Monday, July 16, 2018


France won the World Cup, Croatia lost the final and video assistant referee was a success. What a month of banter we had. Thanks for joining.

  • That certainly was a lot of fun
  • The Banter's World Cup Best 11
  • Pussy Riot interrupts the World Cup final
  • Referees finally got the help they deserved from VAR
World Cup winner Paul Pogba with another star above the crest on his France jersey. (The Associated Press)

That was a blast

For a month, we got to watch world-class soccer played by the most talented players on the planet. As they ran around the fields of Russia wearing their countries' colors and their sponsors' shoes, we got to debate matters of race, class, economics, history, science, technology and politics. 

I hope you enjoyed bantering about the World Cup as much as I did. Hearing from you via email, in text messages and during raucous debates in the pubs was the highlight of my summer.

It made me smile yesterday to get pictures and videos from my friend Danielle Jacobs-Erwin traipsing around Paris with her daughter Alison, who will forever remember watching France, the country, win the World Cup as France, the team, beat Croatia 4-2 in Moscow. Watch the highlights.

In France for the summer, Alison, 8, and her sister Heidi, 6, got to experience the World Cup as winners, not enthusiastic voyeurs, like my kids. 

The final match was a fitting end to the tournament: two supremely talented, well-matched teams in a back-and-forth contest to see which one could assert itself more forcefully when it mattered most. Croatia seemed more consistent, but France was more forceful in the pivotal moments. Also, luck and video assistant referee.

It was appropriate — if unfortunate — that the provocateurs from Pussy Riot charged onto the field during the second half to protest the Russian government's egregious imprisonment and torture of journalists and political dissidents. 

Perhaps if FIFA president Gianni Infantino hadn't been so mealy-mouthed, there could have been a more honest and open discussion of what it means to host a World Cup, and what is expected of a host government.  

Instead, Infantino, the TV broadcasters and even foreign leaders including French President Emanuel Macron praised President Vladimir Putin for hosting a "perfect" tournament, even as Putin's agents were poisoning people in Britain. 

After the attempted assassination in March of a former Russian spy and his daughter, governments from nine countries said their officials would boycott the World Cup. Sweden's boycott lasted only until the team qualified for the knockout round, and when England made the semifinal, members of Parliament showed up in Russia to make sure "it's coming home."

Most of us were watching on TV, and that's a different experience — one focused on the soccer, not the moral machinations lurking beneath the surface. The soccer was scintillating, and France was a deserved champion. 

You'll no doubt read some needlessly esoteric criticism of France, how the team really should have played better, with a different style or ethos. Nonsense. That's just the projection of pundits and writers disappointed that a difficult game furiously contested by athletes isn't somehow neater. 

Be smart: A team of young French soccer players expressed themselves while representing their country in a pursuit dear to millions. And they accomplished their ultimate goal in a stylish, effective way against equal competition. Talk about the evident joy that the French players showed during the final, and the euphoria that erupted after, when they showered their coach, Didier Deschamps, with Champagne during his postmatch news conference. 

Deschamps, who won the World Cup 20 years ago, is only third person to win it as a player and coach after Franz Beckenbauer for West Germany and Brazil's Mario Zagallo.

And talk about the class Croatia showed throughout the tournament — pressing every opportunity, trying to make the most of every play, to win close games by playing ambitious and inventive soccer, despite scandal and scorn among some Croatians at home, everyone seemed proud and thrilled.  Ivan Perišić's goal was super; if the ball hadn't hit his hand earlier in the match, perhaps we'd be talking about his display of poise and skill instead of Paul Pogba's.

If the purpose of sport is to win, and the specifics of soccer require a team to score more goals than its opponent, the French team was damn impressive. Croatia too. 

Want neat? Play FIFA on EA Sports. I'll take the beautifully imperfect soccer of the 2018 World Cup.

The Banter's best 11

As I predicted, Luka Modrić  won the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player (deserved), and Kylian Mbappé was the World Cup's young, breakout star (clearly). Belgium's Thibaut Courtois received the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper (earned). Harry Kane scored some goals, mostly from the penalty spot (yawn).

Excluding the standout players mentioned above, I've selected my best 11 players of the 2018 World Cup based on emails and texts from many of you, and my own (biased) observations. There were so many great performances by special players; these 11 were better than the rest.

