Friday, June 8, 2018


There are six days until the World Cup. Just. Six. Days.

In less than a week hundreds of men wearing sweat-wicking fibers and neon-colored shoes will kick a ball around a grass field for 90 minutes at a time, purporting to represent entire nations. As they do that, the rest of us watch nervously, drink beer and argue about what it all means.

Many casual fans are just waking up to the fact that the United States, Italy and the Netherlands didn’t qualify; the most talked-about player is Egyptian, not Argentinian or Brazilian; and Stella Artois is a much better breakfast beer than it gets credit for. That’s important because most of the days’ first games begin at 8 a.m. on the East Coast.

Below are a few other things you should know before the tournament starts to help you sound smart on Twitter or in the pub, and some essential stories to read from this week. You can see many more in previous issues of the newsletter, available here.

Next week, when the tournament begins, The Banter will be gegenpressing. Every day, you’ll receive an email with urgent analysis of what’s happening in the World Cup, and how you can be smart about it. The newsletters will include stories about the rivalries, controversies, heroes and villains of the World Cup. There’ll be some history, a little politics, lots of banter — and some excellent drinks recommendations.

I’ll be sure to tell you where I’m watching, with whom, and what we’re eating and drinking. I hope you will too, on Twitter and in email so I can share with everyone else here.  

And please share The Banter, and encourage others to sign up before the World Cup.


Sound smart at the pub and on Twitter.

These facts and interesting viewpoints may not have anything to do with who ultimately wins the World Cup. Depending on how confident you sound when you say it, nobody will question your soccer smarts.

Next week, I’ll consider the sorta hidden factors that really do matter, and whether or not the data contradict or confirm the narratives we think we believe.

  • The three Concacaf teams — Panama (average age: 29.6), Costa Rica (29.6) and Mexico (29.4) — have the oldest teams at the World Cup. Nigeria (25.9) is the youngest.

  • The youngest player at the World Cup will be Australia’s Daniel Arzani (19 years 152 days). The oldest is Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary, who is 45. If he gets to play, he’ll become the oldest player ever to take the field at the World Cup.

  • Rafael Marquez, the Mexican defender who is accused by the U.S. government of having ties to a drug cartel, is set to play in his fifth World Cup. He’ll be only the third player to do that.

  • Three of the last four World Cup-winning captains were defenders: Germany’s Philipp Lahm in 2014, Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 and Brazil’s Cafu in 2002. Spain, the 2010 champion, was led by goalkeeper Iker Casillas. The last time a forward wore the armband for the winner was 1986, when Diego Maradona was captain of Argentina.

  • Only five times in World Cup history has the champion included the tournament’s leading goal scorer. The last time it happened was 2010 in South Africa, when David Villa of Spain was the joint top scorer with five goals. (Thomas Mueller of Germany won the Golden Boot award because he scored five and had three assists in one fewer game played.) Villa scored all but three of his Spain’s goals that year. Carles Puyol’s header won the semifinal against Germany and Andres Iniesta scored the overtime winner in the final against Netherlands. The other Golden Boot winners to also win the World Cup in the same year were Brazil’s Ronaldo in 2002, Paolo Rossi for Italy in 1982, Argentina’s Mario Kempes in 1978, and Vava and Garrincha of Brazil in 1962.

  • The past two winners (Germany and Spain) wore Adidas. Italy was wearing Puma when it won in 2006, and Brazil donned Nike uniforms in 2002. France, which wears Nike now, sported Adidas outfits when it won 20 years ago. Reuters breaks down who wore what, when, and how well they did.

  • A Tweet I wholeheartedly agree with:

  • My favorite uniforms this year include Peru, playing for the first time since 1986. Paolo Guerrero, the team’s captain, will actually be able to play after all: The Court of Arbitration for Sport agreed to lift a newly reinstituted doping ban while it considers his appeal.

  • Nigeria’s Nike uniform sold out in less than three hours after it went on sale last week, and 3 million preorders meant that even Nike’s website was cleaned out. The Independent reported after the home jersey was scooped up, fans also bought all the available away shirts and training tops.

Who to follow during the World Cup.

Here are a few people (not publications and not teams or players) that I enjoy following on Twitter, who post in English. You may have heard of some of them; others may be new to you. Share your favorite World Cup follows, and we’ll get them all to join The Banter. More suggestions to come throughout the tournament.

Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) won the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup and is as clever and fun as he is pointed on Twitter.

Paul Carr (@PaulCarrTM) is an accessible stats guy who used to be at ESPN and now works at a sports analytics joint called TruMedia.

@OldSchoolPanini shares the greatest, worst old photos of soccer players. Worth it just for the hairstyles.

Raphael Honigstein (@honigstein) tweets about Germany in English, and more. He’s the journalist who literally wrote the book on how Germany won the 2014 World Cup.

Mohamed Moallim (@iammoallim) is funny, irreverent and opinionated. As he says, he’s “a beggar for good football.”

Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) is a writer for The Guardian and tweets about Spain in English and England in Spanish and vice-versa. Great soccer tweets in two languages.

