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Friday, June 1, 2018
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There are 13 days until the World Cup, and if you have not already requested time off from work, here are the first-round games you should call in sick to watch — plus details that will help make you the smartest one in the pub where you sneak  off to.

(You can bone up this weekend with a full schedule of international friendlies.)

Friday, June 15, 2 p.m. ET
Portugal vs. Spain, Group B, Sochi


There is no more alluring game in the first round than this. But it could also be a frustrating stalemate between two familiar teams.

That’s sort of how it was when Spain defeated Portugal 1-0 in the Round of 16 in 2010 — a nervy, conservative contest in the rain in Cape Town. My brothers were there, texting me back in Johannesburg how boring it was. Neither team took a risk and Spain wore the game down with relentless passing.

The semifinal of the 2012 European Championship, which Spain won in a penalty shootout after a scoreless draw, was only a bit more compelling. I remember Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo falling down a lot, skying plenty of shots over the bar and repeatedly putting his hands on his hips.

Ronaldo is still a sensational soccer player, and this Portugal team is arguably better than the one that  took the 2016 European Championship two years ago.

Spain features some of the players from its championships, but midfielder Isco, Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate, is the most influential player now. His confidence and goals drive  the team.

With that much talent on the field at once, you don’t want to be stuck in a project status-update meeting on that Friday afternoon.

Saturday, June 16, Noon  ET
Peru vs. Denmark, Group C, Mordovia


It’s a Saturday, so hopefully you don’t have to work and can watch Peru make its return to the World Cup after 36 years. Coach Ricardo Gareca is a remarkably deliberative and patient manager who has been diligently preparing his team since 2015. He’s got layers of talented players carefully arranged to give them a shot in any game.

I’m most impressed with Renato Tapia, a midfielder who plays for Feyenoord in the Netherlands. He’s quick, incisive and capable of crippling passes through midfield. He’s also appropriately combative.

Tapia will match up well against Denmark’s Christian Eriksen, a dynamic attacking midfielder whose evident dribbling skills impress everyone, and whose subtle movement off the ball is appreciated by experts.

Whichever team wins this game will likely advance from the group along with France.

Sunday, June 17, 11 a.m. ET
Germany vs. Mexico, Group F, Moscow


For Father’s Day, all I want is to be able to watch this game with my dad and my brothers.

Germany, the 2014 champion, has interesting, talented players at every position, and more depth than any team in the World Cup. Its third-stringers would be starters on any other team. Expect coach Joachim Löw  to showcase different lineups against different opponents.

Against Mexico, more than half his team will likely be midfielders, with some masquerading as forwards. They’ll try to keep as much possession as possible and wait for any letdown by Mexico to relentlessly pressure the goal with speed and well-practiced flare.

Mexico is historically one of the most persistent, committed contenders in the World Cup. This year, they’re also expertly prepared by the meticulous coach Juan Carlos Osorio. He’ll likely advise his hard-charging players to force Germany into making mistakes, something the Germans are not likely to do on their own.  

Osorio has top-line talent in strikers Carlos Vela and Javier Hernandez, and a handful of players who won the under-17 world championship and the 2012 Olympic gold medal in London.

If Mexico is to make the jump from competitor to contender, it will be in this game, by beating a big team. El Tri is one of only three teams to advance from the group stage in the last six World Cups, but has never made it past the Round of 16. The other two teams to do so, Germany and Brazil, have won the World Cup.

Thursday, June 21, 2 p.m. ET
Argentina vs. Croatia, Group D, Nizhny Novgorod


Lionel MessiYou should never miss a chance to see Argentina’s Lionel Messi play. You can see so clearly the special things he does with the ball, the skill with which he beats defenders, repeatedly. And yet it’s impossible to understand how he does it — he just does.

For how much longer remains to be seen. It pains me to say this about him because he is still the best in the world, but this is the beginning of the end for Messi. He will be on the cusp of 31 when this game against Croatia kicks off, which is not old. But he has taken a beating.

Messi still has time with Barcelona (or, shudder the thought, another club), but this will almost certainly be his last turn with Argentina. Playing with the national team, as he confessed after the stinging penalty-shootout loss to Chile in the final of the 2016 Copa America Centenario, is draining.

Watch him every chance you get this tournament.

Also, Croatia is pretty good, with the consummate midfielder maestros Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Individually, they’re each one of the best in the world. It’s almost unfair that they play together for Croatia. This will be a difficult game for them to assert themselves, though they can completely dictate the pace and direction of most games.

Thursday, June 28, 2 p.m. ET
England vs. Belgium, Group G, Kaliningrad


The England team routinely garners more attention than its performances deserve. That’s due in part to the popularity and success of the English Premier League, which is so good because of the spectacular foreign players, many of them Belgian.

