Wednesday, July 11, 2018


The World Cup semifinal between Croatia and England proves that Europe works. 

  • The World Cup is seducing our children
  • Croatia has Europe to thank
  • And so does England — take that Brexiteers!
  • Shock. Shame. Disbelief.
  • #WorldCupS: Plumb brandy and donuts for breakfast
England's Ashley Young.

First World Cup loves

I rushed on CitiBike to Brooklyn Bridge Park to pick up my son from soccer camp at halftime of yesterday's semifinal between France and Belgium. I had 15 minutes to make the 20-minute round trip back to the English pub where I was watching the game with a friend. (Watch the highlights — of the game, not my bike ride.)

I had decided I was going to watch France-Belgium at an English joint, and I'll watch England-Croatia today at a French place, to mix it up. 

My son, Miles, is mixing it up too. He had been rooting for Brazil, then switched his allegiance to Belgium after the quarterfinals. On the way to watch the second half yesterday, he told me no, actually, he's rooting for France. 

The kid is easily swayed. After only two days at Paris Saint-Germain soccer academy, he's all for Les Bleus. Maybe it was his coach's influence, or the fact that there are several PSG players on France who wear the same uniform he gets to wear to training every day — for a week, at least.
My buddy Bryan Erwin's daughters are enamored with Belgium, and were 100 percent invested while watching in Paris yesterday.  They found a Belgium-friendly spot so Alison, 8, and Heidi, 6, could wear their adopted colors proudly.

The Erwins were visiting friends in Belgium when the Red Devils staged their dramatic comeback against Japan, and the girls were hooked. Even on their return to France, they wanted to support Belgium. They're not fickle like Miles, or me. 
I remember falling in love with the World Cup in 1986; it was Argentina and Diego Maradona who captured my imagination. We're easily wooed when we're young, and the World Cup is seductive.

It reminds me what an opportunity U.S. Soccer missed. Not only are the players denied the experience of competing in a World Cup, but a generation of young, impressionable fans don't get to make that first connection.

I'm sure Miles will support the U.S. teams when they play; he was into the women's team at their last World Cup, and he was thrilled to go to a men's qualifier last fall with one of his uncles and his grandfather. It was only over breakfast the day after the 2-0 loss to Costa Rica that he started to struggle with the idea that he had a blast, but his team lost. How was he supposed to feel?

Until he gets another chance to make a connection with Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes, he'll be captivated by Kylian Mbappé or Romelu Lukaku or Neymar. We all are.

During the World Cup, when people ask who I'm rooting for, I tell them I'm more interested in good stories than good teams, or my team. Mexico, Iran and Belgium fit the bill — for a while. 

Good thing this World Cup is full of good stories, so my son and Bryan's daughters and all of us can enjoy them.

Be smart about Croatia vs. England

CRO vs. ENG, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow; 2 p.m. ET

A quick guide to help you decipher what you hear and read about England and Croatia so you can impress everyone at the pub/office  wherever you're watching today's match. 


You might hear ... how chaotic Croatia is. Its captain, Luka Modrić, above, is facing criminal charges for perjury in a politically connected corruption case involving the most powerful man in the country's soccer league. Many teams in the Croatian league teeter on the brink of financial ruin. There's no national training system to speak of, or ambitious plan to cultivate the most talented players beyond selling them to big European clubs. It's a mess.

All of this is true, and yet Croatia is in the World Cup semifinal.

Sound smart ... by giving credit to the Croatian players and to Europe. The best players with the most ambition shrewdly used the opportunities available to them abroad.

Rather than staying at home and enduring the chaos, Modrić, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Perišić, Ante Rebić and others went elsewhere as soon as they could, making use of Europe's open market, free movement of labor and access to better opportunities.

It wasn't Croatia that made this team a European soccer power; it was Europe that made it a stronger national team.

There's no national style of play or central system. Croatia has achieved overall, and specifically in this World Cup, by being adaptable. That's its best player Ivan Rakitić's strongest attribute (see below).

Bravo coach Zlatko Dalić for using the chaos to his team's advantage.


You've probably heard
..."it's coming home." The England team's success is going to restore the historic order of international soccer and return the game's power center to its birthplace.

And it's about time — England deserves it after so much suffering, with the team losing in penalty kick shootouts in 1990 and 2006. Also, the team won the World Cup in 1966. 

Sound smart... and recall 1966 for what it was: a special moment in time when luck and chicanery helped an all-white team win the world title in the country's most important sport. But England has never really been the soccer power its most ardent fans believe it was.

Tell your mates how different England — the country and the team — is from 1966 and 1990 and 2006. Most of the players weren't even born 28 years ago, when England last played in the semifinals. 

England is the second-youngest team in the World Cup, after Nigeria, with an average age of 26 (the same as France). The past failures are not part of this team's experience. They're history.

Also, these players are far more worldly in their makeup and experience. They play in the Premier League — if not the best league in the world, certainly the richest and most competitive. It's also one of the most cosmopolitan, with savvy foreign coaches who have broad experience beyond insular England.

