Merry Christmas to you and yours!
We now enter the long, dark four-and-a-half-year-gap-between-World-Cups of the soul.
That was a pretty darn good final, and a pretty darn good World Cup overall. Not my favorite of either. I preferred the 2006 Final because it was far more dramatic (click here for my write-up from back then). I preferred Italia ’90, maybe because that’s the first one I followed– American coverage back then was so bad they had commercial breaks during the action– maybe because of the ancestral connection, but mainly because it featured a far better villain. The big storyline was whether Maradona could will his team to victory despite negative play, despite him being a horrible a@#$%^e, despite losing the opener to Cameroon, despite losing their starting keeper to a broken leg. He almost did. Thank God for West Germany.
Anyhow, back to the present. It was a pretty entertaining game. Croatia played well, but France had better players, more energy (it helps to not have to play three consecutive overtime games), more shots on frame, and more goals in the net. The end. The fact that France’s first goal came off a dive takes a teensy bit of shine off their trophy, but their other goals were legit.
An irony: both of Croatia’s goal-scorers also gave up goals. Mandžukić was “credited” with the own goal, and Perišić’s handball led to France’s penalty. I was reminded of the ’06 final, when Materazzi gave up a penalty early and scored off a corner about ten minutes alter. I hoped the parallel would extend to a Croatian victory, but… it didn’t.
France is a worthy champion, and given their youth they’ve got to be favorites to win next time. In the meantime, I’ve got four years to figure out what my students are going to do while I’m watching games in the middle of the workday.
Also in the meantime:
- FIFA should keep tweaking VAR. I was pleasantly surprised with it this time around, but hopefully they’ll find a way to make those decisions faster.
- They need to work harder at increasing scoring and reducing time-wasting.
- They need to crack down harder than ever on diving.
- They need to replace the yellow card tiebreaker rule.
- And they need to schedule the Qatar 2022 games for whatever works out to be 5 PM and 8 PM in my time zone. I believe that’d be 8 AM and 11 AM over there.
I foresee no difficulties.
I was half-right. I called Belgium and Croatia in the final, but the Frenchies beat the Belgians in a sort-of boring game. Proud to say I got Croatia right, though.
England looked like they over-relied on Route One. Against weaker teams, that can work. They beat Panama badly, and they would’ve beat Tunisia worse than 2-1 if the ref had made a few more calls. They were able to draw fouls near the box, win free kicks, PKs, do well on corners, etc. Against teams closer in skill, that didn’t work as well. Belgium beat them twice, Colombia could’ve beaten them if they’d played more seriously throughout the game. I’m not the best analyst, but in England’s last two games, the semi and the third-place match, the front line really looked like a bunch of poor decision-makers. They made wrong decisions about whether and when to pass or shoot, and they took too long to make decisions– even the right decision. On several occasions, the young guns up front held the ball just a fraction of a second too long and missed the opportunity to shoot, to play through, to pass to a wide-open teammate. Again, that’s not based on any expert-level detailed analysis, but it sure did look like Southgate’s triangle and circle buttons were jammed.
I think Belgium, France, and yes, Croatia have been the class of the tournament so far, and I’d like to throw in Brazil when Neymar was playing seriously instead of flopping. England’s not at that level yet. Given where they landed in the Round of 16, they went about as far as was expected.
Barring a disastrously embarrassing performance tomorrow, either team would make a fine champion. They’ve both earned their way to the final… despite Belgium’s whining about France’s performance in the semi. All this nonsense about France playing too far back? Pfft. Belgium had 60% of the possession that game and got off some good shots, but France completely out-shot them. France shot more, both on- and off-target. Same number of offsides, Belgium had one extra corner. This wasn’t like ze early German performances, where one team completely and unquestionably dominated play but the other managed to score. This was much more even. France just won.
I’ve probably been a bit unfair in singling out Mbappé for flopping, because so many players on so many teams do it. But it’s frustrating to see such a talented player turn to that level of diving and flopping so early in his career. It’s disappointing to think that instead of seeing the next Messi or Ronaldo, we’re going to see the next Neymar. And yes, Messi and Ronaldo dive on occasion, but Neymar has become notorious for it, thus the comparison. So, Mbappé, please grow up and play great.
