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Sunday, July 15, 2018
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Whether or not this has been the best World Cup ever (it hasn't; that's silly), today's match between France and Croatia is the best final we could have hoped for this year. Be the smartest person at brunch today.

  • France will likely win the World Cup, but Croatia is worth a bet
  • My most overrated, underrated and rated players
  • #WorldCupS: Finale of the world's most sophisticated drinking game
However great you think N'golo Kante has been in the World Cup, he's actually better than that.

France will win, but I'm betting on Croatia


I'm not bragging, but I picked France to win the World Cup from the start. Still, I had my dad place a $10 bet for me in Las Vegas, where he and my mom are vacationing, that Croatia will win today.

France is favored, but Croatia at +185 is a better bet. Also, I want to encourage the soccer gods to pick a first-time champion. Croatia, as you may have heard, has never won a World Cup. France did, 20 years ago. 

I placed a few other prop bets, and they may seem crazy, but I think there's a good case to be made for some of them. Here's how you can sound smart about the final and my off-the-wall bets.

France is the favorite

As we've discussed since the start of the tournament, Les Bleus are young (Kylian Mbappé), talented (Paul Pogba) and apparently capable of scoring from almost every position on the field (Antoine Griezmann and even Benjamin Pavard). The defense, stocked with fast, physical and technically gifted players (Samuel Umtiti, Raphaël Varane, Lucas Hernández) has sufficiently blunted the most potent attacks of the tournament.

The two players who have proven to be the most valuable are Hugo Lloris, the goalkeeper, and the incomparable midfielder N'golo Kanté. I've written about Kanté's versatility, his passing and his intelligence. Let me add his defensive skill. Kanté not only keeps the ball for France, he goes and gets it back when one of his teammates has coughed it up. He's recovered the ball 58 times during the World Cup — the most by any player on any team. 

You may not recognize Lloris if you watch him with his club team, Tottenham Hotspur, where he plays like a sweeper-keeper, and struggled a bit last season. For France, Deschamps wants him to be a shot-stopper first and foremost. "Lloris has made only 11 saves in Russia, but nearly all of them were game-changing," my friend Joshua Robinson wrote in The Wall Street Journal.  Check out Josh's interview with Lloris here.

Olivier Giroud will finally score

The striker has been comically impotent at the World Cup, unable to do the one thing most strikers are asked to do: score goals. Only one of his 14 attempts have been on target. Some fans have joked that Giroud was Belgium's best defender in the first half of the semifinal.

But Giroud doesn't seem to be sweating it; nor does his coach, Didier Deschamps, who has asked his center forward to do different things depending on who France is facing.

Sometimes, he's asked to hold up play, receiving the ball from the fullbacks and maintaining possession with his back to the goal to lay off for Kanté or Paul Pogba or Blaise Matuidi to advance from midfield. Other times, he's the essential pass in link-up play for the on-rushing Antoine Griezmann or Kylian Mbappé.

Giroud is capable of scoring opportunistic goals, and I have a feeling he's due. Also, World Cup finals are notoriously tight games. Defense will rule for the first 30 minutes at least, and players will be a little tense. First touches will be clumsy and aerial balls in the box will be difficult to deal with. Giroud (and for that matter, Mario Mandžukić for Croatia) thrives in that sort of game. 

Also, because he hasn't scored and hasn't looked remotely close to doing so in previous games, I got good odds on my $5 bet. 
Bet on Croatia

The team has been a revelation all tournament, playing skillful soccer and involving a number of different players in the game in important ways. This is the genius of Luka Modrić, the team's most influential player and perhaps the best midfield general in the world in the past eight years. (Andrés Iniesta and Andrea Pirlo were his predecessors.)

Modrić finds the most interesting and effective, if not always the most efficient, passes to get the ball to his mates Ivan Rakitić, Ivan Perišić, Ante Rebić and Mario Mandžukić. 

In an earlier newsletter I credited Modrić's individual gifts and his club experience at Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid, discounting any overarching Croatian style of play. My friend John Doyle, an extraordinary soccer fan and the TV critic for The Toronto Globe and Mail, emailed me to say I was wrong.

"It has always struck me as odd that Croatia plays like Argentina," John wrote. "Then I figured, there's a certain Eastern European style and tactical sophistication that comes and goes, but has deep roots."