In fact, Belgium’s supremely talented roster features 15 players who make their livings playing for English clubs, or did.

Best among them are midfielders Kevin De Bruyne, whose shots and passes are equally lethal, and Eden Hazard, a dribbling wizard. They’re backed up by hardened defenders who are great on the ball (Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany) and led by strikers with panache (Michy Batshuayi) and power (Romelu Lukaku).

Belgium’s coach, Roberto Martinez, has the team humming. They win games and score goals and most players seem to get on without a problem.

Then there’s England, which has the striker Harry Kane, who might be healthy enough by the time the World Cup starts. He injured ankle ligaments in March, and some pundits fear he rushed back to action too soon.

After Kane, there’s a fall-off in the England team. Forward Jamie Vardy is opportunistic in front of goal, but Raheem Sterling is wasteful. Midfielder Jesse Lingard can create for himself and others, but who? Maybe Marcus Rashford.

At the defensive end, any pairing of center backs Gary Cahill, Phil Jones and John Stones is potentially shambolic.

So why take off for this game? The potential fireworks of seeing a thrilling Belgium team light up overhyped England for several goals in the last game before the knockout rounds.

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The World's Most Sophisticated Drinking Game

Thanks to those of you who already started lobbing drinks at us.

We’re excited to try Jubi Kwon’s South Korea-inspired watermelon soju cocktail and intrigued by Grahame Fraser’s Mexican Summer.

If you’re new around here, this is the deal: We’re choosing the iconic drink for each of the World Cup teams — 32 countries, 32 drinks. And like the tournament itself, there can be only one winner.

The #WorldCupS is a competition within the competition, a bracket of beverages. Help us choose what to drink, and who wins, by tweeting us your suggestions with the hashtag #WorldCupS and voting on Twitter.

When the host Russia opens the tournament against Saudi Arabia on June 14, will we be drinking Stolichnaya Vodka or Baltika beer? For Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is haram, you may consider a glass of Saudi “Champagne.” If you’re not religious, maybe you have a surreptitious flask of siddique, also known as sid, which is basically black-market moonshine.

Vote on Twitter for Saudi and Russian beverages, with more drink matchups to come.

Zdrowia! Viva! Будем здоровы! Fe Sehetak!

RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. Homeless Street Sweeper to World Cup Goalkeeper

Had he not run away from home 13 years ago, Alireza Beiranvand would be tending sheep somewhere in the grasslands of Western Iran with his father. Instead, he’ll be Iran’s starting goalkeeper at the World Cup. The 25-year-old told The Guardian that he left his nomadic family after his dad, who wanted him to work and not play soccer, shredded his uniform and keeper gloves.

Beiranvand borrowed money for a bus ticket to Tehran, where he was homeless. He worked in a dressmaking factory, a car wash and as a street sweeper. One soccer team he played for let him sleep in the club’s prayer room. When he was kicked out, Beiranvand found a job at a pizza place, where he could sleep for the night.

Read more about his rise from homeless street sweeper to Iran’s World Cup team.

2. The Unofficial Education of Juan Carlos Osorio

While studying for his master’s at John Moores University in England in the 1990s, Osorio rented a room in a house across the street from Liverpool’s training ground just so he could watch practices and learn from then-joint managers Gerard Houllier and Roy Evans.

Osorio said he would watch the team train from atop a ladder near the property wall on nice days, and from the window of his top-floor bedroom when it rained. He stayed with the McManus family in their home on Crown Road for two years.

Read more about Osorio’s time in England from Sky Sports.

3. Biggest Commercial Event Ever

It’s neither surprising nor particularly distressing to me that the World Cup has become the biggest commercial event in sports. But in an article for The Sportsman, Graham Ruthven seems to lament that “the World Cup is no longer just about the football.”

“Brands are eager to associate themselves with the World Cup because of the romanticism attached,” he wrote. “There’s a feel good factor to the tournament that transcends sport. Football fans aren’t the only ones who watch the World Cup. It is a truly mainstream spectacle that makes headlines around the world.”

Read more about the hyper-commercialization of the World Cup.

4. Retroactive Red Cards

Players at the World Cup who commit violent offenses off the ball that go unnoticed by the referee may be punished later if they’re caught on video. The International Football Association Board, which makes up the rules for soccer, said this week that referees may issue retroactive red cards if the Video Assistant Referees or VAR catch something. “We do not anticipate this happening very often,” said David Elleray, the IFAB technical director. "This would only be for serious red-card offenses.”

Read more about video at the World Cup in The Banter’s April 20 newsletter.

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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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