I’m rooting for Croatia to beat France for three big reasons. One, it’d be neat to see a new champion. Two, Croatia’s dark jerseys are the best in the tournament. And three, this Modric guy reminds me of a dorkier, less appreciated version of Pirlo. But France is better, and they have played well, so for the first time in the knockout round, I predict they’ll win.
My predictions from last time:
Sweden and Russia […] might’ve been able to Rudy or Rocky their way past their next opponents, but I think England and Croatia just had their mettle tested and will play spirited games. England should beat Sweden and Croatia should beat Russia.
…Belgium and Uruguay are talented without over-reliance on superstars and spirited without being undisciplined. Screw it: Belgium over Brazil and Uruguay over France.
Three out of four ain’t bad (even though I got all four 2014 semifinalists right before that tournament started). The Croatia-Russia game was intense. I thought for sure that Croatia was dead meat when Subašić’s hamstring started acting up– how could he possibly stop any shots if he couldn’t push off that leg? Magic spray, magic sponge, and voila, he did great in the OT and the shootout. Kudos to him.
The especially nice thing about Belgium’s win over Brazil was that the threat of a second yellow cured Neymar of his diving. Once he realized the ref wouldn’t tolerate it, he got serious. Hopefully he keeps it. He stopped diving, he bounced back up after fouls, and he led as relentless an attack as I’ve seen in this Cup, but it was too little, too late.
I’ve gotten France wrong twice in a row, thinking weaker but older teams would overcome them. Nope. They’re a good team. They’re favorites to win. Unfortunately, Mfloppé seems to have picked up Neymar’s mantle with his embarrassing dive. Not a good sign for a rising star.
The picks are getting tougher with each round, and I’m in the odd position of not really caring who wins. A Belgium-Croatia final would guarantee a first-time champion, yet England-France would give me some pretty good meme fodder for my APUSH class this year.
I think Belgium will beat France. They were losing big late and came back against Japan, they built a big lead on Brazil and held off a desperate and ferocious attack. They’ve shown poise and maturity, and that has to win out over youth eventually, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? France is good, but Mfloppé just absorbed all the distaste I previously had for Neymar. So I pick Belgium. I look forward to the Hitchhiker’s memes if they win.
I think England is better than Croatia, but they’ve become very reliant on Route One. I think Croatia will handle that better than anyone England’s faced yet. Plus, Croatia’s black and blue jerseys are awesome. I pick Croatia.
Belgium v. Croatia in the final. We’ll know by Wednesday.
Let’s look at my Round of 16 predictions from last time:
Solid picks: Spain over Russia. Croatia over Denmark. Belgium over Japan.
Solid my rear end. Spain tiki-taka’d themselves right out of the tournament. As boring as it was to watch, the Russians executed their game plan to perfection. No radioactive poisoning necessary. Croatia and Belgium won, but winning via PKs or miraculous comebacks does not constitute a “solid” win. The second half of Belgium-Japan might’ve been the best half of the World Cup, with the possible exception of France-Argentina. 2 for 3 so far.
Somewhat tougher calls: Brazil over Mexico. […] England should beat Columbia, especially if James is dinged up. […] And Sweden over Switzerland.
3 for 3. Brazil was just plain better than Mexico. We’ll see if it keeps up. Neymar is turning into a villain, fast. Yes, he is honest-to-goodness getting fouled more than anyone else, but the embellishment is disgusting. Some folks justify it by pointing out that the embellishment draws the ref’s attention to fouls. Perhaps. But the refs do tend to focus a little bit more when one of the best players on Earth, possibly the best left in the tournament, is the most heavily-fouled player left in the tournament. He doesn’t need to embellish. He’s just increasing his own risk of earning a yellow.
England-Colombia was disgusting to watch. England should have finished them off in regular time because the ref should’ve shown Colombia more cards. But Colombia applied a lesson from the old Bad Boys of Detroit: sometimes, you can commit so many fouls that the ref gets tired of calling them. The shame of it is that after Colombia finally equalized at the end of regulation, they finally started playing a disciplined and even dominant game. I think they badly outperformed England in extra time. So where was that the first 90 minutes?
