, but Modric is worthy, as well.

Now I have to find something else to do with my days. Sleeping sounds like a good first plan.


best ever?

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:

 


the final weekend

Belgium-England turned out as I expected ... I got the winner right (Belgium) and one of the scorers (Hazard). (I predicted a 2-1 final score, with the other goals by Lukaku and Kane.) I woke up late, watched a little bit of the second half, but this match was meaningless in the end. Usually by this point, after a month of focusing on the World Cup, I don't want it to end. And that's true now, but that wasn't enough to make me watch Belgium-England. I may actually be burned out.

Meanwhile, I'm predicting France 2 Croatia 1, goals by Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann, and Mario Mandzukic. Based on my predicted score, this should be a good match. Shout out to Luka Modric of Croatia, who has had a great tournament.

 


team of the tournament: my pre-cup predictions

As part of the predictions competition I entered prior to the start of the tournament, we were asked to pick a "Team of the Tournament". Here is who I chose:

GK David De Gea, Spain. Started out with that awful performance in the 3-3 draw with Portugal, and the rest of his tournament only looked good in comparison to that stinker. Losing GK in the shootout with Russia.

 

D Marcelo, Brazil. Solid in all 3 of his starts.

D Daniel Carvajal, Spain. OK in two starts, late sub against Russia, didn't play in the Portugal match.

D Joshua Kimmich, Germany.  Played OK as Germany crashed in the group stage.

 

M Neymar, Brazil. He'll be remembered as a failure, but he had a very good tournament, with two goals and an assist and five strong performances. For all the talk of diving and theatrics, Neymar was actually fouled a lot (he was fouled more times per game than any other player):

M Toni Kroos, Germany. Had the wonder goal against Sweden, but Germany went scoreless in his other two matches.

M Lionel Messi, Argentina. Actually played better once Sampaoli moved him to forward, but I had him down as a midfielder. Like Neymar, will be remembered for his team's failures, but he had a good tournament, as well, with a goal and two assists.

M Mohamed Salah, Egypt. Scored Egypt's only goal in both of the games in which he played, but this was not the tournament I thought he would have.

 

F Harry Kane, England. Probably my best pick, leading goal scorer with one more match to play. He has been scoreless in his last two games, though.

F Luis Suárez, Uruguay. Had three great games sandwiched between two stinkers.

F Robert Lewandowski, Poland. Three and out for Poland, and Lewandowski was one of the reasons.

 

Champion: Germany. Oops.

Top Scorer: Neymar. Not quite.


the semi-finals

I liked both matches ... obviously, Croatia-England was more exciting, and I've seen some complaints that France-Belgium was a bit boring, but I think that underrates that one.

France-Belgium. First half was so-so. Belgium had possession, France had the shots, with Griezmann leading the way ... he took 5 shots in the first half, none on target. Eden Hazard was the best player on the field, as he was for the entire match. He was pretty much all Belgium had in the second half, though. Meanwhile, a few French players stepped up, including Griezmann, whose corner led to the goal by Umtiti, who also had a good half. Overall, as Michael Cox said (and you should read his analysis, which actually says something, especially compared to my ramblings here), "It was intriguing rather than enthralling". On Telemundo, Andres Cantor remarked more than once about what he thought was the lackadaisical responses of the crowd. "It's the semi-finals of the World Cup!"

Croatia-England. I didn't really have a rooting interest in this one ... England, I guess, except Croatia has Luka Modric, and I like him more than any of the England players. When England took the early lead from Trippier magnificent free kick:

(One of Sammy Sadovnik's trademarks comes when there is a dangerous free kick. "Aroma de gol", he says, and it was never more appropriate than with Trippier's kick.)

But, as has happened before, I discovered my true rooting interest when Croatia equalized through Perisic midway through the second half, as I threw my hands in the air. Maybe I was just glad it was turning out to be a good match ... I've got nothing against England. It was perfect that the goal came on a cross from Sime Vrsaljko, who had a very good match, to Perisic, who had an even better match. Perisic's goal was pretty amazing ... and, according to pretty much every England fan, illegal, due to the height of Perisic' foot:

I have no unique insights into the extra time ... I have no idea how Croatia keeps playing these 120-minute matches while seeming to maintain their energy level. But it's been quite something to watch.

And so, to the goal that ended England's dream:

 


semi-finals

I'm within one point of first place in the prediction contest I entered. I am still hopeless at picking goal scorers, though, so this time, along with my game predictions, I'll just note a few players who have had good World Cups so far.