The Banter plays a decidedly attacking 4-5-1 formation, but doesn't want to leak goals.
Kasper Schmeichel (DEN)

Thomas Meunier (BEL), Samuel Umtiti (FRA), José Giménez (URU), Ehsan Hajisafi (IRN)

Ivan Rakitić (CRO), N'golo Kanté (FRA)
Kevin De Bruyne (BEL), Antoine Griezmann (FRA), Denis Cheryshev (RUS)

Romelu Lukaku (BEL) 

Sound smart when talking about how these remarkable players performed:

Schmeichel had the highest save percentage of any keeper who played more than one match at the World Cup, and he stopped three penalty shots — one in overtime against Croatia and two in the penalty shootout to follow. 

Meunier was the most exciting attacking player in the World Cup, and he was technically a defender. He bounded up the right side for Belgium game after game, threatening to score each time. His two assists were arguably more impressive than his one goal.

Umtiti did everything a center back should do, and provided leadership throughout the tournament. When France needed to slow things down, he put on the breaks. Umtiti increased the team's urgency when it needed to press foward. With the help of his partner, Raphaël Varane, he shut down the world's top strikers. Also, he was an eloquent team spokesman.

Giménez showed how athletic he is, and how capable he is of playing shutdown defense, whether Uruguay was playing a high pressing line or sat deep to absorb pressure. His late goal against Egypt saved Uruguay's tournament at the start.

Hajisafi was the best defender on the tournament's best defensive team. Iran only gave up two goals, one each to Spain and Portugal, despite facing 42 shots in three games. Because of its defense, Iran was one of the two most impressive teams not to get out of the group stage. (Senegal was the other one.)

Rakitić scored the decisive spot kicks in two penalty shootouts, showing the world what pouzdan means. (It's Croatian for "dependable.") Rakitić was creative when he could be (against Argentina) and industrious when he needed to be (against Denmark and Russia in the knockout rounds).

Kanté, the essential player on the winning team, showed how you don't have to be the best athlete to be the best soccer player. To be the best soccer player you have to run, dribble, pass and defend like Kanté. A master class in midfielding, game after game. 

De Bruyne did everything on the ball better than everyone else. His dribbling was faster, his shots were harder and his passes were more penetrating. 

Cheryshev had a better sense of the moment than any other player at the World Cup. When Russia needed to be patient, he was patient on the ball.  When urgency was required, he propelled the team. Each of his four goals was a stunner. Cheryshev's standout play was a surprise to everyone but him.

Griezmann was the best attacking player on the best team. His propensity for simulation was a turnoff, especially his flop in the final before Croatia's Marcelo Brozović ever made contact. The ensuing free kick led to France's first goal. But there's no denying Griezmann's ability as a creative playmaker and instinctive goal scorer. By occupying defenses, he opened up avenues for Paul Pogba's pinpoint passes and created lanes for Mbappé's lightening-quick runs.

Lukaku delivered on his grand promise as an elite striker. Though he didn't score in the knockout rounds, he made two of Belgium's best goals happen: The winning goal in added time against Japan and De Bruyne's laser-like blast against Brazil were Lukaku's doing. Unselfish and smart, so smart.

There's lots to banter and debate about. Belgium's Eden Hazard deserves praise, and it hurt to leave out Yerry Mina and Juan Quintero of Colombia. Quintero scored the smartest goal of the tournament, shooting his direct kick under the Japan defensive wall. 

I was thoroughly impressed with Edinson Cavani, the Uruguay striker who out Ronaldo-ed Cristiano Ronaldo in the round of 16, and I loved watching Philippe Coutinho assert himself for Brazil.

Still, the 11 players above made this World Cup a thrill to watch, especially in the knockout rounds when the tournament is most compelling.

Run of Play | Great reads and more

Anti-Kremlin World Cup interruption
Four members of the punk-protest collective Pussy Riot interrupted the World Cup final to protest the Russian government's crackdown on civil and political rights, and called on the government to release political prisoners. The collective posted an official statement about the protest, "Policeman Enters the Game," on its Twitter account. One protester decided to stop mid-protest and congratulate Kylian Mbappé, who had a great game. Masha Gessen of The New Yorker said the protesters were "the only people to make a meaningful statement about Russian politics during the World Cup." I disagree: FIFA, broadcasters and even politicians made clear statements that indicate Vladimir Putin is cynically winning Russian politics.

