Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Match Day 14 could see the established order upended. I'm hoping that's the case, though it's more likely that the same teams you expect to win will. 

  • Argentina earned it, but did the team deserve it? 
  • Sound smart about Groups E and F
  • Mexico playing the soccer we all wish our team played
  • Brazil is more than Neymar, but still only as good as its star
  • #WorldCupS: What we're drinking for Mexico

I'm rooting for a first-time World Cup winner.

For all of Iceland's effort and Nigeria's ambition, the established soccer order survived Match Day 13. I'm hoping for more disruption today.

Croatia, which was already guaranteed a spot in the knockout round, won Group D on Tuesday. And Argentina, for all its muppetry, made it through too, with only 4 points. There's no denying the fact that Argentina earned it, but did the team deserve it?  

Nigeria attacked and defended all tournament, playing the style of soccer that fans wish their teams would regularly play. The Super Eagles are out, in favor of Argentina (watch highlights), which played one OK game out of three. Before the tournament, I said I was hoping Argentina did well because I wanted to see as much of Lionel Messi as I could. I'm sad to say, I've seen enough. 

I want to watch more of Mexico play attacking, ambitious soccer. That’s not to say El Tri plays with abandon. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio has balanced youth (Carlos Salcedo, Chucky Lozano) with experience (Hector Moreno, Javier Hernandez) in defense and attack. That Osorio brings Rafa Marquez off the bench late in games to lock things down is brilliant. More on Mexico below, and how you can sound smart about today's Group F matches.

I tend to root against the European teams in the first round. They're the best teams, home to the best leagues, and they have the most money. Sure, Iceland is tiny and neither Serbia nor Sweden is really a world soccer power. But I still prefer to see the talented and ambitious teams from Africa and Latin America do well, because they bring something different. They're not as cynical, and less entitled.

Look at Senegal's enthusiasm and evident skill. Same with Colombia.  And don't forget Iran's teamwork and defensive grit, or the fact that Morocco challenged Spain and outplayed Portugal. 

France won Group C, and Denmark followed Les Bleus to the round of 16. France is a bit different, maybe, from the other European powers because the team reflects modern France in a way that does offer something different. Same with Belgium, and you should read forward Romelu Lukaku's essay in The Players' Tribune for an honest take on how different. 

Germany attacks and defends and does all the positive things I said I liked in a soccer team, as does Spain. The two most recent World Cup winners just haven't been able to play as seamlessly as many might have expected. I'm fine with them hanging around if they make an effort in the do-or-die knockout rounds. But please, fellas, bring your best. 

Not sure if anyone noticed, but there's a quote included at the bottom of every email by a former Northern Ireland international player and coach named Danny Blanchflower, who played for Tottenham Hotspur in the 1950s and '60s. He went on to be a journalist and commentator after he retired, and he sums up how I think the game should be played:
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.

Sound Smart on Match Day 14

KOR vs. GER, Group F, Kazan; 10 a.m. ET

Germany has looked vulnerable, even in its nervy, last-minute victory over Sweden. It’s no secret how to beat the 2014 World Cup winner. Even coach Joachim Löw will tell you: “If you look at all of those matches we are vulnerable to fast breaks and counterattacks. It’s not always down to the defensive line; if we have three or four players racing towards the defensive line it’s an unfortunate situation.”

South Korea will attempt to exploit that vulnerability, but the team seems to lack enough players with enough quality to capitalize. The team will be without its captain, Ki Sung-yueng, who is injured. The best player is Son Heung-min, who is the only one to score a goal (against Mexico) and the only player seemingly able to muster any shots.

South Korea’s coach, Shin Tae-yong, is making no excuses. "We have systemic problems,” he said, according to the BBC. “We must think how we can improve our domestic league and work with young players. We lack experience and that doesn't come overnight."

MEX vs. SWE, Group F, Ekaterinburg; 10 a.m. ET

It’s amazing to think Mexico, with two group-stage victories, including a win over the 2014 World Cup winner Germany, could still go home after today.

El Tri must win or tie against Sweden to guarantee a spot in the round of 16 for the seventh consecutive World Cup. (Might have been more, but Mexico was banned from the 1990 World Cup in Italy for fielding over-age players in a youth tournament.)

Mexico is playing the way any fan would hope his or her team plays in the World Cup. Sweden is not.

"We're a national team whose goal is to go after games, to stand out, become protagonists and the way to do that is to play good soccer on the field,” said Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez said El Tri and its fans should "imagine amazing things."

Billy Haisley at Deadspin nailed it in a sarcastic column about Mexico’s success. Even for U.S. national team supporters — or especially for U.S. fans — this Mexico team is a delight, playing attacking soccer with a mix of young talents and experienced players. The North American soccer rivalry is intense, but the ties among fans and cultures are stronger. You don’t need to be getting paid endorsement money like Landon Donovan to get behind Mexico.