I was right about Sweden. I don’t follow the Swedes closely enough to know, but I wonder whether Zlatan’s absence is a reason for their success. Sometimes a dominant player occupies so much of the attention of his teammates that they forget “the right way to play,” deviate from better game plans, feed him the ball too much. Then when said player goes bye-bye, the team starts playing like a team again. I think Bill Simmons calls this the Ewing Theory.
The toughest quarter of the bracket, […] which is tight enough that I won’t feel the least bit bad about getting wrong: Uruguay over Portugal. […] And I’ll pick Argentina to upset France.
I got Uruguay right, and France wrong. These games were good. France over Argentina is my new favorite game of the tournament. I think it was the most dramatic throughout, unlike Belgium-Japan which was only dramatic at the end (which in fairness is the best time to be dramatic, but I digress). I was wrong about France’s youth, and my God, that MmmBop kid is good. France looked ready to run Argentina right out of the stadium early, then the Argentines pulled ahead, then France blew right past them in the second half. That’s two, two lead changes, ah-ah-ah, which is entirely too rare in soccer. And Aguero’s late goal might’ve led to a miracle finish, but alas.
Argentina’s coach needs his head examined. As someone pointed out, he left 600 goals (Aguero and Higuain) on the bench too long. Yep. Put them on the field, put a little more offensive pressure on France, give Messi a little more room to work with.
Six of eight picks isn’t horrible. It was seven last time, but six isn’t horrible.
Anyhow, my picks for the quarters, even though no result would surprise me at this point:
The right half of the bracket features geographic close-ish-ness and stylistic similarity, but gaps in talent. Sweden and Russia have outperformed expectations so far, and they’ve both shown strength of character. They might’ve been able to Rudy or Rocky their way past their next opponents, but I think England and Croatia just had their mettle tested and will play spirited games. England should beat Sweden and Croatia should beat Russia.
The left half is trickier for me. A quick check with 538’s predictions shows Brazil and France with 64 and 62 percent odds against their opponents, but I think that’s overstating the gaps in talent. Belgium and Uruguay are talented without over-reliance on superstars and spirited without being undisciplined. Screw it: Belgium over Brazil and Uruguay over France.
Happy 242nd birthday to your land and my land!
And happy 146th birthday to President Coolidge, who provides us with today’s filler… from beyond the grave!
A few of the websites and Twitter commentaries I follow featured the following excerpt from a Coolidge speech in 1926. The occasion was the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration, which technically was celebrated on July 5th due to the 4th being on a Sunday that year. It’s a good one because it cuts to the chase:
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
When Coolidge spoke in 1926, the ideals of the Declaration were, to put it kindly, less fully realized than they are today. As I’ve said before, blame the humans, not those ideals. The ideals were good. They still are good, and they ever shall be good. We poor souls need to keep striving to live up to them.
Before I make my picks, allow me to express my dissatisfaction with the current structure of the bracket. The Group A winner knows they’ll play the Group B runner-up. The winner of that match knows they’ll play the winner of the match between Group C’s winner and Group D’s runner-up. And on it goes. I think this teensy bit of foreknowledge injects a little too much gamesmanship into the last games of the group stage.
For instance, there was a broad consensus that the loser of Group G’s final match would end up in the easier half of the bracket, given that by the time the match started, 14 of the 16 second-round slots had been filled. In one half of the bracket, call it the “left” half, were four past World Cup champions (Argentina, Brazil, France, Uruguay) and the reigning champion of Europe (Portugal). In the “right” half of the bracket was one past World Cup champion (Spain). No disrespect to the other teams in either half of the bracket, but the left half is clearly tougher than the right. And Group G’s winner– Belgium– won the right to be in the tougher, left half of the bracket. England, meanwhile, should have an easier path to the semifinal.
We could rectify this problem with randomization akin to bracket selection in UEFA’s Champions League. For the Round of 16, randomly pair group winners with group runners-up. For the quarterfinals, randomly pair winners of the R16 games. For the semifinals, randomly pair the quarterfinal winners. This would remove the aforementioned incentive to win by losing. The only caveat I’d throw in would be that you cannot be paired with the other team from your own group prior to the final.