Read Pussy Riot's statement about their protest of government repression.

A more open Russia not likely to last
One reason the World Cup in Russia went off without a major conflict, according to The Independent in London, was because, "in short, the Kremlin did everything it doesn’t usually do; and it allowed Russians to be open to the world." Visitors (and TV rights holders) have often remarked during the World Cup about Russian hospitality and the overall vibe in the country. It's important to remember: This is fake, engineered for the purpose of World Cup propaganda. The Pussy Riot protest exposed a crack in the veneer. 

Read more by Oliver Carroll in The Independent.

'We feel more French with them'
Enthusiasm for Les Bleus in the neighborhoods that the French players call home was unlike anywhere else in France. In Bondy, the banlieue where Kylian Mbappé and other members of the team learned to play soccer, residents were celebrating more than winning a game against Croatia. “Once in a while, we are united, we are one country, one people,” Linda Bourja told The New York Times. Modern France is made up of immigrants and the children of immigrants, just like the French team, and that has made this World Cup victory not just memorable but important. 

Read more from Bondy in The Times.

'The kick that started the war'
Croatians' affinity for their soccer team is deeply rooted in the tumultuous events surrounding their country's independence in the early 1990s, but not all of the stories fans cling to are true. Nicholas Kulish writes in The New York Times about his Croatian-American family's fealty to former Croatian captain Zvonimir Boban for his alleged role in a 1990 soccer riot between Croatian fans of Dinamo Zagreb and Serbian supporters of Red Star Belgrade, who allegedly had the police on their side. The seminal moment in Croatia's independence may not have gone down the way people believe.

Read more by Kulish about soccer's role in Croatia's independence from Yugoslavia.

The bankers blew it
The sophisticated computer models devised by the investment brainiacs at Goldman Sachs and UBS did a poor job of predicting the World Cup. Even as Goldman Sachs updated its model throughout the tournament with live results, the program was wrong — repeatedly. Of course, the probabilities came with all sorts of caveats, and no team was given more than an 18.5 percent likelihood of winning. "The moral of the story is probably that buzz-generating technologies such as big data and AI don’t necessarily make statistical forecasting more accurate," wrote Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg.

Read more about the wildly off-base World Cup predictions.

None of my bets came in, but my prediction was right

I said France would win. Still, I bet on Croatia, put $5 on Olivier Giroud to score in the final and took the over on 3 and 1/2 yellow cards. None of those bets came in.

France won 4-2 without a goal from Giroud and the referee, Néstor Pitana from Argentina, only showed two yellow cards.

Pitana did an OK job. The video assistants helped decided whether or not Ivan Perišić handled the ball in the penalty area. I think it's clear he did, though he likely did not mean to do it. His hand, away from his body in a not-entirely-natural position, blocked the ball and gave his team an advantage.

This was a good example of why video assistant referees were a good idea in the first place, and how effective they've been in minimizing game-changing mistakes by referees at this World Cup.

Pitana's one big error in the final may have been the foul he called in the 17th minute against Marcelo Brozović for taking down Antoine Griezmann. Replays show the Croatian midfielder didn't really touch Griezmann. This highlights package includes the foul, not just the resulting free kick, which Mario Mandžukić nodded into his own net.

According to the sports statisticians at Opta, there were 12 own goals scored at the 2018 World Cup, double the previous high of six in 1998, when France last won.

Enough Banter

A few of you have asked if I will keep sending emails about the soccer games I'm watching, the great stories I'm reading and how to sound smart about Premier League, La Liga and the Mexican apertua scheduled to start in about a week. 

As much as I'd love to keep bantering with you about soccer, this was a summer fling. Our World Cup dalliance is over; we'll always have Russia. And if you missed any of the newsletters during the tournament, or before, you can find many of them here. Many of the stories still hold up, and I'll get the best ones on my website,, soon.

There may be some future venture that brings us together again to rally around soccer. If there's something you'd like to see, let me know. You can continue to reach me at for a while. 

Thanks for the banter.

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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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