Almost half a dozen players, including Harry Kane, Kieran Trippier, Eric Dier and Dele Alli play for the Argentine coach Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur. Kyle Walker, who used to play for Spurs, now plays at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola with England teammates Raheem Sterling and Fabian Delph. Another handful of England players are Manchester United, coached by the Portuguese tactician José Mourinho.

Their familiarity has helped foster a strong team spirit, and they play sophisticated, fluid soccer. Long gone are the days of a rigid and direct 4-4-2 lineup (four defenders, four midfielders, two strikers). 

England coach Gareth Southgate deploys three center backs to anchor the defense, with Trippier and Ashley Young (one of those Man United players) as attack-minded wingbacks. This is a very continental way to play. Watch how much of the game runs through Trippier and Young; they are the most influential players on the field. 

If Croatia is a contender because its players went out to compete in Europe, England is in a position to win the World Cup because it was open to the rest of Europe. Take that, Brexiteers!

RUN OF PLAY | Great reads and more

More England to come.
I've lamented England because its most boorish fans and the British tabloid media have been insufferable. There was a sense of entitlement, which quickly led to self-satisfied recrimination after the team ultimately fell short of all-out victory. 

That's not this England. There's been a shift in the players and how the team plays that could be the new standard for years to come. This group of young, positive and seemingly affable players is the vanguard.

Read more in The Wall Street Journal about how England rewired its soccer DNA.

Croatia's Swiss-born star with Spanish heart
Ivan Rakitić may be the best attacking midfielder Croatia has seen. He also happens to be the best holding midfielder, box-to-box midfielder and midfield general. Whatever role you need him to play, he'll do it better than anyone else. And he's proud to do it for Croatia. 

Read more from Sid Lowe in The Guardian about Croatia's most important player. 

Shock. Shame. Disbelief.
We've all seen it. We've all done it. Turning a sitter into a howler, watching that certain goal turn into a squandered chance — a player grimaces and slaps his hands to his head, elbows splayed like chicken wings. The New York Times calls it "the universal gesture to signify, How in the world did I miss that?" Apparently, it's a physical response to a psychological reaction. 

Read more about the instinctual reaction to messing up.

'The routinely weird ritual that is the World Cup news conferences'
It's usually a sign that reporters are bored or lazy when they resort to writing about news conferences. It's a stock story one can turn to near the end of a long slog like the World Cup that appears to give fans an insider's view — but really it's low-hanging fruit for the reporter. This one is different because it's written by the incomparable Sarah Lyall, who doesn't usually cover soccer and is a delightful writer.

She describes news conferences that coaches and one player from each team are required to give before and after a match as a "daily piece of amateur theater where the questions are often repetitive, the players are generally bored, the coaches find 50 ways to say nothing, and journalistic neutrality repairs to the nearest bar, breaks open a beer and cheers for the home team."

Read more from Lyall in The New York Times.

#WorldCupS: The Snifter and the Pint Glass

By Tammy Kennon and Chip Sellarole

Congratulations to Ruinart Blanc de Blanc for downing Chimay Blue.

The Champagne flute advances to the #WorldCupS finals, so basically, we all win! See yesterday's newsletter for some food pairing ideas.

And for that last slot in the final, we have Maraska Slivovitz representing Croatia against England's Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter.

Maraska Slivovitz

If you can’t quite spell "Slivo-wha?" don’t worry. It comes in many iterations: Slivovitz, Šljivovica, Śliwowica, Slivovitza, Schlivowitz, Slivovitsa, Slivovice, Slivovica or Slivovka, depending on where in Eastern Europe it is produced. It's a regional staple. 

We already explained the extra love Maraska gives to its version of the near-ubiquitous plum brandy. Put some in a snifter, swirl and take a big whiff.

Now, about food. You’re gonna love this pairing, because it's an excuse to have donuts. In our time zone (Pacific), the game starts at 11 a.m., so we’re having breakfast. If you’re in a later time zone, eat dessert first. We won’t tell.

Check out these mini donuts, though; in keeping with the theme, we’re using prunes instead of raisins. There’s Slivovitz in the dough, so as pairings go, that’s a slam dunk. Plus, the alcohol cuts the fat in the donut, cleansing your palate between bites. Lots of bites.

Want more? Try this cold cocktail with coffee, cream and Slivovitz.


Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter

Our other glass is a pint glass, but not just any pint glass. Have a look at this beauty. The shape is important, but we direct your attention to the etching in the bottom, which enhances the whole experience: continuous bubbles and better head retention. No one likes a flat beer? (Read about etching and more in Scientific American.)

The Taddy Porter is a classic porter, not over-hopped or bitter. And as we said before, if you love black coffee, give this a go. It’s made from roasted malt, so the same smoky, savory robust qualities of roasted coffee beans are matched in the glass. And don’t over-chill it; the flavors blossom as the temp rises. (If you want a walk on the wild side, add a splash of Slivovitz, a plum/coffee delight.)

The porter's robustness shouts out for authentic bangers and mash — sausage and mashed potatoes. The crisp, roasted sausage skins pair with the toasty, smokiness of the beer, and the starchy potatoes mirror the malt. Now that’s some good soccer grub.

Not feeling it? Okay, have a hot dog, a corn dog or pigs in a blanket.


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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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