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Tuesday, July 3, 2018
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The World Cup is full of teams that are overrated and others that are underrated, just like rock bands. Match Day 19 also includes two squads that are what writer Chuck Klosterman would call rated — "nobody thinks they’re better than they are, and nobody thinks they’re worse."

  • No need to fix the World Cup; Putin already won
  • Neymar's acting, Lukaku's dummy
  • Sound smart: Sweden is rated, Switzerland may be underrated
  • England is overrated, Colombia rated
  • #World CupS: What we're drinking on Match Day 19
Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. (The Associated Press)

Putin didn't need to fix the World Cup; he's already won


It was fun to speculate how Russia hacked the round of 16 match against Spain.

It's not a leap to think the country that bribed FIFA officials, engineered an elaborate state-run Olympic doping system, interfered with foreign elections and tried to poison its former spies would also try to fix a soccer match.

World Cup matches have been fixed before. I wrote last week about the Disgrace of Gijon, when West Germany and Austria conspired in 1982 to keep Algeria out of the knockout round.

The military junta in Argentina is believed to have fixed matches for the home team in 1978 as a way to boost the government's legitimacy and distract from its atrocities. Players were intimidated and referees pressured. 

Before the tournament, I wrote how authoritarian governments can use the World Cup to project confidence and mask deep domestic faults. Putin appears to have done just that, even without the victory over Spain.

Since the World Cup kicked off, few people talk about his support for the villainous Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the annexation of Crimea, attempts to assassinate spies and dissidents abroad, or the suppression of political and civil rights in Russia.

Putin has entertained foreign leaders, including American national security adviser John Bolton, and he's scored major political and diplomatic wins. (I discussed this on Cheddar TV yesterday.)

Consider Sweden's decision to abandon its diplomatic boycott of Russia after making the round of 16. The foreign minister said government officials had to travel to Russia to support the team, so it would no longer stand with Britain, which was upset because Russian agents tried to poison a former spy in Salisbury. NATO solidarity apparently ends after the group phase. 

The easiest and most likely way to control the outcome of a game is through the referee. That's how it's been done in past World Cups (1978, 1966), where refs generally favor the host team anyway. The ref sends a player off or awards a dubious penalty in a match that matters. 

The Dutch ref in charge on Sunday, Björn Kuipers, is considered one of Europe's best, and he appeared to have done a fine job. He called a correct penalty against Spain, and rightly refrained from calling one against Russia late in the game. Nobody was sent off.

The match ultimately was decided in a penalty kick shootout, which an expert told me is very difficult to hack. Once you get to that point of a match, it's 50/50 who is going to win. And not even a president as strong as Putin could control Igor Akinfeev's trailing foot to make that amazing final save. 
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Match Day 18: Neymar's acting and Lukaku's Dummy

Brazil is trending in the right direction
The Selecao played like the team everyone expects it to be, beating Mexico 2-0 yesterday to end El Tri’s campaign in the round of 16 for the seventh consecutive World Cup.Watch the highlights.  

After the game, the talk was about Neymar. Not his goal, but his embellishment on the sideline after Miguel Layún stepped on his ankle.

“I think he’s a player with a lot of talent who hopefully one day dedicates himself to playing a little more,” Layún said after the match.

Neymar responded:  “I don’t much care for criticism, not even praise.”

True, Neymar’s simulation is annoying, and over the top for a player of his ability. But Layún deserved a red card.
 

Belgium narrowly escapes defeat
The team rallied  to score three goals against Japan, including a last-second winner after falling behind 2-0. Watch the highlights.

It had been nearly 50 years since a team has comeback from a 2-0 deficit in a World Cup elimination game. West Germany beat England in 1970 after going down by two goals in the quarterfinal.

The Belgians’ eventual 3-2 victory was thrilling, but won’t inspire confidence for Red Devils’ fans ahead of a quarterfinal match with Brazil.

Romelu Lukaku did not score in his team’s 3-2 victory. I almost felt bad bringing up Lukaku’s poor scoring record against top teams in games that matter. So I have to give him credit for his role in Belgium’s fast-break winning goal.  

Watch him draw the Japanese defender Yutu Nagatomo to the center on the break, opening up a passing lane for teammate Kevin De Bruyne to lay the ball off for Thomas Meunir charging up the right wing.  When Meunir crosses, Lukaku lets the ball through with a sublime dummy so Nacer Chadli can score.

Be Smart on March Day 19


SWE vs. SUI, St. Petersburg; 10 a.m. ET


SWEDEN is just as good as you think a mid-level European team with experienced professionals would be. “If you Google 'team', you’ll get a picture of us," said Sweden forward John Guidetti. 

Coach Janne Andersson's squad plays direct; they move forward with the ball with linear passes more than they move side to side, or back and around. These guys are committed to defending and counter-attacking. 

They've made it work for them since the undisputed star of the team, the over-the-top striker Zlatan Ibrahimović retired from international soccer in 2016. Sweden A.Z. (after Zlatan) may not be exciting, but it's effective.

“This is something that we have built during the last two years and we completely believe in what we are doing," veteran midfielder Sebastian Larsson said recently. "We show time after time that we can make it difficult for any opponent that we meet. We work hard and feel very comfortable doing it."

This approach worked against Mexico and Germany — for at least 94 minutes

This team is rated. It's not going to blow your socks off but you're also not going to be too disappointed.

"Who the hell cares?" midfielder Albin Ekdal told the BBC. "We're best at maximizing. We can't compete with France or Spain when it comes to skill on the ball, but luckily football is not decided by tiki-taka passes."

