Saturday, July 14, 2018


The "playoff for third place" between Belgium and England is the most important meaningless game to be played today in St. Petersburg, Russia. 

  • A few smart reasons you should care
  • FIFA's ever lower bar for autocrats
  • Great soccer, crap TV
  • #WorldCupS battle of the ales, part 2
Harry Kane, expressing himself.

Be smart about the third-place playoff

BEL vs. ENG, St. Petersburg; 10 a.m. ET

Didn't these teams already play one another?

Yes. Belgium won 1-0 in the final game of the group stage, a match that was also light on meaning.

Both teams had already guaranteed a spot in the knockout round. The game, which featured mostly second-string players for both sides, determined who finished first in Group G (Belgium) and who finished second. 

What does that match tell us about today's game?

"It will be the same tactical game," said Belgium coach Roberto Martinez.

Really, same game? 

Martinez was being polite — and deflecting from the fact that the game doesn't mean anything tangible but holds lots of symbolic meaning. And it'll be picked over by the news media and fans in both countries.

But mostly England, right?

Right. There are a number of Belgian players who play for Premier League teams, and since England lost to Croatia, much of the British news media has turned its focus to the upcoming club season. 

England coach Gareth Southgate acknowledged as much during his own news conference on Friday when talking about the quality his players will show today.

"Of course we go back into a different cycle where club football dominates, and we have the windows of internationals,” Southgate said. “But the desire of our public is for players to play with pride, first and foremost, and they see a team who leave everything out on the pitch. They have done that without question."

HE added that the news media have gotten to know England's players a little better this World Cup, and may not judge them quite so harshly.

"They've seen maybe the perception of some players is different from this particular group," Southgate said. 

So it's an exhibition game?

No, it counts; it will determine who finishes third and affects official World Cup statistics. There's also a fair amount of pride on the line.

"I think for footballing nations to play seven games in a World Cup is an achievement, is a successful story," Martinez said. 

And any goal that England's striker Harry Kane scores will add to his tournament-leading tally of six, helping him in his chase for the golden boot award for the World Cup's leading scorer. I wrote about these awards on Thursday. (I'm still accepting your nominations for superlatives, like the best neck tattoo or the most egregious simultion.)

Just behind Kane on the list of leading scorers is Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku with four goals. It would make for an open, attacking game to see both teams run-and-gun in an effort to win their teammate the golden boot.

Why is that important?

Pride, at least two levels of team and individual rivalry, and no small amount of money. World Cup success increases players standing with their club teams and sponsors. Though Kane and Lukaku are under contract, success can increase a player's transfer price, give him more bargaining power when it comes to contract renegotiations and earn him lucrative new sponsorship deals.

What's the top-line rivarly?

Belgium has scored more goals in the tournament than any other team with 14. England and Croatia are tied for second, with 12. But more than half of England's goals were penalty kicks and set pieces. Half of Kane's goals were penalty kicks, whereas all of Lukaku's goals were scored in the run of play. Though Martinez denied it as his news conference, Belgium wants to show its stylistic superiority over England.

Also, Kane plays for Tottenham Hotspur and Lukaku for Manchester United. Premier League bragging rights are at stake.

Will we see this open game you speak of?

I had hopes so, but maybe not. Martinez indicated that Lukaku may not play. 
"I don't think there will be a reason," he said, adding that Lukaku isn't concerned with individual awards. 

"I think Romelu was the first one to show that with his play — something that I'm very proud [of]," Martinez said. "We had a moment in the Japan game when Romelu had the ball in the box in the last second of the game and any striker that he thinks that he has 50 percent of a chance of scoring a goal would have taken that action. He just made one of the best assists in the tournament. And I think that reflects his mindset: He is here to help the team perform, and not for an individual reward."

I talked about this play last week on Cheddar TV, and it is still one of the best moments of the tournament for me. I hope he plays today. 

Why should I watch?

