R.I.P. Pelé.

Before Messi and Ronaldo, there were arguments over Pelé and Maradona. I couldn’t say much about the eventually friendly rivalry, because by the time I was even remotely knowledgeable about professional soccer, Pelé had been retired for ages and Maradona had descended into drug-addled villainy (in other words, it was 1990). Weird start to a quick eulogy, I know, but my argument for Pelé was, and remains, simple.

At 17, Pelé scored five goals in the two biggest games you could play in: the World Cup semifinal and final.

At 20, his government literally declared him a national treasure so that he’d never play club ball outside Brazil.

At 27, the Nigerian Civil War was paused so the combatants could watch him play.

At 34, a few years after retirement, he joined the New York Cosmos and, for a fleeting moment in the Age of Disco and Stagflation, made soccer the biggest ticket in the US.

And then, of course, there’s the bazillion goals he scored.

There’s a lot to be said for other players in terms of skill and achievement, and if I were objective enough I might name a few guys who technically were better players. But none were greater.

Look back at that list– forget the bazillion goals, because I’m sure a few hundred of them are in dispute here and there– look back at that crazy list, and tell me who matches that.

Nobody. The man stands alone.

Merry Christmas 2022!

Merry Christmas! Here’s to peace, grace, and growth for all.

We’re having a colder-than-usual Christmas in Jacksonville– and I suppose elsewhere, since these cold snaps tend not to be localized to a single area code.

Alas, it’ll only last a few snowless days, but it’s still nice to have the opportunity to bundle up, buy cocoa packets in bulk, throw a log in the fireplace, and pretend we actually have seasons down here.

World Cup Qatar 2022, Part Five.

While watching the final yesterday, I tried to liken it to other famous matches, because enjoying things for what they are isn’t my thing.

First to mind was the France-Brazil final in 1998. If memory serves, Brazil was a slight favorite heading into that game, and then word got out that Ronaldo– now with appellation “Nazario,” which presumably means “has won a World Cup”– was ill and might miss the game. He played anyways, but Brazil looked off. France was up 2-0 at the half, and went on to win 3-0.

That seemed to fit. France had been dealing with more injuries and illnesses than most had, including a virus going through camp in the days leading up to the semifinal and the final. Argentina was, at least in my mind, an underdog. Argentina got up early on a Messi PK, France had to throw more guys forward, and Argentina went up 2-0.

But instead of getting put away for good, France came back. Mbappé proved his mettle.

So then I was reminded of the ’05 Champions League final, when Milan went up 3-0 early, and Liverpool roared back in the second half to tie it just an hour in. Then the game slowed down significantly for the last 30 plus overtime and, unfortunately, Liverpool won on PKs. That seemed like a good analogue. Argentina’s lead wasn’t as big as Milan, but they held it a lot later than Milan did, so France’s later comeback was at least as impressive as Liverpool’s bigger comeback. And so I thought the game would slow down for the last ten minutes plus stoppage, and then slink into overtime and maybe PKs.

But France kept throwing everything at Argentina for the last few minutes and stoppage time, going for the greatest comeback ever. The game didn’t slink into overtime. It escalated. Argentina got their second wind and threw everything back.

And then Messi scored that third goal, and it looked like 1986, when Maradona and company fought off a West German comeback from 2-0 down, and Maradona got the winning assist late. A fitting parallel, except that Messi would score the winner himself this time, not dish it, and raise the Cup– and he hadn’t used the “hand of God” to do so. This was better than ’86.

Except that Mbappé scored one more time, and all comparisons ran out. I didn’t care who won the shootout– either way would be a great story.

I once wrote that the ’06 final was great for having everything bad about soccer– “dives, bad calls, make-up calls, taunting, head-butting, exhaustion, and a dreaded penalty shootout.” This one was great for having everything good about soccer. Great offense, both teams trying to win instead of parking the bus and playing for counters (or worse, grinding it out for a shootout), no egregious calls, good calls on all three PKs, no inexplicable violence from either captain, both teams being thrown back on their heels and then roaring back… and a dreaded penalty shootout.

