Thursday, June 21, 2018


Match Day 8 could decide Lionel Messi's World Cup future  — or be his final chapter.

  • Anniversary of Iran's World Cup win over "the Great Satan"
  • Cesc Fabregas on getting the best out of Messi
  • Peru's World Cup dream journal
  • #WorldCupS drink recommendations for Group C
Andrew Skola, left, and Danny Hassan in Lyon, France, in 1998.

I've been pulling for Iran since Team Melli qualified for Russia.

Masoud Shojaei, the team captain, won me over when he called out the ayatollahs for not letting women attend soccer games. “We see the flood of passion from our ladies,” he said, and their support would boost soccer in the country. Watch Shojaei challenge nearly 40 years of religious-sanctioned discrimination in this 2017 video.

His outspokenness earned him a warning from the Islamic Republic's sports authorities, but his decision to play for his Greek club against an Israeli team in a Europa Cup match last August got him and teammate Ehsan Haji Safi a lifetime ban. 

Not only were both players invited back to the national team for the World Cup, Shojaei wore the captain's armband in the opening match victory against Morocco, and Haji Safi was the designated captain against Spain yesterday. Team Melli, led by these true sportsmen, could advance to the round of 16 with a win or draw against Portugal on Monday.

An achievement like that would be embraced in Iran and among Iranians abroad, men and women. The national team's success could give momentum to the women who have chosen soccer to make their stand against the clerics who would keep them out. The women support the team, and it appears Team Melli is behind the women too.

Today is the 20th anniversary of Iran's first World Cup victory  its only win before last week. The match at the 1998 tournament in France was a politically charged 2-1 thrashing of the United States. It was a low-water mark for the American team and has been a persistent point of pride for the Iranians.

My buddies Andrew Skola and Danny Hassan were at that match in Lyon, and below, Andrew relays what it was like for a despondent American fan after the game, and how it made him a better soccer fan and more worldly person.

We should all be so lucky to gain that much from our team's defeat.

How getting beat by Iran made me a better soccer fan and global citizen

We were giddy on the train to Lyon, hooking up with other face-painted, flag-waving Americans. The only way it could have been more patriotic was if we were caravaning in World War II-era jeeps across France like it was 1944.

But no, we took the TGV, which was cool to say — teh-jeh-vey.

It was France in the summer of 1998. It was the World Cup. We were global travelers, worldly diplomats of sport who rented a Paris flat in the 14th arrondissement in Montparnasse. We drank wine at bistros, spoke Spanish with traveling Mexican fans and used bad French to order crepes from street vendors. And we cheered on the boys in red, white and blue.

It was the longest day of the year, June 21, and the sunshine welcomed us to Lyon. We walked from the train station to the sound of drums and horns and noise from hundreds, maybe thousands, of American fans outside the stadium.  

We never really had that sort of celebration at U.S. soccer games back in the States, where we were always outnumbered by Salvadoran fans at qualifiers in Washington, DC, and Mexican fans in Foxboro, Mass.

The 1994 World Cup got us hooked. I remember celebrating the Americans’ victory over Colombia in the World Cup by driving around with an American flag flapping out the window of my friend’s honking pickup.  The DC taxicab drivers knew what was up. Late working Washington bureaucrats just gave us the side eye. We thought we knew better.

Before flying to France, we made plans to meet up in Lyon with my French friend Dominique, hired by FIFA to work as translator. We gave two extra tickets to my Iranian karate Sensei, Ali, who passed them to his brother and nephew in Germany. In Lyon, we partied with the green and red-clad Iranians, most of them expatriots like Ali celebrating in a way they could not at home. We were no longer American soccer fans — we were international World Cup fútbol fans.

Before that second Group F game against Iran, we sang the anthem with our hands over our hearts and sweat running red, white and blue down our painted cheeks. We were ready.

When the Iranian anthem played, 33,000 of the 35,000 people in the stadium stood and belted out a full-throated rendition while they unfurled a green, white and red flag big enough to cover every American there that day. There were tears of passion, political slogans and shouts of encouragement for the players with fire in their eyes and thunder in their legs. This was not going to be a home game us. This was way bigger for the Iranians than we could begin to understand. We were in over our heads. 

In the early minutes Brian McBride or Joe-Max Moore — who can remember — hit the crossbar, but for all the hustle and possession, the Americans we were not getting anywhere. The Iranians were running up and down with the ball, bolstering the noise and the flag waving and the sloganeering. Danny looked over at me and said what my suffering Red-Sox fan intuition was already telling me: “We’re fucked.”

Iran’s Hamid Estili knocked a looping header that all of us — Danny, me, Kasey Keller — were helpless to stop from gently falling into the back of the net just before halftime.

The second Iranian goal just kind of happened, without much notice, and in a way was a relief. It was over, even if McBride’s headed goal in the 87th minute was scored right in front of us. It barely crossed the line and was too late to matter.

We never saw Ali's German brother and nephew. We never found Dominique and his friends. There was no wine, little celebration. We shook hands with the joyful Iranians sitting near us before slumping off to find a bus back to the train station.

On the TGV back to Paris, Danny assessed the state of US soccer and offered a three-word prescription that is just as relevant 20 years later. “Gut. Gut. Gut.”

We were exhausted and disappointed and betrayed and incredulous and silent and embarrassed and empty and disillusioned and mad at the coach and his terrible line up and disappointed in the players — those who didn’t play well enough and those who didn’t play but made world-class efforts to mouth off to the media. We got angry with the French bus drivers for their stubborn laziness and the French farmers for letting their cows on the tracks in the middle of the night and, of course, we were mad at the cows.

