Saturday, July 7, 2018


It's Match Day 21 and based on the teams we have left, I'm not sure anything that happened more than three weeks ago really matters. World Cup history is overrated. It's experience and overcoming obstacles that matter most.

  • Be smart: teams, not players, will stand out
  • Football's coming home, maybe
  • Ibra and Becks have a bet
  • A new England that's more optimistic
  • #WorldCupS: lots of vodka, beer and slivovitz
Bobby Moore, with the Julest Rimet trophy after winning the 1966 World Cup, has little to do with Harry Kane. (AP)

Experience matters more than history

As France beat Uruguay and Belgium upset Brazil, it became clear to me how little history matters in this World Cup.

Sure, five previous versions of the Brazil team won the World Cup, but the country's last title was 16 years ago. Only two members of the current team were even playing professional soccer — Thiago Silva and Fernandinho were teenage rookies. Neymar was 10 and Gabriel Jesus was 5.

Uruguay has twice won the World Cup, but not since 1950, when the current team's 71-year-old coach Óscar Tabárez was 3. What does he even remember?

For all the talk about tradition and history, it doesn't really matter to modern players and coaches, well-trained professionals who compete in top leagues — often for the same teams.

It's absurd to think Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne were at a disadvantage because Belgium had never won a World Cup and a bunch of other, long-retired Brazilians had. None of the players on the field in Kazan yesterday had any more experience than they did. (Watch the highlights.)

And it's experience, not history, that matters. 

Thierry Henry, a Belgium assistant coach, won the World Cup with France in 1998, and reached the final again in 2006. No doubt his guidance helped Lukaku, De Bruyne and their teammates more than Ronaldo's eight goals in 2002 helped Neymar and the Selecao.

Henry's former teammate, Didier Deschamps, is the coach of France. His experience as captain in 1998 when Les Bleus won the World Cup was more valuable to his team than the fact that Alcides Ghiggia scored a miraculous goal 68 years ago at the Maracanã for Uruguay. (Watch France-Uruguay highlights.)

England's history has weighed heavy on every version of the country's team since 1966, resulting in decades of miserable and disappointing experiences for fans and players alike.

Finally, coach Gareth Southgate has been able to replace the burden of history with the advantage of experience: he knows what tough losses taste like, and his players know what winning soccer feels like. It makes them collectively strong.

Croatia, Russia and Sweden have all made it to the semifinals before (Russia as the Soviet Union, watch), not that it matters any. 

All the players who take the field today will be living in the present, with an eye on the future, not the past.

Be smart on Match Day 21

If Russia wins, it would be the fifth host country to make the semifinal in the last six World Cups. In the last 20 years, only South Africa in 2010 didn't make it. Here are your match previews, in quotes.

SWE vs. ENG, Samara; 10 a.m. ET


There was a coach once who said his team was quite easy to analyze but difficult to beat. That is a good description of us. It shouldn't be that difficult to get an idea of what we do. The surprise is probably that we're terribly consistent. Whether or not you take us seriously and how they perceive it, that's very difficult for me to say. We are strong in our beliefs and have been from the outset. The players are very loyal to our ideas.
— Coach Janne Andersson


We have huge respect for Sweden. They are a team that I think in the past have been underestimated — we won't make that mistake. Our players come from the same background as their players. We shouldn't get carried away with ourselves being better than Sweden. They are older, more experienced, and have a better tournament record than us.
— Coach Gareth Southgate

RUS vs. CRO, Sochi; 2 p.m. ET


I will tell you openly that as a coach I am trying not to watch TV and not read newspapers. I am concentrated on my job and I think it is the same for the players.This is a great step but let us look forward. The quarterfinal is a different level. You say people are euphoric but we are not the people who should be euphoric, that is for you journalists. We Russians like extremes so let’s not go to these extremes.
— Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov


Russia are very uncomfortable [to play against]. They run a lot and are very well organized. They deserve to be in quarter finals and will certainly be looking for their chance to progress. Facing Russia and their fans is going to be a spectacle.
— Croatia captain Luka Modric

'Three Lions' stuck in my head, again

I first heard that poppy soccer song in the summer of 1996, when I was living in Prague, writing, drinking beer, watching soccer. Not that much has changed, really.

England was hosting Euro 96, and when the Czech team made the final, I used some money my grandparents gave me to hop a flight to London to crash with my high school buddy Phil and watch the final at least near Wembley stadium. 

That song — football's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming — was everywhere. 

A decade later, at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I remember hearing Frank Skinner and David Baddiel's lyrics, slightly altered, belted out with German gusto all over the country. It was one thing German and English soccer fans could agree on, and not one night in the biergartens passed without a rousing group sing-along that also included Sportsfreunde Stiller's '54, '74, '90, 2006.

As English fans prepared for today's quarterfinal matchup with Sweden, the song was again making its rounds on the internet, and it's infectious. (This was funny, too.)