I’d still like group winners to have some additional incentive, so give the group winners the certainty of knowing where their R16 match will be played. For example, you could announce that the winner of Group A will play its Round of 16 match in Moscow. As soon as they win Group A, they can pack their bags, head to Moscow, settle in, relax, and prepare for their next opponent. Meanwhile, the Group A runners-up have to wait until the Group Stage is completely finished to be informed where they’re playing, then rush to get there, only to meet a well-rested opponent.
Anyhow, my picks:
Solid picks: Spain over Russia. Croatia over Denmark. Belgium over Japan.
Somewhat tougher calls: Brazil over Mexico. I think Mexico’s 3-0 loss was misleading. They out-shot, out-passed, and out-possessed Sweden but just couldn’t get a goal. They got their reprieve thanks to South Korea beating ze Germans, and they’ll give Brazil a tough game… but lose. England should beat Columbia, especially if James is dinged up. We’ll see what the MRI says. Also, England beat the stuffing out of two weak teams, played their reserves against a tougher team… we’ll see if these results have masked true might or true mediocrity. And Sweden over Switzerland. Sweden won two games in a really tough group, and arguably should have beaten Germany also. Switzerland tied Brazil, which was impressive, but gave up three goals to Serbia and Costa Rica. Sweden just plain looks better, even though 538 gives Switzerland slight odds to win.
The toughest quarter of the bracket, which is being played tomorrow and which is tight enough that I won’t feel the least bit bad about getting wrong: Uruguay over Portugal. Uruguay has shut down their weaker opponents; Portugal has not. Uruguay’s been getting better, Portugal has not. And I’ll pick Argentina to upset France. Messi, experience, guile, and an emotional upswing that would rival any Argentine telenovela will overcome France’s youth and blandness. France will be felled by the negative karma generated by their lame 0-0 draw with Denmark.
My prediction performance so far:
A: Uruguay, Russia. Right teams and order.
B: I picked Portugal to win and Spain to finish second. Right teams, wrong order. The last 10 or so minutes of the Group B games were the most intense of the tournament to that point. It went from the sharks jostling for the top spot to a minnow, Iran, almost knocking off either one of them. Great stuff.
C: France, Denmark. Right teams and order, though I thought Denmark would need a tiebreaker. They didn’t. FRA-DEN was the worst game of the tourney so far, and neither team should’ve gotten a point for that scoreless blah.
D: I picked Argentina and Nigeria. Argentina squeaked through at Nigeria’s expense, and Croatia beat everyone, which I didn’t see coming largely because I pay no attention to international soccer aside from the World Cup and the Euro tournament. So one right pick, but in the wrong spot.
E: I picked Brazil and Costa Rica. Brazil won the group and is getting better. Switzerland finished second, which would’ve been the smart pick to begin with, but refer back to my commentary in the previous paragraph.
F: I picked Germany to win and Mexico to place. Group of Death indeed. Sweden surprised everybody, Germany flopped, Mexico did well despite the breakdown in the last group game.
A few words about Germany: I was disappointed to see zem fall victim to Alfredo di Stefano’s warning that “goals are not deserved, they are scored.” But it’s not like ze Germans were outclassed or outgunned. Zey averaged 67% possession, out-shot zeir opponents 67 to 31 (20-15 on target), and had 25 corners to zeir opponents’ 7.
Zey didn’t play negative soccer. Zey attacked. If anything, maybe zey attacked too much, given zeir lack of a defensive midfield. Zey just couldn’t buy a goal. Such is life. Shouldn’t have taunted the Swedish bench after zeir win.
G: England, Belgium. Right teams, wrong order.
H: I picked Senegal to win and Colombia to place, so everything was going to plan until Colombia scored late. I was rooting hard for Senegal at the end; they fought hard but fell victim to “diStefanoism” much like ze Germans. A lot of folks have called Japan disgraceful for not attacking late in the game, but they did what they had to do to advance.
