Tuesday, July 10, 2018


This is the World Cup semifinals preview that tells you not to believe World Cup semifinals previews. Read anyway.

  • We've heard it all before, because it's been said over and over
  • France is better than it's been given credit for
  • Belgium already won; the Red Devils are just waiting to let us in on it
  • #WorldCupS drinks and food pairings include Champagne and fried chicken!
Romelu Lukaku of Belgium. (The Associated Press)

Can you turn the sound up and the voices down?

There have been 60 World Cup matches played in Russia, with two broadcasts each in the United States — one English, one Spanish featuring at least one play-by-play announcer and one commentator in each language.

Add the countless hours of pre- and post-game studio analysis, nightly highlight programs and Twitter banter, and Fox and Telemundo have generated more words about soccer than there are blades of grass on all the World Cup fields going back to the last time football was home in England, in 1966.

Broadcasting live sports is a hard job, made even more difficult when you have to say something coherent if not intelligent about something surprising. That's why we hear sportscasters yell "that's incredible!" even when it's totally credible because we all just saw it happen.

Sportscasters and email writers repeat themselves a lot. When I was covering soccer, I found myself using the word "austere" too often when writing about good defensive teams, of which there were many. I barred myself from using it for a year. 

Another reason you hear many of the same things over and over is because we're watching the same players, who have their own proclivities, do many of the same things. Soccer can be repetitive, and there are only so many ways to describe a goal kick or a corner kick or even a routine goal. Unless you're Ray Hudson  that dude has goal calls for plays that will likely never happen. I want him to comment on my commute some day, just so I can hear what outrageous metaphors are scrambling to escape his brain through his mouth. 

Much of the banter I've received via text message, email and in in the bars and pubs between matches has been about the inanity of the commentary, especially on Fox. (Again, they have a hard job; so do coal miners.)

I've flipped back and forth between Fox and Telemundo, where I understand about a third of what's being said. Really, I only watch with the sound on because I want to hear the stadium noise. The cheers, chants, songs and boom-mic-amplified thuds when the ball is kicked provide atmosphere.

I would pay a little extra to one of the four streaming services we subscribe to (my wife's in the biz) for a feed that just had the stadium noise.

That way, I don't have to listen to the often meaningless cliches:

  • He has pace.
  • He lacks pace.
  • Gotta get that on frame.
  • Anything described as "textbook."
  • That's a dangerous tackle.
  • Set pieces are so important.
  • They have to defend better as a team.
  • They have to attack more as a team.
  • There are too many men behind the ball.
  • There aren't enough men behind the ball.

There's also the Britishisms, used often by American commentators, perhaps because they think it makes them sound authentic.

  • Nil when they really mean zero.
  • Calling two goals by a player a "brace."
  • Boots instead of cleats.
  • Pitch instead of field.
  • Kit, which is a uniform or jersey.

Worse than the cliches are the stereotypes that commentators fall back on. Here's where it can get dangerous.

  • Germany is well-organized.
  • Spain is technical.
  • Sweden is tactical.
  • Brazil plays with flair.
  • Sub-Saharan African teams are strong, fast and athletic.

Like I said, it's hard to call a game. It takes preparation, and you have to be able to pronounce lots of difficult names. But why say nothing when you can just not talk? A friend who is a broadcast veteran once described it to me as "letting the game breathe." We need more breathing on Fox.

The studio analysts have it a little easier, I think. They know what's happened and have time to consider what they're going to say at halftime. But I keep hearing the same things from most of them, about the same teams, and it all has to happen in the next 45 minutes — as if we didn't know.

As I've demonstrated, it's not at all hard to sound like a schmuck and annoyingly repeat the word "right"  and comically overuse "dynamic" in a short TV segment. So I'm not saying I can do better. I can't. I'm asking: Do we still need TV commentators?

I've found better analysis on Twitter than I have heard on TV. But I admit, I find it difficult to watch two screens at once. And I like to banter with the people I'm with; my phone takes me away from them. 

We'll probably hear lots of the same things we've been hearing, and reading, about France, Belgium, England and Croatia. Below, I offer a quick guide to what you can believe and what's just bluster, so you can be smart about the semifinals.


Be Smart for France vs. Belgium

FRA vs. BEL, St. Petersburg; 2 p.m. ET

You've maybe heard or read things about these two teams that seem insightful but are complete nonsense, or irrelevant. Here's a quick guide to deciphering what's real and what's not.


Not Real: France has been inconsistent; it's a team full of young, talented players that can't always pull it together.

Real: France is pretty consistent in most areas, and even when things don't exactly go Les Bleus' way, these young hardworking players get impressive results.

They've had around 10 shots per game in each game, and complete more than 80 percent of their passes consistently. Some games they've dominated possession (the quarterfinal against Uruguay) and in other games (the round of 16 against Argentina) they've had to play off the ball more. 