Because you will see some of the most talented young players on the planet, the ones we'll be talking about for the next four or more years, play in a game that will let them express themselves.

TV analysts and many journalists don't write about the players' self-expression. But the players and coaches talk about it all the time.

I was struck when I covered international soccer how often the top players and coaches in the game talked about this concept. It wasn't strategy and tactics and whether the lineup was a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1. They deigned to discuss those things because journalists kept asking. When talking openly, they were more excited to discuss the why and how they did what they did.

"Every game is about the players," Martinez said yesterday. "The coaches, we're here to help the players enjoy their football and show their talent and synchronize that talent in a structured way so they are a competitive team."

"All I want to see tomorrow is my players enjoying their football," he said.

Me too. 
The World Cup closing news conference on Friday with FIFA president Gianni Infantino.

How far is FIFA willing to go to accommodate authoritarian governments? 

Gianni Infantino, soccer's chief apologist for Russian President Vladimir Putin, wouldn't really say. The FIFA president had been quick to praise the World Cup host, but passed on the opportunity to standup for the values he says FIFA holds dear.

Below is the question The Associated Press's Rob Harris asked at a news conference Friday, and Infantino's response. You can watch here, all queued up.

Q: "Before the World Cup when you met Vladimir Putin; you said you were on the same team. Last week when you were at the Kremlin, you said the world has fallen in love with Russia.

"Do you think you would find agreement from the victims and families of flight MH-17; from those who see themselves as being annexed by Ukraine [JM: Pretty sure he meant from Ukraine, or by Russia], those who have been on the receiving end of election interference; those athletes who have been cheated by state sponsored doping program? You also have human rights watch, who say that FIFA has allowed the World Cup to gloss over staggering repressions in Chechnya.

"In your leadership of FIFA, just where do you draw the moral red lines to prevent FIFA from potentially being dragged into political issues, or giving cover or endorsing countries that some entities or groups might have issues with?"

A: "You know, Rob, I think there are many injustices in the world generally. There are many things in the world that are not working in the way citizens of the world would like that they work. There are many things that we would like to change in the world. There are many things that we are not happy that happen in the world. Not in one country, not in one region, not in one area, but in the entire world. And of course we all have to try to work to do, to speak, to make things change for the good wherever we can.  

"But here we are at the World Cup — we are focusing on football, we are focusing on celebrating football. And one of things we are missing in the world is more and more is the capacity to speak to each other, to have a dialogue, and I think that’s the basis to solve some these issues. If there is no dialogue, no discussion, not even understanding but at least a little bit of respect, then we cannot go anywhere. And if football and the World Cup can contribute to open some channels and to open some discussions, to help those who have to take the important decisions for our world to at least start to speak to each other, and to realize that there are people — human beings —  living everywhere in the world, some in better, others in worse conditions, then I think we have done already something; we’ve given already a contribution. 

“That’s what football is about. Football cannot solve all the problems in the world. Football can not change the past. But football can have an impact in the future. And maybe some people who are making the decisions for our planet could take some bit of advice or at least a look into what we are trying to do in football and take some inspiration from some of it, to try to at least address these issues because we have to look forward, learning from what has happened without denying what has happened of course. And with respect to those who have been touched personally and directly by what has happened everywhere in the world. And looking forward, and if football can contribute a little bit, and I think it does, and this World Cup is a testimony of that, then I think it is already a positive outcome.”

Run of Play | Great reads and more

How many people are in a 'dumbumvirate' anyway?
In his review of Fox's World Cup TV coverage, Aaron Timms writes in The Guardian: "It has been appalling." He mostly blames the studio host Rob Stone and resident provocateur Alexi Lalas. The only thing Stone has done competently is identify the halftime show sponsor, Timms writes. Lalas? "Never before on American television have so many opinions been so obvious and delivered at such high volume and speed for such little on-screen impact." 

Read more of Timms' scathing review.