The actually disgraceful part was that Japan advanced because they received fewer yellow cards than Senegal did. Here are the tiebreakers as they currently stand:
1. Points obtained in all group matches;
2. Goal difference in all group matches;
3. Number of goals scored in all group matches;
4. Points obtained in the matches played between the teams in question;
5. Goal difference in the matches played between the teams in question;
6. Number of goals scored in the matches played between the teams in question;
7. Fair play points in all group matches (only one of these deductions shall be applied to a player in a single match): First yellow card: minus 1 point; Indirect red card (second yellow card): minus 3 points; Direct red card: minus 4 points; Yellow card and direct red card: minus 5 points;
8. Drawing of lots by the FIFA Organising Committee.
FIFA needs better tiebreakers to replace #7 and #8. A few ideas:
Proposal 1. Best performance against the highest-ranking non-tied team in the group. In this case, Japan would advance because they beat the group winner, Colombia, whereas Senegal lost to Colombia.
Proposal 2. Repeat the goals scored/difference sequence in tiebreakers 2, 3, 5, and 6 above, but with corner kicks instead of goals. That might make the last matches of the group stages a little weird; imagine Japan and Senegal trying to play for corners instead of goals. In this case, Senegal would advance due to having a +1 corner difference against Japan’s -2 corner difference.
Proposal 3. Same as Proposal 2, but with shots-on-target instead of corners. Problem: this would be more subjective than using corners. In this case, Senegal would advance due to having a +4 shots-on-target difference against Japan’s -2 shots-on-target difference.
Whatever the drawbacks of Proposals 2 and 3, they would’ve gotten Japan to attack at the end of that mess instead of sitting back and accepting a 1-0 loss.
Proposal 4. Tie goes to the lowest-ranking team according to FIFA’s World Ranking. In this case, 61st-ranked Japan would advance instead of 27th-ranked Senegal. The higher-ranked team should’ve done better. They didn’t? Punish them.
Proposal 5. [Warning: This proposal is sheer lunacy, but still better than this “fair play points” tripe.] Conduct a shootout at the beginning of each group stage game, so after tiebreaker 6, you can look at records in the shootouts. The shootouts would only matter if it is necessary to use tiebreakers; they would not affect the scores or results of the matches themselves.
Anyhow, back to the larger point of this post. I got 12 second-rounders right with 7 in exactly the right spot. I’m losing it; in 2014 those numbers were 12 and 11 respectively. Oh well.
I had some other ideas but I’m too tired to think of them right now. VAR commentary, seeding commentary, and picks tomorrow.
We’re halfway through the 64-game tournament. All but one of my picks are still alive. The exception is Costa Rica, which has been eliminated after just two games. I probably should’ve done a bit more research before picking them based largely on a really cool photograph of Hector Marchena doing a mid-air scissor kick in 1990. No biggie, except that it makes the USA’s failure to qualify that much more embarrassing. Costa Rica’s no good, Panama just plain sucks… and we couldn’t get past either one of them. Oh well.
Some quick and shallow notes, group by group:
A: Russia looks good. Granted, they’ve played two of the weakest teams in the tournament, but they blew both of them out, which is exactly what a decent team should do. Putin (probably) didn’t even have to assassinate anyone to make it happen. Suarez hasn’t bitten anyone, so that’s good. I fear tomorrow’s Russia-Uruguay game will be boring because both teams will advance to the Round of 16, where think there won’t be much difference between playing Spain or Portugal. So there might be a little less incentive to perform than usual.
B: For my money, the Spain-Portugal tie was the best of the tournament so far. Spain’s second goal (Diego Costa off the well-executed misdirection free kick) was my favorite of the tournament. We’ll see if that holds up. Spain has played better than I expected, given they fired their coach the day before the tournament started. Ronaldo’s been good. Iran’s going home tomorrow.
C: France has impressed me so far. They’ve got two one-goal victories, but they’re pretty good for such a young team. If they don’t win this time they’ll be in good shape to do so in ’22.