Former England striker Alan Shearer, who was the leading goal scorer at Euro 96, sat down recently with the lads who wrote England's enduring soccer soundtrack.

Watch Shearer discuss the Three Lions back story.

Run of Play | Great reads and more

Zlatan Ibrahimović challenged David Beckham to a bet on on Instagram.
The former Sweden star said he'd take Beckham for dinner anywhere in the world if England wins this quarterfinal. If Sweden wins, the former England captain must take Ibrahimović on an Ikea shopping spree. Beckham responded: "If Sweden win, I will personally take you to IKEA and buy you whatever you need for your new mansion in LA. But when England win, I want you to come and watch an England game at Wembley wearing an England shirt eating fish and chips at halftime.”
The other England
England is falling back in love with its soccer team. Maybe it was the penalty-shootout victory over Colombia or the gentleman goal-scorer Harry Kane or the ambitious, unreserved play of its young, multiracial team. Yes, some of all of that, writes David Goldblatt, because England the team represents the issue that optimistic young Britons recognize as important.

Read more of Goldblatt's decidedly leftist view.

Croatia's stars get a hug, but no love
The president of Croatia's awkward embrace of half-naked soccer players in their locker room at the World Cup raised prickly questions about a criminal case against the team's star, Luka Modrić. He's accused of giving false testimony in a case against Zdravko Mamić, a big-time operator in Croatian soccer. For his part in the case, Modrić, who should be adored at home for leading his team to the quarterfinals, is scorned.

Read more by Matthew Hall in Foreign Policy.

Russia's secret soccer archives
Like so many stories in Russia, the national team’s legacy is steeped in mystery and obscured by conflicting interpretations of what happened during Soviet times. A glimpse at old K.G.B. files, some of which have been made public, sheds a little light on the lives of players, coaches and executives who shaped Russian soccer.

Read more by Rory Smith in The New York Times.

'I did not ask myself a bunch of questions and it worked'
As I wrote yesterday, not even Benjamin Pavard expected his wonderstrike against Argentina to result in a goal. The folks at Opta and The Washington Post confirmed shots like that only have a 3 percent likelihood of going in. What's more interesting is the expected-goals to actual-goals comparison included in The Post's analysis. They're almost spot-on for Belgium, Brazil, England and France.

Read more on expected World Cup goals by team.

A Ronaldo reality show, on Facebook
The social media company could pay Cristiano Ronaldo $10 million for a 13-episode reality series on its Facebook Watch platform, the entertainment newspaper Variety reported.  It would be the biggest deal yet for the social network’s TV-like video effort. The series reportedly would be co-produced by Religion of Sports, a sports-media firm founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady.

Read more from Variety.


#WorldCupS: All-Europe, half-vodka quarterfinal

By Tammy Kennon and Chip Sellarole

Yesterday, it was Old World vs. New World, and the old prevailed. The last of our Western Hemisphere drinks were poured out, and France's Ruinart Champagne will put its bubbles to the test against Chimay's Trappist elixir.

Today’s games are an all-Eastern Hemisphere dustup, with lots of vodka.

RUSSIA's  Stoli Russian Standard vs. CROATIA's Maraska Slivovitz

Russian Standard

We’re all learning here. As we dug into the fine print of Stoli, we learned that it’s made in Latvia. The wheat is from Russia, but … Red card!

For a substitution, we asked our friend Lisa Dickey, author of "Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia," for her vodka recommendation. 

Russian Standard is the go-to vodka, she said. It's made in St. Petersburg, and every bottle comes with a certificate of origin from the Russian government, so take that as you wish. 

Будем здоровы! (Budem zdorovy!

Or the Russian Standard toast: Davai!

Maraska Slivovitz

Plums. They’re big in Croatia, which claims to be the second-largest grower of Damson plums in the world (they don’t say who’s first). What does one do with so many plums? Well, start by making wine. 

Maraska lets their plums ferment for three months, and after distilling the liquor twice, it rests in 500-gallon oak casks for at least two years.

The kosher Slivovitz is jammy  of course — and dry with a roasted nut flavor from the barrel aging. Have a shot as an aperitif or after a Luka Modric goal. Živjeli!

SWEDEN’s Absolut vs. ENGLAND’s Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter

Absolut vodka

We can’t get enough of Absolut’s ads, including the one we shared last time. Here’s another, Absolut power! But the best might be this one, with Swedish House Mafia making a cocktail called Greyhound — three parts fresh-squeezed juice to one part Absolut. It’s the longest, coolest drink-making video you’ll ever watch. Skål!

Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter

Then there’s Samuel Smith’s — British and a tad more, um, reserved, yet oh so charming. Here’s the brewing manager giving something of a tour. Love this beer? How about running one of their pubs? It’s a program. You apply. Give them 39 plus a 1,000 deposit and you’re good to go, over-pub housing included. Apply here. We lift a glass of exquisite Taddy Porter!
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.