Yet this one wasn’t actually dreaded. Oftentimes shootouts serve to grudgingly pick between two awful performances, or to see whether the parked-bus can finally sneak past the overwhelming offense. Those shootouts are dreaded. This shootout pitted actual gunslingers against each other. Two winners were actively trying to win, and we needed to choose a champion.

Congratulations to Argentina and especially, of course, to Messi.

I hope he enjoys his well-earned retirement with Inter Miami.

World Cup Qatar 2022, Part Four.

We come to the end of the Greatest Month in Sports, though its greatness has been tempered by being jammed in the middle of so many club seasons and my school days. Hopefully FIFA won’t get bribed into that ever again.

My picks have been middling, due lately and mainly to Morocco’s impressive run. It is true that they parked the bus even before any passengers got off (or on? Now that I think of it I’m not sure how the metaphor works), but they also attacked teams. A lot. At least as much as anyone else attacked them. For instance, in the quarters, Portugal attacked Morocco more than Spain did in the R16, but Morocco attacked back every bit as much. It was the same against France in the semis, and against Croatia in the consolation: less possession, but nearly equal number of shots on and off goal. They didn’t just sit back; they remembered to counter. They just ran into a French buzzsaw, that’s all.

The final matchup half-vindicates me. Before the tournament I kept seeing nobody pick France to repeat, but I couldn’t see why not aside from the rarity of repeats. Well, teams usually fail to repeat as World Cup champs because they get older, or injured, or the run of good luck they needed to avoid pitfalls runs out. But France? They lose one star to age or injury, they just grab another one off the bench. Q: Benzema? A: Giroud. Q: Pogba? A: So what? We’ll even shrink our midfield. They break down in defense and give up a goal? They just go score more. They’ve given up a lot of goals on their way to the final, but they’ve had more than enough firepower to overcome that. I picked against them over and over again last time around until the final and they kept proving me wrong.

My initial thoughts on Argentina were wrong (they were “going to disappoint despite the hype”). A kid asked why I was dismissive of their chances. I asked, “Do you know Messi?” Kid said yes. I asked, “Do you know anyone else who plays for Argentina?” Kid said no. Now, that doesn’t settle it, because you can succeed without big names in this sport. Name anyone who plays for Morocco. Seriously, even now, after that run– name anyone who plays for Morocco. While you’re at it, name anyone who plays for Croatia aside from Croatian Pirlo.

Argentina of course has other big names, but a good rule of thumb is that the teams with more players that casual or even non-fans have heard of will perform better, so I thought it was no big deal to predict an exit in the early knockout rounds. Whoops. The newest big name has been Álvarez, who’d have an insane plus-minus if they tracked it in soccer. He’s been on the field for almost all of Argentina’s goals, scoring four of his own, and was not on the field for any goal they’ve given up.

At one point I thought FIFA was trying to set up Argentina-Portugal, for obvious reasons. Alas, they can rig the bidding process, but not every single actual match.

Anyhow, my pick: I’d love to see Messi win the Cup– I think he’s the greatest player post-Maradona– but France has too many weapons. France will win, with Giroud capping an especially good year between winning the Scudetto and the Jules Rimet. Sadly, said victory will be followed by overwrought hue and cry over Messi’s failure to win it all.

World Cup Qatar 2022, Part Three.

I’m getting worse at this. I got five picks right out of eight picks, and even a few of the ones I got right were somehow wrong.

I had Spain as a lock, and they lost in PKs. Senegal got blown out instead of upsetting England. And the US got knocked out by the Netherlands in embarrassing fashion.