D: I badly underestimated Croatia. The way they beat up and beat down the Argentinians was shocking. Nigeria looks good to me despite the opening loss against Croatia. Argentina’s melting down at the worst possible time, but if they can somehow flip the switch and get a win tomorrow, anything can happen in the knockout rounds. I’m not going to put too much money on that happening. Messi looks like he has no help. Some folks are comparing this team to Maradona’s 1990 team that lost its opening match, but that team played desperately and cynically enough to claw their way to the final that year. This team looks bloodless. Lifeless.
E: This one is going roughly as expected. Brazil will yawn their way out of the group, and the Swiss will beat the Ticos.
F: The Group of Death has been the most entertaining group. Mexico’s earned their spot on top of the group fair and square. They played ze Germans exactly right, they dominated South Korea, and there’s no cynicism in their game. That said, I loved watching both of ze Germans’ games. Germany-Sweden was my second-favorite match so far, despite the ref and the VAR pooching the non-penalty call in the first half. (More about the VAR later.) Ze Germans are the best team in the group, zey’re trying desperately to win, but zey just don’t have a defensive midfield, so the counters are killing zem. And until the second half yesterday, zey couldn’t buy a goal despite out-possessing and out-shooting zeir opponents by far.
G: England has finally showed up for a World Cup. They and Belgium (who I usually think are overrated) have done exactly what they’re supposed to: beat the tar out of the minnows in their group. Hopefully they have a 6-5 goal-fest on Thursday.
H: Another entertaining group. Senegal and Japan are going through. Senegal’s going to knock out ColOMbia, who, despite blowing out Poland, are too inconsistent for my taste. That’ll leave ColOOOOMbia stuck at three points, and Japan already has four.
I am grateful for the VAR, which has been the star of the show so far. Again, I’ll write more about that later.
I am also grateful for the fact that there have been no zero-zero draws, and hopefully there will be none the rest of the way. If you ask me, scoreless draws should count as losses for both teams. No goals? No points.
The Greatest Month in Sports is back. The US and Italy are out, leaving me in the position of caring far less than usual. Once they got eliminated, I stopped following the news. I don’t know who all qualified, or what the groups are, or even what the ball looks like. Let me look up the official ball real quick.
That’s odd, not a single photograph of the ball finished loading. I’ll assume my connection is slow and that they haven’t gone with an ugly design that invokes the incessant creep of tech into every aspect of our lives and subtly reminds us of Russian hackers and election interference.
Anyhow, who to root for? Or for whom to root? I’m a quarter Irish, so let’s see who Ireland’s grouped with… ah. Apparently they’re grouped with the US and Italy. Great.
I have no national or ethnic stake whatsoever in this stupid tournament, so I’m left to do what I normally do when my favorite teams get eliminated: root for good games and lots of goals. Adopt whatever teams try to win via offense and against the teams that pack the box and park the bus in hopes of winning shootouts. Pray for the divers to get caught and ejected, and that Suarez won’t eat anyone.
Here’re my ill-informed-because-I-only-tuned-in-the-day-before-kickoff group stage predictions for the record, group winners listed first:
A: Uruguay, Russia. Uruguay’s decent, and Putin’s paid off whoever he needs to pay off to get out of the group stage.
B: Portugal, Spain. Spain changed coaches today– literally, today, the day before the tournament. They’re good, but that’s bound to rattle them.
C: France should win easily. No feel at all for second place. I’ll say Denmark advances on goal difference.
D: Argentina, Nigeria. These two teams seem to keep running into each other and having good games.
E: Brazil, Costa Rica. Brazil is Brazil and will hopefully embark on an entertaining quest of redemption. The Ticos made the quarters last time, so they’re an easy pick. Easy for me, that is, not for them.
F: This will be the Group of Death. But Germany will win and Mexico will place.
G: England, Belgium. I find Belgium keeps getting overrated, and England will finally perform well instead of simply showing up and assuming they’ll do well, as was the case the last few World Cups.
H: I have no idea. Four non-traditional powers, none of whom jump out at me. So for no reason whatsoever, I’ll go with Senegal winning and Columbia placing.
I don’t like the fact that the knockout bracket is defined. They should do a drawing after each round, like in the Champions League. It might complicate travel a little bit, but not too much.
Anyhow, here’s to a tournament entertaining enough that I forget none of my teams are involved.