France-Belgium.  I think this will be close enough to go 120 minutes, with France winning before it goes to PKs. Kylian Mbappé has been France's best ... he's only had one poor match, against Denmark, and he only came on for 15 minutes or so at the end of that snoozer. He was brilliant against Argentina, and solid against Uruguay. Meanwhile, a case can be made that Eden Hazard has been the best player in Russia. Four games, all excellent at the least, two goals, two assists. And he's not alone ... Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku have been great, as well. In short, if Belgium were to win, I wouldn't exactly be shocked. These two last met in a World Cup in 1986, one of those wild third-place games that are both pointless and, usually, exciting with lots of goals. Sure enough, there were six goals, scored by six different players, France coming out on top, 4-2. The '86 World Cup was the last ride for the great French teams led by Michel Platini. They won the 1984 Euros, and Platini was amazing in that competition.

Croatia-England. I'm predicting England in the regulation 90. Croatia has some really good ones ... Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic. But they've gone to penalties twice in a row, and that's a lot of minutes. Meanwhile, England has Harry Kane, who has scored more goals than anyone else at the tournament. Kieran Trippier has been outstanding, and we can't forget Harry Maguire, who has a goal and an assist from his centerback spot. These teams last met in qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, with England winning both matches by a combined score of 9-2.

 


quarterfinals

Uruguay-France. First, a tip of the cap to El Maestro, Óscar Tabárez, in what is probably his last match in charge. It wasn't a great match ... even if Edinson Cavani had been available, it's unlikely Uruguay would have stopped what is looking like a French onslaught. The first half was fairly even until Raphael Varane's late goal, and once France picked up a second on the howler from Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera, it was over. Antoine Griezmann had a goal and an assist. I picked the winner in this one, I just didn't know it would be this easy.

Brazil-Belgium. Another case where the winner seems unbeatable in retrospect. Belgium went up 2-0 after half an hour, and Brazil fought hard ... in the second half, Brazil took 17 shots, Belgium took one. But Belgium had Thibaut Courtois in goal, and he picked a good time to have his best game of the World Cup so far. This may have been the best match of the tournament so far, with Belgium deserving their early lead and Brazil charging forward in the second half. I would have liked to see more of Douglas Costa for Brazil ... he only played 77 minutes in the tournament. At one point, Andres Cantor looked at the players on the field and said with admiration, look at all the talent out there! He was right, this was a good match for fans of starpower within the context of powerful teams ... Messi and Ronaldo only wishes they had such teammates.

Sweden-England. It's hard to say if this match or Uruguay-France was the worst of the quarterfinals, but that's really unfair ... both matches were decent enough. But in both cases, the 2-0 final score was appropriate. France and England deserved to advance, and the drama inherent in a World Cup quarterfinal made these good to watch. But they took a back seat to the other two matches.

Russia-Croatia. I didn't have a rooting interest here, and it's always tough to lose by penalties. Russia's performance was one of the best stories of this World Cup. But, in the end, I'm glad Croatia won. France, Belgium, England, Croatia ... these are strong teams and we should get good semifinal matches. Russia wasn't really up to their level, which to some extent is why their story was so impressive. If I was rooting for anyone, it was Luka Modric, who was frighteningly good in this one. In the 30 minutes of extra time, when everyone was exhausted, Modric was still running around getting things done. Very impressive.




penalties

John Doyle writes "In praise of penalty shootouts at the World Cup: All human frailty is there".

Here’s what to say to persons who assert that a penalty shootout is a terrible way to end a soccer game: There has to be an ending. A divorce. The conflict can’t go on forever. As much as two sides are fully engaged in an endless tug of war for dominance, the niggling fouls and attempts at ascendancy must stop. An ending is a good thing.


scouting

My nephew, who works in the field and knows whereof he speaks, pointed me to this interesting article:

"When the World’s Greatest Soccer Players Gather, Scouts Stay Away"

The World Cup is the planet’s most-watched sporting competition. It is soccer’s marquee event. Thousands spend fortunes to attend it, supporting their nations. It commands global television audiences of more than a billion people. Devoted fans tune in to every minute.

To soccer’s elite scouts, though, it is almost an afterthought. They will all watch it, of course, though with a personal as much as a professional eye. Some have sent staff members to Russia to take in a few games, to keep track of possible targets.

None, however, believe it will teach them anything they do not already know....

For most clubs, the tournaments that are most useful are much less glamorous: youth competitions across the planet, the continental championships of Asia and Africa, and North and Central America — anywhere that is likely to expand their knowledge base, and ensure they are aware of any player that might be of interest as soon as possible.