This was a weird Cup for watching the US. Normally we get assigned to a group and I think, “With a little luck and catching the other teams on bad days, we can advance.” Not this time. This time we were legitimately the second-best team in the group going in. We clearly should have beaten Wales instead of tying, which nearly came back to haunt us since we needed that final win against Iran. We could have beaten England, and a tie was a just result, if such a thing exists in sport. In years past, I would’ve thought we’d be lucky to escape with just a one-goal loss, but our guys went toe-to-toe with them and could have won. So we advanced and took on the Netherlands, and…

I honestly thought that was a winnable game. There was some offense, though Pulisic’s miss will haunt him for the rest of his life. Haunting us was the lack of real strikers. It was obvious there was no target player at all, no dedicated finisher, nobody who struck fear (or even mild discomfort) in the hearts of our opponents. They seemed locked in on Pulisic, because he was clearly our go-to on offense, but he’s just not as finishy as Donovan or Dempsey were, and he’s not a big ball-winner in the box like McBride or Altidore were. I’m not saying any of those were superstars, but they were clearly the best we had at those vitally important scoring or assisting roles back in the days, and that just seemed to be missing. This team had a bunch of hybrids between forwards and attacking mids, and couldn’t seem to settle on who should be up top running at defenders, or winning headers in the box, or… anything.

And on the defensive end, you had the defensive mids losing track of the Dutch scorers. If you go back and watch the first two Dutch goals, you’ll notce American defensive mids jogging a few yards behind the scorer instead of being goalside, or even shoulder-to-shoulder with him. Amateur mistake. Grade school mistake. Old man in a beer league mistake. Disgusting.

A new metric occurred to me, while watching USA-England, to gauge the difference between two teams. When the back four are passing the ball around, preparing an attack, notice how far back they play. The more skill they have and the better organized they are, the further downfield they can set up. The less skill, the less organized, the deeper in their own end they have to set up because they need the extra time and space to keep the ball away from the opponents. Against England, our back four was often lined up level with the bottom of the center circle on our side of the field. England’s back four lined up in our half. That’s a 10- to 15-yard difference in skill and organization.

Anyhow, I’ll ramble more about the USMNT some other time. Back to my horrible picks. I didn’t expect Croatia to need PKs to beat Japan, and I didn’t have Portugal blowing out Switzerland. I even had Portugal-Switzerland as the most likely to go to PKs. Not even close. The Swiss should be banned from the next three World Cups; that performance was atrocious. Their slot really should have gone to someone else this year; maybe the second-place finisher in their qualifying group.

Brazil and France looked great. I expect to see them in the final. Spain was atrocious. It’s like they don’t understand the point of the game, which is to score goals. Possession is great; possession is necessary; but you have to remember to shoot. Spain didn’t. They had over 90% accuracy on over 1000 passes against Morocco… and one less shot on target. Riciulous.

Anyhow, let me do a bracket for the rest of the way, which will undoubtedly jinx certain teams.

Argentina over the Netherlands and Brazil over Croatia in two close games. An upset in either wouldn’t be too shocking.

538 has England as a slight favorite over France. I think that’s garbage. France has looked great so far. France over England. Portugal remembers to actually attack Morocco, and will win.

Brazil over Argentina in one semifinal. Brazil has too much talent that has learned to play well enough without starters, unlike the 2014 team. France over Portugal in the highest-scoring game of the tournament, I hope.

France over Brazil in the final. I like the Brazilian team, but nobody’s repeated in 60 years so I’d like to see that bit of history. Then again, maybe I’m compensating for picking against France over and over again in 2018. We’ll see.

World Cup Qatar 2022, Part Two.

Took a little longer than I should have to get around to part two of my Mondiale journaling, but here we are. First let’s look at my calls so far.

A: I picked Holland and Ecuador due to Mane’s absence, and it looked like I was gonna be right until Senegal came through in the end. One out of two.

B: England, USA. Right teams and order.

C: Argentina, Poland. Right teams and order. Argentina gave us all a scare after that shocking loss to Saudi Arabia, but I thought that loss was more of a fluke than a sign of poor attitudes, organization, or play on Argentina’s part. Argentina got over it and advanced. Mexico was knocked out on goal difference, but if not for Saudi Arabia’s final goal, they would have been knocked out anyways on the garbage “fair play points” rule. I’ve ranted about that before.

