Thursday, July 12, 2018


There's little doubt that the World Cup will be won by a team that earned it — France by doing just enough for each victory, and Croatia by giving it all, and then some.

  • "Ooh! Goal! Yay!"
  • Croatia won, England didn't blow it
  • Who has the World Cup's best neck tattoo?
  • The Banter will take tomorrow off and resume Saturday — check your inbox

'Ooh! Goal! Yay!'

I love the enthusiasm that the World Cup engenders in people who don't play, watch or even like soccer but once every four years.

The tournament has been billed as the most popular sports event in the world; an international showcase of commercial marketing might; and a great excuse for day drinking. It's been all of those things, and more.

It's also an object lesson in leadership. Aliou CisséGareth Southgate and Janne Andersson showed the value of disruption. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Germany reminded us to be humble. Iceland, Panama and Peru taught us to appreciate history, as England and France exhibited the power of owning your own experience.

We've also been treated to case studies in talent evaluation and development (Belgium) and crisis communications management (Argentina, Russia). 

This tournament has been largely free of hooliganism, racism and violence. Of course there are exceptions: episodes of homophobia and some over-the-top nationalism. And then there's the whole farce of Russia as an open and normative society. Putin, still winning. 

But the World Cup also gets us bantering about crazy, fun, interesting and amazing stuff at the same time hundreds of millions of people around the world are doing the same thing in their own languages. We're part of something.

I'm completely uninterested in the discussion of soccer's popularity — if you're evangelizing for soccer as a way forward for our enlightened society or denigrating it as some foreign annoyance, I don't care.

Whether or not more people like the World Cup has no bearing on how much I enjoy it. Having said that, I've had the most fun watching and bantering with friends, some who love soccer and others new to the game or just visiting.

I got my favorite text message today during the England-Croatia game (more on that one below) from my dear friend and reliable copy editor Lisa Todorovich Porter.

Lisa summed up perfectly the World Cup's infectious spirit, where all it takes is one flash to pull you out of the craziness of the world and put you in the moment: "Ooh! Goal! Yay!"


Be Smart: Croatia won, England didn't blow it

It was coming home, wasn't it? The English-language news media (mostly in Britain, but also in the United States) bit too hard on that particular meme. The attention on England before the game discounted Croatia's talent and determination.

England, the second-youngest team in the tournament, with little big-game experience even at club level, was never going to win the World Cup. And losing a close match in the semifinal to a better, more experienced and polished team is no chokejob.

Why did England lose?
All tournament, the team couldn't score goals — a problem that had been masked by the fact that Harry Kane is the World Cup's leading goal scorer with six goals (half of them penalty kicks) and England had seemingly beat up Panama, perhaps the worst team in the tournament. 

To be specific, England couldn't score goals in the run of play — the time when players are actively running and passing and dribbling and stuff. That's like 94 percent of the game. Also known as, pretty much, the entire game.

Eight of England's 11 goals came from set pieces, including penalty kicks, corner kicks and direct free kicks like the stunning goal Kieran Trippier scored to put England up 1-0 yesterday.

But if the players have to rely on the referee to give them an assist, or for a ball to bounce the right way off a corner kick (more luck than anything), then they have ceded agency for the game. 

Why did Croatia win?
It has better, more experienced players who were able to maintain their focus despite being exhausted. 

Coach Zlatko Dalić instilled trust and patience in his players to keep doing the right things until it worked out. I'm surprised that they were able to keep it up as long as they did. 

Croatia played three overtime games in a row, or the equivalent of an extra 90-minute game. That's three games in 10 days to England's two games.

But as tired as they must have been, the Croatians didn't forget: They've done this before. Not win a World Cup semifinal, but the players are among the most experienced big-game performers for top-tier clubs in Europe. 

 Croatia's first goalscorer yesterday, Ivan Perišić, who plays for Inter Milan, has four World Cup goals in his career, second only to Davor Suker.

Croatia also has a handful of players who have played and won multiple Champions League titles with their clubs. Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakatić have four Champions League titles between them in the last five years. Mario Mandžukić, who scored the winner, is a veteran striker for Italian powerhouse Juventus. He played in the final this year and won the 2013 Champions League with Bayern Munich.