We were disappointed with ourselves, and feeling a little naïve that our cute cheers and high-school-pep-rally enthusiasm would be enough to counter the relentless Germans, the passionate Iranians and war-weary Yugoslavs, who had lifetimes invested in football to our American summer fling with soccer.

But we — Danny and me and our friends, many of whom subscribe to this newsletter — learned the hard way (the only way) how to become football fans twenty years ago. It's a beautiful, cruel game. Defeat can be a crushingly beautiful thing.


RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

'I could have spoken about the politics but it wasn’t the right time.'
The 2-1 victory over the United States at France '98 was more important for Iran than it was for the Americans. The U.S. players and coach, Steve Sampson, were told to avoid any mention of politics. The Iranians didn't chant "death to America," but they did talk of honoring their "martyrs" who died in the Iran-Iraq war and defending their national pride. "I think that's more important to them than us," U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos said at the time. "I haven't heard anyone say, 'Let's beat Iran, let's do it for Bill Clinton."'

Read more from Iran's former coach, Jalal Talebi, in The Guardian.

'How not to win the World Cup,' by the 1998 U.S. men's national team.
For more about the match between the United States and Iran, and the Americans' disastrous 1998 World Cup campaign, listen to the exhaustive podcast series from WNYC studios, American Fiasco. The series, hosted by Roger Bennett of the Men in Blazers podcast, talks to players and coaches about the infighting, backstabbing, adultery and shambolic decision-making that led to the team's embarrassing 0-3 exit from France. American fans still lamenting the U.S. failure to qualify for Russia would be smart to remember that it could be worse.

Listen to American Fiasco from WNYC.

Someone other than Lionel Messi must save Argentina.
The South Americans must win or draw against Croatia in Group D today if they are to preserve their chances of advancing in the World Cup. It's a dire situation for a team that has become leaden, with no clear style of play other than get the ball to Messi, watch him conjure magic. 

The team's other world-class players have been let off the hook, leaving Messi to hang for every defeat. “When you score with the Argentina jersey, we all take credit for it," coach Jorge Sampaoli said Wednesday. "But when Argentina loses, it’s all Leo’s fault. I think that’s quite unfair treatment. It’s a lot of pressure for a single player to stand."

Former Argentina forward Hernan Crespo said Argentina has let Messi down, not the other way around. "We don't help him so much, and by that I mean coaches, presidents of federations, etc.," said Crespo. "It's a pity because he's the most important player in the world and we don't help him. He wants to do it so much. He maybe feels that pressure."

Many of Messi's defenders and critics have said that the pressure doesn't appear to affect him in the biggest games for his club.  Why does he wither for Argentina? The Guardian noted that in the first game against Iceland, Messi ran less, and slower, than almost any other player in the tournament so far. 

You probably don't want your best player knocking himself out all over the field. And that's not how Messi usually plays with Barcelona, which maintains possession far more than Argentina, allowing the ball, not the player, to cover most of the ground.

Cesc Fabregas, Messi's mate for more than half their lives, explains how Barcelona gets the best out of Messi by supporting him, not ceding all responsibility. Argentina should take note.

Read more from Fabregas on how to get the best out of Messi.

The man who dashed and restored Peru's World Cup dreams.
I wrote last week about the suspicious plane crash that killed Peru's best players and its national team coach more than 30 years ago. In the decades since, Peruvian soccer struggled mightily to return to the World Cup, often getting in its own way. The shrewd coach who finally helped Peru qualify for the first time in a generation is the same man who scored the goal that denied Peru a spot in the 1986 World Cup. The Argentine Ricardo Gareca knocked Peru out of qualifying, though he was not ultimately selected for the final team for the World Cup. Three decades later, he was just the man to restore Peru's World Cup fortunes.

Read more from The NYRB about how Gareca did it.


What we're drinking on Match Day 8 – #WorldCupS 

The world’s most sophisticated drinking game continues with the most iconic drinks of Group C. 
Denmark’s Akvavit, which means water of life, has more than 100 styles made with grain and potatoes, flavored with dill, fennel, coriander, citrus and anise. And there are more than 200 drinking songs for this spicy delight. We like to drink it like a Viking: chill the liquor, pour it into a small ceramic bowl and shout Skål!

Australia is represented by Shiraz from Penfolds, established in 1844, run by Mary Penfolds after her husband died in 1870. Later her daughter took over. Aussie women at the helm in the 1800s. Good on ya. The Shiraz tastes of bold blackberry and black pepper, with some roasty, toasty oak that is higher alcohol than most wines. Bold, friendly, and in your face, like any good Aussie. Cheers mate!
The voting continues... Is France’s most iconic drink Absinthe or Maison Ruinart Champagne? 
Absinthe: Drink it as the French have for 200 years by dripping cold water over a sugar cube into a shot of absinthe, a high alcohol (110-144 proof) spirit infused with wormwood, anise, fennel and other herbs. Wormwood was erroneously believed to be hallucinogenic by the great Parisian artists and philosophers of the late 19th century.

Maison Ruinart Champagne, from the iconic Champagne region. Ruinart was the first house established there in 1729. This bubbly is made from 100 percent Chardonnay. Feel the sizzle of real Champagne bubbles and think ancient cathedrals and Joan of Arc. Santé !
Peru, celebrating its first World Cup in 36 years with ... 
Pisco, an amazing and unique spirit made from sweet wine, distilled only once to 76-96 proof, no barrel aging or additives. Traditionally it was placed for three months in a nonreactive clay pitchers called piscos. Like sipping peaches and silk.

Cristal beer, the top-selling beer in Peru, is a light lager, your basic soccer-watching session beer. Think lemon, ripe apples, soft malt and a clean finish leaving the palate ready for one more. Salud!
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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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