Sweden is still reeling from its last-gasp loss to Germany, and the fallout after the game. Coach Janne Andersson showed how not emotionally dead he is inside with his fiery response to what he called a provocation from the German staff. Two German soccer officials were fined (half as much as the Mexican federation paid for fans’ homophobic chant) for taunting the Swedish bench after Toni Kroos’s decisive shot last Saturday.

Andersson is trying to get past the scuffle after the Germany game and the racial abuse and online death threats directed at Sweden midfielder Jimmy Durmaz, who committed the foul that led to Kroos’s goal. Instead, the team is trying to focus on what it does best: defend, defend and counter. It’s a boring but effective Nordic strategy that has drawn criticism, but it put Denmark in the round of 16, where Sweden wants to be.

SER vs. BRA, Group E, Spartak Stadium, Moscow; 2 p.m. ET

The heart of the Brazil team beats inside Neymar’s chest. The team seems to go as he goes, and that’s too much to ask of one player, coach Tite said. Fortunately for the Selecao, others have started to rally, and that’s boosted Neymar too.

“There is an excessive responsibility on him in terms of success and that is not the way to go, and the coach is not going to do that,” Tite said at a news conference on Tuesday, ahead of his team’s clash with Serbia. “Each one of us has our own responsibility. We should not place it all on his shoulders, the whole group will solve it. Can he do it? Of course he can, in some circumstances, yes.”

There will be a lot made about the taller, more physical Serbs against the more skillful, slighter Brazilians. That’s too easy a stereotype to fall back on. There are plenty of skillful Serbian players, including the captain, Aleksandar Kolarov, the midfield engine Nemanja Matić and striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. I like Matić, as he moves with and without the ball amazingly efficiently. Though Serbia will likely give up a lot of possession, look for Matić to be the one-two switch seamlessly from defense to attack.

SUI vs. CRC, Group E, Nizhny Novgorod; 2 p.m. ET

Three of Switzerland’s stars avoided a suspension for their double-eagle goal celebration in the last game against Serbia. Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Stephan Lichtsteiner will all be allowed to play against Costa Rica with first place in the group on the line. The Ticos are out, but Switzerland is trying to finish ahead of Brazil or Serbia.

Xhaka and Shaqiri are ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, a newly independent nation which Serbs still consider part of their country. The players and their teammate Lichtsteiner celebrated their goals against Serbia by putting their hands together in a shape that resembles the double-headed eagle featured on the Albanian flag, angering their opponents and tempting a ban for making a political statement.  

Instead, they were merely fined, and fans got a crowdfunding effort going to pay for the players’ punishment. 

The hard-charging Swiss players lead an attack that’s been persistent and effective. They’ll be running at a formidable Costa Rica defense that has few cracks. Don’t expect the Ticos to loosen up just because they don’t have any chance to advance — in part because Costa Rica can’t really do anything other than defend.

#WorldCupS: What we’re drinking for Mexico vs. Sweden

By Tammy Kennon and Chip Sellarole

MEXICO: Don Julio Añejo Tequila

Behind every World Cup game, there’s a great story. Same with #WorldCupS, the world’s most sophisticated drinking game. For every drink in our beverage bracket, there’s a great backstory.

Like Tequila, a spirit with its roots, quite literally, in the Mexican town of — you might have guessed — Tequila, which is more than 40 miles northwest of Guadalajara. For Mexican liquor to be called “Tequila,” it has to be distilled from a minimum of 51 percent blue agave grown in the area around town, which includes all of Jalisco and parts of four other states.

Tequila is a specialized subset of mescal, the umbrella term for agave-based spirits, and the deliciousness is in the details.

Blue agave is a spiky succulent that’s not a cactus. Like its cousin, the decorative Century plant, blue agave shoots out a stalk as tall as 16 feet that blooms with yellow flowers if left alone. But tequila producers lop off the stalk to send every ounce of good juju where it counts: the heart.

A blue agave takes seven to 14 years to reach maturity, and the entire plant must be harvested to use that juicy heart. According to our math, each plant yields only four to 10 bottles of tequila.

Agave whisperers, called Jimadors, harvest the plants and chop off all the spiky leaves to get to the piña, which looks like a pineapple.

They weigh as much as 90 pounds, and are chopped into thirds or quarters and steam-baked for three days. Then they are shaved and squeezed to get every last drop of nectar, which is fermented by adding yeast or, in some cases, left exposed to naturally occurring yeast.

That’s how the Aztecs and Mayans did it, and it only had about 5 percent alcohol. When the Spanish conquistadors got their hands on this in the 1500s, they used their mad skills to distill it into something we know today as tequila.

There are five classes of tequilas, and our Don Julio Tequila is of the añejo class, which requires aging in oak barrels for at least 12 months. But those patient caballeros at Don Julio leave it for an extra six months.

Place a little in a wine glass, and take a big whiff. You’ll smell citrus, honey and, thanks to the oak, caramel. Thank you oak for that one. Drink it neat or on the rocks – and never take it for granted again. Salud! 

We're still drinking Sweden’s Absolut vodka. Read about it at the bottom of last Saturday's email.

Join The Banter

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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