D: France, Denmark. France was right, Denmark was wrong. Nice to see Eriksen in the tournament after the scare he had last summer, but nothing came of it. France looks good, is actively trying to win instead of merely defending their goal and title, and is one of my picks to win it all. Nice to see underdog Australia overcome the 1-4 embarrassment of their first match and advance anyways. Six picks in the right spots so far, two wrong.

E: This is where my picks start going wrong. I called Germany “a machine being reloaded,” and picked them to finish first over Spain. Whoops. Japan won, Spain placed. Japan has surprised me the most, beating two of the last three champions (while somehow losing to Costa Rica). The Asian teams in general have earned their acclaim this time around, but Japan’s win over Germany is my pick for best game of the first round. Germany attacked relentlessly, Japan played for counterattacks, and Japan’s plan worked. The Germans are rightly embarrassed to have been knocked out two group stages in a row, but like last time, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Over 60% possession against Japan and Costa Rica (nobody outpossesses Spain), out-shot all three opponents (both on and off target)… the shots just didn’t go in.

F: I picked Belgium and Croatia. Right about Croatia, horrifically wrong about Belgium. Morocco won the group. Belgium, who I thought was best in 2018 (except for when Brazil collectively stopped diving in the last 30 minutes of their elimination game), seemed to put on a soft recreation of France’s meltdown in 2010. Arranging last-minute separate flights home is a bad look.

G: Brazil, Cameroon. Brazil looks ready to win with or without any given superstar or superstars, which is great for them psychologically. The absence of Neymar and Thiago Silva against Germany in 2014 led to the 7-1 disaster. led to being on the wrong side of the 7-1 avalanche in 2014. This time around, I think they have more steel. Cameroon was a sentimental pick and got Africa’s first win against Brazil in the World Cup, but it was too little too late. Switzerland played well and finished second.

H: I picked Uruguay to win and Portugal to place. I was wrong. Portugal won, and Ronaldo looks to have eased any concern that the Manchester United fiasco might hurt him, but Uruguay was toothless. South Korea’s miracle against Portugal let them advance on goals scored, which is a sane tiebreaker. Uruguay should face major fines and suspensions for the fiasco at the end of their game against Ghana.

So, if I’m counting right: nine exactly right, one additional pick advanced but in the wrong spot. Not my best performance.

The next round, even though I wrote this after the first two R16 games:

I honestly had the US beating the Netherlands either in overtime or PKs, so my bracket’s already broken, and Argentina was an easy pick over Australia. Messi has looked like Messi, and I’ll comment more on the US departure later.

France should easily handle Poland.

Something about England doesn’t look right to me. They have finishers but they’re missing something in the other phases. I think they’ve advanced as far as they have in recent major tournaments due to favorable draws. I think they’re going to get caught looking ahead to France, and Senegal will slip past them.

Croatia should beat Japan, but it’s not a lock. I don’t know if Japan’s counters are going to work as well against a Modric midfield as it did against Germany’s or Spain’s.

Brazil and Spain should be locks against South Korea and Morocco, respectively.

Portugal should sneak past Switzerland. This is my pick for most likely to go to PKs, though. We’ll see.

World Cup Qatar 2022, Part One.

The Greatest Month in Sports is back, though a little later than it normally is. Normally it coincides, roughly if not entirely, with the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup Finals. This year, due to blazing hot Qatar outbribing everyone else for the hosting rights, it coincides with college and pro football’s playoff races and the NBA and NHL getting into the swing of things. Deciding whether to watch football or football is an unusual dilemma.

Anyhow, as I get back into coaching school soccer, I’m in the sort-of-ironic position of following the top levels of the beautiful game less and less. But I’ll go ahead and make my uninformed group picks right now. The US was thoughtful enough to qualify this time and is in Group B with England, Wales, and Iran. I honestly believe England is getting worse over the years despite their trip to the Euro final last year and the semifinals in Russia in 2018, but they should win the group, beat the relatively weak second-place finisher from Group A, then lose embarrassingly in the quarters. The US on paper is better than Wales and Iran and should advance, but we’ll see. Berhalter often disappoints, but at least he got us back into the tourney so hopefully that’s something to build on.