He cited the great 1950s Hungary teams led by the striker Ferenc Puskás, who was a lethal goal scorer and creative player. Hungary used a fluid style of play to move the ball and spread the attack among several players, not relying on a traditional No. 9, or center forward.

I can't speak to Puskás's Hungary, but Modrić's Croatia seems to do this, breaking out of a traditional 4-4-2 whenever Modrić moves the ball one way or the other, but never fully giving up the defensive shape of the team. It's fluidity, built on top of a solid foundation. 

I have no idea if it is indeed based on a South American model, but this Croatia team certainly has its Argentine admirers. 

"These guys take half an hour to understand the game and then they begin to take it where they want with a collective intelligence built upon an understanding of a game that’s not a science but which, like all trades, is full of secrets," wrote Jorge Valdano, Argentina's great soccer philosopher and World Cup winner in 1986. (Read more from Valdano below.)

The line on yellow and red cards is 3 and 1/2; I bet the over

There were four yellow cards issued in the 2014 final between Germany and Argentina. Eight years ago in South Africa, Spain and the Netherlands racked up 14. And the 2006 final between Italy and France included four yellow cards and a straight red for Zinedine Zidane. There hasn't been a World Cup final with fewer than three yellow cards since Germany vs. Brazil in 2002.

Finals are hard-fought matches that always start a little wild. The referee in charge today, Nestor Pitana from Argentina, is a commanding presence in the center of the field and may use an early yellow card to establish control of the match. He's issued four or more cards in two of the four games he's officiated in Russia — four in the Uruguay-France quarterfinal and five yellow cards in the Mexico-Sweden group-stage match.
 
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Underrated, rated and overrated


I'll pick a best XI and toss out a few other completely made-up superlatives after the final. For now, I offer you the underrated, rated and overrated players of the World Cup.

Underrated
N'golo Kanté — He neither receives nor seeks attention, but Kanté is without a doubt the most important player for the eventual World Cup champion. “N’Golo works in the shadows," said his teammate Umtiti. "We feel obliged to bring him into the light. To wind him up, we tell him to dance, to express himself a little. He doesn’t like it. He is shy and reserved. But just seeing him smile makes us happy." Kanté will make all of France happy if he can deliver the World Cup.

Rated
Eden Hazard — The Belgian forward came into the tournament as one of the most highly regarded attacking players in the world and met expectations with every powerful drive and mazy run at defenders. Sometimes he went through them, other times around. Whatever it took. Every time he touched the ball, you felt like he would to try to do something ambitious, and he never let you down. He scored against England in his team's 2-0 third-place playoff victory yesterday. Officially he had three goals and two assists, but he was more influential than Belgium's scoresheets indicated.

Overrated
Harry Kane — Unless something really surprising happens in the final today, Kane will get the Golden Boot as the tournament's leading goal scorer, with six. And England surely would have been out in the first round without him. But half his goals came from the penalty spot, and the other three were lackluster. He hasn't scored a meaningful goal in the run of play since England's first group-stage game against Tunisia. I haven't seen Kane's expected goals ratio for the World Cup, but I did see him bungle a splendid opportunity in the 23rd minute of the third-place playoff yesterday. And it seems like I've seen any number of muffed shots from close range by Kane this tournament.

RUN OF PLAY | Great reads and more

Order vs. Energy
Valdano, the legendary Argentine player and coach, has distilled the final for us into a stark dichotomy. By his estimation, France is all polish and prestige — the well-tuned product of a coach, Didier Deschamps, who has thought of everything his team must do to win and instructs them accordingly. Valdano's respect is evident, but he reserves his passion for Croatia, represented by sportsmen with a nationalistic passion that carries them to soccer's highest levels of competitiveness. "They are this World Cup’s proof that the brain can do incredible things with the body," Valdano writes for The Guardian. "If a team is a state of mind, an emotional state, they are the perfect example."

Read more from Valdano on this epic final matchup.

The best World Cup ever?
In a completely unscientific survey of the people around him in Russia and what he must have been reading on Twitter, Rory Smith of The New York Times reports that the global soccer masses consider the 2018 World Cup in Russia the best ever. Though he says it may not live up to the 1982 tournament in Spain, where Italy beat West Germany in the final, Smith gives us a long breakdown of all the reasons why Russia 2018 might be the best. 