Expect the same from Sweden against Switzerland, but without Larsson. He'll miss the match for receiving two yellow cards in the group phase. Team captain Andreas Granqvist is expected to play even though his wife is due to give birth today.

SWITZERLAND is also missing key players because of accumulated yellow cards. Captain Stephan Lichtsteiner will be not be in his usual position at right back, and center back Fabian Schär is out too.

Don't fear: The Swiss play good team defense and are backed up by reliable goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who also has his own gourmet food blog

The Swiss have grander plans than just making a good show in the round of 16.

"We are quite ambitious," said coach Vladimir Petković. "We want more and more as we move along, and it's very important for us to show that."

This team is underrated. The way Switzerland challenged Brazil in the teams' opening match was proof that it is better than you may have thought. The impassioned win against Serbia confirmed it. 

The barrel-chested midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri and his mate, Granit Xhaka, would do well to show some of the enthusiasm they did against Serbia, when they tempted a suspension by flashing pro-Albanian political gestures to antagonize the Serbs. They were clearly up for that game, and should be for this one, too.

Whichever team gets through, pundits will say it's the surprising interloper in the World Cup quarterfinals. Sound smart by neither underrating the teams' performance nor overstating the accomplishment. They're are just as good as you think they are — maybe better.


COL vs. ENG, Moscow; 2 p.m. ET

ENGLAND is so overrated. Has been since 1966. Want to talk about a host country fixing matches, see the way eventual champion England beat Argentina in the quarterfinals with a West German referee in charge, while the other eventual finalist, West Germany, defeated Uruguay with an English referee. In all, three South Americans were curiously sent off in the two games.

To be fair, the England team competing in Russia is nothing like the 1966 team. And it's not like other England World Cup teams either, aside from the outrageous expectations and sense of entitlement of hard-core fans and members of the rapacious British news media. But that's not the players' fault.

They appear more relaxed in their demeanor and their style of play. The radically sensible coach Gareth Southgate has chosen well-rounded players with complimentary skills and good attitudes.

About a half dozen players, including World Cup leading goal scorer Harry Kane, play or played or Tottenham Hotspur. Another five play or played for Manchester United. Familiarity often helps a World Cup team. 

England really needs to show it can score goals in the run of play.  About half of its goals have come from penalty kicks and set pieces.

COLOMBIA is somewhere between rated and overrated, based on its performance in the World Cup four years ago. The hero then, James Rodríguez, has been slowed by a calf muscle injury. He's not expected to start today. 

With Rodríguez, whose first hame is pronounced "Ha-mez," the team may be overrated, because of his inventiveness when healthy. But he's not healthy.

Without Rodríguez, Colombia's attack is built around striker Radamel Falcao, still speedy at 32, and two young attacking playmakers who are capable deputies to Rodríguez. Juan Quintero is fast, quick-thinking and active all over the field. His free-kick goal against Japan was brilliant — he put it under the wall, not over. Also, Mateus Uribe can take over playmaking duties, and did well to establish Colombia's possession game against Senegal in the final group match.

#WorldCupS: What we're drinking...

By Tammy Kennon and Chip Sellarole

For Sweden vs. Switzerland

We're drinking a little vodka and a lot of beer.

SWITZERLAND
Feldschlösschen Helles Lager

How do you choose the most iconic drink of Switzerland? It’s easy — you look at what’s poured in every fourth glass: Feldschlösschen, which maybe sounds like this. It might be easier to pronounce after you drink one or two.

This beer was first brewed in 1876 in Rheinfelden, a Swiss-German border town split by the Rhine. A little more than 20 years later, the beer makers there were brewing 1.7 million cases of lager, which has to be fermented cold, before the widespread use of refrigeration. They had to harvest ice from nearby lakes to brew and store their beer. 

Helles means "bright" in German, and Feldschlösschen’s Helles lager is as advertised: bright, with low hops; malty, with a fluffy head; and clean on the palate. At 4.5 percent alcohol, you can drink it relatively easily through a 90-minute match. Overtime and penalty kicks at your discretion. 

Swiss it up with a Feldschlösschen-branded Swiss army knife to cut a slice of Swiss cheese. 

Prost!
 

SWEDEN
Absolut vodka 

For a morning game, how about an Absolut Bloody Mary? Perfect.

  • 4 parts Zing Zang Mix
  • 2 parts of Absolut Vodka

For some extra badda Zing, try Absolut Peppar no sugar, just jalapeño, green and chili peppers. Garnish with a celery stick or Chip’s favorite Seattle artisan pickles.

We’ve already waxed on about the inspiring planet-friendly practices at Absolut when we last wrote about drinking, er, rooting for Sweden. Treat yourself to the world’s most hilarious ad as part of their "Nothing to Hide" campaign. 

Skål!
 

For England vs. Colombia

It's another beer battle, with ale taking on lager.

ENGLAND
Samuel Smith's Taddy Porter

England's Samuel Smith's has so many great beers and amazing ciders, it's a shame to choose just one. But it's the knockout round, so choose we must. Representing England will be Sam Smith's Taddy Porter, named for Samuel Smith's hometown, Tadcaster. If you're a coffee drinker and think you don't like beer, try this.

COLOMBIA
Bavaria Brewery's Póker

Hands down, the most popular beer in Colombia is Póker. It's a good session lager — malty and low hops, like Bud — at a low 4.5 percent alcohol. In honor of Colombia's World Cup berth, the brewery dropped the price of their Águila lager, their second best-selling beer after Póker. 
 

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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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