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.