Now to look for the group Italy landed in.

Let’s see, Group A: Holland should win, perhaps not easily, but they should win. I think Ecuador will finish second since Mane’s injured for Senegal. Qatar should finish fifth out of four, but be proud that they could purchase qualification.

We did Group B already.

Italy’s not in C, which should be won by Argentina in Messi’s last hurrah (which is going to disappoint despite the hype). Mexico should finish second, but they’re as historically flaky as the US so Poland might sneak past them. In fact, I’ll say Argentina and Poland advance.

D should be France and Denmark, in that order. I’m surprised at how few people are picking France to win the whole thing. Yes, they’re the defending champion, which hasn’t paid off since 1962, but even without Benzema they’re a strong, youngish team that can blow anybody out.

Group E: Germany, then Spain. Germany is a machine being reloaded and is probably pissed about last go-round. Spain met its Protestant wind and is on the wane, but only to second in their group.

F has two of the three best teams from last time around. I thought Belgium was unlucky to lose to France, but that’s life. This time: Belgium, Croatia safely qualify after the first two games, play to a draw in the group closer, Belgium wins on goal difference. Still no Italy, that’s strange.

If everyone’s healthy, Brazil should dominate Group G. I know Cameroon is the weakest in the group, but they earned a lot of good will with me by beating Argentina in 1990 so I want them to advance. They’ll finish second.

So Italy must be in Group H, which they should win, and then second place will– wait, Italy’s not in H. I guess they have nine or ten groups this time around. H looks like a real Group of Death, this is a tough call. Uruguay still has some bite, they’ll win first place. We’ll see whether (and how) CR7 reacts to the Man U controversy via his play for Portugal, but they’ll finish second.

So Italy will win Group I, which inclu– hold on, my editor’s trying to get hold of me.

It’s 48 teams this time, right? I mean I think that’s ridiculous, but there’s 48 teams, aren’t there?

That’s next time? Then where’s Italy? Defending Euro champs?

Out? How? What the hell happened? Bad calls, like in Korea 20 years ago? Gambling scandal? Bribing the refs, or failure to bribe the refs? Give me a minute, let me google World Cup Qatar controversy–

Oh dear.

O glorious night!

Over the last few days, I told anyone who would listen (which was, like, maybe two people) that I was especially unenthusiastic about this week’s Monday Night Football broadcast. I can’t say I expected much from the Bears given that it’s a rebuilding year, but they still failed to meet my expectations. Apart from a Week One comeback against the Niners, the Bears had been awful. Their performances ranged from getting blown out against the Packers to somehow failing to score more than 7 against the Washington Trademarks despite multiple trips to the red zone. I don’t have the energy to explain the disappointment. It was whatever comes after acceptance.

But tonight’s game was, for what seems like the first time in ages, actually worth staying up past my bedtime for.

Chicago got an early lead, blew it, then took it right back and didn’t let go. They didn’t mentally collapse. Fields looked great (but I don’t like the way he slides; it looks risky). The running game was good despite [a] the offensive line being nightmarish this season and [b] having an injury to the starting center early in the game. The defense was great, and I don’t care if they were playing a pair of young QBs– beating Belichick is beating Belichick.

One of the commentators said it was the sort of win that might just turn the fortunes of the franchise. I say pass the Kool-Aid.

It was the first time the Bears had ever won at New England, the first time they’d beaten New England or Belichick in nearly 22 years, and their biggest win against New England aside from Super Bowl XX.

And for the second time in league history, the Chicago Bears hold the all-time record, outright and alone, for most regular season wins.

(The first time was from 1921 until three weeks ago.)

Re cur.

This evening I deserved a fast-food burger combo. Thus did I sally forth to Corporate Burger Restaurant X, navigate the drive-through, and order one hamburger, some fries, and a drink. The voice in the kiosk informed me that I owed $9.50. I pulled forward to the payment window and handed the cashier a crisp twenty-dollar bill.

The cashier looked in the till and said, “I don’t have fifty cents. Is that OK?”

