Friday, July 06, 2018

2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia

UPDATE 2 France wins the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, defeating Croatia 4-2 on an own goal by Croatia's Mario Mandzukic (18') , a penalty kick by Antonine Griezmann (38')and two beautiful goals by Paul Pogba (59') and Kylian Mbappé (65'). Croatia's goals were by Ivan Perisic (28') and Mandzukic (69'), who leapt on a major snafu by France's goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Croatia dominated the game from start to finish, but France pounced on several chances it got, making the champions and giving fans a glimpse of the immense talent they had this year, and will have for a few more World Cups to come.

UPDATE: England won their match against Sweden 2-0, so the quarterfinals are nearly set: France against Belgium, and England vs. Croatia, which went down to the wire, i.e., penalty kicks, against the wily Russian team!

France's Kylian Mbappé (right) controls the ball
against pressure from Uruguay's Lucas Torreira
(AFP)
As we near the end of the first week of July, the major tournament, the 2018 version of the FIFA World Cup, for the world's reputedly most popular sport, soccer--or (association) football outside the US--also approaches its end. Taking place across the vast nation of Russia, it has been a smoothly run and mostly scandal-free set of matches thus far, beginning with the opening group games that pitted 4 teams each against each other to decide who would advance to the knockout round. Although there were questions about Russia's efforts to secure the World Cup, much akin to previous financial controversies that have plagued FIFA, this World Cup has run perhaps more smoothly than the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which seemed to be in danger of featuring unfinished venues and the target of potential attacks right up to the moment when they went off without a hitch, or the 2014 edition in Brazil, which unfolded as the country was entering a several economic crisis.

Antoine Griezmann & Kylian Mbappé of France
(TASS via Getty Images)
For the first time in several World Cup meetings, the United States did not qualify, but neither did a few of the world's perennial soccer powers, including 4-time (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006) prior winner Italy, nor Chile or the Netherlands. FIFA's ranking tables included most of the entrants numerically, in descending order (skipping the teams that did not make it): Germany (1), Brazil (2), Belgium (3), Portugal (4), Argentina (5), Switzerland (6), France (7), Poland (8), Spain (10), Peru (11), Denmark (12), England (12), Uruguay (14), Mexico (15), Colombia (16), Croatia (20), Tunisia (21), Iceland (22), Costa Rica (23), Sweden (24), Senegal (27), Venezuela (33), Serbia (34), Australia (36), Iran (37), Morocco (41), Egypt (45), Nigeria (48), Panama (55), South Korea (57), Japan (61), Saudi Arabia (67), and host Russia (70). Fortunately for fans--well, soccer fans in general--the rankings often correlate to teams' presence in the World Cup, which they achieve by winning regional association matches, but they do not guarantee success at the World Cup.

A distraught Neymar Jr.,
after Brazil's loss to Belgium
(AFP/Getty Images)
In the first round matches, this World Cup provided a few shockers. First, in Group F, South Korea's and Mexico's victories over Germany knocked the top ranked team and the 2014 World Cup victor out of the tournament; other top ranked teams that failed to advance included Costa Rica, Peru, and Poland. First time participant Panama also was sent off the pitch, as were the scrappy footballers from Iceland, who became fan favorites in part because of the tiny size of their country compared to many of the other competitors, and the Super Eagles of Nigeria, who carried the hopes of their country and much of sub-Saharan Africa on their shoulders, but only finished with three points, or one win and two losses. (What was not known was that Nigeria's captain, Jon Mikel Obi, was playing the Argentina match while keeping silent about the fact that his father had been kidnapped in Nigeria and ransomed for $28,000; his father, thankfully, was released several days later.) On the other hand, standout teams were Uruguay, Croatia, and Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, and France all advanced to the knockout round, as did host Russia, which was in the weakest group, A, yet played quite well, amassing 8 goals, the second-most of the round, tying it with England, and playing with forceful enthusiasm. Both Spain and Portugal showed signs of vulnerability, yet both also went onwards to the round of 16. Argentina, with its superstar Lionel Messi, barely did so after tying Iceland, losing 3-0 to Croatia, and slipping past Nigeria 2-1.

Belgium's Kompany (in air at right),
heads the ball which ricochets off
Brazil's Fernandinho (17), for an own goal
(Frank Augstein/Associated Press)
The second round proved to offer more shockers; France dispatched Argentina 4-3 on two decisive goals by its 19-year-old shining light Kylian Mbappé, thus sending the Albiceste back to Buenos Aires,  perhaps concluding Messi's World Cup career. Uruguay beat Portugal, perhaps closing out the career of the Portuguese Selecção's world famous Cristiano Ronaldo. Belgium played a lethargic match against Japan, which shone for nearly the entire time, yet the Diables Rouges came back to send the better team packing with a stoppage time winner and 3-2 score. Mexico, another fan favorite, lost to Brazil 2-0, and up through this game, the Brazilians displayed their trademark jogo bonito, showing brilliance at times in their passing and footwork, though they did not seem to be as eager to score as some of their opponents. Another huge surprise with the large number--three--games decided by penalty kicks, which aided the lower-ranked Russia to knock off Spain 4-3 in PKs, which sent shockwaves through the stadium. England triumphed over Colombia 4-3 in PKs after its goalie's heroics, and Croatia, the tournament's sleeper team, defeated Denmark 3-2 in PKs after 1-1 score.
Colombia's Yerry Mina (13) celebrating with
teammate Dávinson Sánchez (23) after scoring
against Poland (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