Africa's sixth team
France has 15 players with African roots and an evident international vibe that reflects an increasingly diverse modern country. The team has engendered support from Africans who see themselves represented in the French team. Samuel Umtiti's success has been followed closely in Cameroon, where he was born. Other players, such as N'golo Kanté, who is of Malian descent, and Steven Nzonzi, who has Congolese heritage, have been criticized in the past for forsaking the ancestral homes to play for France.

Read more from Bleacher Report.

Keep shooting
Equally good advice for desperate strikers looking for a last-gasp goal in a World Cup semifinal and news agency photographers caught in an end-line pileup after the aforementioned striker finally breaks through. Check out these excellent pictures from underneath a mound of delirious Croatian players immediately after Mario Mandžukić's winner against England in the semifinal. AFP photographer Yuri Cortez got swept up in the celebratory mayhem and kept taking pictures.

See more pictures by Cortez from underneath the celebration.

Football has lots of homes
Speaking of photos, check out the excellent pictures from Croatia, Belgium, England and France to see how fans supporting the last four teams in the World Cup experienced it in their home countries. The World Cup experience in countries competing, among supporters far from the stadiums in Russia, is incomparable.

Read and view more from The New York Times.

One fan's quixotic attempt to settle World Cup ties
Australian soccer fan Tim Farrell wants to replace "kicks from the penalty mark" with an even more absurd tie-breaker that closely resembles the comical shootout of Major League Soccer's early years, which was borrowed from the old NASL. His "attacker-defender-goalkeeper" proposal has its own website and rules, but little support among soccer decision-makers. 

Read more in Eight by Eight magazine.

#WorldCupS: The Battle of the Ales, Part 2

By Tammy Kennon and Chip Sellarole

FIFA calls this game featuring England and Belgium a “playoff for third place.” The New Oxford American Dictionary calls it a "consolation," which also means “the comfort received by a person after a loss.” It’s a bizarre exercise.
(Imagine a 2016 election runoff between Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz.)

Consider this: The third-place team will end the World Cup with a win, and the second place team will end with a loss.

Fortunately for this #WorldCupS match, we can console ourselves with amazing beer — again. Like the match between England and Belgium, we don’t care too much which ale wins — Chimay Blue or Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter. 

Both have long brewing traditions and have perfected them over centuries. They're finely crafted, quaffable brews.

Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter

You may remember that we settled on Samuel Smith's because it’s one of the few remaining independently owned breweries in England.

Besides being the oldest brewery in Yorkshire, the expert brewers have nailed a wide range of styles, in a distinctly British fashion. Iconic indeed.

They've been using the same copper boiling kettles since before a bunch of cheeky colonists decided they didn’t want to pay their taxes without a say in how Georgie boy was going to spend them.

The brewery puts the old in old school with its traditional practices, like reusing the yeast and delivering beer to local pubs in Shire horse-drawn wagons. Charming. And the brewery conditions so much beer in oak barrels, it keeps two full-time coopers on staff.

The Taddy Porter is the star of the Sam Smith's lineup for a 10 a.m. ET kickoff. Named for Samuel Smith's hometown of Tadcaster, the porter is a coffee drinker's delight. 

Chimay Blue

The Trappist monks created a colorful, high-alcohol, heavy-bodied, powerfully aromatic ale for hundreds of years — a religious experience.

The Trappist brewing tradition began in the Middle Ages, and since the 1600s, it’s been governed by rules that haven’t always been followed.

In the first round, we chose Chimay as Belgium’s iconic ale, because it’s consistently awesome; comes in all three Trappist styles; you can get it pretty easily; and it has its own kick-ass glass.

For the semifinals, we suggested bangers and mash to pair with the Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter, and snob-free nachos with Chimay Blue. However, since this is a consolation round, we recommend pairing both with handkerchiefs and peanuts.

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

Copyright © 2018 World Cup Banter, All rights reserved.