Henry Winter (@henrywinter) is maybe the dean of English soccer columnists and writes for The Times of London. Authoritative and reasonable and smart and a good writer. One of the only English journalists writing about England I like to read.

Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) is a soccer writer for Sports Illustrated and author of a great new book. He reads widely and regularly points me to interesting things, not just his own interesting things. Also has a great new book out.

Andrew Das (@AndrewDasNYT) is my friend and former colleague on The New York Times Sports Desk. All those fantastic features by Rory Smith and Tariq Panja and others? Andy edits them. And he’s essential on Twitter if you are interested in smart soccer. He’s funny, too.

Who do you follow? Share on Twitter @jeffdmarcus or email.

RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. The most intense soccer academy in the world.

The heart of the French team, the country’s best since it won the World Cup 20 years ago, was forged in the banlieues outside of Paris — “places with large, working-class, nonwhite communities, synonymous with riots and social strife, thought of as breeding grounds for crime and terrorism.”

As Rory Smith and Elian Peltier of The New York Times report, the neighborhoods really produce the finest young soccer players in the world, including eight members of Les Bleus. Chief among them are Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté, who grew up in what amounts to an intense, rough-and-tumble informal soccer academy.

“We have the best young players in the country confronting each other every weekend,” one coach from the banlieue told Smith and Peltier. “That is what makes the difference.”

Read more from The Times’s visit to Bondy, a banlieue outside Paris.

2. The best player is Egyptian, not Argentinian or Brazilian.

Strikers are usually sinister — merciless in front of goal and petulant when their teammates’ service is lacking. But the most prolific young goal-scorer entering this World Cup also happens to be the nicest guy on the planet. Mohamed Salah has inspired ballads in England, where he plays for Liverpool, and near-religious fealty in Egypt, his home.

The Pharoahs hadn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1990, before Salah was born. The curly-haired 25-year-old coolly converted a penalty against Congo last October to make his country’s dream come true, and fueled a new ambition. “Egypt, you know, people only want to go to the World Cup,” Salah said in a video for B/R Mag. “But now, after what I’m doing, they want to win the World Cup.”

The team has more spirit than talent, and Salah may not be fit to play in the Egypt’s opener against Uruguay next Friday. He’s still recovering from a shoulder injury sustained in the Champions League final playing for Liverpool.

It will take more than Salah’s sunny disposition and mazey runs at goal to to win in Russia. But he’s not not sweating it: “I’m very sure we’re gonna go very far in the World Cup,” he told B/R Mag’s Hanif Abdurraqib. “And no one expects that, but I’m very sure about it.”

Innumerable pixels and an exorbitant amount of column inches have been devoted to Salah in the past few months, but B/R Mag also commissioned an original mural of Salah in New York. (There’s also Paul Pogba in New Orleans and Neymar in Miami.) The art, like the player, is special.

Watch video of Brandan “Bmike” Odums paint Salah in Times Square.

3. Sergio Ramos blames the victim.

Salah is still recovering from shoulder surgery after an injury he sustained when Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos whipped him around and slammed him to the ground during a tussle in the Champions League final a few weeks ago.  

To hear Ramos tell it, Salah is to blame for his own injury, and the Egyptian is soft because he didn’t get a cortisone injection and play on. "Bloody hell, they've given this a lot of attention, the Salah thing,” said Ramos, adding that it was Salah who grabbed him.

Ramos’s Real Madrid beat Salah’s Liverpool, 3-1, and the Spanish player was also blamed for causing Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius’s concussion. (Karius let in two howlers that cost Liverpool the match.)

“After the goalkeeper said that I dazed him with a clash, I am only missing Firmino saying that he got a cold because a drop of my sweat landed on him," Ramos said.

Read his comments (in English) to AS, the Spanish sports daily.

4. Somebody decided a soccer game was “a good propaganda opportunity.”

Israeli officials reacted angrily after Argentina canceled a World Cup warmup that was to be played Saturday in Jerusalem. Actually, the game was scheduled to be played in Haifa when it was first announced. But the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly wanted the match moved to Jerusalem, the focal point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian activists led by Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub began pressuring Argentina’s players, especially Lionel Messi, not to play in the contested city. There were even reports of threats against Messi.

He and his teammates pulled out, and that’s when the accusations of "politicization" began flying back and forth between Buenos Aires and Jerusalem.

The Israelis said Argentina was siding with the Palestinians by boycotting the game. The Argentinians said they were being used to make a statement about the status of Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as a capital of their future state.

“Somebody at some point decided it could be a good propaganda opportunity,” Argentine sports journalist Angela Lerena told The New York Times.

Read more about the dispute from CNN.

The #WorldCupS continues.

Our #WorldCupS competition — essentially the world’s most sophisticated drinking game — is in its infancy. Thanks to those of you who spoke up on Twitter and elsewhere. The winning beverages for the first two teams: Stolichnaya vodka for Russia vs. Saudi non-alcoholic “Champagne.”

Please help as we order the next "round."  What will Egypt fans be drinking?  And Uruguay?

Fee sahitkum! 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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