We are now in the quarterfinals, and so far, France and Belgium are giving every sign of providing the side of the draw that will produce in the eventual victor. In France's case, in addition to Mbappé, its veteran goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has been stellar, and shut down an evenly matched Uruguayan team to preserve the 2-0 victory achieved by defender Raphaël Varane heading the ball in (on a beautiful pass by forward Antoine Griezmann) and by Griezmann on a pass by forward Corelin Tolisso. So evenly matched were the teams that both France and Uruguay took 11 shots, with 2 of les Blues on target vs. 4 from the Uruguayan side; each team had nearly the same number of fouls (17 for Uruguay, 15 for France); and each received 2 yellow cards. The difference was France's control of the ball, at 62% of the match, and the skill of its defense (Lucas Hernández, Samuel Umtiti, Varane, and Benjamin Pavard) in shutting down Uruguay's threats, while maximizing its few opportunities. Mbappé, Griezmann, Varane, Tolisso, and the rest of the French team constitute one of the best squads the country has fielded since its World Cup victory in 1998, and if they get past Belgium, they could and should win it all.

South Korean players (in red) in shock after defeating
Germany (in green) (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
While Belgium played without brio against Japan, it came out in full force against Brazil, whose star, Neymar Jr., had begun to spur memes because of all of his histrionic diving and flopping around, though he was legitimately being pushed around during Brazil's opening match against Switzerland. The referees seemed to be averse to calling any penalties against Belgium whenever Neymar and his teammates ended up crumpled on the field, so Brazil would have to recalibrate and deploy its dazzling skill work to manufacture goals. Unfortunately, despite putting on a clinic in the first half, the Brazilian team could not seem to convert chances, and found itself down 2-0 on an own goal by defense Fernandinho, one of the goats of the 2014 tournament, offer a header by Belgian star Vincent Kompany, and a stunner by Kevin De Bruyne that Romelu Lukaku had set up. Brazil led in shots, 27-9, shots on target 9-3, in possession 59%-41%, and in corners 8-4, yet repeatedly failed to follow up on loose balls or potential scoring opportunities. Renato Augusto finally did score in the 76th minute on a pass from Philippe Coutinho, but it was too little, too late, and now the objectively best remaining team heads home. For its part, Belgium stretched Brazil's defense wide open enough on quick runs up field to create the opportunities that gave it the 2-0 lead, and looks to be a danger in the France game and if it heads to the finals. Brazil's exit was not as shameful as 2014, but once again, despite its impressive talent, the Seleção seemed less interested in winning than in putting on a show. The two, I hope someone reminds Brazil, are more than compatible and what many a soccer most wants to see.
Nigeria celebrate after scoring a penalty
kick against Argentina (Reuters)
The remaining match-ups, on the weaker side of the draw, are intriguing: both England and Sweden have played above their rankings,  but the Three Lions' squad has the edge in talent and defense, with the x-factor striker Harry Kane, who has been the team's standout player and converted a number of opportunities so far. It also has some of the better younger players in the tournament, chief among them midfielder Dele Alli, defender Harry Maguire and goalie Jordan Pickford. If England can stay on the attack and open up Sweden's defense, the game is theirs. Russia's host nation fairy-tale effect has taken it quite far (cf. the US, South Korea, France, etc. in past tournaments), but Croatia has shown itself to be of the best teams in the tournament and will put the home field Sbornaya to the test. The Blazers have played unflappably so far. Russia's play has been a bit heavy-handed, so one question will be whether the referees decide to call fouls and dole out yellow cards--or in some cases, red cards that should have come but remain in pocket--which they've seemed reluctant to, which could work in Russia's favor in knocking Croatia's scorers off their game. I should add that given the tensions now besetting the Russian-US relationship, and all of the mounting evidence in the alleged Trump-Russia criminal conspiracy, Croatia has my support in this match-up.

Brazil's players stretch Danilo during a training
session on July 3, 2018 (Andre Penner/AP)
A few final points I want to make are that at a time of increasing ethnonationalism across Europe and the US, as well as across the globe, it has been encouraging to witness once against the more racially and ethnically diverse "national" squads perform with aplomb, belying the discourse, promulgated by far-right and anti-immigration parties like the British National Party, Alliance for Germany, National Front, League of the North, etc., that cross-racial and ethnic diversity are a bad thing, that unity and cooperation, even temporary, is not possible and that their their teams are somehow weakened by "impurity." Former colonial and imperial powers France, Belgium and England (UK) would not be where there are in this tournament without their Black, Arab, and mixed-race players. There have been articles about the anger anti-immigration and white nationalist soccer fans have felt about the mixed-race cast of their teams, so it has been especially satisfying to see those teams--save Germany, which crashed out early--kick and shoot their way to the trophy. These teams' successes may be mostly symbolic, and does little to dismantle the underlying structures and systems that enable racism and white supremacy, nor do they provide any answers to the economic and political crises fueling the international migration flows, yet they do represent a publicly visible and global counterweight to the illiberal discourse that is increasingly sweeping across the West and other parts of the globe.

A victorious Belgium celebrate their
defeat of Brazil (AFP)
A second point is that the US, when it reappears in the World Cup, will have to overcome a considerable gulf in terms of coaching, development and skill levels to be competitive. This year's top teams, most European other than Brazil, have played with a sharpness I don't see the US yet able to achieve, but given the depth of US soccer talent, with the right coaching staff and the best players, the US could conceivably go as far as it dreams. The same is true for the African squads, and, as Japan displayed, Asia's best teams too, but between national developmental programs and the European leagues, European teams still have the advantage for the time being.

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