This has been happening more frequently at more restaurants. At first it was mostly local joints, but now it’s spreading to bigger places like CBRX. When it happens, the cashier is usually just a few pennies short, in which case I don’t mind forgoing my change. I might even let a dime slide if I’m in a good enough mood. But fifty cents is pushing it.

I get that there’s a whole lot of upside to going cashless. I love being able to use my phone to pay for bills, gas, and groceries, and the feds love being able to use Alexa MMT Edition to pump trillions of dollars into circulation instantaneously.

If you’re not too busy burning cash for heat, you can guess the downside.

It used to be that paper money was the most dangerous currency due to being the most inflationary. You could increase the face value of paper money merely by printing higher numbers on it. But my God, these last few years* have reminded me that ink and cotton fiber have nothing, inflation-wise, on plain old electrons. Without a whole lot of the fiscal and monetary discipline that our leaders aren’t exactly known for, those electrons are not going to hold their value. At least not compared to bills and coins.

So I’ve decided to start hoarding more cash and coins. When Putin launches the nukes and the EMPs set us back a few centuries, and when nobody remembers how to print US dollars or mint US coins because the instructions were online, my coffee cans full of change might just be valuable enough to buy a decent-sized fief and hire an army.

And that’s why, when the cashier asked, “Is that OK?” I said, “No.” I got my twenty back and paid with a card. Shouldn’t have offered cash in the first place. Kid gave me a dirty look, too; might’ve figured out my plans. Better bury the change in the backyard.

* I know I should have written “last several decades,” but [A] I wasn’t alive for the whole process, and [B] there’s a difference between a ramp and a wall.

“Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory.”

Happy 246th birthday to the United States, and happy sesquicentennial birthday to Calvin Coolidge!

This Fourth, I am drawn back to a letter by our most underrated founder, John Adams. His July 3rd, 1776 letter to Abigail Adams is known for its poor prediction that the Second of July would be the big holiday. I’ve mentioned it before, but I think it warrants another look. He laments the delay in declaring independence, then comes around to its advantages before making his slightly-off prediction about the holiday:

Philadelphia July 3d. 1776

Had a Declaration of Independency been made seven Months ago, it would have been attended with many great and glorious Effects . . . . We might before this Hour, have formed Alliances with foreign States. — We should have mastered Quebec and been in Possession of Canada …. You will perhaps wonder, how such a Declaration would have influenced our Affairs, in Canada, but if I could write with Freedom I could easily convince you, that it would, and explain to you the manner how. — Many Gentlemen in high Stations and of great Influence have been duped, by the ministerial Bubble of Commissioners to treat …. And in real, sincere Expectation of this Event, which they so fondly wished, they have been slow and languid, in promoting Measures for the Reduction of that Province. Others there are in the Colonies who really wished that our Enterprise in Canada would be defeated, that the Colonies might be brought into Danger and Distress between two Fires, and be thus induced to submit. Others really wished to defeat the Expedition to Canada, lest the Conquest of it, should elevate the Minds of the People too much to hearken to those Terms of Reconciliation which they believed would be offered Us. These jarring Views, Wishes and Designs, occasioned an opposition to many salutary Measures, which were proposed for the Support of that Expedition, and caused Obstructions, Embarrassments and studied Delays, which have finally, lost Us the Province.

All these Causes however in Conjunction would not have disappointed Us, if it had not been for a Misfortune, which could not be foreseen, and perhaps could not have been prevented, I mean the Prevalence of the small Pox among our Troops …. This fatal Pestilence compleated our Destruction. — It is a Frown of Providence upon Us, which We ought to lay to heart.

But on the other Hand, the Delay of this Declaration to this Time, has many great Advantages attending it. — The Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak and mistaken People, have been gradually and at last totally extinguished. — Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act. — This will cement the Union, and avoid those Heats and perhaps Convulsions which might have been occasioned, by such a Declaration Six Months ago.

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

We lightly mock his mistaken prediction to this day, but I’m sure he could live with it. Adams’ larger point is in the last paragraph, and he was vindicated.