Big players with big-game experience.

Going forward

England plays Belgium in the third-place game on Saturday, which could be fun. This match is usually a glorified exhibition, where veterans who will be retiring from international soccer get to take a bow, and young players get to feel the World Cup grass. But Kane and Romelu Lukaku will be trying to win the golden boot (more on that below), and their teammates will want to help them out.

Croatia will rest. The players need it. They'll face a much younger and efficient France team that's only run as fast and tried as hard as necessary to beat the team lined up against them. Les Bleus have kept plenty in reserve.

Look for a full final match preview in your inbox this weekend. 

One note: What I saw from England yesterday reminded me of the young German team I watched lose to Spain in the World Cup semifinal in Durban, South Africa, in 2010. Four years later, that experience was crucial to Germany's World Cup-winning run in Brazil.

The golden boot, ball and glove

The World Cup's leading scorer, its best player and best goalkeeper will be recognized at the end of the tournament. So too will the best young player and the tournament's most courteous, who receives the fair play award. 

The FIFA technical study group, which sounds sophisticated but is really just these guys, decides four of the five individual awards. 

Golden Boot
Choosing the World Cup's top scorer doesn't need much study.  The guy with the most goals wins. If it's tied, the leading scorer with the most assists wins. If it's still tied, the leading scorer with the most assists who played the fewest minutes will take home the trophy. 

Harry Kane (six goals) of England and Romelu Lukaku (four goals) of Belgium actually have something to play for in the third-place game on Saturday. Half of Kane's goals have come from penalty kicks. All of Lukaku's goals have been scored in the run of play — with both feet and with his head.

Golden Ball
The golden ball winner is the tournament's most valuable player, and will be chosen after the final on Sunday. Three of the nine players to win this award since 1982 also won the World Cup in the same year — Paolo Rossi of Italy in 1982, Diego Maradona of Argentina in 1986 and Brazil's Romário in 1994.

Usually, the golden ball goes to a player from the runner-up. In 2006, Zinedine Zidane won despite being thrown out of the final for head-butting Marco Materazzi. My picks for this year's award are a combination of obvious and esoteric.
  • Luka Modrić or Ivan Rakitić: whichever Croatian midfielder has a better final against France.
  • N'golo Kanté: France would be nowhere without him. He makes everything work. Still Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe are sexier picks.
  • Romelu Lukaku: Even on a team with luminaries such as Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, Lukaku's intelligence and teamwork stand out. 
It will likely be Modrić, regardless of how he plays in the final. He was recognized as "man of the match" more than any other player in the tournament.

Golden Glove
For this World Cup in Russia, FIFA should go back to calling the award for the best goalkeeper the Lev Yashin award, after the legendary Soviet shot stopper. They changed the name after 2006 and went with the Adidas sponsorship. 

Four of the six recipients won the World Cup in the year they were honored. If France wins on Sunday, expect Hugo Lloris, who has been excellent all tournament, to get the award. If not, I suspect it will go to young Jordan Pickford of England. He deserves it. 

Fair Play
Honestly, I'm not interested in the fair play award. It's silly to honor a guy for not diving and refraining from compulsively grabbing and clutching just so FIFA can look like it cares about fair play. If FIFA really cared, the corrupt officials would be out and there would be full transparency. If they really wanted to clean up the persistent fouling and simulation, they could insist referees issue yellow and red cards for bad behavior, and reward players who try to stay on their feet when fouled by playing the advantage as long as there is one, and then calling the foul when it doesn't pan out.

Young Player Award
This goes to the best young player born after Jan. 1, 1997. Paul Pogba of France won in 2014 based on these criteria, and there's a great chance his teammate Kylian Mbappé, above, will win this year. Landon Donovan, the American forward, was recognized for his breakout performance in the 2002 World Cup, but the criteria was different. 

What awards do you want to see handed out? Send me who you think should win the awards FIFA recognizes, and send your own superlatives — best neck tattoo, most obvious dive, worst haircut, best pre-game track top.
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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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