Monday, June 18, 2018


Panama will play its first ever World Cup game on Match Day 5. Why don't more Americans seem to support Los Canaleros?

  • Who is Chucky Lozano?
  • Brazil isn't finished yet
  • VAR is actually working
  • Reasonable expectations for England
Roman Torres, Panama's captain, after scoring the goal that earned the team a place in the World Cup. (AP)

Why aren’t more Americans rooting for Panama?

Sure, the Central Americans made it to Russia at the expense of the U.S. team, but that wasn’t the Panamanians’ fault, by any stretch. (The Ringer tells us who is to blame.)

There are deep roots between our two countries, and plenty of Panamanians live in the United States — especially in Brooklyn, my home. Still, many Americans I meet seem more enthusiastic about Iceland, the other World Cup debutant, than Panama.

As I’ve said, I root for great stories over great teams, and I can see the appeal of Iceland. It’s a tiny country (pop. 340,000) that had to beat the world’s best European competition to qualify for the first time. The viking tradition and well-funded marketing campaign help Iceland win over neutrals. Plus, the coach is a dentist and the goalkeeper makes videos, in case you hadn’t heard.

Panama may not be as small (4 million) or have as many big-time victories as Iceland. In fact, Panama has never beaten a European opponent in nine tries. Its 10th attempt comes today against Belgium at 11 a.m. ET in Group G in Sochi.

The team qualified in dramatic fashion, and if it earned a result in the World Cup, it would arguably be bigger than Iceland tying Argentina. Panama, with a 10-team domestic league and little soccer success, is as underdog as it gets.

That may be one reason why soccer aficionados prefer Iceland, which plays strategic team soccer and displays some of the characteristics prized by continental soccer fans. It beat top European teams to qualify, after making a surprising run in the European Championship two years ago. Its players are more recognizable because many of them play for top teams in Europe’s most televised leagues.

Panama was one of two Central American teams to qualify from Concacaf, and isn’t even as well known as Costa Rica. It has a lot in common with the American team. A dozen players on Panama play or played in Major League Soccer, including the larger-than-life captain, Roman Torres.

Torres, who scored the goal that earned Panama its entry to the World Cup, plays for the Seattle Sounders, and has embraced American fans as enthusiastically has they have embraced him.

Panama has a lot in common with the American team, and I’m hoping to finally meet the Panamanian bandwagon tomorrow when I go to watch the match in Flatbush, Brooklyn. I’m looking forward to sharing in the excitement of a team’s first World Cup match the same way I did with Iceland on Saturday in Park Slope. (More on the amazing Iceland fans I met in a future email.)

"History is going to be made for the first time when we listen to our national anthem at a World Cup," Torres told the Associated Press. "Many people are going to cry. I think I'm going to be one of those people, too, because of the emotion and to feel the significance of listening to the national anthem at a World Cup."

Sound smart about the weekend.

Lozano living up to the hype for Mexico.

The scouts at Howler magazine called it. They identified Hirving “Chucky”  Lozano, Mexico’s hero yesterday against Germany, as one of the top five young players to watch in Russia. “Lozano is capable of playing on either flank and even as a striker, he primarily plays on the left as an inverted winger, cutting in and cracking off shots with his stronger right foot,” Matthew Celentano wrote before the tournament. That’s almost exactly how Lozano scored against Germany. Watch.

The goal celebrations in Mexico caused an earthquake, the country’s geological and atmospheric institute said on Twitter.

Enrique Meza, who coached Lozano at Pachuca, had said “he's touched by a magic wand.” Lozano moved last year from Pachuca to PSV Eindhoven, where he is following in the footsteps of great attacking players Ronaldo and Romario from Brazil, and Arjen Robben of the Netherlands. Lozano scored 17 goals last season in 29 games for PSV.

After the match in Moscow, Lozano showed the same swagger as those great players, saying he wasn’t nervous or worried, and that his team worked hard to play “daring” soccer against the world champions.

Brazil not really in crisis; Switzerland isn’t exactly soaring.

Pundits have been throwing around all sorts of stats on Twitter about the 1-1 draw between Brazil and Switzerland, but do they mean anything?

  • Switzerland is unbeaten in its opening game in the last five World Cups. (Squawka Football)

  • Neymar was fouled 10 times, the most since Tunisia hacked Alan Shearer 11 times at France 98. (OptaJohan)

  • The draw ends Brazil’s record of nine consecutive opening-match victories at the World Cup. (ESPN)

  • 2018 is the 16th time Brazil, Argentina and Germany are in the World Cup together, and the first time all three failed to win their opening game. (Paul Carr)

All of these are true, and some of them are interesting. But are they meaningful?

Before the tournament, FiveThirtyEight examined the meaningful stats in Group E and found, not surprisingly, that Brazil had the highest projected goals scored, and the lowest conceded. Its secondary strikers, Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino had more than .75 expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes.

Brazil’s attacking leader, Neymar, was even more potentially potent, and way more generous than even Cristiano Ronaldo, based on expected assists, expected goal chain and expected goal build-up — basically, the number of plays he was involved in that can be expected to lead to a goal. The data show Neymar scored less than Ronaldo, but created more goals for his teammates.

Expected goals are not actual goals, and any one game can go any which way, as we saw against Switzerland. But over the course of seven games, which is what it takes to win the World Cup, it is more likely that Brazil will do as it has done. The Ringer shared nine reasons why Brazil would win; take a hard look at Nos. 3 and 7.

VAR works, and the critics will be on the wrong side of history.

Penalties awarded to France and Peru on Saturday, and a potential spot kick denied Brazil on Sunday have stoked heated arguments about VAR — video assistant referee.  I looked back at the most notorious missed call in World Cup history, and how the appropriate use of video can help avoid such injustices. Check it out, and I think you’ll see that all of the decisions in Russia so far have been “clear and obvious,” as called for in the rules.

RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. If it were as easy as a formula, more countries would be good at soccer.

Taking a page from Soccernomics and The Numbers Game, the nerds at The Economist tried to figure out what makes a country good at soccer by constructing a statistical model. It’s like the model Stefan Szymanski, co-author of Soccernomics, built, but it includes hard-to-quantify factors like soccer’s popularity and players’ confidence.

“The trick is not just to get lots of children playing, but also to let them develop creatively,” The Economist found. “In many countries they do so by teaching themselves.” To reach world-class levels, that self-taught creativity must be supported by institutions that know what to do with those players.

Read more at The Economist.

2. England seems bored with its World Cup team, which may be a good thing.

Though Britain may be increasingly insular and jingoistic as it tries to distance itself from Western Europe politically, economically and culturally, England coach Gareth Southgate is trying to make his team more European, argues Simon Kuper in the FT.

“His project is a kind of reverse Brexit,” writes Kuper, the co-author with Szymanski of Soccernomics. He can get away with it, because the traditionally critical voices are preoccupied with other things.

So, for his 2018 campaign, Southgate chose players with continental sensibilities and a relaxed attitude. He asks not that they carry the burden of England’s expectations earnestly, but that they enjoy themselves instead. Not very English.

Read more in The Financial Times.

3. No-drama Southgate.

The curious lack of drama around the England team may have something to do with Southgate’s extreme “reasonableness,” Brian Strauss writes for The New Yorker. “The result is that England enters its first World Cup match, against Tunisia, on Monday, with a young, healthy, confident squad, one that has become, incredibly for England, a cognoscenti favorite to surpass expectations at the tournament.”

Read more in The New Yorker.

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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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