Sunday, June 17, 2018


Match day 4 includes two of the four sons of World Cup veterans participating in Russia. 

  • Costa Rica, boring  + effective = winning.
  • Mexico's chance to go from competitor to contender.
  • Can Brazil live up to expectations? It will be fun to watch.
  • Lionel Messi has missed four of his last seven penalty kicks.
My middle brother, Steven, is about to become a father. 

Happy Father's Day

It’s Father's Day in the United States, and I imagine some of us are stretching green Mexico jerseys over our dad bods and donning too-tight Brazil tops as we prepare to watch the World Cup with our children, husbands and fathers. I like to go with a more forgiving track top — even in summer.

My kids and I will be watching with my brothers and our dad. There are few things I enjoy more than watching the World Cup with my brothers (that’s us above, at the World Cup final in South Africa eight years ago) and our father, who supported our love of the game.

My dad didn’t grow up playing, or really watching, until my brothers and I started playing youth soccer in New Jersey in the 1980s. He fell in love with soccer as we did, and became a committed student of the game. His text-message analysis is more insightful than anything I’ve heard from the Fox Sports commentators.

His favorite player is Megan Rapinoe, and he texts me whenever the American women play, gushing about her ingenuity and desire to attack. He always believed games should be played with a sense of adventure, not the fear of losing. “Try to do something,” he would tell us.

He took my brothers and me to our first World Cup match at Giants Stadium in 1994, when Mexico lost to Bulgaria on penalties in the round of 16. It was hot, the game was long, and I remember my dad was frustrated when the teams decided to play for a tie and settle the game in a shootout.

We’ll watch Mexico together again today, when Javier “Chicharito” Hernández will solidify his connection with own his father, Javier Hernández Gutiérrez, who played for Mexico in the 1986 World Cup.

Chicharito — his father was Chicaro — is one of four second-generation players in this World Cup.

Costa Rica’s Celso Borges also plays today in a Group E match against Serbia at 8 a.m. ET. Borges is the son of Alexandre Guimaraes, who played for the Ticos in 1990 and coached the team at the 2002 World Cup.

The Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who shut out Peru yesterday, is the son of Peter Schmeichel, Denmark’s goalkeeper at the 1998 World Cup in France.

And Thiago Alcantara of Spain has the chance to become the first second-generation World Cup winner — his father Mazinho won the 1994 World Cup with Brazil. That would be special.

I hope sons and daughters everywhere get to enjoy the World Cup with their dads, and share with their own children the joy of the tournament. I’d love to hear how you and your family celebrate soccer. Send me an email about how you got into the game and I’ll share some of your stories in The Banter.


Sound Smart on Match Day 4

CRC vs. SRB, Group E, Samara Arena; 8 a.m. ET

Don’t expect a high scoring game. Costa Rica, the darling of 2014, stymies opponents and gets by on scoreless draws and one-goal games. The Ticos went striding to the quarterfinals four years ago in Brazil, where the the team eventually lost to Netherlands in a penalty shootout.

Goalkeeper Keylor Navas was the hero. He’s not as sharp as he was, but he’s an enthusiastic leader and more-than-capable keeper. There will be five defenders camped out in front of him. The Ticos know what they can do (defend) and what they can’t (score).

Serbia, by its own coach’s admission, is looking to get by on spirit, not strategy or tactics. Mladen Krstajic took over only eight months ago. His players are skilled and determined role players from top European club teams — Nemanja Matic, Aleksandar Kolarov, Aleksandar Mitrovic. But they’re not the sort of consistently elite players who can catapult a team individually, nor is Serbia an established collective. Good, not great.

GER vs. MEX, Group F, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow; 11 a.m. ET

Germany, the 2014 champion, can beat opponents 11 different ways, depending on how coach Joachim Löw decides to showcase the talent he as at his disposal. He’s likely to deploy different lineups against different opponents. Against Mexico, more than half his team will likely be midfielders, with some masquerading as forwards.

Mexico is historically one of the most persistent, committed teams in the World Cup. If El Tri  is to make the leap from competitor to contender, it will be in a game like this one, beating a world-class opponent. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio will likely advise his hard-charging players to force Germany into making mistakes, something the Germans are not likely to do on their own.

Mexico is one of only three teams to advance from the group stage in the last six World Cups, but it has never made it past the round of 16. The other two teams to do so, Germany and Brazil, have won the World Cup.

BRA vs. SUI, Group E, Rostov-on-Don; 2 p.m. ET

Brazil is a joy to watch, even if its best player Neymar is not 100 percent.

He’s still finding his match fitness after a broken metatarsal a few months ago. His position in the lineup is as much a morale boost as anything these days.  It gives Brazil’s other attacking players — Gabriel Jesus, Douglas Costa and Roberto Firmino — pay attention to Neymar. They compete to partner with him, or to be first-choice to replace him. It will be interesting to see if coach Tite directs the midfielder Philippe Coutinho to direct the pace of the game, or if he allows Willian at the front and Marcelo from the back to run rampant up and down the flanks.

Switzerland's players are talented, but not Brazil talented. Plenty of them have World Cup experience. They achieve what you would expect from a well-prepared, reasonably talented mid-level European team with players in the continent's top leagues. They will not be awed by the Brazilians. The Swiss could steal a result in the first group game, the way they did against Spain in 2010, or they could get beat after a workmanlike but insufficient effort.

Sergio Aguero on Lionel Messi, after his Argentina temmate missed a penalty against Iceland:
Leo showed he's human. We support him. He just had a bad day, but we know that he can give us the victory at any moment of the game. I hope he can be better for next match against Croatia.

There’s been plenty of banter.

Match Day 3 featured VAR, a missed Messi penalty and Peru’s return to the World Cup, all issues we’ve covered in The Banter. Check out previous newsletters for these stories, and more.

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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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