Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Match Day 6 may be Mohamed Salah's World Cup debut for Egypt, and every game today features one or two special players with something to prove.

  • Enjoying the World Cup depends on your expectations
  • Belgium may be the best English team
  • I'm sick of England already
  • Homophobic Mexican fans mar El Tri's victory
  • World Cup inspiration is a feeling
Michelle's Lounge on Bedford Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Panama fans know how to lose. 

After Los Canaleros went down by three goals to Belgium, the DJ at Michelle’s Lounge in Flatbush, Brooklyn, simply turned the reggaeton up to 11. The bartender refilled buckets with ice and bottles of Corona. The crowd, still paying nominal attention to the game, went from nervously kind of dancing to definitely dancing.

Though the national team would lose its first World Cup match, it didn’t matter. The team showed strong effort, in the first half at least, said one man. They showed they could defend, said another — at least for a while. They need to attack more to win, everyone agreed. Though few fans believed the players really had much more attack in them.

The crowd was a mix of a few 20-somethings, men and women who had taken off work to celebrate a national achievement, and some retirees and grandparents who left Panama a while back and never expected any of this.

When pressed, the fans I talked to admitted they were just so thrilled to have a team in the World Cup in the first place. How could they be disappointed when the team exceeded their expectations just by taking the field in Sochi?

A TV crew from Telemundo was on hand to record the enthusiasm, and to interview sweat-soaked fans packed into the bar at halftime. I ducked out to make sure I didn’t get a parking ticket. Kickoff coincided with the start of alternate-side-of-the-street parking, and cars were double- and triple-parked around Michelle’s. 

Two older men, one wearing a U.S. Navy veteran cap, were outside breaking down the first half. I asked if it had gone as they had hoped. One man said he was just happy they qualified; however the team played was OK with him.  The Navy veteran said it was a shame, because once they qualified, something he never predicted, he now expected them to win.


Sound smart on Match Day 6

COL vs. JPN, Group H, Saransk; 8 a.m. ET

Colombia's James Rodriguez was the leading scorer at the World Cup in Brazil four years ago. He doesn’t have to be this time and can focus on just being a playmaker. His strike partner, Rademel Falcao, 32, is healthy and raring to go in his first and likely only World Cup.

Japan has capable players, with Shinji Kagawa perhaps the most capable in an experienced lineup. Striker Shinji Okazaki, 32, can score big goals. Keisuke Honda’s free kicks are threatening. 

POL vs. SEN, Group H, Spartak Stadium, Moscow; 11 a.m. ET

Poland’s striker Robert Lewandowski is one of my top picks to be the tournament’s leading scorer, if Poland can advance and play enough games for him to rack up goals. He scored 16 goals in 10 qualifying games, and is lethal in and around the penalty box.

Senegal’s best forwards are Sadio Mane and Keita Balde, and the team is, front to back, the best African team in the World Cup. Mane is quick to escape defenders, but if he’s targeted, the way Neymar was by Switzerland, it may be difficult for him and Senegal to compete.

RUS vs. EGY, Group A, St. Petersburg; 2 p.m. ET

Coach Stanislav Cherchesov has been emphatic during news conferences that he is focused more on his own team than he is on countering Egypt’s best player, Mohamed Salah. Still, he indicated he wasn’t going to let Salah get away with anything. “Teams must run fast, play fast and use whatever tactics to counter whatever team they are playing — and my team is no exception,” he said. 

Salah, Egypt’s star striker, is expected to play only weeks after shoulder surgery. His will be the most anticipated World Cup debut of any player in recent memory. Regardless of what Cherchesov said, expect the Russians to focus all their defensive aggression on Salah. 

Match Day 5 recap

World Cup Spygate
Sweden 1, South Korea 0, Group F

Even before the match began, there was an intense back-and-forth over claims of spying and creative espionage countermeasures. A Swedish coach bragged that he used telescopic lenses and a video camera to spy on South Korea's training camp in Austria before the tournament. Hip to the spying, South Korea's coach had his players switch jerseys to confuse the Swedes. “They might know a few of our players but it is very difficult for Westerners to distinguish between Asians," coach Shin Tae-yong said. 

The Swedes didn't need to know who was who on the field in Nizhny Novgorod; they just stifled everyone and won on a penalty kick. Watch the highlights.

Evident talent, necessary patience
Belgium 3, Panama 0, Group G

The scoreless draw at halftime gave me and the entire crowd at Michelle's false hope. Belgium just needed the first 45 minutes to carefully calibrate its attack. Dries Martens, who looks like an EDM artist's agent with his frosted tips and Eurotrash scruff, opened the scoring with a daring volley just after halftime. Romelu Lukaku found his timing with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, scoring two impressive goals.The skill and style that Belgium showed on Monday should worry all of its opponents.  Roberto Martinez's men were able to work through early difficulties on their own, a sign they'll get better as they progress in the tournament. The key will be Lukaku, who has a reputation in the Premier League for scoring impressive goals against weaker opponents but withering against top-tier competition. Watch the highlights.

