Friday, June 22, 2018


Match Day 9 is as crucial to Brazil's World Cup ambitions as yesterday was calamitous for Argentina. 

  • Sound smart by giving Croatia credit
  • Neymar for Brazil, or Brazil for Neymar
  • Maradona's cartoonish antics
  • Inventing a new soccer vocabulary
  • What it's like to play with Ronaldo
Neymar is to this Brazil team what Moses was to the Israelites.

This could be the worst World Cup for South American teams in a quarter century.

South America is having a rough time at the World Cup. Sure, Uruguay booked a spot in the round of 16 with two austere victories against overmatched opponents. But the continent's standard-bearers have stumbled mightily. Watch what happens with Brazil today and Colombia on Sunday.

Argentina is reeling after it was soundly beat by an experienced and skilled Croatia team that, don't forget, has been a regular contender in the World Cup since its semifinal run in 1998 — it's played in six of the last seven tournaments.

The justified criticism of Argentina — feckless attack, shambolic defense — should not overshadow the well-earned praise for Croatia. While your mates are lamenting Argentina and Willy Caballero's muppetry, sound smart by talking up Croatia's quality.
  • Ivan Rakitić, Messi's Barcelona teammate, was everything the Argentine was not: active and quick, and motivated and influential with his teammates. His play prompted teammates to up their own game.
  • Luka Modrić, the smooth maestro who conducts Croatia with his passes, added a cymbal-crashing goal.
  • Mario Mandžukić was threatening, Ante Rebić opportunistic.
  • Dejan Lovren was solid, and seems to have cured himself of an earlier bout of haplessness that now afflicts Argentina's goalkeeper, Willy Caballero. 
Watch the highlights.

Croatia is through Group D to the round of 16 with two victories. Argentina's future depends on how Iceland does today against Nigeria (11 a.m. ET in Volgograd) and how the team can perform against Nigeria in its final group match next Tuesday, two days after Messi's 31st birthday.

Brazil vs. Costa Rica, Group E, St. Petersburg; 8 a.m. ET
The conventional wisdom is that Brazil is in a similar situation as Argentina was yesterday. Coming off a disappointing tie in the first game, it must win convincingly to restore its World Cup ambitions. Maybe.

In one respect, Brazil is in a better position, because unlike Argentina facing Croatia, the Seleção play a weaker opponent in Costa Rica. And Brazil provides its star, Neymar, with more support than Argentina does Messi.

The question is whether Neymar is as fully committed to his teammates as they seem to be loyal to him. In a column for The Guardian, French World Cup winner Marcel Desailly wrote that Neymar appeared to be playing for himself. 

“Whenever the ball came to him he slowed the game down, irrespective of whether it was the right thing to do or not,” Desailly wrote. “Because he knows he has the talent to change games, he gives the impression that he wants to be the one to do that something special.”
Desailly was likely thinking about Neymar’s seven giveaways in the Switzerland game. (Switzerland, by the way, plays Serbia in Group E in Kaliningrad at 2 p.m. ET.)
Brazil’s coach, Tite, defended Neymar against the familiar accusations of selfishness, and said he never told his star to share more.
"I’m not going to take away from him this initiative in the last third of the pitch. He’s a genius. You have my word, this is not true. We all have to work as a team, but we have to respect the characteristics," Tite said. "In the last third of the pitch, you have to create possibilities for the finish. I’m not going to take that away from anybody.”

I believe Tite. I’ve often heard from the top coaches and players in the world how important it is for players of all levels, but especially world-class superstars, to express themselves. It’s a remarkably free-spirited sentiment that even the strictest, most regimented managers would respect because soccer is a creative pursuit. 

At this point in the World Cup, the South Americans haven’t been expressing themselves very well, with the exception of Uruguay. Only one of the five South American teams looks to be in good position to advance to the round of 16. That would be the worst performance by South American teams in seven World Cups dating back to 1994. 

RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. The Diego Maradona show — impossible not to watch.
He smokes torpedo cigars in the stadium, smoking ban be damned. He pulls back the loose-hanging skin around his eyes to greet South Korean fans with a clearly racist gesture. He gesticulates wildly, screams at the Argentina bench from his VIP perch, pleads with the soccer gods and, eventually, breaks down in tears. Long after he left the field, our eyes are always drawn to Diego Maradona, no matter how appallingly he behaves. Or perhaps because of his antics. 

Somehow, the Argentine legend is always forgiven, though not by the English news media or Italian tax authorities. He gave a tone-deaf explanation — not an apology — for the racist gesture. And I've actually seen Maradona waive off FIFA stewards when they ask him to extinguish his cigar inside the stadium. They ask once, politely, and then leave him be, or let him put it down to the side, still lit, until they sheepishly walk away. 

He's certainly not to blame for any of Argentina's current problems — except for maybe creating impossible expectations, even for Lionel Messi, whom he always defends. Will we ever get sick of him?

I fully admit: I'm a Maradona fan. I put a triumphant photo of him hoisting the World Cup trophy in 1986 atop my website. It was that tournament in Mexico, and Maradona's performance, that captivated young me. I hope I've grown up, and aged better than Maradona.

Read (in German, with pictures) Der Spiegel's catalogue of Maradona's antics in Russia.

2. Inventing a new soccer vocabulary using an ancient language.
Luis Soto, the announcer for Peru's Radio Inti Raymi, had to develop his own soccer vocabulary to narrate the World Cup in his native language of Quechua, an ancient Inca dialect.
"When a midfielder controls the ball and neutralizes attacks, he is hoeing the land," Raul Vilchis wrote in The New York Times. "When a player kicks the ball with power, he has eaten a lot of quinoa. And when Edison Flores, one of Peru’s stars, scored an important goal against Ecuador to help the team qualify for the World Cup in Russia, he built roads where there were only narrow walking paths."

Alas, Soto has not had the chance to proclaim “Gooooooool,” which is the same in Quechua and Spanish. The Peruvians are scoreless after two games and won't advance to the knockout round after losing 1-0 to France on Thursday.

Read more about how Soto's efforts to represent indigenous Peruvians.

3. What it's like to play with the world's best player.
Cristiano Ronaldo is not the only player on Portugal, but he is by his teammates' accounts the most influential soccer player on Earth. All he has to do is show up. 

"He is a sort of super X-factor," said midfielder Adrien Silva. "When you are in the tunnel and you look at the players from the other team, you can see that they fear him, that they are scared and impressed. And on the other hand, this feeling boosts our confidence and motivation. You already feel that you have an advantage."

Read more from Ronaldo's teammates on what it's like to play with him.

4. Too much time in the pub watching soccer. 
I joined my friends on Cheddar TV today at the New York Stock Exchange to nerd out on the World Cup. It’s pretty clear from the video that I’ve been watching too much soccer, spending too much time in the pub and not getting enough sleep to be allowed out in polite company. But it was fun to banter about Iran, one of my favorite teams in the tournament, the refreshing lack of controversy thanks to the success of video assistant referees and how much more drawn I am to the best stories, not the best teams. 

Watch my interview on Cheddar TV.

5. The World Cup's most radical team.
Belgium, flush with talent, may also be one of the most subversive teams at the World Cup in Russia, according to Janen Ganesh of the FT. Long praised for its integration of players of African, Arab and Iberian descent with teammates from both sides of Belgium's Flemish-Walloon divide, the Red Devils' complexion is a forceful statement against rising national populism. "The squad’s diversity used to be merely heart-warming in a 1990s Benetton commercial kind of way," Ganesh wrote. "It now feels radical, almost heretical." He also noted the speed with which Belgian society and the national team have diversified. 

Read more about Belgium, the World Cup's most "radical" team.

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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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