Read more about what has made this tournament's play special. 

Best place to watch the World Cup is not at the World Cup
I've written that the second-best place to experience the World Cup after the host country is in the country that eventually wins the championship. But Simon Kuper, who is in Russia for the tournament, writes that it may be more exciting in his home city of Paris, where his family is enamored with Les Bleus and share in a collective enthusiasm that's lacking in the stadium. He also writes eloquently about something I've always enjoyed about the World Cup, which is the atmosphere in the host country outside the stadiums. 

Read more in this essay for The New York Review of Books.

This is an interesting stretch
I love the intermingling of sport with history, especially in Eastern Europe, where it's all fraught — the soccer and the history. With Croatia, as with Serbia and Switzerland earlier in the World Cup, there's lots to get bent out of shape about. Feelings were hurt and offense taken after Croatia defender Domagoj Vida declared “Glory to Ukraine” on Instagram. The former Dynamo Kyiv player said it was an antagonistic joke. Foreign Policy magazine points out that the chant, adopted by Ukrainians standing up to Russian aggression, has roots in World War II, when it was used by Nazi-allied parties in Ukraine.  

Read more from Foreign Policy magazine.

#WorldCupS: The Snifter vs. the Flute

By Tammy Kennon and Chip Sellarole

Four weeks ago, we began the world's most sophisticated drinking game with 12 beers, 11 spirits, six wines, two hybrids (sake and soju) and a tea.

The #WorldCupS has been a joyous cultural education and a celebratory way to sample the flavors and traditions of all the countries competing in the World Cup.

Today, we wash it all down with Champagne and plum brandy.

FRANCE
Ruinart Blanc de Blanc

Take advantage of this opportunity to drink authentic, world-class sparkling wine. Ruinart Blanc de Blanc is quite simply class in a glass.

All sparkling wine is not the same, and there are many reasons why Champagne is the gold standard by which every other sparkling wine is judged. Let’s focus on the bubbles. After all, that’s what makes it so celebratory, like fireworks in your glass. Even the cheapest can of beer has bubbles, so let’s look at what makes the Champagne version different.

The size of the bubbles give away how a sparkling wine got its sparkle. To get the tiny ones, you have to use Méthode Champenoise. First, the wine is fermented much like every other wine, but when it goes into the bottle, they add yeast and sugar to kick off a secondary fermentation. When yeast eats sugar, one of the byproducts is carbon dioxide, which would normally be released into the atmosphere. With Champagne, all that CO2 gets captured in the bottle, building up pressure — double the pressure in your car's tires. That is why the glass bottle is so thick and why there’s a wire cage securing the cork.

The pressure turns carbon dioxide into carbonic acid, and in your glass it quickly disintegrates back and bubbles up as tiny, tiny carbon dioxide bubbles. Read details here. There are nerds who actually study this phenomena who are called “blaseologists.” Seriously.

Santé!

CROATIA
Maraska Slivovitz

If Champagne has risen to the pinnacle of rules, process and science, slivovitz is the picture of simplicity. You could actually make a rudimentary version at home, which is what Eastern Europeans have been doing for centuries.

It goes something like this: Smash the flesh of ripe plums. Allow them to ferment in a cool place until it stops bubbling. Filter and distill in a homemade still, or an awesome one like this. Dump the first two cups, which are just methanol, and can make you go blind. Add water to bring it down to your desired amount of alcohol. Drink or age in these cool little oak barrels.

If you don't have the time, gear or inclination, you can drink our carefully selected Maraska Slivovitz, because the folks who make it go the extra mile, a lot like the Croatia team. They ferment for three months, distilling it twice and then aging it in oak casks for at least two years. And by the way, it’s Kosher. Slosh it around in a brandy snifter, take a big sniff and enjoy.

Živjeli!

Croatians like to have Slivovitz with Palačinke, which is actually a crepe. Thus our two countries come together.

To pair with your Palačinke/crepes, we recommend a drink that will astonish and annoy the snobs in your life. Put a sugar cube in your flute. Add 2 drops of angostura bitters and a little orange peel. Pour in half an ounce of Slivovitz and top with Champagne. One world!

This drink is the perfect way to celebrate the unifying spirit of the World Cup final. After the match, enjoy a flute of Ruinart Champagne or a brandy snifter of Maraska Slivovitz to toast the winner singularly.

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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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