World Cup Russia 2018, Part Three.

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.

World Cup Russia 2018, Part Two.

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.

World Cup Russia 2018, Part One.

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.

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Seven.

The World Cup is over, Germany emerged victorious, and alas! we face four agonizing years until the next edition, which’ll be in Russia, which by then will hopefully be under the supervision of a kinder, gentler autocrat.

The final was an good game, though not high-scoring as I’d hoped. Germany controlled most of the action, as expected. Some feared that Argentina would play a negative game, sit back, generate little offense, but they got some good chances to score in regulation. The stat sheet shows ten total shots, same as Germany, though ze Germans got more on frame. Despite the same final score, this game was much better than the last time these two met in the final. God, that game was hideous. I’ll come back to it shortly.

I saw a few thingies on the internet billing the final as “Messi vs. Germany”. As much as I celebrate Messi’s talent, this Argentina team was not a bunch of slouches plus a superstar. This was a good collection of players– not 1986 good, but certainly better than 1990– that probably needed better coaching earlier in the tournament. Messi had an average game; he crossed a few from close in that just missed the target, or slipped just past the post. A commentator called his final free kick, which sailed over the bar, “selfish”. That wasn’t a fair comment at all. If Messi can score from there, if he has scored from there, and if he’d scored directly from a free kick earlier in this tournament, then I don’t get how “having one of the best free kick takers and shooters on Earth shoot the ball” is a selfish decision. He didn’t score. That’s all.

I’d have to think a while longer about whether this was the best World Cup I’ve seen. The first round was easily the best first round I can remember, despite Italy’s humiliating exit. There were more goals than we’ve seen in ages, the US advanced (and would have clinched it after two games if not for Ronaldo), we finally saw the goal-line tech in action, and we saw the 10-yard spray in action. Love that stuff. No more WWE-style scooching closer to the ball when the ref has his back turned. I was pleased with FIFA’s willingness to tinker, though they could certainly do more. And some more after that.

The knockout stage was good; the four best teams made it to the semifinals, and yes, I include Brazil in that, because “making it to the semis” is different from “actually playing in the semis”. The Brazil that won its group and won its first two knockout games was one of the best teams in the tournament– that is, as long as Neymar was on the field. Without him, the team just plain quit. It is apparent that Neymar’s greatest impact was psychological. It shouldn’t have been, because Brazil always has talent, and should never think they have to rely so heavily on just one player. Their collapse reflects poorly on the players, but lies squarely on the coach, and it’s good that Scolari and his entire staff resigned.

I don’t know if this year’s knockout stage was my favorite. I’d probably have to go with 1990. West Germany, Italy, and England were chock-full of stars, and though I was rooting for Italy, I could live with either ze Germans or the Last Good English Team winning. But what heightened the drama was Argentina’s run to the final that year. Maradona was an out-and-out villain, and Argentina played very negatively, but it worked. They finished third in their group and barely advanced (Maradona used the “Hand of God” to stop the Soviets from scoring), they squeezed past Brazil in the second round (there’s reason to believe that Argentinian trainers put tranquilizers in Brazil’s water bottles– I’m not making that up), and they beat Yugoslavia and Italy on penalties. It was ugly to watch, and it was disturbing to see such blatant, vicious, cheating bus-parkers get closer and closer to the final. And in the final, it looked like it could happen again: despite missing four suspended starters, being outshot 15-1, and getting the first red card in a World Cup final ever, Maradona and his partners-in-crime were just a few minutes away from getting to extra time when the ref gave West Germany a PK. Ze Germans scored, and won 1-0. The PK was a bit of a gift, but at least it saved us all from the horror and travesty of watching Maradona lift the World Cup again.

…I’m still bitter about Italy losing that semi.

Anyhow, back to the present: pretty darn good World Cup. Congratulations to ze Germans for winning the title and for being deserving champions; congratulations to the Argentinians for a valiant and proud effort. Hopefully FIFA will keep tinkering and improving the game, hopefully the US will return to the knockout stage and go even further, hopefully Italy will get its act together. And hopefully this Cup will get more American fans to keep watching– Champions League, Premiership, MLS, whatever– and will get more American kids interested in playing.

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Six.

The depressing funk stage of the World Cup– those breaks between the last few rounds, when you realize that there are only a few matches left and then no more World Cup for four more years– is over, and it’s on to the consolation match and the final. I’d like to see FIFA work in more consolation matches featuring more eliminated teams so that not a single day goes by without a match being played. Maybe in 2018.

Argentina’s win over the Netherlands was one of the tighter, and I think smarter, games of the tournament. I switched my pick to Holland because they looked better throughout the tournament than Argentina did. The Dutch weren’t that good in the first half, but played much stronger in the second and I thought for sure they’d win. Nope. In an odd way, Holland’s loss in PKs made van Gaal look even smarter for subbing Krul in for Cillessen against Costa Rica. This time: no Krul, no saves. Oh well. Messi’s time to shine on the big stage.

There’s nothing that can be said about Brazil’s loss to Germany that hasn’t already been said. For the first 30 minutes of the match, I could only check the score via the FIFA app on my phone. At first, I thought someone had hacked the app and was fooling around. Nope. Brazil really did play that horribly, and 7-1 doesn’t capture how bad it was. I have never seen such a poor defensive effort on such a big stage. Brazil just plain quit. That’s two cups in a row (maybe three, I don’t remember Brazil’s elimination in 2006) that Brazil seems to have simply flaked out and mentally collapsed. The loss of Neymar and Thiago Silva is no excuse, and the rest of the team owes those two an apology.

I think Germany will win the rubber match against Argentina. I can’t call them a lock because (A) Messi’s on the other team, (B) Argentina aren’t pushovers and played well against Holland, the most Germany-like team out there, and (C) the Germans may have used up all their goals in the semifinal. I just hope it’s an insanely entertaining, high-scoring final.

Oh, and I’ll take the Dutch in the third place match.