Harry Kane to the rescue.
England 2, Tunisia 1, Group G

This was a difficult game contested by two teams that seemed disinclined to actually play soccer for fear of losing. FIFA's social media chief Alex Stone tweeted that the game included just over 49 minutes of action, the second lowest of the tournament so far. (Morocco and Iran played only 46 of 90-plus minutes.) When the teams managed to get some kicks in between fouls, injuries and restarts, England pressed, but looked hapless even against its overmatched opponent. The victory, courtesy of a late Harry Kane goal, only delays the start of England's traditional World Cup "finger-pointing and browbeating." Watch the highlights.

Totally unnecessary jingoism.

Fox Sports' TV promo for the Group G match between England and Tunisia openly lamented the fall of the British Empire, and insinuated that England could somehow reassert its imperial standing by beating a former French colony in a soccer match. Is that why we should tune in?

There is so much political context to soccer already, and legitimate global issues that come to bear in the World Cup. Why would an American sports network need to rely on thinly veiled jingoism and nostalgia for colonialism only a Brexiteer would appreciate to get us to watch soccer? As if a team of multicultural soccer players would even want to achieve cultural dominion over their opponents in service of some anachronistic monarchical rite.

I'm struck by the subtle and not-so-subtle jingoism that's still used to market the World Cup, mostly on English-language television. Telemundo, at least during the other Group G match between Belgium and Panama, seemed more celebratory — relishing the Belgian players' attacking skills and the Panamanians' enthusiastic effort to achieve something they never achieved before in their country's first World Cup match.

RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

England's best players all play for Belgium
For the first time in more than half a century, England has produced a group of soccer players talented enough to win the World Cup. Only thing is, they play for Belgium. "England’s Premier League, long the most popular and prosperous league on the planet, is resurgent on the pitch, sending a record five teams into the knockout round of last season’s Champions League," writes Jonathan Clegg in The Wall Street Journal. "It just so happens that the star players on those teams hold Belgian passports."  More than a dozen of Belgium's players earn their living in the Premier League, and the team's coach Roberto Martinez for years coached in England.

Read more in The Wall Street Journal.

Homophobic Mexican fans mar El Tri's victory.
FIFA said it is opening disciplinary proceedings against Mexico because its fans used an anti-gay slur whenever German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer took a goal kick in the teams' Group F match on Sunday. Sadly, this is not new. FIFA has repeatedly penalized Mexico for some fans yelling "Ehhhhh," as the opposing goalkeeper approaches for a goal kick, and then punctuating it with a resounding "Puto!" It's homophobic slang for a male sex worker, and not very clever, as The Guardian points out. This has been a problem for a long time, and should be deeply embarrassing for most Mexican fans. 

Read more from The Guardian about how this became a thing.

'A new, exciting world beyond Saratov.'
Russia striker Fyodor Smolov captured what it's like for young soccer fans growing up watching the World Cup in an essay for The Players' Tribune. "My first memory of watching football on TV is the summer of 1998. The World Cup was in France and I was 8 years old, sitting on the floor in our apartment," Smolove wrote. "I remember the final, when Zidane had two goals and France beat Brazil. I don’t remember very much else about the match, but I have a vivid memory of how it made me feel to see two national teams, playing in a stadium in a place called Paris, with all the fans going wild." More than anything, it's the feeling that the World Cup engenders that sticks with us.

Read more by Smolov in The Players' Tribune.

The World Cup in a war zone.
My former New York Times colleague Jere Longman watched Russia's first match at the HQ for the 2nd Battalion of the 92nd Brigade of the Ukrainian Army in the mining and steel region of eastern Ukraine. Fighting with Russian separatists has cooled, and the routine shelling quieted as both sides watched the World Cup. 

Longman always finds the coolest stories at the World Cup. I fully expect him to write about today's match with Egypt from a gulag in Siberia or while drinking vodka with Vladimir Putin in the president's Kremlin study. 

Read Longman's dispatch from Avdiivka, Ukraine, in The Times.

Stock market volatility and the World Cup.
Economists from the European Central Bank found that national stock exchanges suffered significantly lower volumes and "inattention-driven price effects" when the country's team was playing in the World Cup. Trading was down almost 50 percent when a country's team was playing during trading hours in 2014. "The research found that a goal scored by either team reduced the number of trades by another 10 percent," according to Quartz. "And it takes a little while for the euphoria (or misery, as the case may be) to wear off. It takes between 30 and 60 minutes after the match is over for trading to return to normal."

See what country's exchanges might be affected this year.

Tell me why I'm wrong.

Really. We’re here to talk about what we all love — or lament — about modern soccer. So tell me what you like, what else you're reading and watching, and what you’d like to see in future emails. You can reach me at

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

Copyright © 2018 World Cup Banter, All rights reserved.