Obviously, they make fewer passes with less possession, but they manage to complete them at the same rate and still get the same number of shots.

Why is France so consistent? N'golo Kanté. The midfielder has played every minute of the World Cup for France, making sure nothing gets missed, ever. He can be a playmaker, but has been serving as a holding midfielder, enabling Paul Pogba to express himself in the playmaking role.

Still, that pass that needs to be made that other players don't see? Kanté makes it. He tracks back for the ball and supports the attack. 

He has completed 90 percent of his passes, more than half of which are what FIFA classifies as "medium passes." These are exactly the sort of passes a holding midfielder should be making to move the ball efficiently from defense to attack by traversing the midfield and getting his teammates involved by switching the ball from the right side to the left.


Not Real: 
A once-in-a-lifetime golden generation of talented soccer players who have one shot at glory; if they miss, they fail.

Real: Belgium has already won, and they know it. They're just waiting to let the rest of us in on their plans. Sure, the defense is creaky, and potentially leaky. The back line was lucky to escape a few close ones against Brazil.

But nobody is practicing how to pronounce Toby Alderweireld's last name.

It's Belgium's forward-leaning players that make neutrals swoon, starting with Thomas Meunir, 26, a fullback who will be pushing up the flank for the Red Devils without fear or distraction. He plays with the same field sense as Belgium's playmaking midfielders. 

Kevin De Bruyne, 27, looks 16 and plays like a peppy teenager. He'll do great things today as he has all tournament.  

Eden Hazard is cutting through and running around defenders, two at a time. He's 27 and in his prime.

Maybe these guys have another run in them if this doesn't work out, maybe not. But like I said, in their minds, they've already won. Perhaps that's the genius of Thierry Henry, the Belgium assistant coach who has been widely credited with convincing the players that they're World Cup winners who just have to play the games.

The one player who represents this fait accompli best is Romelu Lukaku, who is pretty good at putting his mind to things and making them happen

You hear him described as "a beast," which is unfortunate. Yes, he's 6-foot-3 and more than 200 pounds, a big guy. But you don't really hear white players described that way, do you?

For all his physical prowess, Lukaku has shown with his play that he's not the typically bruising center forward many people expect him to be. He's deft with the ball at his feet, and able to change the flow of the game with one dribble, a single pass or just a look.

Lukaku's run off the ball and dummy against Japan for the winning goal was the smartest play I've seen in four years. His agile run wiht the ball at full speed through the heart of the Brazil midfield set up De Bruyne's goal in the quarterfinal. Watch.

Tomorrow, we'll banter England and Croatia, and about how these teams are not exactly what you've heard.

#WorldCupS: The Flute and the Chalice

By Tammy Kennon and Chip Selarole

It’s a literal battle of the cups during the semifinals: a brandy snifter vs. a pint glass, and a Champagne flute vs. a beer chalice.

Chimay Blue
After a worldwide competition, today we have Chimay and Ruinart, two world-class drinks produced within 70 miles of each other. And if we had designed this competition to find the finest libations in the world, we likely would have ended up here anyway, without the complicated drinking game. (Although it would have been decidedly less fun.) 

We already told you about heavenly Chimay ales brewed by Trappist monks, just north of Belgium's border with France. And now we’re investing in official chalices to enhance the flavor and our selfies.

The Chimay blue is rich and bold, yet elegant. The flavors are robust, and with 9 percent alcohol, it packs enough strength to stand up to heavier grub than most beers. The brewery, because they’re Belgian, recommends delectables like cheese fondue and crepes. If you’re a gourmand or just like to be snooty, go for it.

But, let’s be honest. Those dishes are probably not on most World Cup party menus. Our real-world substitutions, certified snob-free? Cheese fondue is basically nachos and cheese. If you're thinking crepes, try burritos or corn dogs.


Ruinart Blanc de Blanc

Break out the Champagne flutes for Team Ruinart, France's oldest Champagne house. As you might imagine, the snobby food pairing suggestions are world-class. Some of the heady options to pair the Blanc de Blanc include oysters, steamed fish and mustard-glazed black cod. All perfect, especially with an $80 bottle of bubbles, yet still not obvious World Cup dishes.

Here’s the thing about sparkling wine — and especially Blanc de Blanc, which is all Chardonnay: It is bright enough to cut fatty foods and flavorful enough to stand up to robust flavors. The flavor profile is buttery, creamy — think umami and savory comfort food all the way.

We're having fried chicken.

The components mirror each other, plus each sip of Champagne, effervescent with good acid, cleanses your palate — so every bite of chicken is like your first. Trust us. This is one of those holy-shit pairings you have to try. 


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

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