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Wednesday, July 4, 2018
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It's Independence Day in the United States, and the start of a two-day break at the World Cup. The Banter will pick up again when the quarterfinals start on Friday.

  • One smart thing about each of the final eight teams.
  • Run of Play: A few great reads for the break.
  • #WorldCupS: Quarterfinals drinks shopping list.
Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and his England teammates celebrate. (The Associated Press)

Sound smart ahead of the quarterfinals

Here's what you can say you learned from watching the round of 16.

URUGUAY can win by playing possession or ceding the initiative and counterattacking. It almost doesn't matter to Los Charrúas how long they have the ball; they're among the most reliable performers in the World Cup. Edinson Cavani out Ronaldo-ed Cristiano Ronaldo.

FRANCE is temperamental, quirky and highly susceptible to minor variances in the cosmos. But it also has supremely talented players who can create joyful moments of soccer artistry with deft passing and blinding speed. Kylian Mbappé is the new Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and then some.

The teams play Friday, July 6, at 10 a.m. ET

BRAZIL has shown uncharacteristic patience, sticking to coach Tite's plan even as goals have been a long time coming. Brazil has scored only two first-half goals all tournament, but its best players — Neymar and Philippe Coutinho — are confident expressing themselves because they know their world-class teammates have their backs.

BELGIUM hasn't lost in 23 straight matches, and has scored more goals than any team in the World Cup, but its defense is fragile. Belgium's ability to overcome adversity — what a comeback against Japan —  might be more important than a lock-down defense. Romelu Lukaku is a special player, and aspecial teammate. 

The teams play Friday, July 6, at 2 p.m. ET

SWEDEN's direct play is predictable but effective. Coach Janne Andersson has devised a strategy using a protractor. No team gets more out of 45-degree angled passes than Sweden. For a team that plays with nine or 10 players behind the ball, they get forward deceptively quickly on the counterattack. Emil Forsberg is motivated and capable. 

ENGLAND overcame tired media tropes about history and curses and nerves to win its first World Cup shootout after crashing out in penalty kicks in 1990, 1998 and 2006. These England players deserve more credit than I've given them, even if they can't seem to score much in the run of play. The core of Tottenham players I touted yesterday indeed proved crucial: Harry Kane, Kieran Trippier and Eric Dier were clutch from the spot.

The teams play Saturday, July 7, at 10 a.m. ET

RUSSIA has achieved more than its fans could have hoped, though not all Russians are aboard the bandwagon. The team's success may have the players thinking, "what if?" Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba will need help scoring. Fedor Smolov was more influential when he came on as a sub against Spain. He should get more playing time.

CROATIA may feel the pressure of playing the host. At least one technically superior team with world-class players who are expert at forward-pressing attacking soccer has faltered against the Russians' enthusiasm. Look for Croatia to play with more urgency than Spain did, and for central fenders Dejan Lovren and Domagoy Vida to assert themselves.

The teams play in the last quarterfinal on Saturday, July 7, at 2 p.m. ET.

For more, with an eye on the quarterfinals, check out my latest interview on Cheddar TV.

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Run of Play | Great reads and more


What's made Uruguay so good for so long
The South American country is the smallest to win the World Cup. With only 3.4 million people, it continues to punch above its weight. A tradition of racial inclusivity and progressive economic policies have helped weave soccer into the social fabric of the country. 

Watch this video from Cheddar.

How the Selecao represents Brazil
The national team provides an opportunity for Brazilians to discuss the often tricky topic of race in a country with the largest black population outside of Africa. "When audiences tune in to watch Brazil play, they are treated to a rich spectrum of skin tones flashing vibrantly across the screen," Cleuci de Oliveira, a Brazilian journalist, writes in The New York Times. "The racial makeup of the Brazilian squad, in fact, generally reflects the demographics of the country."

Read more in de Oliveira's op-ed in The Times.

Belgium's secret isn't a secret
It's just really hard to pull off. All you have to do to become one of the most exciting World Cup contenders in a generation is find half a dozen once-in-a-lifetime talents with superhuman personal drive to mature at the same time, and be willing to spend money to transform a broken system with no guarantee of return.

Read more from Bleacher Report.

On your way out, would you mind cleaning up?
After Japan's gut-punch of a loss to Belgium in the round of 16, the team cleaned up its locker room at the Rostov Arena and headed home. I mean, they really cleaned the place up, and left a thank-you note, in Russia, that was signed simply, "Japan." Cindy Boren of The Washington Post writes that "fans and players left a lasting impression of sportsmanship and courtesy in Russia, one that won’t be easily forgotten."

Read more and see the photos in The Post

The most English game story ever
"England’s road map around Europe is scarred with crashes," writes Henry Winter in The Times, setting up the epic drama and tale of personal redemption embedded in England's first World Cup-shootout victory. "This was about penalties, about a man living for 22 years with the painful memory of missing his kick after volunteering in the shootout against Germany at Euro 96."

Read more of the melodramatic history making gamer in The Times of London.

Neither Russian nor Ukrainian
The Crimean soccer league, founded a year after Russia annexed the territory from Ukraine, exists in a sort of sporting purgatory in the shadow of the World Cup. "Lacking independence and subject to international sanctions, Crimea remains an outcast among the world’s 211 soccer federations," writes Jere Longman in The New York Times.

Read more about Crimea's eight-team, third-tier league.


Nigeria star's father was kidnapped
Hours before he took the field against Argentina in the World Cup, Nigeria captain Mikel John Obi was on the phone with kidnappers who had abducted his father and demanded a ransom. “I played while my father was in the hands of bandits,” Mikel told The Guardian. “I had to suppress the trauma. I took a call four hours before kickoff to tell me what had happened."

Read more in The Guardian.

#WorldCupS: quarterfinal shopping list

You can see from the bracket above, spirits dominate the quarterfinals of the #WorldCupS — the world's most sophisticated drinking game. 

Consider this your shopping list for Friday, ahead of the matchups.

Uruguay - Pilsen , a German-style pilsner made by Fabricas Nacionales De Cerveza in Montevideo, the capital. The lable on the "7 grados" premium style matches the team's sky-blue uniforms.

France - Ruinart Champagne Blanc de Blanc, because there is nothing more iconic in France than their Champagne.

Brazil - Novo Fogo Cachaca Silver. This cane-based spirit is the key ingredient in Brazil's signature cocktail, the Caipirinha.

Belgium - Chimay Blue, a dark and powerful ale that even wine lovers will savor.

Russia - Stolichnaya. It's Russian vodka. 

Croatia - Slivovitz, a type of plum brandy, is made proudly in a number of Eastern European countries, especially Croatia.

Sweden - Absolut, vodka made for 100 years with local wheat and water from the distilleries own wells.

England - Samuel Smith's is one of the few remaining independently owned breweries in England. We're into the Taddy Porter, named for Samuel Smith's hometown.

I was wrong.

Yesterday, I wrote NATO when I really meant European Union. Sweden isn't a member of the defense alliance, but it is part of the EU.

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The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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